A Simple Favor – Darcey Bell

My mother used to say: Everyone has secrets. That’s why you can never really know anyone else. Or trust anyone. It’s why you can never know yourself. Sometimes we even keep secrets from ourselves. Growing up, I thought that was good advice, although I didn’t completely understand it. Or maybe I did, a little. Kids have secrets. The imaginary friends, the things they’d get in trouble for if a grown-up ever found out. Later I discovered that Mom was speaking from personal experience. And I wonder if she was not just preparing me but programming me for secrecy and mistrust. Did she sense that I would grow up to have darker and more shameful secrets than anyone else’s? Secrets I mostly manage to keep—even from myself? 1 Stephanie’s Blog Urgent! Hi, moms! This is going to be different from any post so far. Not more important, since all the things that happen with our kids, their frowns and smiles, their first steps and first words, are the most important things in the world. Let’s just say this post is .

MORE URGENT. Way more urgent. My best friend has disappeared. She’s been gone for two days. Her name is Emily Nelson. As you know, I don’t ever name friends on my blog. But now, for reasons you’ll soon understand, I’m (temporarily) suspending my strict anonymity policy. My son, Miles, and Emily’s son, Nicky, are best friends. They’re five. They were born in April, so they both started school a few months later and are a little older than the other kids in their class. I’d say more mature. Miles and Nicky are everything you’d want your child to be. Decent, honest, kind little people, qualities that—sorry, guys, if any guys are reading this—are not as common in boys. The boys found each other in public school. Emily and I met picking them up after school. It’s rare that kids become friends with their moms’ friends’ kids, or that moms become friends with their kids’ friends’ moms.

But this time it clicked. Emily and I were lucky. For one thing, we’re not the youngest moms. We had kids in our midthirties, when our mom clocks were ticking away! Sometimes Miles and Nicky make up plays and act in them. I let the boys film them on my phone, though I’m usually careful about how much time I let the kids spend on the electronic devices that make modern parenting such a challenge. One amazing skit they did was a detective story, “The Adventures of Dick Unique.” Nicky was the detective; Miles, the criminal. Nicky said, “I’m Dick Unique, the world’s smartest detective.” Miles said, “I’m Miles Mandible, the world’s most evil criminal.” Miles played it like a villain in a Victorian melodrama, with lots of deep ho ho hos. They chased each other around our yard, pretending to shoot each other (no guns!) with their fingers. It was awesome. I only wished that Miles’s dad—my late husband, Davis—could have been here to see it! Sometimes I wonder where Miles gets his theatrical streak. From his dad, I guess. Once I watched Davis give a presentation to potential clients, and I was surprised by how animated and dramatic he was.

He could have been one of those goofy-charming, attractive young actors with floppy, shiny hair. With me he was different. More himself, I guess. Quiet, kind, humorous, thoughtful—though he did have some very strong opinions, mostly about furniture. But that seemed natural—after all, he was a successful designer-architect. Davis was a perfect angel. Except for once. Or twice. Nicky said his mom helped them come up with the idea for Dick Unique. Emily loves detective stories and thrillers. She reads them on the Metro-North commuter train to Manhattan when she doesn’t have to prepare for a meeting or a presentation. Before Miles was born, I read books. Every so often now I’ll pick up something by Virginia Woolf and read a few pages to remind myself of who I used to be—of who, I hope, I still am. Somewhere under the playdates and school lunches and early bedtimes is the young woman who lived in New York City and worked at a magazine. A person who had friends, who went out for brunch on weekends.

None of those friends had kids; none moved to the suburbs. We’ve lost touch. Emily’s favorite writer is Patricia Highsmith. I can see why Emily likes her books; they’re pageturners. But they’re too upsetting. The main character is a usually a murderer or stalker or an innocent person trying not to be killed. The one I read was about two guys who meet on a train. They each agree to murder someone as a favor for the other. I wanted to like the book, but I didn’t finish it. Though when Emily asked, I told her I adored it. The next time I came over to her house, we watched the DVD of the movie Hitchcock made from the novel. At first I worried, what if Emily wanted to talk about how the movie differed from the book? But the movie drew me in. One scene, on an out-of-control carousel, was almost too scary to watch. Emily and I were sitting at opposite ends of the massive couch in her living room, our legs stretched out, a bottle of good white wine on the coffee table. When she saw me watching the merrygo-round scene through my splayed fingers, she smiled and gave me a thumbs-up sign.

