Emma Clements writes an advice column, but when she stumbles upon a secret that may have led to murder, she has no comment. Hailey’s Comments, a mysterious romance, was a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Contest
Some are wise. Some are otherwise.
“A lemon that’s been squeezed too many times ends up in the compost pile,” I said into the phone as I stood in the produce section, debating between ruby red grapefruit and tangelos. I looked up and recognized Savannah Everett’s father standing beside a cart filled with vegetables.
I cleared my throat and studied the citrus, as if I hadn’t seen him, as if I could possibly find navel oranges and limes more interesting than him. “I have to go, Auntie,” I mumbled into the phone and dropped it into my purse. That’s the problem with lies. They bleed. And they can make a big mess, even when you think they’re contained.
“Good morning, Miss Emma,” he said, standing inches away from the potatoes and onions. Grocery carts say so much about a person. Just like nothing screams immaturity as loudly as Captain Crunch, the brand of yogurt in a cart can reveal the health of a dietary track.
“Good morning, Mr. Everett,” I returned. I snuck a quick glance into his cart, but it couldn’t tell me what I really wanted to know. I knew he wasn’t a vegetarian and that he ate a lot of ready-made meals, but what I really wanted to know wasn’t at all obvious. Hiding my flushed face, I scooped up a bag of grapefruit and hurried away, knowing that I really wanted a red onion and that I would never be able to eat all of the grapefruit before the last one spoiled. Living alone is like that—it’s a race, pitting appetite against ripening produce.
Maybe my answer that day would have been different if I had been standing in another aisle. Maybe if I had been looking at cleansers instead of citrus I would have come up with something lauding the benefits of bleach. Maybe if I hadn’t bumped into Mr. Everett I could have had onions on my hamburgers. But it doesn’t matter; once the lie spilled I was doomed to slip in it like a splash of orange juice. Sure, it could be mopped up, but if it wasn’t done right, the stickiness would stay, attracting dust, dirt and lint.
Not that I was attracted to Mr. Everett.
I love dogs, but I believe that they should have their own space. An art studio is not a dog space. It may be fine if the studio is private and the dog is your own, but there really isn’t any reason to bring a cocker spaniel to work. Especially if you work with children and your cocker doesn’t enjoy children. It’s okay for your cocker to dislike children. But it’s not okay to surround your kid-hating cocker with fifteen children armed with backpacks full of snacks and loaded paint brushes.
Actually, they didn’t have paint brushes. They had pencils. Which, it turns out, can be just as dangerous.
The clock struck four. I shot O-Toole, Martie’s cocker, a behave or die look, smoothed down my smock, picked up a marker and headed for the board at the head of the class. Table top easels perched on the scarred and paint splattered tables. Tall windows let in winter’s dying sunlight. The children stood on the cement floor behind their easels, pencils in hand, waiting for me.
I greeted the students, gave them my attention, and tried to shut out Savannah’s father standing at the back of the room. His deep laugh rumbled and rattled my insides. He stood in a knot of mothers, a tall, out of place male, like a regal goose in a gaggle of hens. The women twittered and he replied in a deep low hum. I willed them away. It was time for the class to start and I didn’t want an audience. Why were they still here? Several of the women wore tennis skirts. Didn’t they have a match to set? I didn’t really mind that some of the parents chose to stay during the after school program, but Martie called them helicopter parents. She didn’t Mr. Everett, because she never had an argument with a handsome man. But since that same man overheard my lie and prevented my onion purchase, I minded him. A lot.
“Today we’re going to draw our very own super heroes,” I told the class as I passed out comic books. “Let your imagination go wild. If you were a super hero, what powers would you have?” After giving the class instructions, I turned them loose on their easels and wandered around the room, watching them work.
O’Toole lounged on his bed in the corner, his head resting on his paws. Mr. Everett and a few of his harem remained in the back, but I kept one eye on the kids and another on the door. Martie should have returned before the class started.
“Who’s that?” Travis, a ten year old in cargo pants and a robot sweat shirt, curled his lip at Savannah’s drawing of a winged creature sailing over a city skyline, flying perilously close to a spiky sun.
Savannah rolled her eyes at Jessie who answered for her friend. “That just happens to be Letriciana, Goddess of Reincarnation.” The two girls stood side by side as if linked by an invisible chain. They wore identical jeans with the word Juicy written on their pockets and Bumble Bee shoes with matching, glittery beads threaded onto their laces.
