The First Wife’s Secret – Addison Moore

HEADS-UP! I’m going out on a limb to say this will be our most successful fundraiser ever. There will be appetizers, pizza, and booze! Yes, we scored the approval of the board to have beer, wine, and cocktails on school grounds for the night. Not a single person under twenty-one will be allowed. All guests will be ticketed and carded at the door. Don’t forget to be social. This is a great opportunity to get to know other parents and staff as well. What better way to get to know your child’s teacher than while sharing a glass of rosé? Please monitor and limit your drinking. No sloppy drunks or puking. And remember above all else, spend lots of money and have a great time! All proceeds go to upgrading classroom materials and equipment. Please mind your designated drivers. Volunteers from the PTA are willing to take your keys and provide transportation if needed. Stay safe and sane. Let’s make this the best night ever! THEY SAY you can hear your name even when whispered at impossibly low decibels. And I would swear on my life that I heard mine. Not the nickname I had come to adopt as my formal moniker, but my full name, the one I hadn’t used or heard since that painful time in my life.

I buried that name in the past along with who I was. But I heard it, I would swear on my mother’s grave if she had one. And how I wish she did. I follow that sound, that demonic whisper as I spastically take in the vicinity. A spray of crimson dots the linoleum flooring, a sloppy dotted line that leads right to the darkened hall next to the janitorial supplies, and I give a hard grunt as if it will be me cleaning up the mess. It will—that’s what all the grunting is about. I’ve signed up for the cleanup committee because that’s what you do when you’re new to the PTA board, new in town, a mid-year move no less. It’s what you do when you desperately want to fit in and have all of the obnoxious mommies in their preppy little mommy cliques like you—at least a little bit. You sign up for the grunt work, no pun intended, and the gruntiest grunt work of the night falls to sweeping up the facility with your husband—because a good wife volunteers her presumed good husband. And now that some bastard has spraypainted the floors, Bram and I will have to scrub for hours getting this stain off the— The high gloss sheen catches my eye, and I bend over and swipe my finger through the sprinkling of cardinal.

My God, it’s not paint at all. I think… I think it’s blood. “911, what’s your emergency?” “Oh my God, I’ve found a body! It’s a woman. It’s a very beautiful woman, and she’s dead. She’s dead, dead, dead!” SİX MİNUTES EARLİER… “MONTE CARLO NİGHT İS İNGENİOUS, REALLY,” I say to Bram, my handsome devil of a husband. Devil being a word I would never use openly to describe him. He’s an angel when you get down to it, but that dark wavy hair, those sage green eyes—he’s comely in an obvious way. He’s one of those men you see on the streets with a plain Jane and you ask yourself, what’s a good-looking guy like that doing with a girl like her? Only in this equation I’m the infamous her. Okay, so I’m not quite as plain as a pancake, but I’m not strutting the runway in Milan either. And Bram, well, he’s to die for—another dark analogy I would never ever breathe out loud.

Bram spins on his heel over the slick gymnasium floor of Richard E. Moss Elementary School—grades K through six. That was another major draw to this locale, the great school system. If Bram and I are about anything, we’re all about our children. Some might say unnaturally so, but if you dug past our hygienic exterior, if you peeled back the layers of who we were and what we’ve been through, you would say, yes, they are fine parents and with very good reason. Bram and I are helicopter parents squared. There will be nothing but the best of the best for our Lilly and Jack. We already know how much there is to lose. “The cake is chocolate sin.” He nods as he lifts his plate to me.

“No thank you. I gave at the pasta bar.” It’s true. I inhaled enough carbs to fuel me with enough energy to lap the planet twice if need be. My punishment would be no dessert. My mother and her enormous girth bounces through my mind, and I happily bounce her right back out. My mother has haunted the recesses of my mind for the better part of the last ten years. It’s been that long since I’ve seen her, and as much as I wish she were dead, she’s still rolling around the planet according to my sister. Lena and I escaped her clutches, but sometimes when you run from someone, a monster so scary you wish never existed, you need to keep slight tabs on the demon just to be sure you’re running in the right direction. But Bram and I are all through running.

