The Silent Woman by Minka Kent
fan to the end of my drugstore paperback and read the last page first.
Surprises have never been my thing. I’m here for the journey, every last titillating paragraph of it, but I need to know how it’s going to end first.
My phone vibrates, pattering against my mug of steaming Earl Grey. I sit my novel aside and press the green button before placing my husband’s call on speaker phone.
“Good morning.” I reach for my tea. Taking a careful sip, I gaze beyond the fresh arrangement of Casablanca lilies anchoring the kitchen table, toward the leafy back yard with its sparkling Spanish-tiled pool. And then I settle my attention on the picturesque caretaker’s cottage—where Wells’ first wife resides.
“About to present. Just wanted to hear your voice before I head in.” His words are breathier than usual. He’s never been one to let anyone see him sweat, but presenting a home he’s been designing for an entire year to a demanding client would be nerve-wracking for the most stoic of individuals. “Wish me luck.”
“Luck is the last thing you need,” I say, wearing the same playful grin that always finds its way to my lips whenever I hear his voice. “You’ve got this.”
“Did you get the flowers?”
“All seven of them,” I say. “Thank you.”
Rising from my chair, I lean closer to the small bouquet and drag the enchanting smell of Casablanca lilies into my lungs. Wells had them delivered this morning, along with a note indicating the seven flowers represented the seven days he’ll be away and missing me.
He’s always been a details man.
Over the next week, he’ll be in Charleston, meeting with his client and his client’s builder and interior designer. At fifteen thousand square feet and five acres of wooded land, it’s his biggest residential project to date. The renderings he’s shown me are breathtaking—French-inspired domes, marble fireplaces, and a sweeping double staircase in the two-story entrance. I can only imagine how it’ll turn out in real life.
“Alright,” he says. “They’re here. I’ve got to go. I’ll call you the second I’m back at my hotel tonight. I love you.”
“I love you too.” The words are still foreign on my tongue. I’ve never been one to fall head over heels that easily, and growing up, we weren’t a family who said that word very often. If we did, it was almost always written in a card and intentionally misspelled, like luv u bunches, a simple xo, or a hastily scribbled heart.
But I say it because I mean it, and I say it for him. That’s what marriage is about—growing as a person, making your partner happy, and sometimes that requires getting out of your comfort zone.
Heading to the sink to rinse my mug, I peer into the backyard again, my gaze fixed on the guest house where my silent predecessor resides.
Wells told me he and Sylvie were trying to have a baby before her unfortunate accident, that she wanted nothing more in this world than to be a mother, that they’d been trying fruitlessly for a while and were about to make an appointment with a specialist to see what was going on. She was so excited, so full of hope, so ready, he told me.
Fate can be cruel.
And then it can be crueler still.
Before we married last month, Wells warned me that our arrangement would be unconventional—delicate—but when you love someone, you accept their baggage just as they accept yours.
I check my watch and take a deep breath. I’ve got a call in twenty minutes with my agent. She emailed me yesterday, asking if I had a few minutes to “touch base.” I’m certain she thinks I’m taking my sweet time with my current manuscript. And maybe I am. But only because I’m enjoying the process so much the idea of finishing it fills me with dread.
A year ago, who’d have thought I’d land a seven-figure contract to write the first and only authorized biography on the late and enigmatic Golden Age Hollywood icon Viviette Westmore? Who’d have thought I’d be married to her one and only grandson? That I’d be living in her historic Brentwood estate, one filled with all of her personal effects and untouched by time.
Most mornings I could pinch myself.
This time last year, I was holed up in a shoebox apartment, subsisting off ramen and Folgers, quelling my loneliness with laughably bad Tinder dates. My student loans were in their final month of forbearance and my ancient Hyundai was one scorching summer day from overheating on the 405 again.
The day I met Wells changed the course of my life forever.
I’m about to head upstairs to work when a blur of movement outside the window captures my attention. I glance outside to find Sylvie’s daytime nurse sprinting from the cottage to the pool before trotting towards the back door by the kitchen. With her oversized purse clutched tight against her side, she pounds on the window pane portion of the door, her palm flat and her eyes wide.
My stomach drops.
“Hello?” she calls before knocking again, her voice sharp against the glass. “Is anyone home?”
I can’t get to her fast enough, unfastening the latch and yanking on the stuck door with all of my might.
“Hi … what’s going on?” I ask, realizing I haven’t the slightest idea what her name is.
I don’t know any of Sylvie’s nurses or caretakers’ names; Wells handles all of that.
She exhales, lifting a trembling hand to her chest. “Thank goodness someone’s home. I have a family emergency, and I need to go. I’ve called the supervising nurse and left a message. I just wanted someone to know Sylvie’s by herself right now …”
“Have you called Wells?” I ask, though I’m not sure why it would make a difference. He’s in meetings all day. There’s nothing he can do from two thousand miles away.
“Yes, ma’am,” she says before checking her watch. Her name badge is crooked, but I manage to catch her name: Eliza. “Mr. Westmore didn’t answer. I have to leave—I’m so sorry. Sylvie still needs to take her morning pills, but she can’t take them on an empty stomach. I’m not sure when they’ll send someone else to cover, but I …”
Eliza’s words fade into nothing as our eyes hold for a moment that feels longer than it is.
