DiscoverWomen's Fiction

The President's House

By Chris Phetteplace

Synopsis

A well-publicized emotional breakdown in the Shop-n-Save isn’t Caroline Parker’s finest moment. Faced with nothing but an empty nest, a rusty marriage and wicked pre-menopausal hormones, it’s all she can do to get out of bed. But when her mysterious new neighbor goes missing without a trace Carri seems to be the only person bold enough to question the circumstances.

Thirty years earlier, good fortune befalls Walter Carrington lll with his father’s untimely death. Poised to take over as President of Mapleton College, he vows to overcome anything—or anyone—that stands in his way. The two story lines alternate as the actions of a reprehensible man blinded by power reverberate through the decades to affect an increasingly twisted mystery. In this comical yet intricately woven depiction of small town life, Carri and her old flame Detective Jim Perkins must work against the clock to solve the case before it’s too late.

Mapleton College

Early August, 1962



Mapleton College

Early August, 1962


Walter Carrington II couldn’t keep his mind from wandering, even with the gorgeous redhead slithering between his sheets. The stench of two different perfumes relentlessly competed for his attention. The syrupy, floral scent of gardenia undoubtedly belonged to the redhead but the other, a stale, musky fragrance that still clung to his sheets after several days managed to infiltrate his sinuses and intensify the nausea. The name of the woman who’d worn half a bottle of the cheap perfume escaped him, as did the name of the redhead for that matter, which further shortened his temper. He grabbed a handful of her hair, grit his teeth and quickened his pace.

Johnny Mathis crooned from the record player, “Chances are you think that I’m in love with yoooou…..”Walter thought that Mathis character was about as queer as a three-dollar bill but the broads all went nuts for him. He preferred Sinatra himself, now there was a guy Walter could relate to: women threw themselves at him while other men admired and envied him. Plus, just like Walter himself, Sinatra had more than enough money and probably too much power if he were being honest.

The redhead shifted beneath him and let a muffled moan slip from between her lips that might have been mistaken for pleasure except that Walter knew better. He’d been distracted, anxious and short of breath all evening. Sweat dripped from his face and dotted the pillow next to her and what was left of his erection was withering like a party balloon with a slow leak. It was embarrassing, really, not to mention unchartered waters for a Carrington man.

When the pressure across his midsection became too much to bear he motioned for the redhead to climb on top. He was grateful that she took the hint without his having to give her an actual verbal directive. A slew of names raced through his mind. Cynthia, Tabitha?

The moonlight had taken the night off once the clouds rolled in, thick, angry storm clouds that plunged the entire second story of the President’s house into a darkness that left nothing visible except for the vague silhouette of the redhead bouncing up and down on top of him like she was on a mission. He leaned back against the pillow and conjured up an image of Jayne Mansfield lying next to him in the nude—which always did the trick when he was stuck with his wife—but a gulp of air caught in his throat and refused to budge. Unsuccessful attempts to clear his lungs led to wheezing and then full blown gasping for air until a single, sharp pain shot down the length of his left arm.

The redhead stopped, finally, and looked at him. “Walter?”

      

Darcy.Her name was Darcy, a name he could not believe he’d forgotten and he repeated it over and over at increasingly louder decibels even though he could not hear himself speaking. In spite of this, his lips continued to move as he carried on a wordless conversation consisting only of slurred gibberish and drool. Darcy the redhead flung herself off the bed and stared in horror at him, his handsome features frozen in time. Oh My God, she whispered, the look on her face suggesting the sight of him was less than flattering.

If he were being honest—which he hardly ever was—he’d have to admit that his Doctor had been warning him about such things for years. His own father, Walter Carrington the Original, fell over flat at the age of 59 with a fat Cuban cigar in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other. Still, this couldn’t really be the end for him, could it? He’d always assumed his passing would come with a bit more fanfare, like a plane crash or fiery car wreck.

A crack of lightening lit up the sky and punctuated the darkness in the room, a rumble of thunder following quickly in its wake. Darcy the redhead had moved from his line of sight but he knew she was still there by virtue of her desperate, labored breathing and panicked bursts of whispering. Why wasn’t she calling for help for Christ’s sake, there was a goddamned telephone right on the desk? All she had to do was dial the Operator and call for an ambulance. How fucking hard was that?