“Carnation?” Travis, lived in Woodinville, a city neighboring the town of Carnation. “There isn’t a Goddess of Carnation!” Travis’ straw hair pointed at the ceiling, a line of freckles crossed both cheeks.
Savannah said, adding a cloud to her sky.
Travis also added a cloud to his sky. Whenever he moved his arms the robot’s ears wiggled. “Can she fly, or is that thing on her back a jet-pack.”
Savannah set her pencil down to give Travis a hard, I-don’t-believe-you-could-so-stupid stare. “Goddesses don’t need jet-packs.” She flipped her blond hair over her shoulder before she picked up her pencil. “Those are wings.” Considering her work, she drew a lightning streak through the cloud.
“If you think she can be a super hero, she can’t,” Travis said as he drew his own lightning streak. “Only men can be super heroes.”
“That’s not what Hailey Clements says,” Jessie piped in.
My throat tightened and my heart picked up its pace, as it always did whenever anyone mentioned my aunt. I feared anything, my blush, my eyes, the way I shoved my hands into my pockets would reveal my lie. My eyes caught Savannah’s father’s. I wanted to take my paint brush and paint a frown over his knowing grin.
Jessie, despite her pants, was a royal, loyal reader—a Haileyism for devoted fans. There were, naturally, readers who were neither royal nor loyal, but Aunt Hailey hadn’t given them a name, because she refused to acknowledge their existence.
“Hailey Clements says that everyone can and should be the hero of their own life,” Jessie continued. Her dangly earrings jiggled when she nodded her headed. She didn’t dress the conservative part of a royal loyal, but I knew Aunt Hailey would love Jessie. Aunt Hailey relished and encouraged blind devotion.
Savannah nodded and drew a dog on the street below the flying super-Goddess of Reincarnation.
Robot ears wiggled at me as Travis also drew a dog. A cloud, a lightning streak and a dog all floated in the white space of Travis’ page.
In the coming weeks I’d pull the easels into a circle, a model would take the center of the mush-pot, and they’d all practice on the given object, but we weren’t there yet. We were free form drawing and Travis was having a hard time finding his own hero.
I could relate.
My eyes slipped back to Savannah’s dad chatting with Mrs. Schumann, a woman I’d never seen in anything other than tennis whites. I’d never seen her sweaty, so it was hard to say if she played before or after Travis’ art class. I’d never seen her racquet, but I’d seen the panties under her tennis skirts a hundred times. Maybe Savannah’s dad was trying to up the score.
Savannah set down her pencil again and glared at Travis. “Stop it!”
Travis added a puff of fur on his dog’s tail so that it resembled a dandelion. “Stop what?” Travis asked, his freckles turning upward.
“You’re copying me.” Savannah stamped her Bumblebee shoe and the beads jingled.
Savannah was right. He was copying her, but before I could separate them, I noticed that O’Toole had left his bed to rummage in an unattended backpack. My heart picked up speed, remembering O’Toole’s last experience with a student’s half eaten candy bar. The dog had a nose for chocolate.
And unfortunately, I could relate to that as well.
But I couldn’t stomach the thought of another barf scene. Especially not in front of the students. Or the parents.
I snapped my fingers at O’Toole but he ignored me. “Jeanine, your bag,” I called to a pale and timid girl who watched in horror as O’Toole rutted in her backpack.
Travis’ lips twisted into a grin. “Yeah, right. As if I wanted to draw the Queen of Carnation.”
“Could someone please get the dog,” I called from across the room.
“I think it’s really unprofessional that Miss Martie brings that creature to class,” Mrs. Wagner said, looking up from her novel but not budging from her chair.
“It’s her school,” Mrs. Langley replied with a shrug, her amused eyes on O’Toole licking clean a Snicker’s candy wrapper.
“Not for long,” Mrs. Devon said.
“Really? I hadn’t heard that,” Mrs. Langley replied.
I hadn’t heard that either, but Ididn’t have time to wonder about right then as O’Toole gagged. I grabbed the cocker by the collar and hauled him out the back door.
“Hey, what’s up?” Martie asked as she climbed from her Jeep.
“Chocolate,” I muttered.
“Aw, the downfall of so many of us,” Martie said, taking a grip on O’Toole’s collar.
