BY BEV BACHMANN
This is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called, Treachery. Copyright is held by the author.
ELAINE RICHARDSON was tired, deeply tired. Maybe she should give up teaching after all and just take it easy like the many she had known who went for early retirement. There was so much of the world she hadn’t yet seen. The Galapagos. Thailand. Italy. Some of her couple friends had pestered her to go on exotic trips with them, but that was when her husband was still alive, and she had to politely decline. The man just wasn’t into travelling. He liked his creature comforts too much to spend endless hours waiting in airport terminals, or to come home incapacitated by a three-day bout of diarrhea, courtesy of some nasty tropical bug.
So, in the end Elaine stayed put — in her house, in her job and, most importantly, in her marriage. And the fact was she didn’t really mind. Life can be most pleasant when one knows what to expect from day to day. It might get a little dull now and then, but that was a small price to pay for safety.
Elaine shuddered at the word. It was something she had taken for granted for so long that she forgot what it felt like not to be safe. And then, one day, she had casually thrown safety away as if being safe was nothing more than a matter of convenience — a simple little non-essential one could take or leave, like a pack of gum stored in one’s purse.
Elaine trotted wearily to the kitchen. It was time to microwave leftovers from the night before when her married son had come for a visit with his wife and daughter. Elaine had pulled out all the stops for the occasion, making a lavish Italian dinner with gobs and gobs of mozzarella. Her little granddaughter was into pasta in a big way, and the girl was crazy about gooey cheese.
And it was fun!
She hadn’t cooked a full meal since she couldn’t even remember. What was the point? Why fill the refrigerator with food that would no doubt spoil before one lone person could get around to eating it? There was a time when Elaine took pride in creating gourmet meals for her family, but after the kids left and her husband died, the house was empty. Sooner than she expected, she began to think of dinner as a thing to get through as fast and as efficiently as possible.
But tonight was different. Tonight she wasn’t in a hurry. Tonight she was going to enjoy her meal and then linger over a glass of Bordeaux. And when she had eaten the remains of last night’s lasagna and loaded the dishwasher, she was going to sit back in her leather lounger and reflect on the day she had just been through — a day that was rapidly receding into a past that refused to die, unlike the boy whose body had been found in the school’s parking lot that morning.
The boy for whom she had thrown safety away.
“You have a beautiful home.” Gino stood in the middle of Elaine’s intricate East Indian rug, glancing around her living room. It was a Saturday, two weeks before final exams, and he had come at Elaine’s invitation for some last minute tutoring in trigonometry. “I’ve never seen a sofa in this colour before.” He smiled, lowering himself onto her turquoise couch cushions. “It’s quite exquisite.”
“Thank you,” she called out from the kitchen where she was standing at the counter, stirring spoonfuls of chocolate syrup into two mugs of hot milk. “It was my late husband’s idea. He said leather furniture eliminated the potential for germs. The man had an absolute obsession about cleanliness, probably from having to wash his hands so often as a surgeon.”
Elaine came into the living room carefully carrying a tray, which she set down on the glass coffee table in front of her young guest. “Please help yourself to a cup, but use one of the wooden coasters. They’re truly unique,” she said proudly. “My late husband made them many years ago when he was an intern at Toronto Western. At the time his hobby was wood carving. He said it was relaxing, but then he got so busy with his practice, he had to give it up. I believe his tools are still around here somewhere.”
She joined Gino on the sofa. “The one you’re holding now is particularly special. It was made from a piece of wood that was once part of a magnificent maple in front of our old home on Humberview Road a short walk from the Old Mill Subway Station. The whole area was full of stately trees, and ours was one of the most magnificent in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, it was so severely damaged in an ice storm several years ago, we had to have it cut down.” She paused to take a sip of cocoa. “Go ahead,” she urged, “examine it closely.”
Gino turned the coaster over in his hand, then held it up to his eyes. “It looks like there’s some kind of dog on one side and what appears to be the letter ‘R’ on the other,” he said uncertainly.
“You’re quite correct.” Elaine beamed at her bright student. “There’s an ‘R’ for Richardson carved on the back of each coaster, and on the front are different types of terriers.”
Gino peered at what was obviously the shape of a dog. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize it.” He turned towards her, an inquiring look on his handsome face.
