When Lin had imagined a murderer’s mistress, she had pictured leopard print and spandex, glittering baubles and high heels. She would never have pictured Eliza Hanson as she was now: kitted out in a soft pink cardigan, a puffy matching headband holding back her sleek, graying bob, serving drinks with almost hostess-y air.
She was leagues and away different from the woman who had graced the front of the local newspaper fifteen years ago, when her lover, Bill, was arrested for the murder of his wife, grade school teacher Mrs. Rachel Halsey.
Lin wondered if perhaps Eliza Hanson had toned down the big hair and flair because she felt guilty. Because she had been the cause, at least indirectly, of Mrs. Halsey’s death. Or perhaps she had just grown up. Either way, Lin put her glass down on the bar and jotted these details down in her Moleskine, trying not to draw too much attention to herself — which was actually pretty easy to do considering there was a football game on the flat screen behind the bar, and all the broken-down, end-of-the-weekend working men were busy watching the carnage unfold as they drained their tall cans.
She checked her phone to see if Lou had texted any updates about their daughter, Rose. That evening, after dinner with her parents, he had insisted that she “go and meet your childhood gal pal!” — that she leave the tender bundle of screams at home with him and her folks. She tried not to let her relief show as she slipped on a black dress from high school that clung awkwardly to her post-pregnancy curves — all the clothes she had packed were covered in spit-up. She also refrained from telling him that she was not, in fact, meeting anyone at O’Dooley’s. Lou didn’t know about her new hobby — if you could call investigating the 15-year-old unsolved murder of her third-grade teacher a hobby.
He didn’t know that after he and Rose drifted to sleep, she set up her laptop in the exercise room he had gifted her in order to “get back to normal” after giving birth. That she whiled away the hours until 3 a.m. obsessively discussing the case with the shut-ins on the True Murders message board. The prevailing theory — the one Lin herself prescribed to — was that Mr. Halsey had done it: pushed his wife down the stairs so that he could be with his mistress, otherwise known as the woman currently staring at Lin.
“Do you need another drink, honey?” Eliza asked, moving closer to the bar and Lin. Her gaze was unnerving, strangely familiar.
Lin blinked — feeling as if someone on the television screen had spoken to her —then shook her head and looked down at her phone to avoid the woman’s soft green eyes. Otherwise, the hate might leak through. The utter and complete contempt. She knew that she might feel this way when she decided to come by the bar where Eliza worked, to look the mistress of a murderer in the eyes. It was essential to her research, she had rationalized. The others on the board were clamoring to know what made Eliza Hanson tick. They were just objective observers, though — murder fangirls and boys. Lin had never been particularly into true crime and all that, this wasn’t sort of dalliance for her — this, this was personal.
Mrs. Halsey had been Lin’s favorite teacher; she remembered how the woman had stayed after school every day to help her with long division when she was failing math. How she still knew Lin’s name when they ran into each other at the library or grocery store when she was a gawky, awkward teen. How she had heard about Mrs. Halsey’s death: the day after her junior prom, at which she had pity danced with a special needs boy. Her teacher had been found at the bottom of the stairs, her neck broken.
Halsey’s death had plagued Lin throughout her early adulthood. She didn’t date until she was in her early twenties and didn’t sleep with a man until she was 25; why would you invite someone to be that close to you? Close enough to blot out your life while you’re dreaming in bed, or pausing at the top of the stairs, lost in thought. Only by the grace of therapy — and SSRIs — was she married today.
Lin drained her drink and tried to focus on her phone again as Eliza swept into view, placing a foamy beer in front of a man who bloodshot eyes. It struck her again how incongruous the woman looked in a place like this, with her pleated pants and sensible white sneakers.
Her phone chirped, and she looked down to find the expected message from Lou. She smiled at first, taking in his greeting, “Hey sweets,” then, as her eyes skipped down the screen: “She’s gone for a bit if you want to call me. I miss you.” The syllables failed to make sense at first, in the way written words do in dreams. Then her brain raced through a series of explanations in a split second, but not of them cut it. Her heart thudded in her chest, and it felt, oddly, like it had stopped. Then the pain rushed in.
