“Are you okay, Mrs. Ramsay?” The detective was frowning with concern. Maria, was it? Yes.
Maria’s hair was drawn back into a perfect ponytail, she looked fresh and crisp despite the close air of the interrogation room. Elaine, on the other hand, could feel damp stains forming on her shirt, and her careful makeup felt like a layer of dirt on her face.
She had been in there for close to an hour.
“Yes, I’m fine, thanks.” Maria nodded, still looked worried. Elaine inhaled sharply, “Can you tell me when I can see Sergeant Hume? I want to be there when my kids get home.”
The detective slid a chair underneath herself as she sat down. “Sergeant Hume is busy. Can you talk to me instead?”
“What do you mean, busy? No, I can’t talk to you.” She laughed uneasily, “You look so young.”
“I don’t know that my age has got anything to do with this.”
Irritated. Good. At least she didn’t look like she thought Elaine was a hysterical housewife anymore.
“I would feel more comfortable talking to someone senior, more experienced.”
“Sergeant Hume felt it would be more appropriate if you told me what brought you here today.”
Elaine struggled with a surge of helplessness. Blinking rapidly, she tried and failed to hold the detective’s gaze.
“I guess that’s okay, Maria, is it?”
Maria nodded. “So, what brought you in here today? Something has obviously upset you.”
“Yes. I had hoped to talk to Sergeant Hume, because he is a family friend. Are you familiar with me and my family? Do you know my husband is the principal at Hollyvale Secondary?”
“Yes, I do know of your family,” Maria smiled reassuringly, “Your son, Brad? He plays with my nephew on the football team. Eduardo Sanchez.”
“The quarterback? They are saying some good things about him.”
“Yes, they are.”
The moment fluttered between them. Elaine felt braver.
“I think my husband is trying to kill me.”
She resisted the urge to take out her journal.
The detective glanced behind her at the door, then turned to Elaine, “David Ramsay? The principal? Surely not.”
Elaine told her about the unexplained puddle of olive oil at the top of the stairs down to the basement on her laundry day. How, luckily, she had hit the wall rather than tumbling down the stairs. Then there was the bookshelf falling down on her side of the bed the other night, and just this morning the frayed electrical cord on a leaky kettle.
“Hold on. Those could be accidents. Why would you suspect your husband?”
“I know him better than anybody.”
“Maybe this is a job for a therapist,” Maria drummed her fingers on the table, looking at Elaine grimly.
Elaine set down the coffee cup she had been fidgeting with and looked up at Maria.
“I will only talk to Sergeant Hume.”
Maria paused, thinking it over, then sighed heavily, “Okey dokey, I’ll see what I can do.” She got and left the room.
Elaine took a deep breath and picked up the coffee cup, again staring down at the dregs. Coffee flavoured water, that’s what they should call it. It had made her jittery in any case. Medium roast.
She glanced at her watch. It was another three hours before the kids got home, and she still had to go to the post office. But surely she wasn’t suspected of anything. Impatient, she got up from behind the table and went to the door. It was unlocked.
She went out into the hallway, straightening her blouse, and walked down the hall into the cubicle maze of the main office. It was a small police station for a small town, and Detective Estevan and the Sergeant Hume were standing in the middle of the room. Maria was animated and was twirling her finger around the side of her head when Marcus saw Elaine across the room. He put his finger to his mouth, shushing Maria and navigated his way between the desks to Elaine.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Marcus glanced back at Maria, “Come back down the hall with me.”
“I don’t want to go back into that room Marcus. It gives me the chills”
“Okay, we’ll go into the conference room.” Marcus looked like he had gained some weight since she last saw him.
There was some welcome natural light in the conference room, and better air conditioning. They took seats on opposite sides of the table, near the end.
“What’s this about, Elaine? Estevan thinks you’re cuckoo.” Still the same Marcus, looking like he could bite a stone and spit gravel.
“You tell me, Marcus. Why wouldn’t you talk to me when I came in?”
“Don’t you remember what happened last time I saw you?”
Two years ago at a springtime barbeque she and David were having, Elaine had been cooking some onions in the kitchen, alone, when Hume had come in the screen door from the backyard.
“What’s this book, here?” Marcus was looking at her planner, ‘Sautee more onions, make sure the coolers have ice, get light beer….’ And all these checkmarks. ‘Smile?’” He laughed ruefully, “You do know you are a control freak, don’t you?”
“What does the ink colour mean?” Always the policeman.
“The green is for what David needs to do, and the black is for me.” She pointed at her list.
“Holy shit, there is a lot more in black than there is in green,” Marcus grinned at her.
“Men are easily overwhelmed,” Elaine walked over and flipped shut her journal.
Marcus put his arms around her, she felt that familiar sweet pull between them. “Not here,” she whispered.
“Geez, Elaine, if you only knew,” he shook his head.