She liked it that I was frightened. I couldn’t help thinking: What if Miles was on that merry-go-round? After the movie ended, I asked Emily, “Do you think real people would ever do things like that?” Emily laughed. “Sweet Stephanie. You’d be amazed by what people will do. Things they’d never admit to anyone—not even to themselves.” I wanted to say that I wasn’t as sweet as she thought. I’d done some bad things too. But I was too startled to speak. She’d sounded so much like my mother. Moms know how hard it is to get a good night’s sleep without having scary stories rattling around in our heads. I always promise Emily I’ll read more Highsmith books. But now I wish I hadn’t read that one. One murderer’s victim was the other guy’s wife. And when your best friend disappears, that story is not what you want to dwell on. Not that I think that Emily’s husband, Sean, would harm her.

Obviously, they’ve had problems. What marriage hasn’t? And Sean’s not my favorite person. But (I think) he’s basically a decent guy. Miles and Nicky are in the same kindergarten in the excellent public school I’ve blogged about many times. Not the school in our town, which has funding issues due to the (aging) local population voting down the school budget, but the better school in the next town over, not far from the New York–Connecticut border. Because of zoning regulations, our kids can’t ride the school bus. Emily and I drive our boys in the morning. I pick up Miles every day. Emily works half day on Fridays so she can get Nicky at school, and often she and I and the boys do fun things—get burgers or play miniature golf—on Friday afternoons. Her house is only a ten-minute drive from mine. We’re practically neighbors. I love hanging out at Emily’s, stretched out on her couch, talking and drinking wine, one of us getting up every so often to check on the boys. I love the way her hands move as she talks, the way the light winks off her beautiful diamond and sapphire ring. We talk a lot about motherhood. We never run out of things to say.

It’s so thrilling to have a real friend that I sometimes forget how lonely I was before we met. During the rest of the week, Emily’s part-time nanny, Alison, picks Nicky up after school. Emily’s husband, Sean, works late on Wall Street. Emily and Nicky are lucky if Sean ever gets home in time for dinner. On those rare days when Alison calls in sick, Emily texts me, and I fill in. The boys come back to my house until Emily can get home. Maybe once a month Emily has to stay late at work. And twice, maybe three times, she’s had to be out of town overnight. Like this time. Before she disappeared. Emily works in public relations for a famous fashion designer in Manhattan whose name I’ve also been careful not to mention. In fact she’s the director of public relations for a very famous designer. I try to be conscious about brand names on the blog because of trust issues involved and also because name-dropping is so unattractive. That’s also why I’ve resisted accepting advertising. Even when she’s late, or at meetings, Emily texts me every few hours.

She calls when she gets a minute free. She’s that kind of mom. Not helicopter, not hands-on, not any of those negative expressions society uses to judge and punish us for loving our kids. When Emily gets home from the city, she always makes a beeline from the station to pick Nicky up. I have to remind her to stay under the speed limit. When her train is going to be late, she texts me. Constantly! What station they’re at, her ETA, until I text her back: NO WORRIES. BOYS FINE. GET HERE WHEN U GET HERE. SAFE TRAVELS. It’s been two days since she hasn’t shown up or gotten in touch with me or returned my texts or calls. Something terrible has happened. She’s vanished. I have no idea where she is. Moms, does Emily sound like the kind of mother who would leave her child and disappear for two days and not text or call or answer my texts or calls? If nothing was wrong? Seriously? Okay, got to run now.

