11 YEARS BEFORE
The text comes from a number I don’t know. It’s a 630 area code. Local. I’m in the bathroom with Leo as he soaks in the tub. He has his bath toys lined up on the edge of it and they’re taking turns swan diving into the now-lukewarm water. It used to be hot, too hot for Leo to get into. But he’s been in there for thirty minutes now playing with his octopus, his whale, his fish. He’s having a ball.
Meanwhile I’ve lost track of time. I have a client in the early stages of labor. We’re texting. Her husband wants to take her to the hospital. She thinks it’s too soon. Her contractions are six and a half minutes apart. She’s absolutely correct. It’s too soon. The hospital would just send her home, which is frustrating, not to mention a huge inconvenience for women in labor. And anyway, why labor at the hospital when you can labor in the comfort of your own home? First-time fathers always get skittish. It does their wives no good. By the time I get to them, more times than not, the woman in labor is the more calm of the two. I have to focus my attention on pacifying a nervous husband. It’s not what they’re paying me for.
I tell Leo one more minute until I shampoo his hair, and then fire off a quick text, suggesting my client have a snack to keep her energy up, herself nourished. I recommend a nap, if her body will let her. The night ahead will be long for all of us. Childbirth, especially when it comes to first-time moms, is a marathon, not a sprint.
Josh is home. He’s in the kitchen cleaning up from dinner while Delilah plays. Delilah’s due up next in the tub. By the time I leave, the bedtime ritual will be done or nearly done. I feel good about that, hating the times I leave Josh alone with so much to do.
I draw up my text and then hit Send. The reply is immediate, that all too familiar ping that comes to me at all hours of the day or night.
I glance down at the phone in my hand, expecting it’s my client with some conditioned reply. Thx.
Instead: I know what you did. I hope you die.
Beside the text is a picture of a grayish skull with large, black eye sockets and teeth. The symbol of death.
My muscles tense. My heart quickens. I feel thrown off. The small bathroom feels suddenly, overwhelmingly, oppressive. It’s steamy, moist, hot. I drop down to the toilet and have a seat on the lid. My pulse is loud, audible in my own ears. I stare at the words before me, wondering if I’ve misread. Certainly I’ve misread. Leo is asking, “Is it a minute, Mommy?” I hear his little voice, muff led by the ringing in my ears. But I’m so thrown by the cutthroat text that I can’t speak.
I glance at the phone again. I haven’t misread.
The text is not from my client in labor. It’s not from any client of mine whose name and number is stored in my phone. As far as I can tell, it’s not from anyone I know.
A wrong number, then, I think. Someone sent this to me by accident. It has to be. My first thought is to delete it, to pretend this never happened. To make it disappear. Out of sight, out of mind.
But then I think of whoever sent it just sending it again or sending something worse. I can’t imagine anything worse.
I decide to reply. I’m careful to keep it to the point, to not sound too judgy or fault-finding because maybe the intended recipient really did do something awful—stole money from a children’s cancer charity—and the text isn’t as egregious as it looks at first glance.
I text: You have the wrong number.
The response is quick.
I hope you rot in hell, Meredith.
The phone slips from my hand. I yelp. The phone lands on the navy blue bath mat, which absorbs the sound of its fall.
Whoever is sending these texts knows my name. The texts are meant for me.
A second later Josh knocks on the bathroom door. I spring from the toilet seat, and stretch down for the phone. The phone has fallen facedown. I turn it over. The text is still there on the screen, staring back at me.
Josh doesn’t wait to be let in. He opens the door and steps right inside. I slide the phone into the back pocket of my jeans before Josh has a chance to see.
“Hey,” he says, “how about you save some water for the fish.”
Leo complains to Josh that he is cold. “Well, let’s get you out of the bath,” Josh says, stretching down to help him out of the water.
“I need to wash him still,” I admit. Before me, Leo’s teeth chatter. There are goose bumps on his arm that I hadn’t noticed before. He is cold, and I feel suddenly guilty, though it’s mired in confusion and fear. I hadn’t been paying any attention to Leo. There is bathwater spilled all over the floor, but his hair is still bone-dry.
“You haven’t washed him?” Josh asks, and I know what he’s thinking: that in the time it took him to clear the kitchen table, wash pots and pans and wipe down the sinks, I did nothing. He isn’t angry or accusatory about it. Josh isn’t the type to get angry.