Lin didn’t even notice that she had dropped her drink at first. She just stared at the shards of glassware littering the bar in front of her, mixing with melting ice cubes. Her lap was soaking wet, and droplets of whiskey coated the cover of her Moleskine. Lou was cheating on her. He was cheating on her with some other woman he called “sweets” — and he was too dumb to text the right number. Her shoulders erupted with shakes and her eyes unfocused.
“Hon…” a hand came to rest lightly on Lin’s shoulder, and for an irrational second, she thought it was Lou, there to comfort her. She threw it off and pulled her shoulders protectively toward her ears.
“Hey there…” Eliza Hanson said, showing off her light pink manicure as she gestured for Lin to calm down. “Easy. Everything’s going to be OK.”
Lin just looked at her. At the ice and glass pooling on the bar. At the phone, now dim and newly cracked. Lou was always warning her that she was careless with electronics. He wouldn’t let her use the big iMac in his study unless he was there to supervise.
Eliza laughed. “Well, I don’t know if it’ll be OK, but that’s what my daddy always said to me when I was upset, and it worked wonders when I was a kid.” She swept all the glass and ice into a bucket and poured Lin another drink. “Maker’s, right? Here, on the house.”
Lin took the glass and gulped at it, the whiskey making her cough. When she opened her eyes, Eliza was still standing there, watching her like she had before, like she knew her. She put her elbows on the bar and leaned toward Lin. “Do you want to talk about it? Whatever it was…?” She glanced pointedly at the phone.
Lin flashed to the dossier she had on her laptop (Lou’s castoff) titled: Eliza Hanson. Eliza was 45 years old and had worked at O’Dooley’s bar since she could legally do so. She was what Lou would call “low rent”: high school drop-out, single mother, tried to work at a nail salon somewhere in the middle of her life-long stint as a bartender only to get fired for stealing customers’ wedding rings.
As the other folks on True Murders always said, she was the prototypical vindictive mistress from central casting. If she had been a character on a TV show, Lin thought, critics would probably complain that she was way too one-dimensional, too much of a villain. Consequently, she was blamed more harshly for Mrs. Halsey’s death than her alleged lover, especially after Bill Halsey died last year. And that was only after he was declared “not guilty” by a court of law. It was hard to see any of that villain in the woman in front of her, though. This woman seemed almost… soft, kind.
“Why do they do it?” The words burst from Lin’s lips wreathed in a mist of whiskey before she could truly process whom she was asking. “Cheat? It’s just something I cannot fathom,” she spat.
Lin’s first boyfriend had cheated on her, in college — with a buck-toothed freshman who thought he hung the moon. Her second bragged that she was the first woman he had been faithful to, which was somehow worse than the philandering college cad. Lou didn’t seem the type, she had thought — still, she wasn’t as surprised as she thought she would be. She had known early on that other people, men especially, were not to be trusted. That they would push you down the minute you were in the way. And, man, was she in the way now: 20 pounds overweight and always crying.
Lin snapped back to herself when the woman behind the bar reached out and placed a hand on her arm. “Honey, if I knew the answer to that old chestnut I’d be Oprah by now.” She filled Lin’s glass again, then cast her a sideways glance. “You’ll be in town for a while, right? Not running back to New York tonight or anything?”
Lin shook her head then put the glass down, slowly. “How did you know that I live in New York?
“Well, then… I have a story for you,” Eliza said, picking up Lin’s glass. The smell of roses and baby powder wafted as the other woman leaned forward. “I get off in an hour. Can you come with me to the library tonight — after midnight? You remember the library, of course. You used to be there all the time…”
Suddenly, Lin felt very sober. “How do you know all this?”
Eliza straightened and held up a finger to a man at the end of the bar who was waving down another beer. “In an hour. I will explain everything then.”
