Our relationship hadn't improved much by the time we finished high school. On graduation night, someone sneaked into my room and put Krazy glue on the inside of my mortarboard. I'd spent my last summer before college with my hair buzzed off like a marine recruit.
Things had seemed smoother between us of late, but obviously that was wishful thinking on my part. A strange sound echoed around the room. Was that the wind, or a faint laugh? Hair rose on the back of my neck, a spider sense of being watched. Don't be paranoid. Causing paranoia was another of Tannith's talents.
Scanning the kitchen, I pinpointed the sound I'd probably heard: a Kit-Kat Klock in shiny chrome and black. It had been a housewarming present from Tannith when I'd moved in with Daniel. He was picky about what stuff from my old apartment I put around—but for some reason he'd taken a liking to that clock. The tail made a swishing sound as it swept out the seconds.
I focused my attention back on the letter. Whom could Tannith be planning to run away with? Daniel? It didn't seem possible. We'd only been living together for a few months. We were still in our period of adjustment—although most of the adjusting was on my part, since this was Daniel's house. He'd lived here all through grad school and for the four years since he got his doctorate and had been teaching and researching at Zenobia College.
But I couldn't imagine Tannith with Trudy's husband, Laird. Trudy and Laird had just celebrated their twentieth anniversary. Milo and Brett had been together less than a year, but they seemed happy....
I was so absorbed by the puzzle created by Tannith's malignant message that my phone's chirping ringtone caused me to shoot about three feet in my chair. I dove for my purse, extracted my phone, and flipped the cover open. Daniel.
My stomach somersaulted. Was this the end, then? I braced myself to be dumped over long distance.
"Where are you?" I asked without thinking. My brain had almost settled Daniel in the Big Apple with Tannith. Which was ridiculous. Daniel didn't even like New York City. Or Tannith.
But wasn't mutual dislike the spark of half of all the romances since Shakespeare?
And hadn't half of all my own romances ended when my boyfriend got to know Tannith a little better? My first kiss, a wet peck from Josh in eighth grade, had taken place behind the cafeteria at lunch. By three o'clock that afternoon, Josh was walking Tannith home instead of me. In high school, I'd dated Chris Wilson for six weeks before I came back from after-school debate club to discover Chris and Tannith cuddling together on the backyard trampoline. Once a blind date had shown up at the door, seen Tannith standing behind me, and suggested she accompany us. Tannith had, of course, agreed. And then there was the Great Prom Disaster, which was still soul withering to think about. Tannith had stolen my prom date from me during the prom itself, in just the time it took for the DJ to play "Dancing on My Own."
After a moment of distraction on my part and confused hesitation on his, Daniel's dry laugh rumbled in my ear. "Hello to you, too."
He wouldn't be laughing if he'd run away with Tannith, would he?
Unless he was deliriously happy.
"Right. Hi." Angst made my voice airy and doubtful. Through the phone, a car horn blared in the background, along with a lot of chatter noise...and maybe some kind of music? "No kidding, where are you?"
Are you alone? It was on the tip of my tongue to ask. I needed to play it cool, as cool as Tannith would be under the same circumstances. Daniel, an entomologist, was on a trip to—supposedly—investigate spruce beetles. The specific borer that he was interested in, the red-ringed spruce beetle, was native west of the Rockies, but recently one had inexplicably been sighted in Vermont. In the world of entomologists, that bug had set off a firestorm.
"I needed to stop for coffee," he said. "There's a good place here in Brattleboro."
I glanced down at my cup. They wouldn't use plastic pods in Brattleboro...if he really was in Brattleboro. How would I know? He could be anywhere. Just because he said he was in Vermont didn't necessarily mean that he wasn't somewhere else. New York City, for example.
"Gwen? Are you okay?"
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"I don't know. You sound strange."
"I, um, have a headache. We cleaned out a garage this afternoon."
He clucked. "You didn't wear a mask, did you."
He was always after me to wear a mask when I cleaned out garages, attics, and abandoned buildings: You never know what's floating around in the air in those places. Mold alone can make you sick. His nagging usually annoyed me, but today I found it reassuring. And not just because it demonstrated an ongoing concern for my well-being, but because it was a good reminder of why Tannith would not have run off with Daniel. Tannith might have flirted with him—mostly to piss me off—and might have been physically attracted to him, but if there was one thing Tannith couldn't stand, it was someone telling her what to do.