I smell chocolate-chip cookies burning in the oven. More soon. Love, Stephanie 2 Stephanie’s Blog Where We Live Now Hi, moms! Until now I’ve tried not to mention the name of our town. Privacy is so precious—and there’s so little of it these days. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but even in a town like ours, hidden cameras might be watching to see what brand of canned tomatoes you buy. Especially in our town. People assume it’s a rich town because it’s in that part of Connecticut, but it’s not all that rich. Emily and Sean have money. I have enough to live on from what my husband, Davis, left me, another reason I can afford to blog without running it as a business. But because Emily’s disappearance changes everything, and because someone who lives near us may have seen her, and because I’m frantic, I feel I need to out Warfield. Warfield, Connecticut. It’s about two hours from Manhattan on Metro-North. People call this the suburbs, but I grew up in the suburbs and lived in the city, so it’s always felt like country to me. I’ve blogged about how Davis had to drag me kicking and screaming up here from the city. I’d spent years getting out of the suburbs.

I’ve blogged about how I fell in love with country life, how fantastic it feels to wake up with the sun streaming into the eyebrow colonial that Davis restored without sacrificing any of its period details, and how I love drinking tea while the rainbow machine (a kind of prism you put in the window) my brother Chris gave us for a wedding present scatters brightness all over the kitchen. Miles and I adore it here. Or anyway, I used to. Until today, when I was feeling so anxious about Emily that everyone—the moms at school, nice Maureen in the post office, the kid who bags groceries—they all seemed sinister, like in those horror movies where everyone in town is a cult member or a zombie. I asked a couple of my neighbors, fake-casually, if they’d seen Emily around, and they shook their heads no. Was it my imagination that they gave me funny looks? Now you moms can really see how crazy-making this is. Moms, forgive me. I got distracted and just blabbed on, as always. I SHOULD HAVE PUT THIS EARLIER!!! Emily is around five foot seven. She has blond hair with dark streaks (I never asked if they were real) and dark brown eyes. She probably weighs around a hundred and twenty pounds. But that’s a guess. You don’t ask your friends, How tall are you? How much do you weigh? Though I know some men think that women never talk about anything else. She’s forty-one, but she looks thirty-five, at the most. She has a dark birthmark underneath her right eye.

I only noticed it when she asked me if she should get it removed. I said no, it looked fine and that women in the French court (so I’d read) painted those “beauty spots” on. Emily always wore a perfume that I guess you could call her signature scent. She said it was made from lilacs and lilies, by Italian nuns. She orders it from Florence. I love that about Emily, all the elegant, sophisticated things she knows about that would never have crossed my mind. I’ve never worn perfume. I always think it’s a little off-putting when women smell like flowers or spices. What are they hiding? What’s the message they’re sending? But I like Emily’s perfume. I like it that I can always tell from the scent when she’s nearby, or when she’s been in a room. I can smell her perfume in Nicky’s hair, after she’s held him tight and hugged him. She’s offered to let me try some, but it seemed too weird, too intimate, the two of us smelling like creepy smell-twins. She always wears the diamond and sapphire ring that Sean gave her when they got engaged. And because she moves her hands a lot when she talks, I think of the ring as a sparkling creature with a life of its own, like Tinker Bell flying out in front of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Emily has a tattoo: one of those delicate crown-of-thorn bracelets around her right wrist.

That surprised me. She didn’t seem like someone who would get a tattoo—especially one that couldn’t be covered up unless she wore long sleeves. At first I thought it was some fashion-industry thing, but when I felt I knew her well enough and asked, Emily said, “Oh, that. I got it when I was young and wild.” I said, “We were all young and wild. Once upon a time.” It felt good to say something I could never say to my husband. If he’d asked what I meant by wild and I told him, life as we knew it would have ended. Of course, that life ended anyway. The truth has a way of coming out. Wait. The phone’s ringing! Maybe it’s Emily. More soon. Love, Stephanie 3 Stephanie’s Blog Simple Favors Hi, moms! It wasn’t Emily on the phone. It was a robocall telling me I’d won a free trip to the Caribbean.