The first thing Lin noticed upon descending into the bowels of the library basement were the stacks and stacks of dismantled card catalogs — the wooden drawers forming a jagged barrier around the second thing she noticed: a group of hunched figures staring into a pool of candlelight.
“They put them down here when the computers came along,” Eliza said, gesturing toward the stacks. “Forgotten, outdated relics… Kind of a perfect setting for what we do down here if you think about it.”
Lin took in the cards and the women — who she could now make out as her eyes adjusted — clustered around a table laden with candles and books and bunches of herbs. “And just what do you do down here?”
Eliza shook her head, sending her greying hair flying. “Better sit down first.” She pulled out a chair, and Lin sat, breathing in the familiar smell of paper and must that the library had boasted since she was a kid. An errant memory fluttered into her mind: the reading challenge that the library had hosted every summer, run by Mrs. Halsey herself.
If you read a certain number of books per week, you got a gift certificate for a free personal pan pizza. Lin had gained 10 pounds the summer she turned 13, inhaling the free pies before dinner on her way to horseback riding lessons. She had slimmed down after that thanks to their town’s decrepit YMCA and Weight Watchers’ frozen macaroni — and elected not to take part in the reading challenge the following summer.
One of the women, a bottle blonde in yoga pants, poured Lin a shot of whiskey and settled back into her seat, smirking. The faces of the women swam out of the gloom: the blonde and her smug grin, a brunette with bags under her eyes and stains on her shirt (Lin recognized the glazed look — another new mother), three elderly women leaning against each other and cooing like the Fates and, of course, Eliza — eyes bright and locked on Lin.
“What is this?” Lin asked, putting the whiskey back on the table next to a bundle of sage. She had had far too much already, and she had a feeling she would need a clear head for whatever came next.
The women all looked at Eliza, waiting, as the bartender took Lin’s shot and downed it. She licked her lips, then faced Lin. “I knew you the minute you came into the bar. I remembered you.”
Lin clutched her elbows protectively over her chest. She had never met Eliza before — at least she didn’t think she had. The only way this woman would know her was via her research into Mrs. Halsey’s death, her posts on the message board opining that the mistress was just as guilty as the husband. And now she had her in the basement of a library, surrounded.
Eliza didn’t seem to notice Lin’s crossed arms, or just didn’t care. She continued: “I was so sad that you stopped doing the reading challenges. I had been so happy to see you at the library, leaving with those teetering piles of books. It made me proud to be a teacher. Why did you stop?”
Lin blinked the words not fully penetrating her semi-drunk mind. How did Eliza know about the reading challenge? She wrinkled her brow, not sure how to proceed, so she just said the first thing that came to mind: “All the pizza was making me fat.”
The women clucked and leaned forward in their seats, Eliza the closest. “Oh, that makes me sad. You were just a child. And a bright one at that. Oh, dear… that makes me sad…” Eliza whispered, and tears started running down her face. The women were all crying now, softly, their faces shining in the light from the candles, which Lin now saw were white tapers like the kind she used for holidays with the nice dishes.
“Can you please…? Can you please tell me what’s going on?” Lin asked, moving to the edge of her chair so that she could make her getaway more easily if need be. “I really do have to get back to my child soon… my husband.” All at once, her voice caught, and she was crying right along with the women, remembering the message on her phone.
“Well,” Eliza said, sniffing and pulling a tissue from her sleeve. Again, the move struck Lin as strange — something a much older woman would do. “This has to do with all that — your husband, your child. But before we go on, I want you to look into my eyes and tell me my name.”
“What?” Lin blinked again.
“Trust me. Just do as you’re told, and I’ll explain everything.” Eliza pulled her chair level with Lin’s and gazed into her eyes. The mistress’ were green, ringed with gold. Lin dimly remembered from her dossier that Eliza’s eyes were brown. She wondered if Eliza was wearing colored contacts, but she couldn’t see the telltale outline. Befuddled, she let her eyes unfocus and take in the other woman’s gaze fully until all she could see was green irises and that gold rim.