We moved to Percy Bay, a small seaside community in mid-coastal Maine. It’s just a short drive to Belfast where Bram’s brother, Mason, lives. His mother is in Connecticut. His father is out of the picture, so at least he has a sibling in close proximity, the same way I do. Bram and Mace are close, but Lena and I are practically the same person, and that’s why she’s moved into the house directly across the street from ours, a small rental that’s working out perfectly for her. We’re hopeful this will be our final move, if not our longest stay. Bram just underwent a legal name change as well as going through the drama and trauma of having his name altered on his dental degrees. I took his new name, as did the kids—our kids, Lilly and Jack. We are the Woods—not a far cry from Woodley, but the kids were accustomed to the sound of it, so Woods it is. The irony being our new moniker wasn’t chosen based on the logical leap from Peter’s—Bram’s—formal last name—but for the phrase we often whispered to one another in the night.

We are not out of the woods. Peter Woodley and Aubree Van Lullen have stepped out of the proverbial woods as Bram—yes, after his favorite horror author Bram Stoker—and Ree Woods. And here we are, hiding in plain sight, unafraid, unmoved by the flinching glance of a stranger. We have started from scratch and will do so again and again until life sings the right narrative. Bram wraps his arm around my waist and brushes his lips to mine, a move that still makes my cheeks flush with heat. “They’re coming in hot, six o’clock.” I turn my head in time to see the mighty three, Tessa Holmes, Astrid Montenegro, and Bridget Geraldi. Tessa is the head of the parent-teacher association, a volunteer position you would think she trained years for at Harvard. Tessa is congenial, someone everyone naturally gravitates toward, with an open heart-shaped face and overeager smile. Her skin is perpetually bright pink as if she’s trying too hard on a cellular level, and her eyes bulge with bullfroggish glee when she looks at you.

They’re the exact entrancing shade as Bram’s, and I suppose that makes me like her just a little bit more. Her husband is a plumber and “very much in demand in this leaky copper-lined town”—her words, not mine. Astrid is an impossibly tall blonde with one of those stylish mermaid bobs, squinty smoky eyes that perpetually drift toward my husband, and she’s in the habit of wearing low-cut tops that bear the chest she purchased for Christmas last year. She has a buyer for her clothes, all of which she models to no end on Instagram, which amuses and entertains just about everyone because she’s “oh-so hip”. She seems to be well-liked by the masses, although, honestly, I can’t figure out why. She hasn’t been the most welcoming to me. Her husband is an investment banker, and they’re rumored to have massive amounts of real estate holdings in the area. Bridget is a two-dimensional perpetual scowler who let me know in no uncertain terms the day we met that she couldn’t really “hang out with me” at school events because she had her own friends. I couldn’t help but be a bit amused by the adolescent remark. Apparently, she was in a violent car accident a few years back with her brother.

He suffered head trauma and hasn’t been the same since. You would think something like that would pull someone out of a junior high mentality, but she stands firm in protecting her clique from me. “Bram”—Astrid strokes my husband’s sleeve with her blood red nails—“I believe you owe me a thank you.” She gives a sly wink accompanied with a dolphin-like giggle. “I’m personally responsible for the candy bar—aka cavity central.” More braying and the rest of us join in as we pick up on the joke. Bram just signed on as the third full-time dentist at Smile Wide General Dentistry in downtown Percy. “Well, thank you.” He gives a gracious bow. “While I certainly appreciate the business, I feel obligated to bring a tub full of toothbrushes to the next school function that might have more than ten grams of sugar per capita.

” Another round of warm laughter ensues. Tessa steps in toward Bram with her mousy blond hair. A white lace shawl thrown over a pink tank top and jeans is an ultra-dressy look for her. “Miles and Chuck are at the blackjack table. This is a great night to meet the other dads. Just tell ’em Tess and Ass sent ya!” She snickers into her jewel-toned cocktail as she brings it to her lips. I take a moment to glance to Astrid who’s rolling her eyes. She’s no fan of her posterior-based nickname, but from Tessa it’s practically a term of endearment. Astrid also happens to be my neighbor two houses down on Strawberry Lane. It was the name of the street that enchanted Bram and me more than the actual house we purchased, an old split-level mid-century Spanish without an honest upgrade, sans the kitchen—thank God for small granite-based mercies—the rest of the house is still cursed with the single-paned windows.