I rolled my eyes at her and hurried back into the class, silently agreeing with Mrs. Langley assessment of professionalism and creatures.
I returned to class in time to watch Travis make a city skyline. His buildings stood a little straighter than Savannah’s. He drew in strong, fast, even lines. “Hailey Clements is an old poop,” Travis said.
I knew Auntie wasn’t a poop. If Auntie were a bodily function, she’d be a reoccurring twitch, not a poop.
Travis smiled as he compared his picture to Savannah’s and liked what he saw. “And I’m sick of listening you talk about her,” he said.
“That’s very nice, Travis,” I said, coming behind him and trying to discreetly angle his easel so that he couldn’t see/copy Savannah’s work. “Where would you imagine the sun?”
Travis flashed a smile at Savannah and drew a circle in the in the corner of the page.
Savanna stamped both feet and the beads on her feet jingled, reminding me of a parade pony. “Can’t you see he’s totally copying me?” Savannah wailed.
A small hush fell and I felt the stares of the students and parents resting on my back. When
stamped her foot again, the jingling bells seemed much louder.
“That’s where my sun is!” Savannah bordered on tears.
“Isn’t the sun in the sky the same for everyone?” Travis said, feigning wisdom beyond his years. He stepped away from his easel, considered his masterpiece and smiled. His freckles turned upward. I wondered which he most enjoyed, his art, the attention, or teasing Savannah.
Before I could separate them, Savannah ripped Travis’ picture off his easel and put it next to hers for comparison. “See?” Her voice quivered indignantly.
The parents in the back of the room stopped talking. Her father stopped laughing. “He’s drawn everything just like me,” Savannah complained.
Travis assumed bull-charging stance, his hair seemed, if possible, to stand a little straighter. “Have not!” He lunged for his picture.
Savannah lifted the easel and pictures over her head. If someone didn’t do something Savannah would bean Travis, or Travis would tackle Savannah. Through the open door I heard the familiar sound of O’Toole vomiting.
Travis knocked me into Savannah. The three of us fell, taking two easels down. My elbow crashed against a desk. One handed, I caught myself. Travis toppled on top of me. I fell and lost my glasses, but I could still see a blurry robot just inches from my nose. My elbow stung and my eyes swam in dizzy pain.
For the first time ever, I thought that maybe Aunt Hailey was right. Maybe I should quit my job at the academy.
“Hailey Clements says there is never a need for violence,” Jessie said, a voice of reason not far above us.
Travis clambered off of me. A strong hand pulled on my arm and set me on my feet, but I still couldn’t see.
“But Hailey Clements doesn’t know about Letriciana, Goddess of Reincarnation.” Mr. Everett slid my glasses onto my nose and sight returned. I glanced around at the parents surrounding me. No longer hovering over their children, they had shifted their maternal instincts to me. Their expressions varied from horror, to worry to amusement. Well, only one looked amused and I knew just from the way his touch sent prickling up my arm that the instincts we shared were more animal than maternal.
I felt parents and students watching me as I brushed off my pants and blinked away sudden tears of pain and embarrassment. I waited for Mr. Everett to scold his daughter or for Travis’ mom to demand an apology, but all I heard was O’Toole’s continuous retching.
“She knows about everything,” Jessie said. She put down her pencil, and gathered up her jacket. She refused to make eye-contact with Savannah’s father. Aunt Hailey would love her jutting little chin, love her righteous indignation.
Savannah’s father snorted and flashed his dimples at me. “No one knows everything,” he said to Jessie’s back. “Except for maybe the Queen of Reincarnation.” A Haileyism came to mind. Those people who think they know everything are especially annoying to those of us who do. I wasn’t in the mood for Haileyisms.
The bell struck five. Class officially ended. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Mothers and students gathered up folios, returned pencils, put on jackets, and called good-bye. I waved to them as they disappeared out the door.
But Savannah, Jesse and Mr. Everett stayed behind. Mr. Everett considered Jessie’s portrait of a beaked looking woman wearing horned rimmed glasses. “Is that your hero?”
I turned away, before Jessie could give the answer I didn’t want to hear. “Hailey Clements is your hero?” Savannah’s father asked.
I willed myself to walk away. I collected pencils, determined not to listen.
“She’s my super hero,” Jessie said primly. “She saves people, and that’s what super heroes do, they save people.” Jessie shrugged into her jacket.
