She drew a smiley face inside of a heart on his paper lunch bag, just as she loved to do for him every morning before school, so she certainly didn’t look like a mother who was two minutes away from murdering her own son.
The switch hadn’t activated yet.
Carol Hutchins was still herself when she ambled down the stairs in her slippers and robe that morning. She was still herself when she put on a pot of coffee, and when she let Riffraff, the two-year-old German Shepherd, out in the back yard. She sat at the kitchen table and skimmed CNN on her iPad while waiting for the coffee to brew. Just like every morning.
There was no need to check on Scotty and make sure he was out of bed. Scotty was one of those 12-year-olds who actually enjoyed school, and she knew he’d be down soon all on his own, excited to seize another day.
The coffeemaker gurgled to a finish. She poured a mug and took the lunch bag she’d made for him last night out of the fridge. After drawing the heart and smiley face on it with all the care that only a mom can give in such a simple gesture, she returned to the kitchen table.
Riffraff wagged his tail at the back door, ready to come in, but she ignored him. She didn’t let him in because at some point between the counter and the table—
The switch had activated.
Riffraff was big for his age, already 85 pounds, and she couldn’t predict how he’d react to what was about to happen. Better to keep him outside, a non-factor. She’d let him in later after cleaning up the blood.
Scotty’s footsteps rumbled overhead as he bounded down the stairs, then he darted into the kitchen with a backpack on his shoulders and a smile on his face. He had the same smile as her, and the same eyes and the same hair color. Without stopping, he snatched his lunch off the counter and bolted toward the kitchen door leading into the garage.
"Hey, Mom. Thanks for lunch!"
"Hold it. What’s the rule about running inside?"
He halted and turned, speaking fast: "Sorry, Nate and I are gonna race our bikes to school today."
"Wear your helmets." If she showed any sign of being different after the switch, Scotty didn’t seem to notice. She looked and talked like she always did. It’s just that now, she was acting. And waiting for the right moment.
"I know," he said, turning back toward the garage.
"Hang on, mister. Give me a hug." She rose from the table and crossed the kitchen, walking within reaching distance of a hammer. The past two evenings after work, her husband had helped Scotty build a Purple Martin birdhouse for the back yard, and last night he’d left the hammer on the counter by the back door.
But Carol passed by it. There were more efficient methods.
She opened her arms to hug him. "I love you, angel."
He gave her a quick hug back. "Love you, too." He let go, but she did not. He rolled his eyes and hugged her again. "Mooooom, I’ll see you after school."
The counter closest to the garage had a knife block on top of it. As she hugged Scotty tighter with one hand, she drew a carving knife with an eight-inch blade in the other.
He didn’t scream. Maybe he was too shocked or too confused, or most likely, he simply couldn’t. The knife entered the right side of Scotty’s neck and had no doubt severed his larynx before the tip broke through the left side of his neck. His jaw gaped. Blood pooled in his mouth then overflowed onto his lips and chin. His shoulders shuddered and he would have collapsed, except she was still hugging him tightly with her other hand.
That’s all the force it took—one thrust from one hand, and her one son was dead.
Her fingers relaxed around the knife handle, leaving it impaled through his neck. Scotty’s head went limp, bobbing twice, then fell to a rest against the handle. He looked peaceful, as if taking a nap on it.
Carol had to be at the Sands Club for brunch in two hours to make sure everything was set for tonight’s gala, and she still had to shower and put on her face, so it was time to get busy cleaning.
She kissed him one last time on the forehead and eased him to the floor.
She’d meant what she said before—she loved her little angel and always would—it’s just that the switch had activated and... well, she didn’t know why, exactly, but she knew with every fiber of her being that she’d had to kill her son.
The question loomed in her head as she drifted toward the cleaning closet. Her body ran on auto-pilot, somehow grabbing trash bags and a mop, while her mind replayed everything, trying to convince herself it had to be done. But had it?
Riffraff barked, still standing at the back door. Only now his tail pointed up stiffly and his ears angled forward, alert. All of his focus on Carol.
She met his anxious stare and the faintest hint of tears glittered in her eyes.
"It’s all right, Riffraff. Mommy will let you back in in just a bit."
He barked again and cocked his head the way dogs always do when trying to understand humans.
