[caption id="attachment_23" align="alignright" width="200" caption="OpDec Operation Deceit"][/caption]From the corner at the top of the stairs, a cherub-faced girl of eleven beheld the lighted parlor of her family home. Young Claire discreetly angled herself out of the line of sight, brushing her dusky curls from her eyes to better see the room. The scene before her gentle blue eyes wasn’t what she expected to find. Mother and Father went out that evening to one of their flamboyant parties somewhere in the city of Boston. Claire leapt from her bed to greet them the instant she heard their voices. She couldn’t wait until morning to draw out the stories of what lay beyond their quiet Brookline home. Instead, Mother and Father fought. Claire frowned with disappointment knowing she must wait for the glamorous stories until tomorrow.
Claire lay on her stomach. She could just make out her mother from the chin down. The woman sat on one of the two sofas in the sitting room. Her knuckles strained white, gripping the arm of the furniture. Claire pressed herself lower. The face, elegantly framed in a wavy blond bob, almost always held a smile, but now agonized strain marred its beauty. Behind Mother’s seat, Father paced frantically and bellowed terrible.
Father’s mood would bring uncomfortable penalties for even the slightest breach. The girl felt her heart beat harder at the idea, warning her to flee back to her bed. Claire pressed herself against the wall. It was well after bedtime and she should be asleep since long ago. With large eyes, Claire came back to the scene. Panicked by all the yelling, she couldn’t decide to stay or go.
Mother’s head lolled wearily. Father continued to pace before the door, appearing in regular intervals. His voice followed him in and out like waves on a beach; the tones harshly peaked. The force stifled Claire’s breath. Her gaze settled on Mother again. The woman’s hands clenched in fists, while her teeth tore at her lip. Claire whispered pleas for her mother to speak up for herself.
“I don’t understand where this is coming from,” Father said, loosening the bow tie around his throat. “Are you ill again? Is that what this is about?”
Mother folded her hands in her lap and lowered her head, refusing to speak a word in response. The deep breath she drew through her nose confirmed the message of her posture.
“It’s you who’s sick,” Mother finally hissed. “How could you do this to us?” she demanded, her voice full of anguish.
“You’re delusional,” Father said, halting before the door. His thick hand clutched at the back of his neck nervously. “I’ll call doctor O’Reilly. You need to rest. You’ve been under so much stress lately. What, with me being forced to let those men go. That’s when it started. I apologized for that, but there was nothing I could do. I told you—”
“It has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. I know what I saw tonight,” Mother defended vehemently.
“That’s for a doctor to decide,” Father said ominously.
“I have never been delusional, Carroll,” Mother replied. “It’s you—you continue to try and cast me aside. Now I know why.” She shook her head. “You’re going to get rid of me,” Mother blurted. “After what I’ve learned I should not be surprised you’d try to do so yourself,” she said, sitting back in her chair searching the floor in disbelief. “I mean nothing to you anymore. You’ve lost yourself in this ghastly affair. You’ve become a twisted man in love with money and power.”
Mother rose from her chair and approached the door. Father offered her his hand. She looked at it dismayed and shied away. Her eyes darted to his. Discomfort changed to fear. Hiding her face in her hand, Mother wept.
“Irene you know it’s not true,” Father said in a vastly different tone from the blustering moments ago. Closing his arms around her, he continued, “Because I love you I want to get you help. I cannot stand the thought of losing you. Besides, our little girl needs you now more than ever. She’s growing up and needs her mother. Please let me help you, for Claire’s sake?”
Mother lowered her hands from her face, drawing her arms tighter to her own frame. Father’s touch repulsed her. She sniffed and tried to control her emotions. The tears swam in her eyes and streamed over her face. Her huge eyes filled with fear at his accusations.
“I only wish I could live with what I saw—for Claire’s sake,” Mother sobbed.
“You mean what you imagined, Irene. A little rest and that will be quite clear to you,” Father chuckled.
The sound gave a strange impression to Claire. She heard the very same laugh used when her father met with businessmen at home. It wasn’t consoling and wasn’t meant to be. It was a laugh that warned, though careful and guarded. Her father was considered shrewd for very good reasons. But, why would he use such tactics in an argument with Mother?
Claire slid back along the wall, pressing her back to the solid support and shutting her eyes. She wished she never heard them come home. Whatever her father had done was too scary to imagine, even though her mind kept trying to solve the puzzle.
Claire saw her father in many moods throughout her life. The man she knew was aloof, but always loving toward her. At times, he could be stern. Any father was the same. However, this mood was the nastiest by far. Whatever he did simply must be awful, she thought. She felt afraid of him in a distressing new way.
Claire’s ears suddenly filled with the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Her eyes popped open and she decided she better move quickly before she was discovered, and made to feel the brunt of his sternness. Hurrying down the hall, she paused realizing her room was too far to reach in time. She looked to either side, but no crevice lent itself to hiding. She turned back toward the stairs.