The stillness in the room was littered with only an occasional interruption; the snap of an elastic undergarment against bare skin, the swish of a silk dress over milky flesh, the hum of a zipper. Walter strained to hear the shrill of sirens in the distance, of the cavalry racing through Mapleton on its way to save the illustrious President of Mapleton College, but that was just wishful thinking. She scurried barefooted past the bed without throwing as much as a passing glance his way. A moment later the screen door off the kitchen slammed shut. Then, nothing but the scratch of the needle stuck on the last groove of the vinyl record, the brush of branches from an old oak tree against the window pane.

As Walter Carrington II took his final breaths he thought not of his wife or his family or even of his old, moldy money, but instead of his dearest and most prized possession: Mapleton College. It was the very thing that had shaped his life and defined his family for as far back as he could remember. He was nothing if not realistic, by the time rigor mortis set in the Third Walter Carrington would be circling like a vulture, poised to take over the reins. It was a heady trip, this position in the community, the prestige, this house—one that could easily go to one’s head if that man were so inclined. Regrettably, his only son was by all accounts a spoiled, self-involved skirt chaser with flagrant spending habits.

Still, the fact remained that it was imperative that a Carrington remain at the helm and so with God’s good grace and the board of Director’s approval it would be his son’s turn now. He hoped against hope that the little bastard was up to the challenge, but even as the good Lord called him home he had his doubts.







Chapter 1




My husband’s face was the first thing that came into focus, so close that I could smell his stale coffee breath. He held my left hand tightly inside his own calloused, sweaty palm, an act so uncharacteristic it registered on my panic meter. Despite my throbbing headache and blurred vision I could see the look on his face reflected serious anxiety: I hadn’t seen him that distressed since the Green Bay Packers lost their first round draft choice to an agonizing groin injury during the first game of the playoffs.

I closed my eyes and attempted to re-orient myself. A searing pain shot up my right arm, stabbed at the base of my skull and again at my tailbone. My wrist was immobilized and a dull ache lurked behind my eyes like a major hangover that I know I could not possibly have acquired so early in the day. When I opened them again he was watching me like a 20-ounce ribeye on the verge of overcooking.

“Carri? Are you okay?” he whispered. “What happened to you?”

Decidedly non-committal, I shrugged.

“The paramedics picked you up off the floor at the grocery store, remember?”

Vaguely, I suppose, there was a wisp of a memory but the words didn’t want to come out. They stayed inside me, loitering on my tongue.

“Carri?”

“I think I just slipped,” I murmured.

“Slipped on what?” he asks and I can’t distinguish the look on his face between concern and skepticism. And possibly extreme disbelief that he’d actually married me willingly.

“I—I’m not sure,” I say weakly.

He looked at me sideways and let a few seconds tick by while he gathered his thoughts. “Okay, let me get this straight. One minute your grocery shopping and then—out of the blue—you take out a 6’ display of canned goods, dislocate your wrist and…” his eyes moved from one end of me to the other… “God knows what else, and you don’t remember a thing?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. My recollection of being at the grocery store was ambiguous at best, as were the canned goods—peas or beans I think—and any memory of how I got from there to here. Also, my hair was sticky and smelled sweet and full-bodied, like a winery exploded on me. The ends were stuck together and tinged red. I was pleading the Fifth. “I just slipped. Or tripped. Whatever. It was stupid, but I’m fine.”

He took in a long, patient breath. “Okay, I’m just gonna come right out and say it. They think you may have had a panic attack.”

I’m pretty sure I visibly winced at the term ‘panic attack’as I am generally rock solid and so not a panic attack-type person. I stalled for time while pretending to fiddle with the primitive splint that was placed on my wrist in haste and waded through the fog inside my brain for the right words, any words. “It wasn’t, like, a panic attack.”

“Ít wasn’t?”

Hardly.I just panicked because I dropped the wine.”

“This isn’t a joke.”

“No kidding. It was my favorite.”

“Be serious,” he says, suppressing a smile. The thing is, he should know me by now, that this is how I deal with adversity: I make jokes.

“Trust me, I’m fine.”

“Right,” he said. “I need to find the nurse and let her know you’re awake. Don’t try to move, I’ll be right back.” He turned his back to me and stepped toward the door leaving crumbs of dirt in a trail on the floor beneath his work boots. I stifled an automatic inclination to go look for a broom.

As the door opened, cold air blew up my gown and hit me in places I suddenly wish I had shaved. I realized for the first time that I was naked from the waist down underneath an ill-fitting hospital gown and naturally I question what might have happened to my pants, why they’d been removed and by whom. Along with the faint smell of hospital disinfectant and urine, I was enveloped with a sadness I could neither name nor confront.

