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A Hard Truth
It was dark now, save the few bleary, amber-tinted streetlights flashing past Charlotte’s window, and she leaned her forehead against the steel, clinically cool shell of the city bus, wishing she could fast-forward through the next two hours of the bus ride to her home. A few cars rushed by, their windshield wipers beating furiously against the spitting rain—she guessed they were heading back into the city, from where she’d just escaped—, but by now most of the traffic had faded like the last rays of sunlight dripping over Lake Michigan. Charlotte’s eyelids drooped heavily, exhausted from another monotonous day of work at the Lakeside Café. She could feel a dull, web-like ache of pain crawling through the soles of her beaten-up loafers, working its way up into the tight muscles of her calves, and splaying like an open hand across her kneecaps. But it didn’t matter, she reminded herself as the window breathed moist air against her cheek. All of this—the aching, the long hours away from home, the haughty customers, the meager paychecks—all of it was for Jenna.
The thought of her daughter brought a twinge of unease in Charlotte. She knew she was being absurd—Jenna was thirteen, after all, the age when mood swings ran rampant in teenage girls—but she couldn’t quell the feeling that something was… off. Lately, Jenna had begun to lock her door at night, isolating herself from Charlotte and Henry, and refusing to speak to them, which was a far cry from the daughter that Charlotte knew—vibrant, vivacious, and kind-hearted. Wracked with worry and perturbed by Jenna’s refusal to communicate with her, Charlotte had asked Henry to speak with their daughter a few nights ago; when she passed Jenna’s door after arriving home from work, however, she could hear the girl’s muffled sobs seeping through the locked door. As much as Charlotte reminded herself that it was simply a phase, her heart still hurt for her daughter.
A waspy drone sounded against her hip, and Charlotte reached into her deeply grooved, leather purse to pull out her phone. She glanced at her caller I.D. and sighed; it was her good friend Helen who, despite her good intentions, would go on for hours about the most meaningless subjects. Against her better judgment, and already feeling the pulsating of her temple beating against her brain, Charlotte pressed the receive button.
“Hello?” she said in an attempt at amicability.
“Charlotte?” breathed Helen, her voice strangled and gasping. Charlotte sat up in her seat, reacting reflexively to her friend’s distress. “Oh, God… oh, my God.”
“What is it, honey?” Charlotte asked soothingly. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
There was a breath of silence, long enough to squeeze itself between the skipping beat of Charlotte’s heart. “Helen,” she said again. “Tell me what it is.”
She heard her friend take a deep, rattling gasp of air. “I was just watching the news,” she began slowly, hesitantly.
“And…” Helen’s voice trailed off.
“Go on,” Charlotte pressed urgently.
“And there was a reporter at your house!” burst Helen, suppressing a sob. “They said that there had been some sort of domestic disturbance and… and… I’m not sure, but they think someone was killed!” By now, Helen’s voice was hardly discernible from her wrenching sobs, and her words slurred together like a drunken teenager at a frat party. But Charlotte hardly noticed.
She froze. Every nerve in her body snapped against the surface of her skin, tingling sharply with an acute pain. “Wh-what?” she said slowly, or at least she thought she did, but by now the blood was buzzing incoherently like a swarm of angry wasps inside her eardrums. Something was slapping against her cheek, and she had to physically move her head to see that it was her phone, dancing tremulously in her shaking hand.
Oh, God. Domestic disturbance. That meant—
“Jenna,” she whispered, winging out the name like a prayer. She could hear Helen cringe, even over the phone, and she knew. A low, desperate moan was building in her throat, choking her.
“But maybe Henry didn’t—” Helen was saying, but the phone was falling out of Charlotte’s hand, and she was falling, falling—
Time lost its concept to her. It slowed and sputtered, stalling like the beat of her heart, and then sped like the hollow, whipping flurry of a crow’s wings. She pulled her knees into her chest, rocking slowly, kneading her fists into the stiff, bristly seat, trying to contain the million little bits of herself that felt like they were flying out into the air—the desperate, terrible thoughts, the mental images, the questions she couldn’t quite form and had no answer to.
Jenna… dead. Oh, God, she couldn’t even think that word without feeling bile rise in her throat. But that meant… Henry? His name rattled inside her head, bouncing off the walls of her brain without bringing a solid ring of understanding. How? How could she have married a man that could… murder a child? Nausea rolled inside her stomach. She should have seen it. God, she couldn’t believe she’d never seen him.
Her harried thoughts flashed back to an image of Henry, leaning nonchalantly against his wooden work bench in the basement, caressing his rifle with a kitten-soft rag, stroking the barrel fluidly. She’d watched him do it every night; she’d seen him stare at that gun, gazing lovingly upon that meaningless, inanimate object. And she’d never suspected. “Jenna… Jenna…” Charlotte moaned softly, barely a whisper. “I’m so sorry…”
And that b******, that God-forsaken hypocrite. She had always found it so sweet, so caring when, every night after cleaning his gun, Henry would tuck Jenna into bed. They used to spend hours together in her room, and when Charlotte would pass by, she could hear their gentle, muffled discourse. And now—“Oh!” she gasped, a ragged puff of air clawing its way out of her chest. He had tucked her daughter in after cleaning the gun he would kill her with. Charlotte’s whole body was shaking, trembling like the leaves of a witch hazel.
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t grasp it.
Eventually, she felt the tires beneath her groan to a stop. She stumbled off the bus, her feet tangling beneath her tipsily. Everything felt surreal. She touched a finger to the spot just below her eye, which was puffy and swollen. Then she ran.
Her home was only two blocks from the bus stop, and she could see the nauseating fluorescent flashing of the police lights over the tops of the shabby one-level houses lining the street. Her feet pounded against the concrete sidewalks, heavy as bricks. She stumbled once, over a protruding fissure in the sidewalk with grassy whiskers spilling out, but caught herself before she fell, leaving only a stinging scrape against her knuckles. She rounded the final block, catching a glimpse of their home. A piercing wail resounded through Charlotte’s body, and it was seconds before she realized that it was not coming from her, but from the ambulance hovering like a vulture in her driveway. A single strand of highlighter police tape held back the hoards of screaming and yelling and flashing camera bulbs. The crowds of people were tremendous. She could feel herself losing grip, the paralyzing fist closing around her chest, stopping every beat, letting go…
But there was Jenna, screaming, her hair flying wildly around her face, pressing her body against the restraining arm of the police officer, and there was Henry, slumped against the front door, blood seeping into his white tee-shirt, clinging to a scarlet ribbon in his pallid hand.