“It’s a Dandie Dinmont,” she declared, her eyes sparkling. “That little coaster is so much more than just another one of my husband’s wood carvings.” She paused to collect herself. “I know it’s corny to say, but it’s actually a little piece of my heart. You see, many years ago when the two of us were first married, we had a little dog just like the one on the coaster you’re holding. Her name was Dinah and the three of us were as close as any family could be.” She sighed wistfully. “Of course, there are photos galore of those days, but this little bit of wood created from the corpse of a tree in our front yard is irreplaceable,” she said, her eyes starting to mist. “It’s a tangible symbol of a time when I was a young wife and living with a great guy and a wonderful dog. Nothing on earth would ever make me part with it,” she said with a catch in her throat. “Nothing,” she whispered softly, as if reciting a prayer.
Gino sat quietly watching her as Elaine continued to stare at the small round wooden object that obviously meant so much to her. Then, without warning, she seemed to crumble before his eyes, her composure collapsing as the force of her emotions swept over her. She couldn’t stop sobbing.
Gino put his arms around her and held her closely. “It’s all right,” he spoke soothingly, as if to a hurt child. “Loss is a painful thing. Go ahead and cry. It’s all right,” he repeated gently. “Cry for as long as you like. I’m here for you.” He started massaging her shaking shoulders until at last she buried her head in his chest.
When Elaine woke up, she instinctively stretched out an arm for the alarm clock on the nightstand beside her bed. What she saw was startling. Something like an hour had gone by, and she couldn’t account for the time!
Hastily she propped herself up on her elbows. From across the room, Gino was comfortably ensconced in one of the bedroom accent chairs next to Elaine’s mahogany bureau. He seemed to be studying her.
Suddenly she felt afraid. This was wrong! All wrong! How did she go from having a cup of cocoa in the living room to this? Had she lost her mind?
At least, she realized with some relief, she was still wearing the clothes she had on when the boy showed up at her house hours earlier. That was something, anyway.
“What happened?” she asked, still a bit groggy but sobering up fast. “The last I remember we were sitting on the couch, talking.”
“Nothing happened,” Gino said, giving her a friendly smile. “You were upset, and I carried you in here and deposited you on your bed,” he explained patiently. “You were so exhausted from crying, you fell asleep.”
It sounded plausible. And yet it didn’t. Elaine was confused, but one thing was clear. She had to get this boy out of her house — stat.
“I’m sorry about that,” she said, thinking quickly. “We’ll have a tutoring session next week, one day after school — in study hall, but right now I want you to leave.” She stared hard at him. For the first time, she realized how foolish she had been to allow this kid to come into her home. If he refused to go, then what?
“Okay,” Gino said, jumping up from the chair. “Do you mind if I call you tonight? Just to make sure you’re all right?” he asked, heading out of her bedroom while she followed him to the front door.
“I’m perfectly fine,” she replied. “You don’t have to call.”
“I think I will anyway,” he said, leaning down to kiss her lightly on the forehead. Then he picked up his things and left.
“Hi, it’s Gino,” the voice on the phone announced.
“I told you not to call,” Elaine responded calmly. Actually she was anything but calm. Something told her she was in way over her head.
“Well, I wanted to tell you how much I appreciated hearing that story about the coaster and your little dog.”
Elaine was at a loss. This kid wanted something. But what?
“Yes.” It was all she could think of to say.
“I liked it so much, I decided to slip the coaster into my knapsack so I could show it to Velma and share your story with her. She’d get a kick out it.”
“Of course, I don’t really have to do that. I’m willing to make a trade, and I’ll keep my mouth shut in the bargain.”
Elaine closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “Trade for what?” she said tightly.
“An ‘A’ on the final exam.”
“Are you crazy?!”
“Here’s how it’s going to play out,” he said coolly. Elaine could almost see the smirk on his face as he dictated his demands. “You hand back my test paper with an ‘A’ on it, and I’ll hand you the coaster. Oh, and neither of us will discuss this with Velma.”
This was a nightmare. It had to be! “You call the Vice-Principal ‘Velma’?” Elaine’s voice was flat, lifeless.
“We’re friends.” Gino had to suppress a laugh. It was all going so well!
“And if I refuse?”
“You’ll never get your precious coaster back . . . or your reputation. Think it over.” Then the dial tone came on. Gino had hung up the phone.