And don’t get me started on the wobbly slider doors—all installed backwards by the inept builder—someone could easily slip a stick into the well of the flashing and lock us inside our own home. Both showers leak, the kitchen sink has zero water pressure, there’s a nonsensical pit in the backyard that you could break a leg in—the list goes on and on. But we bought in the very best neighborhood, a sought-after neighborhood accustomed to bidding wars. We came in all cash with the money that Bram received as a payout from the death of his wife and children. It was blood money he called it. But in the end, he decided we needed it and practicality won out. “Blackjack.” Bram bounces a quick kiss off my lips. “I promise I won’t bet the farm.” He gives a sly wink and makes the girls swoon ten times harder before ditching us for the dazzling display of dealers and scantily clad women from the catering staff strutting around in adorable ruby red bustiers and thin black chokers.

My stomach stirs with jealousy. A very faint, insecure part of me is worried that Bram will wake up one day and see that he’s made an egregious error and leave me for someone newer and shinier with a lot less baggage. But, in truth, it was our baggage that drew us together, moth to the wicked flame. Astrid offers a spontaneous applause. “Blackjack, roulette, poker, craps, gin rummy— we have it all. Best fundraiser we’ve ever had at Richard E. Moss. And I should know. I’ve been here for—” “Eight years”—Tessa finishes for her and winks my way. “She has a six-year age gap between her boys.

Two different baby daddies,” she whispers mischievously, lifting her glass my way. “God, Tess.” Astrid yanks Bridget to her. “You can be so juvenile when you drink. One of these days, I’m going to murder you in your sleep.” Bridget gives a husky chuckle. “Maybe you should both watch your backs.” She looks to me as she says it, no smile. My God, some people never leave high school. It’s as if her brain were still imprisoned somewhere between home ec and an arduous gym class where they make you run the mile uphill both ways—and a part of me thinks she’d deserve it.

She’s been subhuman to me from hello. “Ignore them.” Tessa steps in close, that wide face of hers only seems to expand unnaturally as she leans in, the hot breath of scotch steaming my skin. “Ass is just jealous that your husband is way hotter than hers. She actually had the balls to ask me how much a dentist earns. She feels threatened because you moved into the same neighborhood. She’s used to being the richest, and the prettiest, but you’ve upturned her on both counts.” She gives my ribs a quick pinch and belts out a cheerful guffaw. My cheeks flush at the thought of outshining Ms. Percy Bay herself, but I’d gladly steal both titles if they were true.

“And what about Bridget?” Her name comes out with disdain on my part, my own vodka tonic boozy breath joining the party. In truth, everyone under this seemingly innocent gym roof has a high-octane blood count right about now. We voted in the liquor once we heard that patrons were apt to spend up to three times more than expected if they had a healthy helping of alcohol running through their veins. Astrid pointed out that people were more apt to get laid that way, too, ensuring a good time would be had by all. “She’s so stoically quiet it’s as if she’s hiding something.” I doubt it. She’s not sinister or dark enough in the slightest, just your run-of-the-mill vapid phone-to-ear moron who wears heels for no good reason. If giving dirty looks were an Olympic feat, she could medal. Not to mention she still thinks cliques and popularity scales are a thing. “Oh, Bridge knows where all the bodies are buried.

” Tessa lifts her chin as if driving home the point, and a shiver runs through me. Not an analogy I want flaunted in a social circle I was desperately trying to inject myself into. A moment stumps by as Tessa’s eyes remain locked on mine, and I wonder if she’s trying to tell me something. That familiar burn in the pit of my stomach starts in, and I have to get out of here, must get some air. “I think I’m going to run to the little girls’ room.” I start to head that way, and Tessa pulls me back by the elbow. Her prairie green eyes shine like quarters in the sun. “We’re all looking forward to the kids’ party on Sunday. Please let me know if I can bring anything.” A flood of relief washes over me.

