Authors: Julie Clark
His expression grew serious. “I need you to know that if something goes wrong, I can't help you. Petra can't help you. Your husband has resources that would put me, my livelihoodâand Petra'sâat risk.”
“I understand,” I told him. “You've done more than enough, and I'm grateful.”
“I'm serious. All it takes is one tiny thread connecting your new life to your old one and it'll all fall apart.” His dark eyes latched onto mine and held. “You can never go back. Not once. Not in any way, ever.”
* * *
“Rory's scheduled the plane to leave around ten,” I tell Petra now. “Did you remember to include my letter? I don't want to have to rewrite it on hotel stationery ten minutes before I leave.”
She nods. “In with the rest of it. Addressed and stamped, ready to be mailed from Detroit. What did you say?”
I think about the hours I'd spent, the many versions I'd shredded, drafting a letter that would close the door on any possibility that Rory might try to follow me. “I told him I was leaving, and that this time, he would never find me. That he should announce our separation publicly, tell them it was amicable and that I was not going to be giving any public statements or media interviews about it.”
“One week before he announces his run for Senate.”
I give her a smirk. “Should I have waited until after?”
Once I'd saved enough money to carry me into a new life, I began to look for the perfect opening to leave. I studied our Google calendar of upcoming events, searching for a trip I'd be taking alone, focusing on cities near the Canadian or Mexican borders. I found it in the Detroit trip. I'm scheduled to visit Citizens of the World, a social justice charter school funded by the Cook Family Foundation. An afternoon school tour followed by an evening dinner with donors.
I lean back on the bench behind me and stare up at the ceiling, obscured by a layer of steam, and run through the rest of the plan. “We land around noon. The school event starts at two, so I'll make sure we go to the hotel first so I can get the package and put it somewhere safe.”
“I called the car rental place. They're expecting a Ms. Amanda Burns to pick up a compact around midnight tonight. Will you be able to get a cab?”
“There's a Hilton just down the road from where I'm staying. I'll catch one from there.”
“I worry about someone seeing you leave with a suitcase in the middle of the night. Following you. Calling Rory.”
“I'm not taking it. I bought a backpack big enough for a couple changes of clothes and my money. I'm leaving everything elseâincluding my purse and walletâbehind.”
Petra nods. “If you need it, I booked a room with the credit card at the W in Toronto. They're expecting you.”
I close my eyes, the heat making me woozy. Or perhaps it's the pressure of having to get every detail exactly right. There's no room for even the tiniest mistake.
I feel the minutes slipping away. Pushing me toward the moment when I'll take the first step in a series of steps that will be irrevocable. A part of me wants to forget it all. Go to Detroit, visit the school, and come home. Have more days in the sauna talking to Petra. But this is my chance to finally get out. Whatever options I have now will narrow to nothing once Rory announces his run for the Senate.
“Time to go.” Petra's voice is soft, and my eyes open again.
“I don't know how to thank you,” I tell her.
“You were my only friend all those years ago. You don't have to thank me. This is me, thanking you,” she says. “It's your turn to be happy.” She tightens her towel around her body, and I can see the flash of her smile through the steam.
I can't believe this is the last time we'll sit here. The last time we'll talk. This room has been like a sanctuary, dark and quiet, with just our whispered voices, plotting my escape. Who will sit here tomorrow with her? Or the day after that?
I feel the finality of my departure looming, how absolute that ending will be, and I wonder if it'll be worth it. If it'll be better. Soon, Claire Cook will cease to exist, the shiny pieces of her facade cracked and discarded. I have no idea what I'll find underneath it all.
Thirty-three hours until I'm gone.
Monday, February 21
The Day before the Crash
I meet Danielle outside the Center Street Literacy offices, fifteen minutes late. “Not a word,” I warn her, though I know she's probably already texted Rory three times.
She trails me through the doors and into the large common area they use for book talks and writing workshops. The room is busy at this hour, filled with students and tutors. I imagine how different it would be if Rory were passing through, the wave of excited murmuring, starting at the front and rippling backward as he made his way into the space. But no one gives me a second look. Without Rory, I'm just another face, there and gone. Unremarkable. Which will be my advantage very soon.
I pass through and up a set of stairs to the second floor, which houses the Center Street administrative offices, and into the small conference room where everyone is already assembled.
“So nice to see you, Mrs. Cook,” the director says with a warm smile.
“You too, Anita. Shall we get started?” I take my seat, Danielle directly behind me. The meeting begins with a discussion of the annual fundraiser coming up in eight months' time. I can barely bring myself to feign enthusiasm for an event that will occur long after my disappearance. I amuse myself by imagining what the next meeting will be like. Quiet talk about how I left Rory, how I never let on there was any trouble, that I smiled through this meeting and then vanished.
Where did she go? A person doesn't just walk out of her life and disappear. Why can't anyone find her?
Which one of them will be the first to bring up Maggie Moretti? To whisper the question that every single one of them will wonder, if only for a moment:
Do you think she really left him, or do you think something happened to her?
* * *
Rory had told me about Maggie Moretti on our third date.