Rob Parker, my husband of almost 25 years, has the patience of a saint and my innate ability to push him to his breaking point is not a source of pride to me. He’d never admit it, but I could tell he was terrified and more than just a little frazzled. Rob has a full blown allergy to chaos and I mean that literally. He breaks out in hives when things get too stressful, which they almost never do because we’re very boring. To make matters worse, he no doubt had to break away from the Morris job and they’re under contract to have it completed within the week. Rob’s a building contractor in the middle of a building boom, a good problem to have I suppose, but for me it meant long days and even longer nights. He leaves for work early and comes home late, pre-occupied and exhausted. Fall is the worst. As soon as the first wisps of cold air blow in there are holes to close up, punch lists to complete, draws at the Title Company and handshakes to be executed. Then, hibernation until spring. Thus is the circle of a contractor’s life.

My job?Has just gone off to college.


.   .   .


I attempted to maneuver myself to a sitting position which I was unable to do because I have no abdominal muscles to speak of—not my fault, mind you—I had both of my children cesarean. Don’t believe the anorexic super models making wild claims to the contrary, there’s no coming back from that. Same goes for the baby weight that moved in 21 years ago and claimed squatter’s rights on my once-hot body. Despite the fact that I may or may not hover on the verge of plus-sized, I’m normally pretty nimble. On this day, for some unknown reason, I am rendered all but immobile on so many levels.

Rob returned just in time to catch me in the middle of my failed attempt at sitting up and in a split second he was at my side. “You stay put before you hurt yourself again,” he said, already sprouting hives across his chest. Rob counts on the fact that I am predictable and never engage in any activity that might contain shock value. “Do you know why I’m not wearing pants?” I whispered. I did not like his answer.

Behind him, a woman in scrubs with a single chestnut braid resting between her shoulder blades backed into the room pulling a small cart stocked with supplies. Because this is Mapleton, Wisconsin and everyone knows everyone and everyone’s business, I recognized her immediately when she turned to face me. Without racking my brain at all a tidal wave of information came flooding in at the sight of her: Her name is Mary Hartwig, maiden name Mary Wells. She was a year ahead of me in high school, grew up on a farm north and west of town, went back and got herself a nursing degree once her kids were old enough to fend for themselves. Mary looked rough and was definitely not aging well and I knew why: she’d married Erv Hartwig straight out of high school against her family’s wishes and against everyone’s better judgment including Erv’s very own parents. He was a cheating, lying, no good drunk and everyone in town knew it. Why does all of this matter, you ask? Because even though the details surrounding the grocery store incident are murky, I can still remember names and faces and intimate, embarrassing details of another person’s life. This fact secretly buoyed my spirits.

Mary’s face brightened into a genuine smile when she saw me. “Welcome back, Carri! I heard you took quite a spill.”

“I heard that too.”

“You know you have not changed one bit,” she said as she unfurled a stethoscope from around her neck with one hand, placed the blood pressure cuff on my good arm with the other and pumped until she cut off my circulation. She recorded the results on my chart.

“Are you experiencing any blurred or spotty vision?” she asked. I shook my head no.

“What about dizziness or nausea?”

“I just feel, I don’t know, tired I guess.”

“Are you in any pain?”

“My head hurts,” I told her and patted the back of my skull where it smarted. I had a lump the size of a kiwi back there. “Also, my lower back aches,” which was an understatement, “and my wrist, obviously.”

“We’ll get you something for the pain before you go upstairs for some tests,” she promised, but I assured her I was fine.

“Of course you are. Hold still while I take your temp.” I held still while Rob scrutinized me from the chair in the corner.

“Do you know what day it is?”

I rolled my eyes. “Duh.”

“Sorry, I have to ask.”

“It’s Monday. Can I go now?”

She ignored that. “You look tired. Are you sleeping okay, Carri?” I shrugged, evasive as she watched me out of the corner of her eye. “Night sweats, anything like that keeping you up?”

I shook my head no. I knew what she was getting at: Signs of Menopause. “Not a chance,” I said.

