Their daughters brought them together over a Kindergarten bake sale. Lane wasn't the volunteering kind, yet she'd offered to help. She had only the one child, and thought her best effort should always be made. Her goodwill didn't extend to baking, and the cupcakes she brought and laid out were store-bought. Lane's new friend, Ginny, also had only one child. She belonged to a core group of women who hovered around the school, tutoring in classrooms, and serving as playground monitors. She was fluent in their language, which centered on their children, and how to keep them safe from sexual predators. Within earshot of their own sons and daughters they talked about a girls' basketball coach across the water who had an affair with a sixteen-year-old. Then there was that woman who seduced a sixth-grade boy and had his baby. Lane didn't mind a certain amount of chatter, and the thrill of imagining such crimes, but it was overdone, and inaccurate, furthermore. Not all crimes against children were of a sexual nature.
At the age of five, Lane was abducted by her biological father and taken across the country in a pickup truck. Her mother was pregnant at the time with another man's child. The other man sometimes lived with Lane and her mother, and usually didn't. The story Lane was told was that her mother knew she was a poor parent, but couldn't make up her mind to let Lane's father have custody, so he had to steal her away. That wasn't true. Lane's mother was fine with letting Lane go, especially because money was involved, years of payments from Lane's father to her mother after Lane left.
When Lane turned eighteen, her father told her the truth. She was stunned. Her memories of her mother were dim, but still didn't sketch out a woman who'd sell her own child. He said it was up to Lane whether or not to seek out her mother after all this time. Lane gave it due consideration. She decided not to seek her out.
Lane's daughter was small for her age, with expressive brown eyes and a sharp tongue. Lane supposed she learned that from her. Lane was often short-tempered, particularly with her husband, who was sloppy and unconcerned with the necessities of running a household. Lane worked for a psychology practice. She handled insurance billing and claims. Her office was in the back, so she didn't often see the patients come and go. Sometimes she ran into them in the elevator. After meeting Ginny, and hearing all the talk of pederasts, Lane couldn't help wondering if someone she stood next to was guilty of that, or something equally unsavory. She didn't think so, though. They were probably just ordinary unhappy people who didn't know how to swallow the fact that life had fucked them up. Of course, any of the psychologists she billed for would say that the world was seldom at fault. It was just that some of us lacked the means to cope successfully.
Ginny's daughter was tall and lean. She was also a star student, and the most popular girl in the class. At the bake sale, she positioned herself squarely behind the table and directed customers towards the goods she was certain they'd like best. One woman was told to buy the brownies. The man next to her looked like he'd enjoy chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting. Ginny stood off to one side and chuckled at her daughter's efficiency. Lane didn't. Lane's daughter was supposed to assist in the selling, and had been summarily pushed out. She went to the playground in the back of the school, and swung slowly and methodically, back and forth, with a fierce expression. Lane's heart went out to her. At home, later that day, after Ginny had called to congratulate them both on how well the bake sale had gone, Lane sat with her daughter and told her that the world had two kinds of people in it – those who were aware of others, and those who weren't. The ones who were aware were charged with the burden of looking the other way when those who were clueless did stupid shit. She used those very words, though she forbade her daughter to ever repeat them. Her daughter nodded solemnly. Then she asked why she couldn't just kick the crap out of Ginny's daughter, instead? More trouble than it's worth, Lane said, and put her daughter to bed.
Lane pursued the friendship with Ginny because she was lonely. Her husband traveled all the time on business. He was a software consultant, and spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. They lived in Seattle, where Lane's husband had gone to school. Lane didn't see why they didn't move back to California, so her husband could be closer to his work, but he wouldn't hear of it. He felt Seattle was more wholesome, somehow, and a better place to raise a child. It put a wedge between them, which Lane fretted over more and more. At times she wasn't sure she still loved him, and almost had to persuade herself that she did. She didn't want her daughter to be raised by a single parent, as she had been. Children in that situation so often had trouble.