The normalcy I long for is still within reach. “Just yourselves, and, of course, your kids. Lilly and Jack are over the moon. Bram’s rented a bounce house, and I’ve got enough cake on order to ensure Smile Wide will have a steady stream of clients for the next year straight.” We share a quick laugh and I’m on my way, breezing through the crowd of glammed-up soccer moms and their paunchbellied companions, who actually look mildly pleased to be at the quasi-cool school function. It’s a win for the PTA, a win for the dismal fiscal state of the slush fund we’re looking to enrich, and a win for the newly-minted Woods—who might not be out of the woods just yet. The faint whisper of my name, my full name arrests me. So faint, threadbare, but I heard it. I follow the sound with caution as I head for the back and an arresting spray of sanguine liquid catches my eye. The cleanup committee, the spray paint, it all cycles through my mind in two seconds flat.

I bend over and slip my fingers through the greasy mess and sniff it—copper scented. I know this smell, this ruby red sin of a feel—blood indeed. I take a few careful steps into the darkened corridor, and that’s when I see her, brunette, pretty, eyes wide open, a wire cinching her neck to the size of a dime, her left hand mutilated, and I scream. It seems Bram and I are never really out of the woods. A BODY, a corpse, right there at Richard E. Moss Elementary, and, of course, I had to find her. My bad luck knows no end. The image of the woman stains my brain and I can’t escape her. She lies over my eyes like a film, an overlay that demands I see my own children through her body. Sunday shows up like an axe-wielding intruder, a threat to my sanity, as I swing around the house in an unreasonable dress with a full skirt like some 1950s housewife, with my turquoise leather flats, my hair curled ridiculously as if I were going to prom circa 1988.

I’ve dusted and cleaned, buffed and polished until the house gleams like a river stone. Lena has been hostage in the kitchen for the better part of a day and a half, making sure the side dishes are just so, cutting the crusts off mounds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Cooking is her forte, not mine, and it’s times like this I’m grateful for it. Bram has left to pick up a stack of cheese pizzas, and at the last minute I asked him to throw in a few buckets of fried chicken. Lena has made her signature Chinese chicken salad in a bowl the size of a bathtub. She assures me that all the mothers will devour it before begging for the recipe, and I’m guessing she’s right. I’m new to the kiddie party scene. Lena is, too. Lena, my older sister by two years, has been dutifully by my side since birth, my only companion for so long, my only friend. Our mother shaved our heads before we could properly walk or talk and kept us glued to wheelchairs we didn’t need, feeding us a pittance of a diet to keep us morbidly thin, sheltering us from the sun to keep us sinfully pale, and that is how she made a living.

Donations from churches and her various places of part-time employment proved a nice subsidy for us for a long time. She claimed we were homeschooled, very ill, too ill to venture outside and have a normal life, but she paraded us around when she needed to. But it was Lena and I who taught each other to read, to learn every basic skill in life we could get our hands on. Our father (which I’m assuming were two different men) was nothing more than an enigma to us. Once, my mother mentioned she had met him in a bar, and I figured we were the products of one-night stands. A darker thought had come along, though, and I wondered if my mother was turning tricks at the time. She herself was virtually abandoned. She had one sister who lived nearby, and neither of them had been successful at life. But, in truth, we were Cordelia Van Lullen’s favorite crutches, living in a bubble of her own making, turning a dollar faster than she ever could off those minimum wage jobs she held. We were a curious burden to her at first, quickly followed by an amusement, and then a very serious source of income.

Eventually, Lena and I figured out we were just fine —not one damned thing wrong with our well-functioning bodies, so we moved in with my aunt in high school, but not before we suffered abject humiliation and were run out of town, our pictures plastered all over the news, national media, our mother arrested for a time. Both Lena and I tried our hand at junior college. We were avid readers, self-taught mostly, but as fate and our mother’s selfish agenda would have it, we were not scholastically inclined. Lena works for a local caterer, and I write children’s chapter books in my spare time that I’m hoping to sell one day. That body. It floats to my mind at all the wrong times—in the shower, on the toilet, making love to Bram. I still see her startled eyes, bulging and crimson. Her pink tongue fat between her lips. And the blood. My God, my stomach turns just thinking about it, and I quickly usher the corpse away.