She doesn’t have to finish her thought. I already know what she’s asking. And the look in her focused gaze tells me she’s well aware of Wells’ wishes that no one enters the cottage besides nurses—and him.
With her fragile state of mind and inability to communicate, no one is sure what all she’s able to comprehend. Wells has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to cause her undue stress nor does he want to burden me with managing her care. I’ve assured him many times that her care would never burden me, but from what I understand, her condition is complex. She’s a riddle even the finest doctors in the world have yet to solve.
“I’ll handle it,” I say, offering a reassuring smile to hide the icy blanket of panic washing over me. “Go ahead. I’ve got this.”
I inject confidence in my words despite it not belonging there.
It’s me … or no one.
“Her pills are on the counter,” Eliza says. “The instructions are on the bottles. She likes brown sugar oatmeal for breakfast. Scrambled eggs with butter. No salt or pepper.”
“Coffee is okay, but no orange juice,” she adds, walking backwards with uneven strides. “The vitamin C interferes with the absorption of one of her meds.”
I nod, sliding my trembling hands in my back pockets. “Understood.”
“She needs to take her pills in the next half an hour. Any later and she won’t sleep tonight.”
I overheard Wells talking on the phone with Sylvie’s doctors once, and while I wasn’t trying to listen in, I couldn’t mistake a handful of words that stuck out clear as day: manic, catatonic, physical outbursts, lethargic, unstable, mood stabilizers, appetite stimulants …
I got the sense that they were simply layering medications on top of each other in an attempt to cancel out unwanted side effects. But I didn’t want to pry. It wasn’t my place, and it’s none of my business.
Eliza nearly trips over a terracotta flower pot on her way, but in an instant, she’s out of sight. Lingering in the open doorway, I steer my attention to the cottage and swallow the lump building in my throat.
Three years ago. Wells found her face-down in the pool, blood gushing from the side of her head. He managed to pull her out, call 9-1-1, and begin CPR as she wasn’t breathing.
He saved her life.
But her life was never the same after that.
Closing the back door, I pace the kitchen before stopping at the island to collect myself.
Aside from the occasional flutter of a sheer curtain or lithe shadow moving behind a darkened window, I’ve only seen Sylvie Westmore in photographs.
I shut my eyes, draw in a long, slow breath, and convince myself that helping her is the right thing to do, that no matter what happens, Wells will understand. He’ll be grateful, I’m sure.
The trill of my phone sends a start to my chest. I suck in a sharp breath and wait for my heart rate to settle as my agent’s name flashes across the screen.
In the midst of all of this, I’d spaced off our call.
“Julie, hi. I’m so sorry,” I answer. “I’m going to have to reschedule.”
“Everything alright?” She hardly disguises the annoyance in her tone. Not that I blame her. My publisher is breathing down her back, therefore she needs to breathe down mine. That’s how this works. Pressure creates diamonds, and this diamond of a biography needs to be flawless.
“No, um, something just came up,” I say, thinking fast. “A bit of a … family emergency.”
Wells is my family, Sylvie was his, it’s the only way I can describe this without going into detail or inviting questions I’m not prepared to answer.
“My god, Jade. I’m so sorry. Anything I can do?” she asks from her high-rise office in Manhattan.
“Thank you,” I say, “but I’m handling it. I’ll call you this afternoon?”
“Of course. I’ll be here.”
I end the call and wipe my sweaty palms on the sides of my thighs as prickles of sweat collect across my brow.
Plucking the Casablanca lilies from the table, I carry them to the sink, trim the stems, and place them in a small, fluted glass vase—one that once belonged to Viviette. They say it’s in poor taste to show up to someone’s home for the first time empty handed, but this will have to do on such short notice. I’m not sure what she’s able to understand, but I don’t want to assume she’s nothing more than a living, breathing bag of bones.
Palms fastened carefully around the crystal jar, I begin to make my way to the cottage with my heart in my teeth every step of the way.
I have approximately thirty seconds to prepare what I’m going to say to Sylvie, though it’s impossible to know if she’ll understand any of it. Maybe it’s just a vain attempt to make myself feel better about this whole arrangement, to relieve myself of the guilt that gnaws away at me little by little every time I look back at the cottage.
My beautiful, charmed little life is a direct result of someone else’s personal tragedy— the heaviness of that painful fact is not lost on me.
In an instant I’m standing at her door, my feet anchored onto the small cement pad, no recollection of the trek here.
I rap lightly against the door and listen for footsteps. I don’t want to barge in. Then again, it’s what everyone else does. The day nurse, the night nurse, the laundress, the grocery delivery service, Wells …
Squinting into the window, I spot her thin frame sitting in a plush recliner the color of gray skies. Her unblinking stare is fixed on the flickering TV on the other side of the room. Her hands rest on the tops of her blanket-covered thighs, balled into loose fists. If it weren’t for the slow, subtle rise and fall of her chest, there’d be no way to know she’s alive.
I knock again, just in case.
But Sylvie doesn’t move.
Securing the vase under one arm, I twist the doorknob and step inside.
“Sylvie?” I say. “Hi. I’m Jade.”
|September 30, 2022
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