“I have a client in labor,” I say by means of explanation. “She keeps texting,” I say, telling Josh that I was just about to wash Leo. I drop to my knees beside the tub. I reach for the shampoo. In the back pocket of my jeans, the phone again pings. This time, I ignore it. I don’t want Josh to know what’s happening, not until I get a handle on it for myself.
Josh asks, “Aren’t you going to get that?” I say that it can wait. I focus on Leo, on scrubbing the shampoo onto his hair, but I’m anxious. I move too fast so that the shampoo suds get in his eye. I see it happening, but all I can think to do is wipe it from his forehead with my own soapy hands. It doesn’t help. It makes it worse.
Leo complains. Leo isn’t much of a complainer. He’s an easygoing kid. “Ow,” is all that he says, his tiny wet hands going to his eyes, though shampoo in the eye burns like hell.
“Does that sting, baby?” I ask, feeling contrite. But I’m bursting with nervous energy. There’s only one thought racing through my mind. I hope you rot in hell, Meredith.
Who would have sent that, and why? Whoever it is knows me. They know my name. They’re mad at me for something I’ve done. Mad enough to wish me dead. I don’t know anyone like that. I can’t think of anything I’ve done to upset someone enough that they’d want me dead.
I grab the wet washcloth draped over the edge of the tub. I try handing it to Leo, so that he can press it to his own eyes. But my hands shake as I do. I wind up dropping the washcloth into the bath. The tepid water rises up and splashes him in the eyes. This time he cries.
“Oh, buddy,” I say, “I’m so sorry, it slipped.”
But as I try again to grab it from the water and hand it to him, I drop the washcloth for a second time. I leave it where it is, letting Leo fish it out of the water and wipe his eyes for himself. Meanwhile Josh stands two feet behind, watching.
My phone pings again. Josh says, “Someone is really dying to talk to you.”
Dying. It’s all that I hear.
My back is to Josh, thank God. He can’t see the look on my face when he says it.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Your client,” Josh says. I turn to him. He motions to my phone jutting out of my back pocket. “She really needs you. You should take it, Mer,” he says softly, accommodatingly, and only then do I think about my client in labor and feel guilty. What if it is her? What if her contractions are coming more quickly now and she does need me?
Josh says, “I can finish up with Leo while you get ready to go,” and I acquiesce, because I need to get out of here. I need to know if the texts coming to my phone are from my client or if they’re coming from someone else.
I rise up from the floor. I scoot past Josh in the door, brushing against him. His hand closes around my upper arm as I do, and he draws me in for a hug. “Everything okay?” he asks, and I say yes, fine, sounding too chipper even to my own ears. Everything is not okay.
“I’m just thinking about my client,” I say. “She’s had a stillbirth before, at thirty-two weeks. She never thought she’d get this far. Can you imagine that? Losing a baby at thirty-two weeks?”
Josh says no. His eyes move to Leo and he looks saddened by it. I feel guilty for the lie. It’s not this client but another who lost a baby at thirty-two weeks. When she told me about it, I was completely torn up. It took everything in me not to cry as she described for me the moment the doctor told her her baby didn’t have a heartbeat. Labor was later induced, and she had to push her dead baby out with only her mother by her side. Her husband was deployed at the time. After, she was snowed under by guilt. Was it her fault the baby died? A thousand times I held her hand and told her no. I’m not sure she ever believed me.
My lie has the desired effect. Josh stands down, and asks if I need help with anything before I leave. I say no, that I’m just going to change my clothes and go.
I step out of the bathroom. In the bedroom, I close the door. I grab my scrub bottoms and a long-sleeved T-shirt from my drawer. I lay them on the bed, but before I get dressed, I pull my phone out of my pocket. I take a deep breath and hold it in, summoning the courage to look. I wonder what waits there. More nasty threats? My heart hammers inside me. My knees shake.
I take a look. There are two messages waiting for me.
The first: Water broke. Contractions 5 min apart.
And then: Heading to hospital.—M.
I release my pent-up breath. The texts are from my client’s husband, sent from her phone. My legs nearly give in relief, and I drop down to the edge of the bed, forcing myself to breathe. I inhale long and deep. I hold it in until my lungs become uncomfortable. When I breathe out, I try and force away the tension.
But I can’t sit long because my client is advancing quickly. I need to go.
Excerpted from Local Woman Missing @ 2021 by Mary Kyrychenko, used with permission by Park Row Books.