The most notorious urban legend about the bridge went like this: a Wall Street banker drove his wife and three kids all the way down from Connecticut to North Carolina for their annual two-week beach vacation, but as soon as they’d parked at their house on the island, he started walking back. After ten hours in the car with them, he’d had it. At some point as he was crossing the mile-and-a-half bridge over Bogue Sound, it occurred to him that the height was likely high enough to kill himself, so he jumped. It was not high enough. A gentleman out for a Saturday cruise on his Hatteras Yacht saw him smack the water, pulled him out and sped him up to Morehead City, where doctors determined he’d fractured his spine in two places and would spend the rest of his life confined to his bed, surrounded by his wife and three kids.
If the story had a message at all, it was the last thing on Molly Porter’s mind as she accelerated her Jeep Cherokee onto the bridge toward the island. She was busy laughing at the bug-eyed expression Claire was making in the passenger seat.
Claire had Molly’s graded test paper and waved it in front of the steering wheel, taunting: "Your dad’s going to kill youuu! He’s totally gonna kill—"
Molly tried to snag it but Claire whipped it up through the sunroof and held it, flapping in the wind. Molly couldn’t reach it and drive at the same time, but she could reach Claire’s face—specifically, the sunglasses on Claire’s face, which she yanked off and dangled out her own window.
"Give it back or your Roxys go in the sound!" They were zooming up the bridge’s peak now, 80 feet above the water, and that first really good taste of salty ocean air filled the Jeep.
"Fine, here. Here’s your lousy C+." Claire tossed the paper at Molly’s chest. Of course, it never made it. The draft between the open windows caught it and Molly’s Spanish midterm shot out of the Jeep like a jet ski. Both girls’ mouths hung open, then they burst into giggles. The kind of giggles all high schoolers have on their way home from Friday classes, giddy about the endless, limitless weekend before them.
Molly twirled the sunglasses by their stems. "I should absolutely torch these for that," but she dropped them in Claire’s lap instead.
"Thanks. Sorry about your test. For real, though: your dad’s gonna be pissed. How does someone who spent all last summer in Costa Rica only manage a C in Spanish?"
"Don’t call him my dad, that’s weird." Richard had been Molly’s stepfather for two years now, but she wasn’t used to the whole "Dad" thing yet. That is, if she ever would be.
"Just admit it: all you did down there was surf, didn’t you?"
Molly wasn’t yet used to her friends being jealous of Costa Rica, either. She’d be a senior next fall and Richard was obsessed with her earning a merit scholarship to college. All her friends knew he’d sent her down there solely to work in an outreach program, but all they’d seemed to hear was, "Costa Rica: home to some of the best waves on the planet."
"That was like a year ago and most of my group spoke English anyway. Besides, he’s not gonna know about the test since you blew it into the sound, bee-otch."
Both girls cracked-up again.
The quartz-colored sand of Claire’s driveway crunched under Molly’s tires. An actual cement driveway was buried somewhere under there, but Claire’s house was down near The Point, the southern tip of the island where the ocean met the sound, and where the ever-shifting sand didn’t exactly cater to the landscaping preferences of beach residents, even those as wealthy as Claire’s parents.
Claire checked a text on her phone. "Okay, it’s for sure: Ryan’s parents aren’t coming back before the bridge closes tonight." After the ferry shut down a decade ago, the bridge was the only way by car on or off the island, and its wear and tear had started to show. In January, the NCDOT stated the bridge couldn’t go another summer tourist season without repairs and they scheduled a maintenance closure for this entire first weekend in April. "They’re getting a keg. So are you coming out or what?"
"I’m supposed to watch Ben and Nate tonight. Your parents are going to that gala-thingy, too, right?”
"Can’t they get a babysitter? They’re not your kids."
"I don’t mind. Ben is so cute, you have no idea. He does this thing where—"
“How come you never go out anymore? And when you do you don’t even drink.”
"Claire-Bear, sweetie, you say that like it’s a bad thing. Why don’t you come hang out til it’s over? We could watch—"
“You want me to stay in with you and your munchkin brothers... on a Friday night? Wow. Your stepdad has seriously gotten in your head. Maybe we should fish that Spanish midterm out of the water and show it to him."
"Yo, Spanish is muy hardo. Comprendo, ese?"