“Everyone always asks me what happened,” he'd said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his legs. “It was a tragedy, from beginning to end, and I still don't think I'm completely over it.” He picked up his wine and swirled it in the glass before taking a sip. “We'd been fighting nonstop, and Maggie wanted us to get away for a quiet weekend. To reconnect and really talk without the distractions of the city. But nothing was different there; we were just rehashing the same old stuff, except in a new location.” His voice had grown quieter, the sounds of the restaurant receding. The way he spokeâthe emotion in his voiceâfelt so raw and real. It didn't occur to me at the time that he could possibly be lying. “Finally, I got fed up and left. I jumped into my car and drove back to Manhattan. Several hours later, our neighbors upstate called 911 and reported the house was on fire. They found her crumpled at the base of a staircase. I had no idea anything had happened until the police contacted me the following morning. It wasn't in the papers at the time, but the coroner found smoke in her lungs, which meant she was alive when the fire started. I'll never forgive myself for leaving when I did. I could have saved her.”
“Why did they think you'd been involved?”
He'd shrugged. “It makes for a better story. I get it, and I don't begrudge the media, although my father never forgave the
New York Times
. It was a blessing my mother wasn't alive to see it, to worry about what it would do to her polling numbers.” His bitterness surprised me, but he covered it quickly. “The real shame is what it did to Maggie's memory. Because of me, the whole world knows her name for all the wrong reasons. For how she died, not for who she was.” He looked out the window next to us, lost in regret. Beyond it, the New York street sparkled in a soft drizzle, the lights glittering like jewels in the dark. Then he pulled himself back and drained his glass. “I don't resent the police for doing their job. I understand they did what they felt they had to do. I was lucky that justice prevailed, because it doesn't always. But the experience shook me.”
The waiter had approached, clearly waiting for a break in the conversation to slip the black sleeve containing the bill in front of Rory, who'd smiled that warm, charming smile that cracked my heart in half, wanting more than anything for him to feel for me what he once felt for Maggie Moretti.
* * *
“Mrs. Cook, would you be willing to chair the silent auction again this year?” Anita Reynolds, the director of Center Street Literacy, looks down the long table at me.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Let's meet on Friday and figure out who we can start approaching for donations. I've got a quick trip to Detroit, but I'll be back by then. Two o'clock?” She nods and I enter the appointment in the shared Google calendar, knowing it will pop up on Danielle's iPad right behind me and Rory's computer at home. These are the details I have to rememberâscheduling appointments, ordering flowers, making plans for a future I won't be living. Details that will cover my tracks and keep everyone believing I'm a devoted wife, committed to the many important causes championed by the Cook Family Foundation.
* * *
When I return home, I head upstairs to change my clothes and see that Danielle has repacked my bag while I was at the gym. Gone are the trendy clothes that I prefer, replaced with the more conservative suits and three-inch heels Rory likes me to wear.
I lock the bedroom door and step into my closet, reaching into a tall pair of boots and pulling out the nylon backpack I paid cash for at a sporting goods store last week. Flattening it, I slip it beneath the zippered lining of my suitcase. One piece at a time, I remove the clothes I plan to take with me from their hiding places and pack them. A form-fitted down jacket, several long-sleeved T-shirts, and an NYU baseball cap I bought the other day to hide my face from hotel lobby security cameras. I pull my favorite pair of jeans from their place on the shelf and slide everything beneath what Danielle packed for the event. Just enough to get me through the next day or two. Not enough for anyone to notice items missing from my drawers or closet. I zip the bag closed and place it by the door and sit down on the bed, relishing the solitude of a locked room.
It still amazes me how I ended up here. So far from home, from the person I once thought I'd become. I have a summa cum laude from Vassar with a degree in art history. I landed a coveted job at Christie's.
But those years had been hard and lonely. I'd been numb, struggling to stay afloat since my mother and Violet had died, and falling in love with Rory felt like waking up. He understood what I'd lost, because he carried his own grief. He was someone who understood the way memories could creep up on you and squeeze until you had no breath. No words. When the only thing you could do was wait for the pain to subside, like a tide, allowing you to move again.
* * *
Outside my locked bedroom door, I hear people in the hallway, their voices a low murmur I can't make out. I tense, waiting to see if they'll try to enter, bracing myself for another lecture about locked doors.
They can't do their jobs, Claire, if you insist on locking yourself in every room.
Downstairs, the front door closes and Rory's voice floats up to me. I smooth my hair and count to ten, trying to wipe the anxiety and nerves from my face. I have one night left, and I have to play the part perfectly.
“Claire!” he calls from the hallway. “Are you home?”
I take a deep breath and open the bedroom door. “Yes,” I call.
* * *
“How is Joshua doing this semester?” Rory asks our chef, Norma, as she pours our wine at dinner.
Norma smiles and sets the bottle on the table next to Rory. “Very well, though I don't hear from him as much as I'd like to.”
Rory laughs and takes a small sip, nodding his approval. “That's how it's supposed to be, I'm afraid. Tell him I'm hoping for another semester on the dean's list.”
“I will, sir. Thank you. We're so grateful.”
