She backed her crimson Prius out of the driveway. Around her, every snow-capped home glowed with young money. Her and Rafe’s black-trimmed white Colonial was no different. Good Americans lived in these here parts. Still wide-eyed enough to be Democrats and believe that the world made sense. Most days now, cloistered in the insulation of Oyster Bay, Long Island, Esme believed it too.
Her radio segued from the Public Enemy Ltd. anger anthem “Rise” to Elvis Costello’s menacing “Riot Act.” Elvis again. Must be something in the air. Esme turned left onto Main Street. Oyster Bay Elementary was just a few blocks. In warmer weather, they walked. Mothers and their children along the sidewalk like a parade. Today the sidewalk was empty, with only a parade of phantoms walking the line. A wicked breeze rolled in from the ocean, five miles to the north. Somehow the wind always got by those multi-acre mansions that guarded the beachfront.
Not that Esme lived in a hovel. Not since she’d met Rafe.
She pulled in front of the school. Usually she had to fight with the other parents for parking but she was ten minutes early. All to avoid her computer and the information it transmitted. Of course, she could easily switch to a news station on her radio….
Mercifully, at that moment, she spotted one of her neighbors committing a class A misdemeanor. Amy Lieb, she of the smallest multi-acre mansion in Oyster Bay (and mother of a doe-eyed daughter named Felicity who was in Sophie’s grade), was hammering a KELLERMAN FOR PRESIDENT placard into the school’s grassy courtyard. Either the school’s security guards didn’t know the latest electioneering statutes (unlikely) or they didn’t care (more likely). The Liebs’ money carried a lot more heft than some simple law.
“Hey, Amy,” said Esme, gooey with innocence. “Whatcha doing?”
Amy Lieb, ever chipper, squinted over and waved. She and Esme had a cordial relationship. Since both of their husbands worked in the sociology department at the college, they often attended the same book clubs, mingled at the same soirees, etc. Essentially, the Liebs were the Stuarts with a fifteen-year head start. Their daughter Felicity was their youngest of four. Their oldest, Trevor, boarded at Kent School in western Connecticut where he excelled in trigonometry and tennis.
Amy Lieb wore her long black hair bound in a white bow, as if it were a gift to the world. Her diaphanous outfits always kept her figure a mystery, and today’s flowing faux-mink coat was no exception. She smiled at Esme, and into the sun, as the younger woman approached.
“Primary election’s coming up,” said Amy. “Got to get out the word!”
Esme smiled back. “Yeah, but, you know, seven-year-olds can’t vote.”
“Their parents can!”
Esme looked around. The aforementioned parents were beginning to pull up in their station wagons and SUVs. She leaned into Amy and, as kindly as she could, whispered: “Look, you can’t put that here. It’s municipal property.”
Amy blinked at her.
“It’s called electioneering. It’s against the law.”
Amy glanced down at her sign, not harming anyone, then back at Esme. “Why?”
“It implies the school is supporting Governor Kellerman.”
“Well, he’s the best man for the job, don’t you think?”
Esme felt her good cheer beginning to waver. It appeared Amy’s convictions were as rooted as her placard. Great.
“Relax, Esme. And besides, who’s getting hurt?” The other parents were beginning to congregate. “Oh, speaking of, did you hear what happened down in Atlanta?”
That night, after putting Sophie to bed, after Rafe left to attend an evening lecture by a visiting socio-linguist, Esme finally called Tom Piper. She didn’t expect him to answer, and mentally prepared the message she was going to leave on his voice mail. However—
“This is Tom.”
Esme brought a mug of green tea with her to the computer desk. Although they’d exchanged holiday cards, they hadn’t actually spoken to each other for, what, four years? Four years. A whole election term, she mused. The Amy Lieb incident was still fresh on her brain. She felt like a swimmer returning to the sea after a long absence. After almost drowning. God, did he still resent her for quitting? Maybe calling him was a mistake—
“Hello? Is anybody there?”
Shit. What was she, twelve years old?
“Hi, Tom,” she exhaled.
Esme hugged her knees.
Then, finally: “Hello, Esmeralda.”
His Kentucky baritone engulfed her. Esmeralda. Not her full name, but always what he called her. As if she had somersaulted out of Quasimodo’s bell tower and into the bowels of Quantico. Tom Piper. The mentor she never deserved.
“So…” said Esme, quashing her insecurities, “how’s the weather?”
“In Atlanta, you mean?”
“I had a feeling you’d call.”
Esme couldn’t help but smile. Of course he had a feeling. His instincts bordered on psychic. When she started seeing Rafe, when she would come into work after a night of lovemaking that left scratch marks, she always made sure to avoid Tom until at least 10:00 a.m., lest he somehow zero in on her less-than-virginal proclivities. What he thought of her meant the world. But what did he think of his Esmeralda now?
“It’s bad,” he said. “We’ve got maybe six people down here who think they’re in charge, and that’s not counting the mayor, the governor, and the president of the United States, all of whom have weighed in.”
“So the bureaucrats have their tantrums and meanwhile, the adults skulk back into the shadows and actually work the case. Maybe some of the adults even make sure the bureaucrats keep fighting so they don’t suddenly interfere.”
“You make it sound so Machiavellian.”
She chuckled. “Hey, if the ends justify the means…”
“It’s bad, though. The case.”
Esme let go of her knees and reclined into her chair. “Can you talk about it?” She sipped her hot tea.
Tom didn’t reply.
Damn it. She’d gone too far. Fuck. Best to back-pedal, and fast…
“Tom, I’m sorry. I know you can’t…I probably shouldn’t have called. But anyway, so…how are you? How’s Ruth?”
“My sister is still gardening. We even built a little greenhouse for her out back so she doesn’t have to worry about squirrels messing with her daffodils.”
“That’s nice. You built it together?”
“And it took practically a whole month. Neither Ruth nor I are what anyone would call ‘mechanically inclined.’”
“I know.” Esme felt the tension ease out of her shoulders. “I remember that one time your engine wouldn’t start. I can still see you standing there with the hood open in the parking garage. You just stared and stared at that engine block like it was a murder suspect you could make blink.”
Tom chuckled. “We all have our faults and foibles.”
“And some of us even have jumper cables.”
Esme smiled, stared out the window. Snowflakes tumbled in the moonlight. It was probably balmy down in Hotlanta. She’d been there once, in August. Humidity was a living breathing organism in the South, and Atlantans had no nearby body of water for respite. No wonder their crime