"For real for real: you’re telling me Mr Tightwad isn’t getting to you? You’re so different now. Ever since—“
"Yeah, yeah—ever since I got back from Costa Rica, right?"
"No. I was gonna say you’ve been different since before you even left."
Claire looked past her massive, four-story house, out at a lone pelican gliding over the breakers. They usually flew in groups. "I miss my partner in crime."
And with that, Claire got out, swung her bookbag over her tanned shoulders curving out of her tank top, and trotted toward the steps. Every oceanfront house had a ground floor that was just a garage and stilts, with the actual front door up a flight of wooden stairs on a wraparound porch. When Claire’s flipflop clacked on the first step, Molly called to her:
"Hey, maybe I’ll see y’all later."
Claire smiled, but it was one of those forced smiles, like she didn’t believe her. Molly couldn’t blame her because the truth was, Claire was right: Molly had been neglecting her friends and that needed to be rectified, whether Richard liked it or not. Tonight, she’d find a way to that party.
As she backed out, she thought about how notice of the bridge closure had been plastered all over the island for months. The high schoolers had lucked out—Ryan’s party was only possible because his parents decided at the last minute to stay at their mainland house for the weekend. The adults’ gala, on the other hand—not only had some genius accidentally planned it for the same night as the closure, but none of the other adults even noticed in time to reschedule it. Really? What morons, Molly smirked.
Molly lived only two miles up Ocean Drive from Claire’s house, but the contrast in neighborhoods was stark, with fewer new cars in the driveways and fewer stories on the houses. Her house was second-row, across the street from the oceanfront properties, but still up on stilts with a carport and outdoor shower underneath.
She loved that outdoor shower. Although she used it less and less nowadays, she swore she’d taken more showers in it over the years than in her own bathroom. Back when her dad still lived there, he used to wake her for dawn patrol surf sessions, after which, she wouldn’t even go back upstairs before he drove her to school. Just a quick rinse in the outdoor shower, an even quicker change into the clothes he brought down, along with her bookbag, and off they went, racing to beat first bell. It was always a race because they always spent as much time as they could in the water together—whether the waves were up or not. By the time they’d pull into school, the towel in the driver-seat of his pickup would be damp under his trunks and his hair and skin would be sticky with dried saltwater, but he’d always give her a great ol’ bear hug—even if first bell was already ringing—and he’d whisper in her ear that if he had any big sales that day, they’d do it all again that afternoon. And back then, he often did, which led to even more rinse-offs for her in that outdoor shower.
But that was all back then, before the divorce.
She parked beside the staircase and headed up to the front porch, where she found her 12-year-old brother, Nate, lying in the hammock with his legs sprawled out. He held his iPad over his face with one hand to block the sun, casting a cool shadow on his face, and his other hand swiped away on the screen.
She gave the hammock a shove. "Hey, hot stuff!"
"Hey." Nate never looked away from his screen as he swayed.
"Happy Friday." Molly went inside, the screen door clattering shut behind her. That North Carolina humidity wouldn’t kick into high gear for another month so they still kept all the windows up and a light ocean breeze swept through the high-ceilinged room. The main living area was one big open space, with all the bedrooms and bathrooms off a hall to the side. But Molly wouldn’t be heading thataway just yet.
She couldn’t help smiling as she stepped into the living room area and slung her bookbag on the couch. Her smile wasn’t at all like Claire’s before—this was genuine, one of those purely instinctual smiles that seemed to grow bigger than not only her face, but than the entire room.
"How’re we doing this afternoon?" She knelt at the crib between the coffee table and fireplace where Ben, all of eight-and-a-half months old, crawled to the plastic bars and babbled a greeting. Molly scooped him up and baby-talked back: "Oh, are you happy to see me? Well I am happy to see you, too!" It still blew her mind to think how, in under a year, this little guy had become her favorite person in the world.
"Did ya have any good cries today? Didja?" It was a recurring joke between the two—Ben cried less than any baby Molly had ever known. Not that she’d known many at her ripe old age of 17, but still—he never cried. "It’s okay to sometimes, okay?"
Something dawned on her. She called through the screen windows: "Nate, where’s Mom?" The middle school was on the island, close enough for Nate to ride his bike to every day, so he always got home before Molly.
"I heard her shower running when I came in. You know Mom. She takes ten years to get ready for one night."
"So who was watching Ben?"
