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Our Secret

August 23, 2010

I’m retiring another story. This was declined by a magazine and I’ve decided to share it online. Please be kind but I do appreciate feedback.

OUR SECRET by Tracy J. Johnston

            I am sitting in the kitchen with a cup of oolong tea in front of me.  I gently touch the edge of the rim, sliding my finger around it. I stare hard through the window at my backyard. Out there, the magnolia tree is dead.  Its barren branches lean toward me, beckoning me from the comfort of my home. My brown thumb kills another one. I don’t know why I continue. Plant after plant, tree after tree, none bloom and most simply rot in front of me. My neighbors all have stately trees decorating their tiny yards and mine is empty except for one dead project after another. This one will have to be pulled out again. I think about leaving it there. I can keep it as a statue to truth in this short life of mine. Of course it wouldn’t take long before the home owner’s association left an official letter in my mailbox requesting that I remove it. In the meantime, it will stay. My husband will return from his latest business trip and ask if he should deal with it and I’ll shake my head no. Its bare branches have a beauty that can’t be understood by everyone.

            “Ma,” my eleven-year-old daughter beckons, “When’s Dad coming home?”

            “Thursday.” I look at the calendar. “Thursday night. His plane lands around 8.”

            “Ma,” I glare at her. She knows I hate being called Ma. Why can’t she call me Mom like normal kids? “ I kinda found something of Dad’s.”

            I look at her, head cocked and turned to the side. I can scold her. She is not supposed to be snooping around in her father’s things. He’s told her a million times not to. I know she looks through my stuff, but I don’t really care. Sam, my husband, is secretive where Cora is quizzical. Both are similar but opposite. They are good at secrets. I think my daughter will one day be a detective. She will spend her life searching for answers while the rest of us spend ours hiding them.

            She looks at me seriously. I can tell she’s found something important. Her face does not change, no smile protrudes, no expression of humor. Whatever she has found, it must be bad. I had hoped it would be years before she discovered her father wasn’t one of the good guys. Children are meant to adore their parents. As a mother, I hold my child in the palm of my hand. It is my duty and privilege to protect her from the sharpness of life. Then my child grows up and she will discover the jagged edges of the world. I just have to hope to have the Band-Aids to make the cuts and bruises better.

            “I found some files.” Cora begins. “I don’t think I should’ve looked.”

            She stops. Her face is sad. I wish she had found something innocuous like the secret pack of cigarettes he keeps in the hollowed out book in his nightstand or the pictures of him drinking at some high school party. Why can’t she find the secrets that make him human, the ones all parents hide? Why did she look until she found something she can’t forgive?

            I think about asking her not to tell me. It might be a secret that I know, or it might not. Our marriage is on thin ice right now. If I was a stronger person, I probably would take Cora and leave. If he wasn’t such a gentleman as he described it, he would probably leave her. Cora could spend weekends and certain times in the summer with him. It would be hard, but not impossible. I could leave before I began hating Sam and I could move on with my life. I could show my daughter that people can be happy. Maybe I could even find a nice man; one of those people out there with a heart, unlike Sam’s whose must be two sizes too small.

            Cora sits down at the table and puts her hands over mine. I want to pull away but I don’t. I look at out that dead magnolia tree. I can’t look my daughter in the eyes right now. Whatever she is about to say, I know it is going to hurt.

            “What does Daddy do when he’s away on business?” Cora asks me.

            “I don’t know exactly. I know he’s in New York a lot. You know that your father doesn’t like to talk about what he does.” I tell her.

            “He has all these newspaper clippings and magazine articles. They are all locked up in a safe that I found up in the attic. It was pretty well hidden. Daddy really didn’t want anyone to find it.”

            “Then why’d you go looking?”

            She smiles. Stupid question. She had to. It’s like telling a cat not to chase the bird right in front of them. It’s natural.

            “Cora, I know you don’t want to hear this, but do you really want me to know?” I ask.

            “No, but I think you have to. I think we need to know.” She says.

            I’m stunned. I expected she found something about the affairs. I look into her face and realize it is not about the other women in his life. She’s discovered something worse. What could be worse that finding out your daddy is cheating on your mommy. Sure, lots of people find out about these since there are so many people sleeping around now a days, but a child shouldn’t know about such things. My Cora probably already knew this. She is a smart girl and a snoop to boot. She probably is hiding it from me. We’re both holding the same secret. So what is this new revelation?

            Cora begins, “Daddy has a whole bunch of articles about people who died. People who were murdered. Why would Daddy lock up something like that? Why would he collect it?”

            I know the answer but I don’t say it. How can we all look the other way when bad things happen just under our noses? Daddy’s a bad man. I married a bad man. I just didn’t know how bad. He’s the type of person to have violence just under the surface. Sam had never hit me, not in fifteen years of marriage did he ever so much as raise his voice to me. But there is something to be said about an individual who is always so controlled that he almost lacks emotion. He is neither angry nor sad nor overjoyed with the tumultuous daily life. He had thin smiles, the ones where the lips barely turn up.

            I look up at the magnolia tree. Maybe there is a leaf on that thing after all. I stand up and face my daughter. I get on my knees and tell her everything is going to be fine. I’m not sure what to say next. She is only a baby.  There are tears in her eyes. Our world is crumbling. Maybe it’s time to give up on the stupid yard. Maybe a place without plants and trees adorning it is not so bad. There must be a reason why nothing grows here. My daughter tumbles down, leaning into herself, now curled up on the floor. I pat her head over and over. Neither of us needs to know any more.

            “Did you put those files away?” I ask.

            “Yes,” she says in between small sobs.

            “Is everything exactly where you found it?”

            “Yes.” She nods.

            “Are you absolutely certain?”

            She nods again. I smile and it surprises me.

            “I’m not happy here. Are you? Here with Daddy?” I ask.

            “No.”

            “I think it’s time Daddy and I try living separately. But you can’t tell anyone about what you found. No one, not your friends at school, not your teachers, not even Daddy.”

            She nods.

            “It’s our secret.” I say.

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