Lane had had her share. When she was in high school, she often had the sense of becoming unmoored, as if at any moment she might simply rise up and drift away. She was a good student, but academic life didn't hold her attention. Neither did sports, or clubs, or even boys, given the poor offering in her small town. She didn't turn to drugs or alcohol, but to pranks. For the most part harmless acts of mischief that people mentioned in passing. Who strings toilet paper in the middle of winter like that? and I keep finding dead flowers in my mailbox. She performed the acts alone, always alone. She couldn't bear to let anyone in on her secret. Her father was never aware that she'd crept from her window and scurried across the deep, dark yard into the night. He trusted her. That she betrayed that trust bothered her sometimes, but not often.
The pranks got worse. She pulled over trash cans, smeared jelly across the windshields of cars, threw eggs at the side of someone's garage. She made the local paper. Local neighborhood grows concerned at hostile acts. Lane didn't think of herself as hostile, and later saw that she was. She stopped. She didn't go out anymore. No one learned her identity.
Over two hundred and fifty dollars had been raised by the bake sale. The money would be added to the school's general fund. How to spend it would be determined later. Ginny wanted the school to invest in more sports equipment. Lane thought hiring a math tutor for at-risk children would be a better project. They discussed this over coffee one Saturday at Ginny's comfortable home. Lane's daughter was playing, under duress, in the basement with Ginny's daughter. Lane had had to bribe her with a new Barbie before she'd agree. Lane's daughter had confessed that Ginny's daughter was "mean," and also that she "smelled funny." Lane was more curious about her smelling funny than her being mean. It was her observation that most children were mean at some point or another.
In Ginny's granite and stainless steel kitchen, which made Lane ache with envy, Ginny explained that the person to pressure was the president of the PTA, Bill Something. She laughed at not remembering his last name, but then she was no good at names.
"Bill Stern," Lane said.
"I'll invite him over for coffee, and we'll double-team him." Ginny's plump face was rosy, and her blue eyes had a merry gleam. Lane thought her a bit repulsive, she wasn't sure why. All that innocent goodwill, she decided. All that belief in the power of persuasion. Lane didn't think you could talk people into things, unless they were pathetic and wishy-washy in the first place, and the president of the PTA wouldn't be that. He'd have to be tough. Lane had heard parents talking about how much pressure they'd brought to bear for one cause or another, to little avail. Bill Stern was said to just make nice noises in return, and then never do anything concrete.
Then the news broke. Child pornography had been discovered on Bill Stern's home computer. His wife made the find. She was looking for the file of family photos she was sure she'd downloaded, and there they were, all those little naked girls and boys. A strong woman in public, the other half of the power couple, head of the local teacher's union, a 30-year-veteran in the classroom, she appeared crushed and silent on television. Bill Stern was quickly released on bail. He resigned his position with the PTA immediately. There was talk of removing the wife from her position as well, though it was pointed out that she had acted properly – and bravely – by turning in her own husband. In the end, the misery of her situation let her off the hook. In private, she told her staff that she would make a staged withdrawal, once the furor of her husband's crime had waned.
There was no evidence that Bill Stern had ever laid a hand on any children at the school. It was suspected, of course. Gossip was swift and merciless. All sorts of bad behavior was blamed on him. Missy just wasn't herself when she came home that day. Bill Stern also chaperoned on one or two field trips, probably to show that he still had his feet on the ground. The Kindergarteners bussed out to Snohomish County to visit a working farm. What did they think, Lane wondered? That he groped Missy in the chicken coop?
Ginny grilled her daughter. Did he ever touch you? Did he ever ask to touch you? Did he ever ask you touch him?
Her questions necessitated a crash course in human sexuality that at six, Ginny's daughter didn't fully comprehend.
Lane didn't ask her own daughter anything. She simply said that the grown-ups were mad at Bill Stern, and that he made mistakes. He wouldn't be at the school anymore. She wasn't to worry. She should go wash up for dinner, and yes, she could have fish sticks again.
Ginny's usual good cheer gave way to a grim melancholy, as if her daughter had said she'd been molested by Bill Stern. Even when she was certain no harm had befallen her, the bright light was gone from her eyes.
"You're taking it awfully hard," Lane finally had to say. She was back in the granite and stainless kitchen, not to discuss school business, but to drop off her daughter who had warmed slightly to Ginny's.
"He should be shot." Ginny was mixing tuna salad in a green plastic bowl. She admitted to trying to lose some weight. Her husband had made comments, apparently. Lane had never met Ginny's husband. Like hers, he traveled a lot.
"What about the people who supplied the pictures? And the people who made them available online?" Lane asked.