“Mrs. Halsey…” the words fell from her lips as if of their own accord, and she snapped back to the room. Back to the women and the candles and the dusty card catalogs. “Mrs. Halsey, is that you?”
Eliza’s face split into a grin, and a round of applause pattered from the other women like soft rain. “I always knew you were a clever one,” Eliza/Rachel said.
“But… how?” Lin asked. She felt like she had woken up from a vivid dream in the middle of the night, still half in and out of a peculiar phantasmagoria. “You… died.”
“Yes, I did.” The woman now known as Eliza Hanson nodded, solemnly. “Or, at least my body did. My soul is still here, inside this…” she sneered down at herself “…body. I tried to make myself at home, but one can only do so much,” she patted the headband, which did look similar to the kind Mrs. Halsey used to wear.
“But, how?” Lin gaped.
The other women leaned forward into the light and Rachel crossed her hands primly in her lap, as if she was about to give a lesson. “Our circle here… We have a certain kind of power. The ability to make things happen.”
“Like magic?” Lin asked, feeling more than a bit silly.
“Sure,” Rachel shrugged. “More like balance. We like to keep things fair. So, for example, if one of our husbands chooses to harm us because he’s decided to trade us in for a newer model…Well, then, we can trade up models as well.” Again, she gave her body a disdainful nod. “Not that I prefer this one all that much. I liked my own, of course, but I didn’t have much of an option there.”
Lin gazed around at the other women. “So you’ve all… traded up?”
The blonde in yoga pants nodded, as did the Fates. The woman with the bags under her eyes snorted. “Not yet. But I know he’s been boffing the babysitter like the cliché that he is, so it’s only a matter of time.”
“Shareen is our newest member,” Rachel said, putting a hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Unless, of course, you decide to join our ranks.”
Lin felt all of the women looking at her then, and she folded her arms over her chest again. “Do you mean… do you think that my husband wants to…” she choked a little and then forced the words out, “kill me?”
Rachel reached out and took her hand. “I don’t know what he will do, but I do know that you’re hurting. That you’re hurting and he’s the one making you hurt.” Her hand tightened so that it was almost crushing Lin’s. “And I also know you do not have to let him.”
Lin took her hand out of Rachel’s grip and shook it, interlocking her fingers in her lap and remembering the shock of Lou’s text. And, before that, his waning interest in her post-pregnancy body. The gifted exercise room. The iMac that she was forbidden to touch as if she were a child and not a woman with a Master’s degree in design.
She always thought it natural to change with one’s spouse, but Lou hadn’t changed much since they said their vows in her parents’ lawn five years ago. She could almost hear the lecture that he would deliver when she came home with yet another cracked iPhone screen. He had worn her down over the years without raising a hand, she realized; he had conditioned her to flinch away from who he didn’t want her to be. And now… finally, it seemed, he was replacing her.
The circle of women sent her on her way with a white taper, a bundle of sage and a ripped page from an old book with words she was supposed to say over her husband tonight as he slept. She stowed the materials in her purse and elected to walk to her parents’ house, which was really not so far from the bar where she had started the evening.
The night air felt cool around her legs as they pumped up the hill to the colonial cottage, the tight black fabric of her high school dress sliding up her thighs. She remembered those days after school at the YMCA and the tasteless plastic cheese of the Weight Watcher meals. Lying awake hungry but staying that way as the pounds dropped off. Living in a body that never really felt finished — always in the process of becoming more, or, rather less. The slide of Lou’s hands on that body until the familiar curves melted and failed to guide him anymore.
As she slide the key from under the mat and opened the door to her parents’ house, Lin touched the taper in her purse and wondered what it would be like to leave it all behind, to exit this life into another, a conscious reincarnation. She padded through the house softly on bare feet, pausing outside the door to the guest room, outside where her husband and Rose slept. And she stood there until morning, lost in thought, trying to picture the woman she could become.