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Chapter no 19

Hidden Pictures

The next morning I get to the big house and find Caroline and Ted dressed for work and sitting in the breakfast nook. Caroline is drinking tea and Ted is sipping black coffee and they’re staring at each other in stony silence. I realize they’re waiting for me.

“Can you join us?” Caroline asks. “Ted has something he’d like to say.”

Ted looks like hell. He’s clearly hungover. The man belongs upstairs in bed. Or down on his knees in the bathroom, hunched over a toilet. “I want to apologize for my behavior last night. It was completely unacceptable and—”

“Ted, it’s fine. I’ve already forgotten about it.”

Caroline shakes her head. “No, Mallory, we’re not going to pretend this didn’t happen. We need to fully acknowledge everything that occurred last night.”

Ted nods and dutifully continues, like he’s reciting some kind of memorized public statement. “My actions were arrogant and disrespectful. I’m ashamed of my behavior, and I’m looking inward to understand why I chose to abuse my privilege.”

“Apology accepted,” I tell them. “You don’t need to say anything else. I’d feel better if we just moved on, okay?”

Ted looks to Caroline, and she shrugs. Fine.

“Thank you for understanding, Mallory. I promise it won’t happen again.”

He stands up and grabs his briefcase and then walks unsteadily toward the foyer. Moments later, I can hear the

front door slam, and the sound of his car starting in the driveway.

“He’s afraid you’re going to sue us,” Caroline explains. “Can you please tell me what happened? In your own words?”

“Caroline, I promise you, it was nothing. Last night, I went to Adrian’s house. His parents were having a party. I got home after midnight and Ted was in my cottage. He was drunk. He said you guys had a fight, and that he needed a quiet place to cool off.”

“I thought he was downstairs. Sleeping on the sofa.”

“As soon as I came home, he said he was sorry and he left. That was it.”

“Did he tell you about our fight?”

“No, he just said you were a good person. With a good heart. He said you would do anything for your family.”

“And?”

“And that was it. He wasn’t making a lot of sense. He talked about some island? Where he spent a summer in college?”

“‘Working in the sun and sleeping under the stars,’” Caroline says, and I realize that she’s parodying her husband, gently mocking him. “Whenever he gets drunk, he talks about Whidbey Island.”

“I didn’t mind. I gave him some water and some baby aspirin and I opened the door and he left. End of story.”

She studies my face like she’s searching for clues. “I’m embarrassed to ask this next question, but since technically you’re my employee, I feel like I have to. Did he try anything?”

“No. Not at all.”

I mean, I guess I could mention that he took off his pants, and raided my underwear drawer, and did God-knows-what in my bed before I arrived. But what would be the point? Poor Caroline already looks miserable, and Ted has

apologized. I don’t see the point in dragging this out. I’m certainly not going to quit over what happened.

“Caroline, I swear to you, he didn’t put a hand on me. Not even close.”

She releases a deep long sigh. “Ted turned fifty-three this summer. I’m sure you’ve heard about men and their midlife crises. They start questioning all the choices they’ve made. And on top of that, his business is struggling. It’s taking a toll on his ego. He was hoping to hire some new people this fall, but it’s looking doubtful.”

“How big is the company?”

She gives me a funny look. “He’d like a staff of forty but right now it’s just Ted. It’s a one-man operation.”

Just Ted? My sense was that he worked in a big Center City skyscraper full of secretaries and fancy computers and big glass windows overlooking Rittenhouse Square. “He told me he works with Cracker Barrel. And Yankee Candle. Big companies.”

“He’s taken meetings with them,” Caroline explains. “He goes around to different companies and offers to run their websites. Direct their e-commerce businesses. But it’s hard to land these big clients when you’re just one person.”

“He’s mentioned coworkers. Guys named Mike and Ed.

He says they all eat lunch together.”

“Right, they’re all in the same WeWork. One of those office-shares where people rent desks by the month. Because Ted needs to have a mailing address in the city. A big part of his business is making a good impression. Trying to appear more important than you really are. He’s been under a lot of stress this summer—and last night, I think you saw the first cracks in the facade.”

Her voice breaks and I realize she’s worried not just for Ted but also for their marriage, for their entire family. And I truly have no idea what to say to her. I’m relieved to hear Teddy’s footsteps coming down the stairs. Caroline sits up straight and dabs her eyes with a napkin.

Teddy enters the kitchen carrying an iPad. He’s swiping his finger across the surface and the screen responds with loud, cacophonous explosions.

“Hey there, Teddy Bear! Whatcha got?”

He doesn’t look up from the screen. “Mommy gave it to me last night. It used to be Daddy’s but now it’s mine.” He grabs a plastic tumbler and fills it with water from the sink. Without another word of explanation, he carries the cup and iPad into the den.