"Them, too. One big messy mass execution."
Lane laughed. She couldn't help it. This was such a change from the normally cheerful, upbeat Ginny.
Ginny tasted her tuna salad. She made a face. She put the bowl in the refrigerator, and offered Lane something to drink. Lane asked if there were any tea.
"I meant alcoholic," Ginny said.
Another surprise. Well, why not? Lane was taking the week off. She had accrued vacation time that she probably wouldn't get to use otherwise, given her husband's schedule. She might as well change pace a little. Nothing wrong with shifting gears.
Under the wine's soothing influence, Ginny opened up. Her hatred of Bill Stern was one of many deep, smoldering rages that began in childhood. First, there was her mother, taking advantage of Ginny's passion for eating by letting her get fat.
"She always said, 'Would you like more? Here, have some more.'" Ginny was outdrinking Lane two to one at that point. Lane cocked her ear towards the basement. The cheerful jingle of a cartoon floated up.
Then there were the mean girls at school, who took advantage of Ginny's wanting to belong. They made her play practical jokes on people in order to be accepted. She put glue on the teacher's chair, which was quite effective at keeping said chair stuck firmly to her fat ass (Ginny's exact words). The mean girls told on her, then refused her company.
Lane wondered why Ginny hadn't simply moved on in life. Who cared what happened when you were a kid?
But as Ginny talked on and on, Lane thought again of the past, and going away with her father. How they always drove at night, so as to be less visible. How he always paid cash for gas, food, and motels, so no credit card activity would be traced. Gradually he dropped the pretense that Lane was being looked for. He said her mother knew where she was, and would visit her soon. She never did. Later, Lane learned why.
She hated her mother for not thinking she was worth keeping. Lane would do anything to keep her daughter with her. She'd kill anyone who tried to take her away. Children were worth fighting for, and protecting, no matter what.
Ginny listed on her stool. She was waxy around the eyes.
"What time is it?" she asked.
Lane shrugged. One of her vacation principals was not to wear her watch.
"I don't feel like cooking. How about a pizza?" Ginny asked.
Lane thought to mention the tuna salad in the refrigerator, and didn't.
"The girls will like that," Lane said.
"Shit. I forgot about them."
"I better go and see."
Ginny slid off her stool and made her way a bit unevenly to the basement door. She opened it, and leaned inside.
"How's it going down there?" she called out.
The girls' chatter stopped abruptly. Ginny's daughter was no doubt wondering why her mother sounded so strange.
After another moment, Lane's daughter called back that everything was okay.
Suddenly, Lane wanted to go home. She wanted to be surrounded by her own things. Ginny's monologue combined with the wine left her feeling jaded and empty. She told Ginny that her husband was going to call and check in, and that she needed to go. She was glad when Ginny didn't ask why he didn't call on Lane's cell phone, which was sitting in her purse on the kitchen counter.
Bill Stern's wife went to stay with friends. The adult children, who both lived in town and must have known about the events in question, weren't seen coming to visit. Lane thought of him, alone there in his house, feeling the shame of being found out. She imagined that when he ventured out to the grocery store he got cold, curious stares from the other shoppers. Only the clerks would seem immune. They would be as polite as ever. Most of them were young, and had no children. His misdeeds didn't strike them so close to home.
Ginny continued to speak with simmering rage. She told Lane that her husband had taken to ignoring her.
"He thinks I'm obsessed," Ginny said. They were on Lane's small patio. The first chill of autumn was in the air, and some of the leaves on Lane's smoke tree were already a brilliant red. Lane's cat, Arthur, sat at Ginny's feet and gazed up at her with clear, kind green eyes. Ginny ignored him. Lane summoned Arthur, who jumped dutifully into her lap, lay down, and purred like a joyous idiot.
Ginny plucked vaguely at the sleeve of her hand-knit sweater. It was red and white, the sort of thing Lane could see a much older woman wearing. Ginny had an old style overall. She wore sturdy athletic shoes and plastic beads, usually white or pink, around her neck.
"I say, how can you be too concerned with something like that?" Ginny asked. She sipped her tea. Lane thought better of offering her wine. Their girls were in Lane's daughter's room, putting nail polish on plastic trolls.
"It's in the hands of the authorities," Lane said.