Where was I? Oh, right: Last summer, sunning at the community pool while the boys splashed in the baby pool, Emily said, “I’m always asking you for favors, Stephanie. And I’m so grateful. But can I ask for just one more? Could you take care of Nicky so Sean and I can get away, for Sean’s birthday weekend, to my family’s cabin?” Emily always calls it “the cabin,” but I imagine that her family vacation home on the shore of a lake in northern Michigan is a bit fancier than that. “I was amazed Sean agreed, and I want to nail this down before he changes his mind.” Of course I said yes. I knew what a problem it was for her to lure Sean away from his office. “On one condition,” I said. “Anything,” she said. “You name it.” “Can you put suntan oil on this hard-to-reach spot on my back?” “Gladly.” Emily laughed. As I felt her small, strong hand rubbing the oil into my skin, I remembered the fun of going to the beach with my friends in high school! The weekend that Emily and Sean went away, Miles, Nicky, and I had a great time. The pool, the park, a movie, and burgers and veggies on the grill. Emily and I have been friends for a year, since our boys met in pre-K. Here’s a picture of her I took at Six Flags, though you can’t see her all that well.

It’s a selfie of the four of us, boys and moms. I scanned the kids out. You know I have strong opinions about posting images of one’s kids. I don’t know what she was wearing the day she disappeared. I didn’t see her when she dropped Nicky off at school. She was a little late that day. Usually the buses arrive and unload all at once. The teachers have a lot going on, greeting the kids, herding them inside. I don’t blame them for not noticing what Emily was wearing or whether she seemed like her cheerful normal self or anxious in any way. Probably Emily looked like she always looks when she’s going to the office: like a fashion executive (she gets designer clothes at a huge discount) heading to work in the city. She’d called me early that morning. “Please, Stephanie, I need your help. Again. An emergency’s come up at work, and I have to stay late. Alison has a class.

Can you get Nicky at school? I’ll come get him in the evening, nine at the latest.” I remember wondering: What counts as an “emergency” in the fashion business? The buttonholes are too small? Someone sewed a zipper in backward? I said, “Of course. I’m totally happy to do you a favor.” A simple favor. The sort of simple favor we moms do for each other all the time. The boys would be thrilled. I’m pretty sure I remember asking Emily if she wanted Nicky to sleep over. And I’m pretty sure she said no thanks. She’d want to see him at the end of a tough day, even if he was asleep. I picked up Nicky and Miles after school. They were in heaven. They love each other in that puppyish way little boys do. Better than brothers, who fight. They played nicely in my son’s room and on the swings where I could watch them from the window. I made them dinner.

We had a healthy meal. As you know, I’m a vegetarian, but Nicky will only eat burgers, so that’s what I cooked. I can’t count how often I’ve blogged about how hard I try to balance the good nutritious stuff with what they’ll actually eat. The boys discussed an incident at school: a boy got sent to the principal’s office for not listening to the teacher even after he got a timeout. It got late. Emily didn’t call. Which seemed weird. I texted her, and she didn’t text me back. Which seemed even weirder. Okay, she said emergency. Maybe something happened at a factory in one of the countries where the clothes are made. Sewn by slaves is my impression, but that could never be mentioned. Maybe there’s another scandal involving her boss, Dennis, who’s had some well-publicized substance-abuse episodes. Emily has had to do some heavy damage control. Maybe she was at a meeting and couldn’t get out.

Maybe she was somewhere with no cell phone reception. Maybe she’d lost her charger. If you knew Emily, you’d know how unlikely it is that she would lose her charger. Or that she wouldn’t find a way to call in and check on Nicky. We moms are so used to being in touch. You know how it feels when you need to reach someone. It’s like you’re possessed. You keep calling and texting and trying to keep yourself from calling and texting again because you just called and texted. Each time, my calls went to voice mail. I heard Emily’s “professional” voice—perky, crisp, all business. “Hi there, you’ve reached Emily Nelson. Please leave a brief message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Talk soon!” “Emily, it’s me! Stephanie! Call me!” It got to be bedtime for the boys. Emily still hadn’t called. This had never happened.

I got those stomach butterflies of fear. Terror, really. But I didn’t want to let the kids know, especially Nicky . I can’t write any more, moms. I’m just too upset. Love, Stephanie


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Updated: 29 April 2020 — 14:41

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