Rob looked over at me, caught my eye then looked away. In that split second, a thousand silent words passed between us. In that inexplicable, telepathic way that only a couple who’ve been together half their lives can communicate he said: Are you kidding me, Carri? First of all, you’re impossible to sleep with. You kick off all the covers and throw them on me then steal them all back five minutes later. You snore. You don’t sleep a half hour a night all told and in the process neither do I. And while we’re on the subject, you run hot and cold all day long. You turn the thermostat up and down constantly because you think it’s always broken even though I’ve replaced it three times. You make me feel like I’m crazy, but really…

In the same wordless manner I replied: Fuck you. Rob sat back in his chair.

Mary eyed me skeptically. “Do you remember anything at all about this morning?”

My eyes moved back and forth between the two of them. Burdened with the weight of their judgment and their eagerness to assess the accuracy of my answer, I chose my words cautiously. Working backwards in my mind, I catalogued what I had so far pieced together: the cart full of groceries, the bottles of wine, the vegetables in cans, the paramedic, broken glass and a pool of liquid all around me. Nothing before and nothing after except a slippery sense of sadness and desperation that I could not begin to verbalize. Our collective disappointment hung in the air like L.A. smog so I dug deep for a morsel to give them. “The paramedic was a cutie.

“That’s it?”

I shrugged.

She sighed and gave my shoulder a reassuring pat. “It’s alright if you don’t remember, Carri, not at all uncommon. Things usually come back in bits and pieces within a few days, but we do need to rule out a concussion and make sure you didn’t break any bones when you went down.”

I wiggled the fingers that were visible from under the ace bandages. They were plump from swelling and slightly discolored so I wiggled my toes, too, for effect. “See? All my parts move. I’m fine.” She shook her head and made a note on my chart. It was probably a good thing I couldn’t read what it said.

Just then the door opened and chaos blew into the room like an Arctic clipper. Just when I thought I’d reached the pinnacle of humiliation, my beloved mother-in-law has arrived. Behind her I can I see the faces of the staff gathered at the nurses’ station, their mouths hanging open.

Yup, I want to say, welcome to my world.


.   .   .


There are 3 things you should know about my mother in law:

1. You know that little part of your brain that censors your thoughts before you verbalize them? Well, hers is non-existent. She cannot help but to blurt out precisely what she is thinking;

2. She will say this (that which she is thinking) not only out loud but in most cases directly in the presence of the person she is thinking about;

3. She will blame this on a recently acquired head injury even though her very own mother, if she were alive, would attest to the fact that she was born this way.

Oh, and I almost forgot #4: Despite all of these indisputable facts, it is extremely difficult to dislike her.

She was dressed in skin tight yoga pants with a matching tank, topped off with a hoodie and Nikes in complimentary neon colors. Her wispy gray hair was held back with a headband, also matching. “I came straight from my yoga class at the senior center as soon as I heard,” she informed us. “I was downward dogging when I got the call.” She plopped a purse the size of walk–in closet on the empty chair, put both hands on her skinny hips and looked me up and down. “What the hell happened to you?”

“I just slipped, Gert. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, that’s not what I heard! I heard you lost it in the Shop N Save,” she announced and instantly my face flushes hot with dread.

“Heard from who?”

“Lois Barnes. She said she saw the paramedics carrying you out of the store on a stretcher so she asked the stock boy what was going on. He told her a crazy lady plowed into the baked beans he’d just gotten done stacking.”

Baked beans?

“He said she looked half wacked. Lois called me right away of course and I told her it couldn’t have been you since you are completely whacked.” She laughed openly at her own hilarity. I slid my bandaged wrist underneath my hospital gown, out of sight. “Like I said, I slipped.”

“Regardless, I’m staying right here by your side to make sure you don’t get some quack who only wants to oogle your goodies. Before any Doctor touches you I’m checking out his license. Did you know that for fifty bucks any schmuck can get a phony piece of paper that says they’re a bona fide Doctor? They send it right in the U.S. Mail. They’re all over the internet. Saw it last week on 20/20.” She said all of this in one breath.

Mary Hartwig had halted her examination of me and was looking back and forth between the three of us. Since his mother’s arrival, Rob had been standing in the corner with his head down. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and was inhaling deeply. I was the only one to speak. “I’m sure there’s no one like that here, Gert.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I am not taking my eyes off you, no Sir, not in your condition. God only knows what they could get away with.”

“In my condition? What’s that supposed to mean?”

She looked at me and raised one eye brow. I didn’t ask her to elaborate. She turned to Mary. “What’s the prognosis?”

I spoke quietly thru gritted teeth. “Gert, I told you I was fine.”

“You are not fine. For starters, you mope around all day.”