Instead, I force my gaze to flit out the window. The clouds are dark and fat on this late March afternoon, and the bounce house is steadily wobbling from side to side. Lilly and Jack scream to unholy levels from inside it, screaming with glee, of course. I know all of their whispers and whimpers, and these are of the joyful variety. I pass the hall, and my eye catches on those framed black and white prints of Isla and Henry, doppelgangers of Lilly and Jack. Those mops of dark heads, those smiling Irish eyes— it’s all so very eerie. Lilly is eight today, the exact age Isla and Henry were the day they drowned in the lake. Isla and Henry are, were, Bram’s children with his first wife, Simone. We have never kept them a secret, never shut them out of our children’s lives. They are ever-present in the hall just outside our bedroom, an entire wall devoted like a shrine to their young, vibrant lives cut short far too soon.

A day at the lake that turned tragic. The sitter tended to her jilted heart by way of weeping into her phone while the kids swam out too far and got sucked under. But Bram swears the lake was glassy, both kids strong swimmers. His wife, an editor at the local paper in their upstate New York life, quit her job and spent her remaining days buried among the couch cushions. Then another tragedy struck, a break-in, a bludgeoning. Simone was gone just like the kids, and, of course, everyone thought Bram had done it. He was already hung in the court of public opinion by the time they caught the real perpetrator, a man by the name of Nolan Kingston, a homeless man prone to bad decisions, breaking and entering while in the midst of a psychotic episode. A burglary gone wrong. A rape gone wrong. Everything had gone wrong for the Woodleys.

Two dead children. One dead wife. Bram lost his practice and was run out of town. He couldn’t sell or rent the house, and it sat empty for years until last fall. A builder offered full asking price. He’s going to raze it and put in a duplex. Fair enough. We really don’t care. The doorbell rings, and Lena shouts that she’s too busy to get it, so I sail downstairs, trying to ignore the fact dog hair has amassed to each step. As much as I love our Husky, Dawson, he is a shedding machine.

Twice a year it snows Dawson. You can’t have a meal without a dog hair in it. My mother hated the creatures, and that made me all the more certain I would always have one. I swing the front door open, an old wooden carved wonder the previous owner— original owner at that—had shipped from Mexico. It’s inlaid with an intricate floral design, and one day (soon hopefully) when we remodel, I plan on using the door as a base for a custom desk. It has character, and what better place to plot and ponder my own characters than this old door that I’m sure has more than a few haunted stories to tell. “Packages.” A cheery UPS man squints out a smile as he slips in two large cardboard rectangles into the foyer before whisking back to his truck. “Oh, thank God,” I moan. “The decorations are finally here!” I shout to Lena as I kick them past the entry enough to close the door.

As much as I adore Dawson, he is a runner, and I swear the day he sails out of our lives and bounds down the street will be the last we ever see of him. Not really, but I’m a lousy dogcatcher and even lousier at slapping missing posters to every tree in town. We have him chipped, and I’m hoping that’s enough to keep the shelter he finally gets turned into from adopting him out behind our backs. I muscle open the heavier box of the two. My God, did I put in an order for concrete? I pull back the lid and reveal three bright red Dutch ovens nesting in one another, the lids wrapped neatly in paper by their sides. My heart sinks for two reasons: I didn’t order these, and I happen to appreciate how pricey these are. Lena has been after me to get my hands on one for ages. I’m sure they were meant for somebody else, most likely Astrid down the street, but a horrible part of me wants to keep them. The kids scream with laughter, pulling me out of my Dutch oven induced trance, and I quickly move onto the second box. I need to throw some party hats about and pull out the happy birthday banners as quick as my limbs allow.

We look incredibly ill-prepared to host the entire second and third grade classes from Richard E. Moss Elementary. Lilly and Jack’s birthdays are two days off and one year apart, so we’ve always celebrated at the same time. So far, no complaints. I run my finger along the seam of the lighter box and feel the burn over my skin as it gives, and once I peer inside, my stomach drops again. Not a sign of anything remotely happily cartoonish. Instead, it’s just a pile of old composition notebooks, bloated used ones at that, some paperbacks, and an emerald tin coffee can at the bottom. I pull it forward, and it’s full of old costume jewelry, a few gold rings, a silver necklace, and a pair of pearl earrings that may or may not be real. I slip the lid back on and pull open one of the composition notebooks. It’s a journal.