“Knew what?” She felt the strain in her smile.
“He’s been carrying around with Kimberly Cheng at the Motel 6 just outside town,” Marcus shrugged, “And who knows who else?”
Elaine pushed away from Marcus, as something thick and viscous seemed to fill her chest. She pushed harder. “Get away from me.”
Hume wasn’t put off. “Baby,” he said “It will be okay, you can get a divorce…”
She slapped him.
He looked at her in disbelief.
Frantic, she started slapping him around his head. He ducked, hands protecting his face.
“Crazy bitch!” Marcus turned and left, with one last incredulous look.
The door banged shut behind him.
She took a deep breath, and stared at the floor a moment. Turning back to the stove, she turned off the onions with a click and transferred them to a bowl. She took a pocket mirror out of her bag and fixed her hair. Then she checked her journal.
By the time she went out to the backyard, Marcus and his girlfriend had left the party.
Now, Marcus was looking at her, as if he could trace her thoughts on her face.
“That was a while ago, Marcus.”
“It sure was,” he held up his left hand and twirled a wedding ring, grinning, “I’m hitched, now”
“Good for you.” She bit her lip.
“What is all this craziness about David?” Marcus pulled out a notebook and flipped it open.
Elaine repeated what she had told Maria. Marcus stopped writing and shook his head.
“You have to give me more than that. It sounds crazy, you two are the Hollyvale ‘it’ couple,” Marcus laughed to himself, “I think it’s that magic book of yours.”
She resisted the urge to nod.
Every year she bought the same journal. A Linotype A8, the month, the days, and the goals, all there in black and white. It served as a diary, too, and some of the more private recollections were notated with her own shorthand, like the ever-fewer trysts she had with David. Nothing on her smartphone quite measured up. At the end of the year the journal was completely filled. Then she would file it away with her growing collection.
David had once had a healthy respect for her journal. He might have mocked her when he’d see her poring over it after dinner, or early in the morning, but he had learned to care about the jobs she gave him to do. She looked out for him, and helped him keep his stories straight.
Like that time he had sabotaged Tim Pershing’s transfer. Tim was his best English teacher.
She came up with all kinds of ways for him to stay engaged in the community, too. Both of them sat on a few boards around town, enough to know things about community business. It was how they had purchased a lucrative share in a local dairy, and taken up some real estate speculation.
Every day he’d check in with her to get his list. The journal was always with her, and she would scribble in it everything from cleaning the kitchen to big events like graduation. There was nothing quite like a day full of checkmarks.
Her journal had kept them thriving at the social heart of their adopted home, and kept David humble. He would often call her telling her of problems at work, asking for her input and a place in her lists. He grew dependent on her and her creativity. She was earnest in her role, and over the years had become central to his decision making.
But lately could almost hear his thoughts churning as he lay beside her at night. He was being very careful with her. Choosing his words, hiding his phone.
She seemed to move through her days in an increasingly uneasy fear as the distance between them grew.
“David is not who you think he is,” Elaine was desperate now. “I’ve got to think of Brad, and I’ve got to think of Sandy.”
Both kids were showing the strain of living within a galaxy that only seemed to include Elaine and David.
“Shit, woman, you are all over the place. What could possibly lead you to believe your husband is trying to kill you?” Marcus squinted at her levelly, then flipped his notebook shut. “You know what? You are not well, but I’m not going to get a psych call going on you, as a courtesy. You just need to calm down and think this through. Maybe buy a bottle of Merlot…”
Elaine felt the fear return. Then she remembered her journal.
“Excuse me, what was that?” Marcus leaned forward.
“He’s done it before.”
“Done what before?”
“He killed a girl. Candace Sawhney. About seventeen years ago, in Seattle. A student of his.”
Marcus was staring at her. It was the point of no return. “Candace S-A-W-H-N-E-Y, she was a student of his at Middlepoint Secondary in Seattle, and she died in 2009. She drowned in the Carbon River, her death was ruled a suicide.”
Confusion, then the realization dawned on his face. “And how, the fuck, would you know this?” He was frightening her, but she had to remember her kids. They had to have a chance.
And then it all came out. He had been a twenty-two year old teacher at Middlepoint when the sophomore Candace made her play, playing the vulnerable, waylaid little girl to his instinctive gallantry. It was before he and Elaine had met. David was young and naive, and Candace would stay after class for extra help, and hover over him, brushing against him.
Over the years, Elaine had been making her own embellishments to the story of Candace.
They would meet up in his car. To Candace at the beginning, this frat-boy teacher must have seemed like her ticket out of poverty. But then David had ended it after six months and Candace, who had already stopped coming to school regularly, promptly disappeared.
It was an indiscretion.
(Maybe it was because Brad’s father had beat him that time.)