Halfway between her room and the stairs, Claire heard her mother call her name. She spun around to see Mother standing in the hall alone. Her meticulous makeup lay smudged under her eyes giving them a sunken and hopeless appearance. Claire swallowed hard and stepped toward her. She wanted to crush Mother in her arms and tell her everything would be okay. Nothing Father did could be as bad as all this hollering suggested.
Just before Claire reached her mother, Father stepped onto the landing behind them. His mood darkened further at the sight of his daughter, who guessed at what may be amiss. Something in his eyes made Claire hesitate.
“What are you doing out of bed?” Mother asked, touching Claire’s face. She tried to smile sweetly through her misery.
“I heard voices—they woke me up,” Claire explained shyly. She nervously scanned the hall, hoping they needed no more reason for her to be out of bed. “Is there anymore cake from dinner?” she blurted. “How was the party?” she added, innocently.
“Always a pleasure, but I think we indulged a bit too much this evening,” Father smiled, answering in his normal deep tones. His attitude changed so quickly it was difficult to recall the mood souring the house that evening. “Don’t take our lead, Claire. You can have more cake tomorrow.”
Mother grimaced, but Claire didn’t betray her feelings so easily. She told them she heard them argue and insisted she wouldn’t let him off easily, especially not after cruelly upsetting her mother. Unhampered, she took her mother’s arm as if she was an old school chum and walked back to the stairs. Claire focused upon the cake in spite of Father’s advice, because cake would fix this as sure as anything.
Carroll watched them suspiciously as they escaped his reach.
“I think we should both have a piece of that lovely cake,” Claire said loud enough and playful enough to make her father second guess his suspicions. A cold chill snaked up her back as he remained observing them. “Do you want any, Daddy?”
“No, Claire. I think I’ll go to bed,” he said wiping his brow with a nervous hand. “I’m quite exhausted, thank you.”
Father headed up the dark hall to his bedroom. Claire waited until both the sounds of his steps and he disappeared. There followed the soft sound of the bedroom door closing. Relieved he quit them, she continued on her path down the stairs, dragging Mother behind her.
Claire led the way with determination as they walked along the hall to the kitchen door. She pushed the swinging panel hard enough for both of them to pass. On the other side, the kitchen glowed with bright light. The white polished tile glistened. In the center of the room a rack of pans hung over a long worktable with benches. Claire led her mother to a stool and sat her down. Mother barely responded and appeared very little anchored to the moment. Claire blinked at her, forgetting the cake for a moment. Her eyes slid to the woman’s hands clinging to the edge of the unfinished oak surface. They trembled, like when they built snow forts and snowmen. But, the room felt warm, not cold. Claire shrugged.
Claire turned and made her way along the enormous table, slippers scuffing on the tile floor. At the opposite end of the golden oak room, the cake waited beneath the dome of a glass stand, only partially eaten. She hummed while she busily prepared two slices of the cake. Neatly putting the dome back, she then picked up the plates and returned to her mother.
Mother smiled at her, waking from worry and took the offered treat. Claire quickly sat on the stool across the table and questioned her mother about the evening, hoping to console her. Mother answered halfheartedly, picking at the cake with her fork and pinning it with her eyes.
“Was their house nice?” Claire asked, shoving a forkful of cake in her mouth.
“It was,” Mother answered.
“When I’m done with school, can I go to parties?”
“If your father says it’s all right,” Mother stabbed the cake with her fork.
“Of course.” Mother tried to smile. After a long pause, she reached across the table to her daughter and took her hand. “You are so dear to me,” she said.
Claire gazed uncomfortably at her mother’s hand and then her face. In her mother’s bearing she could see more than words could tell. Something terrible happened that night. Claire swallowed uneasily and tried to smile.
“I love you too, Mom,” she said taking her mother’s hand.
Mother smiled at Claire and patted her small arm. She pulled her warm touch away and excused herself, taking her battered cake with her. Claire marked her exit before returning to her dessert. Somehow the chocolate cake didn’t taste as good as she thought it would.
Irene wanted to be sure her only child would be taken care of, but, in order to ensure Claire’s safety through the inevitable, she would need help. In the entry hall, a small table and chair sat beside the paneled flight of stairs. Her eyes fixated on the phone resting there. Regardless of the danger to her, Irene went to the table. She set the cake on it and sat on the cold chair. She picked up the receiver and clicked the arm up and down to alert the operator. A distant voice crackled over the line. Irene looked to the kitchen door nearly losing her nerve.
[caption id="attachment_22" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Kelly Williams"][/caption]“Manhattan 6331, please. Miss Noreen O’Shea,” Irene spoke low into the receiver. Her eyes searched the stairs above her.
“One moment, please,” the voice replied.
Irene imagined all sorts of sounds coming from the staircase. She feared if her husband discovered her on the phone at this hour, he would call the doctor immediately and all would be lost.
Claire whisked past like a darting apparition. Irene nearly jumped out of her skin, gasping in fright. The girl paused appearing startled herself, but quickly hurried up the stairs. Irene’s heart slowed as the house fell deathly still.
“Hello,” the voice came over the line.
“Honey is that you?” a boisterous voice asked.
“Yes it’s me.”
“What are you doing up so late?”