“Huh.” I rock back on my heel, taking a moment to slip through a few pages. It dates back to 2008, the penmanship neat and heavily slanted, pleasantly legible, yet not flowery, clearly a woman’s. The color of her pen varies every so many pages from black to blue, to red to green, no particular pattern, just whatever she could reach for that night I suppose. Then I see it. My eyes snag on an all too familiar name, first Henry, then Isla. I quickly spot Peter in the mix, and a rush of bile inches to the back of my throat. Went to the grocery store. Henry pitched a fit and wanted a bouncing ball. Why the hell do they put those in the middle of the aisle? There was no way around it.

I bought two. Henry chose red and Isla bought a purple marbled wonder. Peter was not happy with my spontaneous purchases. I’d like to see him get out of the supermarket alive. “What in the hell?” Something enlivens in me. My skin prickles with heat, and my adrenaline spikes. I flip to the next page and read mid-paragraph in haste: the veins in his neck bulged when I told him. I hate that Peter suffers from such silent rage. It’s because of all of that bullshit with his mother. I don’t need a therapist to tell me— “Ree?” Lena calls from the kitchen, and I slap the book shut.

“Where’s the olive oil? I’m going to whip up some garlic bread. Don’t tell me you’re out. We just bought a gallon at Costco!” “Right pantry, on the floor.” Shit. I quickly move the heavy box full of iron pots into the guest closet, and as I bend over to pick up the box full of journals, I spot a yellow envelope taped to the inside flap. I quickly pull it forward and free the letter. Found the pans in the drawer under the stove. A lot of people forget about that space. Thought you might be missing these. And the rest of the stuff was culled from the basement.

Tim Bergman Tim Bergman. That name rings familiar. He’s the contractor who bought Bram’s old house. These are Bram’s things. I glance to the box filled with the bloated books. Simone’s personal journals. My blood runs cold. I doubt Bram knows about those journals. He would never have left them to rot. These are his memories, too painful as they might be.

His car pulls into the driveway, and without thinking, I whisk the small box upstairs and bury it deep in the back of the walk-in closet, throwing a pile of sweaters over it for good measure, just below the gun safe. This closet has become a treasure trove of secrets. But if ever there was a day for keeping secrets, this is it. For sure I’m not souring Bram’s mood this afternoon. I’ll tell him about the delivery tonight or even tomorrow once we’ve come down from our birthday high. I flick off the lights and head downstairs, feeling a bit guilty as if I’ve just taken Simone, Isla, and Henry off the invite list. Bram comes at me with a kiss, warm and juicy, the promise of things to come. He’s in a cheerful mood, the only mood I’ve ever known from him, so that insert in Simone’s journal resounds like a gong in my ear. Bram and I help Lena set up the last of the buffet, spreading it over the dining room table, paper plates at the ready. I can’t help but cast a wistful smile at the walls.

When we moved in, they were stark white and I insisted on painting them red, something cozy, a nice holiday feel I said at the time. It was a post-Christmas haze that had inspired it, and now that even Valentine’s Day is behind us, the color just feels wrong, offensive even. It’s as if the walls are angry, the entire house were wishing to be rid of us. The clock strikes one and Bram, Lena, and I freeze a moment like three lonely children standing in the cafeteria on the first day of school just hoping the cool kids will ask us to sit with them. In reality, we’re wondering if the cool kids will show at all. And sure enough, they do like a flood. The glut of second and third graders run through the house and straight for the bounce house out back as if it were magnetically pulling them into its gravity. A handful of mothers linger in the backyard whispering amongst themselves in groups of two and three. The rest of them asked what time the pick up was and took off for child-free pastures. A part of me marvels at the fact they’ve entrusted us with their most prized possessions.

If they only knew who they were dealing with, they would have certainly thought twice, or most likely not come at all. But most of the PTA is present and accounted for, lingering among the crepe myrtles out back, so I suppose there is a small comfort in that. Bridget arrived with her nose buried in her oversized phone. The sparkly pink case looks as if it were an accessory for one of Lilly’s Barbies, and yet some small shallow part of me envied the way it caught the light.

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