Then, about two years after she disappeared, Candace again sought David out. One night they met on a bridge over Carbon River . She was chubbier, and dressed in a too-short-miniskirt, and half-top. Her hair was a snarled mess, and she smelled like she hadn’t washed in a week. She screamed at him about how he had ruined her and her chances. And she wanted money, lots of it. They had to go to an ATM. She could sue. When he refused to give her money, she rushed at him, and they struggled. She went over the balustrade.
He looked over the side, but she had disappeared in the water far below.
Nothing ever surfaced in the police investigation of her death about her connection to her high school teacher, Mr. Roberts. It was ruled a suicide.
“What are you telling me? You knew? He told you?” Marcus had been scribbling in his notebook, but now he was looking at her like she was a stranger.
“He told me,” she had to throw herself into the fire. Like those Hindu women who committed suttee, or were instead thrown on their husband’s pyre, she had to set her kids free.
They started dating after a Humane Society Ball. She was feeling bruised after a hapless romance with a fellow camp counsellor, and David, five years older, was in contrast, so doting. Their relationship seemed ideal, so when he asked her to his apartment one night, saying that he wanted to talk, she expected big things. That night he said he wanted there to be no secrets between them. If she’d still have him after he told her his secret, he wanted to marry her.
As he told her about Candace, she remembered becoming very still, thinking of how it would look to all her friends and family to become suddenly-estranged from her ‘perfect’ boyfriend of four years. What could she do now? Insist that he confess? The shame! She told herself the whole thing was a horrible misadventure. Should it destroy three lives? Elaine was just a bystander after all.
“I think I pushed her over,” David had looked at her, plaintive.
She took two days to think. In the end she decided to keep his secret and marry him. David cried when she came over to give him the news, saying it was the worst two days of his life. Elaine tried to console him, stroking his back. “You poor, poor man. You poor, poor man.” She told him her version of what had happened as he sobbed.
She felt like the responsible one.
As time wore on, she grew angry that he had told her, but David had been looking for absolution, a clean conscience. Not like her. She knew something dark swam in her.
At her most cynical over the years, she thought about how manipulative he had been that night.
He seemed to gain some consolation from the confession. So began the way she became the boss, telling him what to do, what to wear, and started making all the big decisions. Elaine dropped out of college and they moved to Hollyvale, small enough that she could keep tabs on him even when she wasn’t around.
She assumed control, took the reins. He would confide in her, and nothing seemed too much for Elaine’s adroit and creative scheduling and to-do lists. She handled things.
But then he started to rebel.
He retreated from her. He was shutting her out, and it made her desperate. She needed him to need her. Her usual questions about daily events were getting non-commital answers or sullen silence. Her desperation fed into her to-do lists, as she both tried to anticipate his every whim, and sought to re-establish the role she had once enjoyed in his life.
Her thoughts had kept turning to Candace. Her thoughts kept dwelling on the brute sleeping inside David. She caught him watching her sometimes, calculating.
Marcus had stopped writing and was looking at her.
“So now you think he wants to kill you.” He flipped his notebook shut. “If this is true, you two deserve each other.”
He was looking at her flatly. “Marcus, I’m sorry about the way I treated you. It’s been so hard…”
“Let’s not make this any more difficult, okay? I have to verify your story, but I’m not sure that your story will hold. Spouses can’t testify against each other, and if what you’ve said is true, there was no evidence of foul play at the time.” He stood up. “I have to check it out.”
Elaine stared down at the table. She had not thought of this part. She had been only thinking of an end to her own terror, faced with the every-day charade of a happy family, and the growing conviction that her husband wanted to move on.
But they were tied together by more than their wedding vows.
“Can I go home?”
She arrived home an hour before the kids. She put away her things, and set her journal on the counter, opening it up. She crossed off “Detective Hume” and “Errand”, and wrote in a few more items.
David was late, and the kids had already eaten and gone up to their rooms to do their homework and browse their phones when he got home.
He smiled his principal smile at her as she set his dinner in front of him.
Like she was one of his teachers.
“Cannelloni! My favourite.”
“Eat up,” she smiled back.
She watched him as he unfolded the cloth napkin onto his lap. He seemed so vulnerable. Once she had seen him as his students would see him, a trim, turned-out model of healthy choices. But she now knew that his squeaky-clean veneer came from a place of monstrous insecurity. Maybe that was what made him so bad in bed.
David took a forkful of the too-hot pasta, blowing on it. She turned to the sink and turned on the water.
She heard his chair fall over, heard his head hit the table.
She’d ordered the cyanide from the school supplier last week. Years ago, she got the name and the school’s account number from an invoice in a school filing cabinet one night when David was out of town at a conference she found for him to attend, a really good one on Educational Psychology. That had really stretched the school budget.
She opened her journal, grabbing her green pen. Nothing beat a well-crafted to-do list.