“Teddy’s taking a break from drawing,” Caroline explains. “In light of all the confusion, we think he needs some new interests. And the App Store has a ton of educational resources. Math games, phonics, even foreign languages.” She walks across the kitchen and opens a cabinet above the refrigerator, way beyond Teddy’s reach. “I gathered all his crayons and markers and put them up here. Teddy’s so excited about the iPad, I don’t think he’s even noticed.”

I know the first rule of babysitting is never second-guessing the mother, but I can’t help feeling like this is a mistake. Teddy took a real joy in drawing and I think it’s wrong to deprive him of the privilege. Worse, I feel like it’s happening because of me, because I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut about Annie Barrett.

Caroline registers my disappointment. “It’s an experiment. Just for a couple days. Maybe it can help us understand what’s happening.” She closes the door to the cabinet, as if the matter is settled. “But now tell me about this party at Adrian’s house. Did you have a nice time?”

“Really nice.” And I guess I’m happy to change the subject, because I’ve been thinking about our dinner date since I got out of bed. “We’re going out tonight. He wants to drive to Princeton. Some kind of tapas restaurant.”

“Oooh, those places are so romantic.” “He’s picking me up at five thirty.”

“Then I’ll try to get home early. Give you some extra time to get ready.” Then she checks the time. “Shoot, I better go.

I’m so excited for you, Mallory! You’re going to have so much fun tonight!”

 

 

After Caroline leaves, I find Teddy sitting in the den, mesmerized by a game of Angry Birds. He’s using his finger to stretch and release a giant slingshot; he’s launching colorful birds at a series of wood and steel structures occupied by pigs. With each new attack, there’s a cacophony of screeches, explosions, bangs, blasts, and slide whistles. I sit across from Teddy and clap my hands together. “So, what are we doing this morning? A little stroll in the Enchanted Forest? Or how about a Bake-Off?”

He shrugs, swiping furiously. “I don’t care.”

One of the birds misses its target and Teddy furrows his brow, frustrated by the results. He hunches closer to the screen, almost like he’s trying to disappear inside it.

“Come on, Teddy. Put the game away.” “I’m not done.”

“Mommy says it’s for Quiet Time. She doesn’t want you using it all morning.”

He turns away from me, shielding the tablet with his body. “Just one more level.”

“How long is a level?”

It turns out that one more level takes a good half hour. After he’s finished, Teddy pleads with me to charge the iPad, so he’ll have enough batteries for later.

We spend the morning trampling around the Enchanted Forest. I try to make up a new adventure story for Prince Teddy and Princess Mallory, but all Teddy wants to discuss is Angry Birds strategy. Yellow birds are best for attacking wood structures. Black birds can destroy concrete walls. White birds accelerate after dropping their egg bombs. It’s not really a conversation; he’s just reciting a string of facts and data, like he’s trying to organize the rules in his mind.

I spy a glint of silver in a bed of leaves and I kneel down to investigate. It’s the bottom half of an arrow; the top part with the feathers is missing and all that remains is the aluminum shaft and a pyramid-shaped tip.

“This is a magic missile,” I tell Teddy. “It’s used for slaying goblins.”

“That’s cool,” Teddy says. “Also, the green bird is a boomerang bird. He gets double-damage when he attacks. So I like to play him first.”

I suggest that we hike to the Giant Beanstalk and add the arrow to our arsenal of weapons. Teddy agrees, but his participation feels half-hearted. It’s like he’s just biding his time, running down the clock until morning is over and we can go back to the house.

 

 

I offer to make Teddy anything he wants for lunch but he says he doesn’t care so I just make grilled cheese. As he wolfs down the sandwich, I remind him that he doesn’t have to use the iPad during Quiet Time. I suggest it might be fun to play LEGOs or Lincoln Logs or farm animals. And he glances at me like I’m trying to swindle him, like I’m trying to cheat him out of a privilege he has rightfully earned.

“Thanks, but I’ll do my game,” he says.

He carries the tablet up to his bedroom and after a few minutes I climb the stairs to the second floor and press my ear to his bedroom door. There are no whispered words, no half-conversations. Just occasional laughter from Teddy, and the sounds of stretching slingshots, squawking birds, and imploding buildings. He sounds giddy with delight, but something in his happiness makes me sad. Overnight, like flipping a switch, I feel as if something magical has been lost.

I go downstairs, take out my phone, and call the number of the Rest Haven Retirement Community. I tell the

receptionist that I’m looking to speak with one of the residents, Dolores Jean Campbell. The phone rings several times before a default voice mail greeting kicks on.

“Um, hi, my name is Mallory Quinn? We don’t know each other, but I think maybe you can help me?”

I realize I have no idea how to explain my question, that I should have practiced what to say before the call, but now it’s too late and I just need to blunder ahead.

“I wondered if your mother was someone named Annie Barrett. From Spring Brook, New Jersey. Because if she is, I would really love to talk with you. Can you please call me back?”

I leave my number and end the call feeling like I’ve already hit a dead end. I’m convinced I’ll never hear from her.