"He’s a baby. In a crib. We should watch him, what? Drool?"
Molly let it go. She’d set Ben back in his crib and was hurrying around the room now, collecting toys and stuffing them in his away bag. "Look, you’ll be fine alone for a few hours tonight, right? I’m gonna see if Dad can watch Ben. I want to go out."
For the first time, Nate looked away from his iPad. He twisted around in the hammock to see her through the window. "Could you drop me off at Scotty’s?"
"That’s the opposite direction."
"Yeah but, something weird’s going on." He came inside, the screen door clattering shut again. "He wasn’t in class today and hasn’t answered any of my chats."
"Aw, are you and your bestie in a tiff? That’s cute." At the fridge, she grabbed a formula bottle for the away bag. "If you two are cranky, I can give ya milk and a nappy-poo."
"Har har. He texted me before school—we were supposed to race our bikes today, but he never showed."
"The horror! Ride your bike to his house now."
"It’s gonna rain. Come on."
At the stop sign, Molly glanced in her rear-view at the Atlantic peeking out from between the dunes and oceanfront houses. A grey and purple storm front towered over the horizon, slowly rolling toward them. It looked about an hour off still, which meant if she got this over with quick enough, she’d have a 30-minute window where the waves would swell and glass over before the rain unzipped and churned it all into slop. She’d need to shower before heading out tonight anyway—might as well make it an outdoor one for old times’ sake.
"So," Nate said. "Do they know you’re not babysitting?"
"Mom won’t care. You mean does Richard know. And he can get over it."
"He’s not so bad, Molly. You act like he ruins your life, but he’s trying to help."
"This is the first Friday in forever I haven’t stayed in with you guys or been off doing one of his extracurricular craptivities." There was the bake sale last weekend he signed her up for without asking, the Spring Parade flotilla on March 20, then in February, he had her chair the Valentine’s Day Dance committee. A dance she didn’t even attend after getting a B in History. Her night would be better spent studying while babysitting Nate and Ben, Richard had told her. "I can have a night off, right?"
"Hey, no argument from me—I’ve been telling ’em for years I can man the house." Nate huffed on his knuckles and mock-polished them on his collar.
Molly chuckled as she turned on Scotty’s street. "Ah, Nate, they’re gonna have their hands full with you once I’m gone."
Houses on the sound-side of the island were built into the ground instead of up on stilts, so the street looked more like a mainland neighborhood than a beach one.
Scotty’s garage door was up and Carol Hutchins was inside doing... what was she doing? She had their German Shepherd on a leash and was tugging him toward the kitchen door, but he wouldn’t budge from the trash bin.
Nate leaned out his window. "Hey, Mrs Hutchins!"
Carol jumped, as if she hadn’t noticed them pull in the drive, then she shook it off and approached the Jeep. "Hi, guys." She peered in the back at Ben snoozing in his car seat. "What a little angel. He looks just like Scotty when he was a baby." She gazed at him. "Could I—could I hold him? You won’t mind, will you?"
"Uh, actually..." Molly didn’t want to be rude, but—
Nate cut her off: "Is Scotty home? He wasn’t at school."
"Oh, his dad took him to Shackleford for a long weekend."
"Really? He didn’t tell me."
"It was a surprise. Camping, fishing, father-son stuff." Carol still had the leash in her hand and at its other end the dog scratched at the trash bin.
"What’s with Riffraff?" Nate asked.
Carol didn’t turn to look. "He just wants the leftovers Mommy tossed this morning, the rascal." Riffraff put his head down in a prayer position and, nose to the bin, let out the saddest whine Molly ever heard.
"Whoa, musta been good." Molly checked the time on her phone. "Okay, Natey-boy, looks like you’re stuck going with me to Dad’s."
"Can’t you drop me back on the way?"
"I’ll give you a lift." Carol said.
"Thanks, but he’ll be okay." Molly shifted the gear in reverse.
"It’s no trouble. I have to run more odds and ends over to the gala. Let me take you home, Nate. I will take you."
Molly sometimes thought the "Southern Hospitality" locals prided themselves on came across as too forward, and while this entire conversation was one of those times, she shrugged to Nate that it was up to him.
He breathed deep, like he was... relieved to not have to go to their dad’s house. He hopped out. "Thanks, Mrs Hutchins. You’re a lifesaver."