Rory waves her words away. “I'm happy to do it.”
Many years ago, Rory decided to pay college tuition for every child or grandchild of his household staff. As a result, they are fiercely loyal to him. Willing to look the other way when our arguments grow loud, or when they hear me crying in the bathroom.
“Claire, try this wine. It's incredible.”
I know better than to disagree with him. Once, early in our marriage, I'd said, “It tastes like fermented grapes to me.”
Rory's expression had remained impassive, as if my words hadn't registered. But he'd lifted my glass from the table, held it in an outstretched hand, and then dropped it to the floor where it shattered, red wine puddling on the hardwood and rolling toward the expensive rug underneath the table. Norma had come running from the kitchen at the sound of breaking glass.
“Claire is so clumsy,” he'd said, reaching across the table to squeeze my hand. “It's one of the things I love about her.”
Norma, who was crouched down cleaning up the mess, looked up at me, confused about how my glass had ended up on the floor three feet away from the table. I'd been mute, unable to say anything as Rory calmly began eating his dinner.
Norma carried the soggy towels into the kitchen, then returned with another wineglass and poured me more. When she'd gone, Rory set down his fork and said, “This is a four-hundred-dollar bottle of wine. You need to try harder.”
Now, as Rory stares at me, waiting, I take a tiny sip from my glass, trying and failing to find oak undertones or the hint of vanilla Rory claims are there. “Delicious,” I say.
After tomorrow, I'm only drinking beer.
* * *
When we're done eating, we move into Rory's office to go over a few talking points for the speech I'm giving at tomorrow night's dinner. We sit, facing each other across his desk, me with my laptop balanced on my knees, my speech pulled up in a shared Google doc. This is Rory's preferred platform. He uses it for everything, since it allows him to access anything any of us is working on, at any moment. I'll be working on something and suddenly I'll see his icon pop up on my screen and I'll know he is there, watching me.
It's also how he and his long-time personal assistant, Bruce, communicate without documenting anything. In a shared doc, they can say things to each other that they might not want to put into an email or text message, or say over the phone. I've only seen and heard little snippets over the years.
I left you a note about that in the Doc.
Check the Doc, I put an update in there you're going to want to read.
The Doc is where they'll discuss my disappearance, hypothesize about where I went, and perhaps outline their plan to track me down. It's like a private room that only Rory and Bruce can access, where they can speak freely about things that no one else can know about.
I bring my attention back, asking several questions about the group I'll be speaking to, focusing my energy on the success of the event. Bruce huddles in his corner of the office, taking notes on his laptop, adding our comments into the speech as we speak, and I watch him on my own screen, a cursor with his name attached to it, the words appearing as if by magic. As he types away, I wonder how much he knows about what Rory does to me. Bruce is the keeper of all Rory's secrets. I can't imagine he doesn't know this one as well.
When we're done, Rory says to me, “They're going to ask you about next week's press conference. Don't answer any questions. Just smile and bring the conversation back around to the foundation.”
The buildup to announcing Rory's candidacy has been excruciating. Leaked rumors every few days, tons of media speculation about Rory picking up where his mother left off.
Marjorie Cook had been famous for her bipartisan negotiating skills, her ability to swing the most difficult and conservative senators toward more moderate policy. There had been quiet talk of a presidential run, long before Hillary or even Geraldine Ferraro. But Marjorie had died of colon cancer Rory's freshman year of college, forever leaving a mother-shaped hole that filled with a potent combination of insecurity and resentment that often bubbled over, burning those who dared to keep his mother in the foreground when discussing his political future.
“You haven't given me any details about the press conference to share,” I tell them, watching Bruce pack up his desk for the night, tracking his movements from the corner of my eye. Pens in the top drawer. Laptop into its case, then into his bag to take home.
After Bruce leaves, Rory sits back and crosses his legs. “How was your day?”
“Good.” My left foot jiggles, the only indication of my nerves. Rory's gaze lands on it, eyebrows raised, and I press my heel into the carpet, willing myself to be still.
“It was Center Street Literacy, right?” He steeples his fingers, his tie loose around his neck. I watch him, as if from a great distance, this man I once loved. The lines around his eyes are evidence of laughter, of happiness that we shared. But those same lines have been deepened by rage as well. A dark violence that has blotted out everything good I once saw in him.
“Yes. Their annual fundraiser is coming up in eight months. Danielle should be transcribing the notes and will get them to you tomorrow. I'll be taking on the silent auction again.”
“Anything else?” he asks. His voice is neutral, but something in the set of his shoulders grabs my attention. My instinctsâfinely tuned after years of reading the subtext of Rory's tone and expressionsâare screaming at me to be careful.
“Not that I can think of.”
“I see,” he says, and then takes a deep, meditative breath, as if he's trying to center himself. “Can you please close the door?”
I stand, my legs feeling weak beneath me as I walk slowly to the door, terrified he's somehow figured out what I'm about to do. I take my time, measuring my pace, trying not to panic yet. When I sit again, I've wiped the fear from my face, replacing it with neutral curiosity. When he doesn't speak right away, I prompt him. “Is everything okay?”