I clean up the lunch dishes and then go around the kitchen with a soapy sponge, cleaning the counters and trying to make myself useful. More than ever, I’m feeling vulnerable in my job. It’s like every day brings some new reason for Caroline to replace me. So I busy myself with tasks outside my job description. I sweep and mop up the floors, and wipe down the inside of the microwave. I open the toaster oven and empty the little tray of crumbs. I reach under the sink and fill the liquid soap dispensers, then stand on a chair and wipe the dust off the ceiling fan.

All these little chores make me feel better, but I’m not sure Caroline will notice. I decide I need a bigger and more ambitious project, something she could never miss. I move into the den and lie down on the sofa and I’m considering all my different options when I’m struck by the perfect idea: I will bring Teddy to the supermarket, we will buy a bunch of food, and we’ll prepare a surprise dinner for his parents. I’ll have the whole meal warming in the oven so it’s ready to eat as soon as they get home. I’ll even set the table so they won’t have to lift a finger. They can just enter the house, sit

down with some delicious food, and be grateful that I’m part of their family.

But before I can actually act on this idea, before I can sit up and start a shopping list, I fall asleep.

I’m not sure how it happens. I’m not particularly tired. I only meant to rest my eyes for a minute. But the next thing I know, I’m dreaming about a place from my childhood, a tiny family-owned amusement park called Storybook Land. It was built in the 1950s to celebrate all the classic fairy tales and Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Kids could climb a giant beanstalk or visit the three little pigs or wave through a window to the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, a creaky animatronic puppet with a dead-eyed stare.

In my dream, I’m walking Teddy past the carousel and he’s incredibly excited and he pleads with me to hold all his pencils and crayons so he can start going on rides. He empties an entire box into my hands, more than I can possibly carry, and the pencils fall all around my feet. I try to stuff them into my pockets because there’s no way I can carry all of them. And by the time I’ve collected everything, Teddy is gone. I’ve lost him in the crowd. My dream has turned into a nightmare.

I start running through the park, shoving past the other parents, shouting Teddy’s name and searching all over. Storybook Land is full of five-year-old children and from the back they all look identical, any one of them could be Teddy, I can’t find him anywhere. I pull some parents aside and beg them to help me, please please help me, and they’re appalled. “But this is your responsibility,” they tell me. “Why would we help?”

I have no choice but to call the Maxwells. I don’t want to tell them what’s happened, but it’s an emergency. I take out my cell phone and I’m calling Caroline’s number when suddenly I see him! All the way across the park, sitting on the steps of Little Red Riding Hood’s cottage. I elbow my way through throngs of people, trying to move as fast as I

can. But by the time I reach the cottage it’s not Teddy anymore. It’s my sister, Beth! She’s wearing a yellow T-shirt and faded jeans and checkered black-and-white Vans.

I run over and hug her and lift her off the ground. I can’t believe she’s here, she’s alive! I squeeze her so tight she starts laughing, and sunlight glints off her orthodontic braces. “I thought you were dead! I thought I killed you!”

“Don’t be a dork,” she says, and my dream is so realistic I can actually smell her. She smells like coconut and pineapple, like the piña colada bath bombs that she and her girlfriends used to buy at Lush, the overpriced soap shop at the King of Prussia Mall.

She explains the accident was just a big misunderstanding and all this time I’ve been blaming myself for nothing.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, Mal, for the one millionth time I am totally okay.

Now can we ride the Balloon Bounce?”

“Yes, Beth, yes! Anything! Anything you want!”

But then Teddy is back, he’s pulling on my arm, he’s gently shaking me awake. I open my eyes and I’m lying on the sofa in the den and Teddy is holding out the iPad.

“It went dead again.”

I’m certain he’s mistaken. I just charged the iPad over lunch and the battery went to 100 percent. But as I sit up, I realize the light in the den is significantly darker; the sun has stopped streaming through the north-facing windows. The clock over the mantel says it’s 5:17 but that can’t be right, that’s impossible.

I reach for my phone and confirm it’s actually 5:23. I’ve been asleep four hours.

And the Maxwells will be home any minute.

“Teddy, what happened? Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“I got to level thirty,” he says proudly. “I unlocked eight new feather cards!”

My hands are filthy. My fingers and palms are smeared with dark black soot, like I’ve been digging outside in the garden. There’s a worn-down nub of pencil in my lap—and more pencils and markers and crayons scattered on the floor, all the art supplies that Caroline stashed away in the kitchen.

Teddy looks around the den in wide-eyed wonder. “Mommy’s going to be so mad.”

I look where he’s looking and the walls are covered with sketches—many, many sketches, dense and detailed and spanning from floor to ceiling.

“Teddy, why did you do this?” “Me? didn’t do anything!”

And of course he didn’t. He couldn’t! He’s not tall enough! He’s not the one with charcoal and graphite smeared all over his hands. I walk across the room to take a closer look. These are Anya’s drawings, there’s no doubt in my mind. They’re all over the walls, drawn in the blank spots between windows and thermostats and light switches.