"And he'll probably go to jail. And then what? What does he learn?"
That he shouldn't have gotten caught, Lane wanted to say and didn't.
"Nothing. That's what. Nothing. And he'll do it again, unless he learns a lesson," Ginny said.
Lane didn't follow up. She thought Bill Stern's isolation was punishment enough. That, and the way people would look at him differently for the rest of his life. Even if he left town, a thing like that would follow him. Sooner or later people would find out, no matter where he was. And it seemed fairly clear now that his wife wasn't coming back, that she was moving out for good.
Ginny arranged for the girls to sleep over at a friend's house one night when both her husband and Lane's husband were out of town. She wanted some adult time, she said. Lane didn't object. Ginny's company was better than no company at all.
Ginny hadn't planned a quiet evening at home, as Lane assumed. She handed Lane a black turtleneck and a pair of black sweatpants and told her to change. They were going to pay a visit to Bill Stern, and didn't want to stand out against the night.
Lane thought Ginny was crazy and said so.
"Don't tell me you never wanted to play a trick on someone who really deserved it," Ginny said. The pranks Lane had committed back in high school had been against random strangers, people she didn't know. She had never targeted anyone. It felt like a bad idea, and she said exactly that.
"Oh, come on. We won't get caught. Here," Ginny said. She handed Lane a Halloween mask – a gorilla. Hers was a clown. Lane put on her mask. She was returned to the wide, winding streets of the California town she lived in with her father, a basket on her arm, the cries of other children as they ran from door to door.
Ginny and Lane went on foot. The neighborhood was dark. A gentle rain fell. No cars passed. There were lights on in windows here and there, but no one at the glass, looking out. They didn't talk. Ginny huffed behind her mask. She was out of shape.
They stood in Bill Stern's backyard, staring at his imposing Tudor-style house. The downstairs was dark. Upstairs, only one light burned. Maybe that was his study, Lane thought, where he'd kept his computer, which the police had confiscated. Ginny removed the backpack she'd put on before leaving her house. She took out a can of white spray paint. The walk leading to the back door was brick. She leaned over, pressed the nozzle on the can, and wrote PERVERT, slowly, awkwardly. She stopped. They listened hard. Wind moved the branches of the enormous cedar tree that sheltered one side of the house. Otherwise, there was no sound.
The back door light switched on. They sped around the side of the house, and hid by the cedar tree. They dropped to the ground, waiting. A backlit figure appeared at the window above them. A man stood looking outside. He was naked. His stomach was fat. He scratched his shoulder. Lane remembered Bill Stern addressing a group of prospective parents last year, when she and her husband were trying to decide which elementary school in their neighborhood to enroll their daughter in. At the time she thought he could lose some weight. His posture at the podium as he spoke into the microphone was the same as it was now. He leaned on his right side, with his head cocked the other way. He'd spoken of children with such affection and delight, calling them "stewards of tomorrow." He told little stories about boys and girls being curious, exploring, finding their true potential.
"We should get out of here," Ginny whispered. "I think he saw us."
"He can't tell who we are."
"He might call the police."
"Come on, let's go."
Lane took her car keys out the pocket of her sweatshirt that Ginny had lent her. She crept around the opposite side of the house, where Bill Stern's Lexus was parked. She scratched the hood, roof, trunk and all four doors. She wrote DIE. Ginny begged her to stop.
Another light was on, and he was by the closest window in a bathrobe. He had a telephone in his hand.
"Lane!" Ginny said.
Lane went on scratching for a little while longer. She carved the form of an erect penis, then carved a large X across it.
Ginny was already running away. Then Lane was too, through the darkened, wooded streets, running so fast that her chest burned and her legs felt like lead. The mask made it hard to breathe, and she tore it off. She tossed it into a bush, and kept going. If she could, she'd run all night, never tiring, never slowing, until she reached somewhere else on the other side of all of this.
But then she'd have to come back for her daughter, so it was just as well that she couldn't.
About the Author: Anne Leigh Parrish’s new story collection, Our Love Could Light The World, (She Writes Press, 2013) was chosen as a finalist in this year’s International Book awards, and is a Kirkus Reviews recommended Indie title. Her first collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home, (Press 53, 2011) won a silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She lives in Seattle.
Story Song: "Take It Easy" by The Eagles