I put the pencils into the tin can pencil holders. Savannah’s father put his hand on Jessie’s shoulder. “She doesn’t save anyone. She’s just a nice elderly woman.” He cut a glance at me. “Some even say that she doesn’t write the column and that it’s really written by a team of therapists.”
“That’s not true!” My own voice surprised me, I hadn’t meant to speak. I concentrated on the pencils and forced my voice to sound calm, matter of fact, and emotionally detached. “Why would she need a team of therapists? She’s the sage of sticky social situations. She doesn’t pretend to replace MDs or psychologists.”
“Ah, but what is she pretending then?”
“She doesn’t pretend at all.” Which wasn’t exactly true. “She’s syndicated in the US, Canada, Mexico as well as Bangkok.” That was true. I stood tall, tugged my smock into place and then, embarrassed, fussed over the art supplies. The other students had left. “And when all of the newspapers are collapsing, she’s one of the few columnists that have successfully transitioned onto the internet. Her blog is the--”
“Do you think Hailey Clements is pretend?” Savannah interrupted by spiel.
I took deep breath, mortified I’d gotten so carried away. Farts and braggarts are equally popular, I reminded myself.
“Of course not,” I told Savannah. “She’s a sweet woman who is trying…to make the world a better place.” I snapped an easel shut and pinched a finger. Stung, I put my wounded finger in my mouth.
“You think she’s a do-gooder?” Mr. Everett asked.
“Yes, very successful and charitable.”
He leaned against the table and crossed his legs at the ankles, looking ready to engage in conversation. Not looking ready to leave, as one should when class has been dismissed.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You don’t think she writes her column for the money…or for fame?”
Auntie Hailey, still beautiful and scrupulous, relished her role as the world’s answer to everything. TV talk shows, fundraiser luncheons, news interviews, Auntie Hailey loved the camera and spot light. I, on the other hand, valued anonymity. “Maybe all that fame is more difficult to live with than it might seem. Maybe it’s hard to be the world’s know it all.”
I carried the supplies to the closet and shut the door. “Seriously. I bet she finds it hard to have a normal life, a balanced life, a life where random strangers don’t know her face, or ask her advice. Maybe she can’t hire a plumber, reserve a plane ticket, or get a mammogram without someone recognizing her.” Not everyone sought her advice, of course, but whenever I went anywhere with my aunt in public, I found the hushed whispers and long stares unbearable. My aunt was once getting a pap-smear, her feet in stirrups, bottom to the edge, when a troubled nurse-practitioner unburdened herself. Aunt Hailey laughed when she told me, but I’d decided long before that to keep some of my life private. I put my finger back in my mouth because it hurt, but also because I need to stop talking.
“I understand,” he said, grinning as he made a guess. “I’d feel the same if my grandmother handed out platitudes and clichés.”
I pushed back my hair and turned to face him. “She’s not a cliché. It’s not a bad thing to offer advice without being overburdened with information.”
He sat a little straighter and then laughed long and hard. “You’re good! You sound just like her! You know I overheard you that day in the grocery store. I read Hailey’s Comments that day. And the next. That lemon line, the one I overheard you give, it didn’t come out until today.” He motioned toward his briefcase. “In fact I brought it in today to ask you about it.”
I put my hands on my hips and slipped into my Miss Emma no nonsense art instructor voice. “I really can’t comment on that.”
He laughed. “I get it. Hailey’s Comments—no comment.”
I gave him a weak smile. “You overheard me talking about lemons while standing in the produce section. Maybe it sounded like something Hailey would say, but I’m sure you just…” I faltered a moment, but then regrouped and gathered my wits. “I’m sure you either heard wrong or it was just a coincidence.” More lies. Sticky lies.
“What were you talking about?”
“Lemons aren’t that interesting.”
I shrugged. “So I’m boring.”
He considered me and I squirmed beneath his gaze. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, this conversation is boring.”
“Yes, look at Savannah.” His daughter stood in front of the dry erase board, drawing flying goddesses. “I’m sure she wants to go home…as do I.”
He cocked his head, but didn’t budge from the art table. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bore you.” The winter sun, dying behind the windows, back lit his blond hair. “Or offend you.”
“Offense can’t be given if not received.” The words popped out. I was spouting platitudes and clichés.
I wondered if I’d enjoy his laughter more if I didn’t feel it was directed at me.