“I do not.”

She leaned over and whispered in Mary’s ear like I wasn’t sitting right there. “Empty nest syndrome if you ask me. Text book case.”

“I’m sitting right here,” I said.

“I think she needs a hobby,” she announced.

“I don’t need a hobby.”

She bypassed me entirely and continued her one-sided conversation with Mary. “Last week, she changed the sheets on their bed twice in the same week”—she shot me a pitiful look— “no offense, Dear, but was that really necessary?” It was a rhetorical question in reference to our 24-year marriage. I opened my mouth to refute her but she stood there with her eyes locked on mine and one eyebrow arched high on her wrinkled little face. I chewed on the inside lining of my mouth.

“Plus, she’s been really forgetful,” she added.

Okay, she had me there. Last week, I tore two paper towels off the roll and stood there for a full five minutes trying to remember what I needed them for. I got so mad at myself I wadded them up in frustration and threw them in the trash. On the way out of the kitchen I slipped on the dog puke that I meant to wipe up with the paper towels. But that wasn’t point.

“…and she drinks too much.”

God help me.

“Tell me I’m wrong,” she challenged but I didn’t have the energy to challenge her. She was like a speeding freight train that couldn’t be stopped. The truth was, life was beating up on me and there was nothing I could do about it. The air in the room had stagnated and serious suicidal thoughts bounced off the inside of my head. I looked over at Rob. Large red blotches appeared just below his Adam’s apple and were migrating north across his neck. In the meantime, Mary made her best effort to dodge the chaos, weaving herself between the three of us in an attempt to do her job. As the tension in the room reached panic level she raised her voice above the din. “Would the two of you mind waiting outside? We have some tests to take and it may be a while.”

Relief spread across Rob’s face. “Good idea, let’s go, Mom. I need to check in at the Morris job anyway. I’ll drop you at home.”

“I can drive myself,” she snipped.

Rob cringed, which he does at the mere mention of his mother behind the wheel of a car, even though there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll walk you out. Where are you parked?”

“How the hell should I know? I left it with the valet.”

“There’s no valet parking here, Mom.”

“Well, shit,” she said.

Rob held the door for his mother while she pulled together her things. He shot me a somnolent look that I answered with a look of my own. “I’ll be back in a bit,” he said to me. I regarded this man, my tall and broad-shouldered husband, softened in the middle by age and handsome despite his dwindling head of hair. This man does not deserve a wife that smells like pee and cannot recall what she was doing two hours ago.

Gert zipped up her hoodie and picked up her purse. “I’ll see you at home. Unless they decide to commit you…I mean admityou.”

Ha Ha

She was halfway out the door, had me thinking I was home free, when she stopped suddenly, turned to Mary and said the unthinkable: “Mary, I just want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with your mother. I think it’s just a crime the way your husband slums around town…and that whore he runs around with? Pathetic.Mark my words, if my husband had been loosey-goosey with his wiener like that, he’d been peeing out another hole. Do you get what I’m saying?”

Mary’s jaw dropped, then closed. She swallowed her words and nodded silently. I repeated what I could remember of the Lord’s Prayer under my breath.

Gert dropped her voice to a whisper, which is never a good sign, so I braced myself. “You didn’t hear it from me, but if his dead body turns up in a landfill someday, I’d testify for you in court.”

Mary looked dumbfounded. “Um. Thank you?” she answered.

“You’re a good girl, Mary, always have been. You can do better.” And with that she was gone.

I smiled weakly. “She has a head injury.”

Mary shook it off. “I’m not here to judge, Carri. I have my own in laws to apologize for.”

“I’m really, really sorry.”

She gave me a dismissive wave. “The most important thing we need to worry about right now is getting the swelling down on that wrist.” She held my bandaged hand in her hand and turned it over ever so gingerly. I winced involuntarily. “I’ll go run down the Doctor. We better get you something for pain.”

“Thanks. I’ll take that with something 80-proof if you’ve got it.”

“Are you allergic to anything that you know of?”

“I’m not allergic to Morphine.”

“No one ever is, Honey.”



About the author

Christie Phetteplace grew up in southern Wisconsin and holds a degree in accounting. She and her husband (also named Chris) divide their time between their hometown of Janesville and the nothwoods of Minocqua, WI. She enjoys boating, wine, and Wisconsin Badger sports, not necessarily in that order. view profile

Published on January 31, 2019

Published by

90000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Women's Fiction

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