“Carroll’s in trouble, Noreen. I’ve no time to explain. Tomorrow I’ll be going away. I need you to take Claire,” Irene said. She fought to find the words. “If he isn’t afraid to do this to me—she’ll be no different.”
“Irene?” The voice came again sounding confused.
“I’ve no time,” Irene said desperately. “You must hurry. Come tonight.”
“Honey, you all right? What’s going on?”
“Yes, I’m all right—I have to go. Please, Noreen. You’re her only chance. Please tell me you’ll come.”
After a lengthy pause, Noreen’s voice came, “I’ll be there soon as I can.”
“Thank you.” Irene said, her shoulders relaxing.
Suddenly the sounds of heavy footsteps came hurriedly down the hall.
“I have to go! Hurry!” Irene hoarsely whispered as she hung up.
Noreen’s distant voice continued to prattle until the receiver sat back in the cradle silencing it. Irene picked up the fork on her plate and stuffed cake in her mouth. The footsteps trampled the stairs now. She moved the chocolate around her mouth, attempting to savor it. It might be the last time she ever tasted such a thing again.
The footsteps hit the hall floor and stopped. Irene refused to notice him. She already knew Carroll stood there with one hand on the rail and the other a fist on his hip. Seventeen years trained her to understand the different sounds of her household without fail.
“Who were you talking too?” Carroll asked ominously.
Carroll’s jacket was missing and his tie dangled from his neck. His shirt hung slack, partly unbuttoned.
“I was just sitting here—finishing the cake.” She paused to show the plate and the half-eaten piece. “Claire insisted.”
“I heard voices,” he said suspiciously.
“You heard me and your daughter, saying good night,” Irene snapped.
Carroll made his way over to the parlor door and peered in. His eyes searched inside. He came back to Irene, clearly disappointed that no one else was there. Then, his sharp eyes saw the dust ring left by the phone. He touched the earpiece and she knew she was caught.
“Now, you’re imagining things,” she laughed. “What will this family ever do with both of us needing a good rest? I had to move it aside to put the plate down.”
“I don’t know, but we better get help soon,” he half laughed, dropping his hand back to his side.
Irene held the small plate of cake before her like a barrier. He speculated what went on. His face became iron and he stuffed his hands in his pockets. The memory of who he once was flashed in her mind. It made her smile softly. Her husband was a good man who just lost his way.
The economic crisis changed a lot of good people. Irene saw it everywhere. She thought they were the lucky ones. Several of their neighbors lost their shirts in The Crash. Carroll suffered very little compared to them. He only needed to cut back and do with less profit for a short time. She could still recall the faces of the men they let go on a day she arrived at the factory to take her husband to lunch. She never felt guiltier. They ate an expensive meal in a top-notch restaurant, wearing their audacious finery, while families starved and scraped by to feed their children. In those hard times, they sent their daughter away to school, away from the depressed sights of the city. Her husband did very fine compared to most. So what about this monster won him over? Was it the rousing oratories, or just his reason for the world crisis? Was this why they were spared?
Irene could no longer deny the man before her was only a shell of the man she married. Carroll became someone she didn’t know and didn’t want to know. She felt sick to her stomach. The sugar in her mouth tasted rancid.
Irene rose from the chair, setting her cake aside. She took Carroll’s hand. For now she would make him believe she thought of a return from this. The dark reflection in his eyes made her cold. By morning, her fate would be left in the hands of a doctor on the payroll.
The bright sun streaming through the bedroom window gently woke Claire from a deep forgetful sleep. She scanned the pleats of the canopy over her bed bleary-eyed. Claire rolled onto her side and exhaled irritably. Her eyes studied the room she had the rare chance to see since going away to school. She relished the idea of not having to go back for an entire summer. She missed her space filled with her treasures, a space she didn’t have to share with a soul. Stretching the sleep from her limbs, she yawned. She slept the best she had in months. By her clock it was late too.
Claire flipped the blankets back and jumped up. She would need to wash and dress before she could go downstairs. Hurrying through her preparations, Claire soon sat at her dressing table brushing her long brown hair, thinking of all the questions she wanted to ask at breakfast. She nearly forgot everything about last night. Then, she heard the sounds of an argument coming from the lower level of the house. Her mother’s voice rose shrilly. Dropping her brush, Claire hurried from her room and down the hall to the top of the stairs. The voices distinguished themselves clearly and loudly there, emerging from the parlor just the same as last night. Hurrying down the stairs, she went to see what unfolded.
Halfway down, Claire found her way blocked. Aunt Noreen came toward her, using her bulk swathed in fur to block the way. The woman smiled pleasantly like she usually did. Yet, Claire sensed nothing but determination in the expression. Claire hesitated, rethinking her route. She leaned over the banister to see her father and Doctor O’Reilly moving about the parlor. Her mother’s voice came from the room again, whipping Claire into action. Attempting to dodge her aunt, Claire became intent on protecting her mother from the men.
“Why don’t we go upstairs and you can tell me all about school,” her aunt said, deftly blocking the way.
LINKS FOR KELLY WILLIAMS: