Ten-year-old Brian McKibben is a wanderer. Eight months ago, he wandered into the street and was hit by a truck. Olivia Richards, his newly divorced mother, was accused of neglect by Child Protection Services. She’s doing her best to prove them wrong. Essential oils, a consultation with an herbalist, and an airtight schedule are only some of the things she does to keep Brian safe and help him heal from brain damage caused by the accident.
Her carefully laid plans begin to unravel when it becomes apparent Olivia’s CPS caseworker isn’t the only one watching her. The walls of her Pilates studio seem to have eyes, especially at night. Cryptic messages of death and danger begin showing up in strange places. Someone is stalking her.
Who can she turn to for help? The authorities would inform CPS, and she might never be free of the county’s intrusion in her life. She suspects her ex-husband of using scare tactics to regain custody of their son. Her new relationship is complicated and old suspicions haunt the young mother.
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WAS IT HIM? An old panic rose in Olivia's chest. The man's head was bowed over a sheet of paper as he walked across the parking lot of the Mission Viejo Civic Center. His gait caught her eye first. Proctor had walked like that, bowlegged and slightly pigeon-toed.
The man's hair was cropped close to his head and threaded with gray. Proctor's had been brown and had hung in greasy locks to his shoulders. This man was shorter, not as imposing as the man of her memories. But, of course, she'd only been a child when she'd known Proctor.
He glanced up from his reading, and her throat constricted. The eyes. They were the washed-out color of old denim, cold and predatory. Could two men have those same eyes?
Olivia stayed in the car and watched him pass. She didn't think he'd recognize her. It had been so many years. She was an adult now, not a girl. But, still, the idea of those eyes fixing on her made her skin crawl.
She waited until he disappeared into the library before exiting her car. It might have been her imagination, but when she stepped out into the warm evening she could've sworn she smelled the familiar scent of him — cigarettes and stale sweat mixed with the mineral odor of chalk. She'd never forgotten it.
She was ten minutes early for her parenting class, but even if she'd been late, she would have waited until he was safely inside the library. Allowing him to pass only feet from her without some kind of protection, a barrier between them ... She couldn't have done it. Not even twenty-two years later.
Olivia hurried across the tarmac feeling exposed and vulnerable, and ducked into City Hall. Why would he come here? Her mother had released another book recently. He was a parasite, a man who lived off the fat of other people's land. But why now? Sarah Richards's name had been in the media for years.
Maybe it was just a horrible coincidence. Tumbleweeds went wherever the wind blew, and it often blew west. Since its Gold Rush days, California had drawn drifters and opportunists. Proctor had been both.
Regina, the instructor, beamed at Olivia when she entered the community room where the class was held. Olivia walked to the third row and slid into a seat next to Nanette.
Nanette snapped shut the laptop she'd been working on and glanced up. She was a single mother, a CPA with a busy client load, and had no time for frivolity, but she and Olivia had bonded over their similar circumstances. Her smile of greeting withered when she saw Olivia 's face. "Are you okay?"
Olivia was still in a state of shock, and it must have shown. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"You don't look fine. Brian okay?"
"Brian's great." Nanette looked at Olivia over the top of her glasses with doubt in her intelligent, brown eyes. "I thought I saw somebody I hadn't seen in years. That's all," Olivia said.
"Must be a real charmer."
Olivia changed the topic. She didn't want to talk about the man in the parking lot. "So what's the latest Carl infraction?"
All of the adults in the room had been mandated by Child Protection Services to take the class for one reason or another. Nanette, like Olivia, was found negligent because she'd left a nine-year-old home alone. She'd run to the office for some paperwork she'd forgotten on a Saturday morning. Unlike Olivia, no harm had come to her child as a result. Nanette was here because her ex-husband, Carl, wanted full custody of their daughter. According to her, he contacted CPS every time their child sneezed.
"He called Fred. Again." Fred was their caseworker. Both she and Olivia had the same one, another reason they'd bonded.
"What did he say this time?"
"I was late picking up Dawn from school. There was an accident on the road, lots of traffic. I called and told the office what was going on, but I didn't ask who I was speaking to. No one at the school remembers my call."
"How did Carl know you were late? Did Dawn tell him?"
"No. He's been playing private-eye for the past two weeks. He goes to the school at two-thirty every day and watches until I get there to pick her up."
"If only. When we were married, he never had time to take Dawn anywhere, but now he can sit for forty-five minutes a day picking his nose. He only wants something if someone else has it."
"Fred's not going to do anything about this. He knows what's happening."
"He knows, but he has to record everything. I'm worried, Olivia. Carl's lawyer is a shark."
"But you're a great mother."
"No, not great. Improving, yes, but I still make mistakes." Nanette shook her head.
"We all make mistakes; we're human." Even as the words left Olivia's lips, she realized the irony of uttering them in her present surroundings. Whether they deserved to be here or not, the County had no grace for parents in the system.
"Perception is reality. Carl is creating truth, one error at a time," Nanette said.
Regina called the room to order and began taking attendance. Olivia's thoughts returned to the man in the parking lot. His walk, his eyes, they were what she'd remembered Proctor's to be. But those were the perceptions of a young girl, filtered and blurred by twenty-two long years. The idea that he would show up here, now, or that she would recognize him if he did seemed more and more unlikely. Reality was, the man she saw had triggered memories, some very bad memories, but he probably wasn't Proctor.
If dreams didn't come true, and in her experience they didn't, she had to believe the same rules applied to nightmares.
ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, Olivia took time off work to accompany Brian's class to the San Juan Capistrano Mission. Every autumn, St. Barnabas's fourth grade classes began their study of California history with a field trip to the Jewel of the Missions. Olivia's attendance was the kind of thing CPS liked to see, but she'd wanted to go. The place was so steeped in history, just being there put her own life into perspective. She loved the architecture, the gardens, and the crumbling ruins of the Great Stone Church. The church had fallen in an 1812 earthquake killing forty-two worshippers, which proved the point: doing the right thing held no guarantees.
Olivia wandered into the Father Serra Chapel. Its walls wrapped around her like a cocoon, muting the voices of the children and the rumble of a distant train. She'd come in for a moment of peace. A statue of Father Serra saluted her from his recess in the gold leaf altar as if to bestow a blessing on her decision. But she sat in a pew close to the door anyway. She was nervous about leaving Brian.
The cool air was redolent with frankincense and myrrh — the oils of life and death. She couldn't remember where, maybe National Geographic, but she'd read that physicians in ancient times prescribed frankincense as frequently as modern doctors do antibiotics. Sweet smelling myrrh was used for embalming. The word made her shudder.
Stop it. She was being morbid. Fearful. There were plenty of adults outside tasked with watching the students. They'd had nearly six weeks to learn Brian's routines and needs. She could take a minute for herself. But there were a lot of students to watch. The saints in the retablo's niches and nooks seemed to condemn her through painted eyes. She didn't know their stories, how they'd managed to achieve sainthood. They couldn't have put more effort into it than she had, she knew that. There was a chill in the air of the small chapel. Olivia left, hurrying out into the fading heat of the day.
Brian's class had been let loose on the central courtyard. Their teacher, Mrs. Margolis, and the two parents who should have been on duty were gossiping in the shade of the portico. The days were growing shorter. The mid-October sun hung low in the sky and reflected off the old stone and stucco walls into Olivia's eyes. She shaded them with a hand and scanned the area for her son.
All she could see were silhouettes, nothing more. But she knew Brian's outline, the curve of his hyper-extended knees, and the funny way he hitched up his shoulders when he ran. She knew the exact spot his cowlick shot up off his head and the pitch of his ski slope nose.
She knew all these things, and she didn't see them.
She strode across the grass to the closest group of boys. She recognized one of Brian's classmates, Johnny Wilson. "Hey."
Johnny looked up, guilt on his face. He was at that age when all discussions with adults started with trepidation whether he was doing anything wrong or not.
"Have you seen Brian?"
Johnny looked at the other boys. They all shrugged in unison. Even if they knew where Brian had gone, betraying him if there was any possibility it would get him in trouble was out of the question. Frustrated, Olivia wound her way toward Mrs. Margolis and the attendant mothers.
Olivia felt the familiar burn in her gut. Brian hadn't wanted her to chaperone the field trip. Mrs. Margolis, a newlywed with no children of her own, had assured her he was in good hands. Olivia had come anyway. She acknowledged her tendency to hover. She had reason to. Brian wandered.
As soon as he'd learned to use his chubby little legs, he'd wandered out the front door and to the neighborhood park. Alone. He'd been on the run ever since.
And now Brian was a brain-damaged wanderer. Since his accident, he'd become impulsive, easily distracted and had memory lapses he filled in with bits of dreams and recollections from other days. The doctor called it "confabulation."
Parents of normal children didn't understand. They made fun of mothers who leashed their toddlers, even though children were arguably more important than family pets. They invented derogatory names, like helicopter parents, for those who kept close tabs on their children's whereabouts. Olivia didn't care. She leashed and hovered proudly. The last time Brian wandered, she'd almost lost him forever.
"Mrs. Margolis. I hate to interrupt ..." This wasn't true. Olivia didn't hate to interrupt. The teacher should have been minding her flock.
Annoyance furrowed the woman's usually unlined brow. "Yes?"
"Do you know where Brian is?"
"Isn't he with the other boys?"
"No." Would I have asked you if he was? Olivia thought, but didn't say.
Mrs. Margolis adjusted her face into more pleasant lines. "He's probably in the gift shop."
He wouldn't be in the gift shop. As far as Brian was concerned, shopping was right up there with broccoli and long division. But that heavy, desperate feeling that accompanied motherhood these days thudded onto Olivia's chest, reason fled, and she ran across the central courtyard toward the museum gift store.
She wanted to scream. Mrs. Margolis knew Olivia was on probation with CPS. Oh, they didn't call it probation, they called it a "Safety Plan," but it was probation. The County of Orange had given her six months to get her act together and prove she deserved to keep Brian. That six months had ballooned into a year because of Brian's health problems.
Olivia not only had to prove she wasn't neglectful, but she also had to prove she was a model of conscientiousness if she were to be deemed a fit parent for a child with Brian's needs. But he'd been doing so well, Fred was sure the doctors would sign off at the end of the year.
Having Brian under the watchful eyes of a responsible adult at all times was a part of the Safety Plan she was so close to being released from. Mrs. Margolis knew that. Why hadn't a parent accompanied the children to the shop? Yes, stone walls encircled the Mission, but the shop was next to the exit. The exit that led to downtown, busy streets, train tracks.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dim light in the museum store. When they did, she could see he wasn't inside. She trotted through the aisles of books, rosaries, and all the items adorned with miniature missions anyway. When the panic was on her, standing still was impossible.
Back outside, she searched the grounds with her eyes and tried to calm the wind whipping up horrible scenarios in her mind. Where would he have gone? Please, God, not out the exit. She walked toward the museum, struggling to let intuition guide her. Brian liked the living history exhibits. He might have returned to the rooms decorated with period furniture.
She darted in and out of the Padre's dining room, bedroom, and living quarters. She didn't see him, and there was nowhere for a ten-year-old to hide in the ascetic furnishings. Outside, near the chapel again, a sob rose in her throat. A prayer, to Mary, to God, to anybody who'd listen, formed with it.
She wasn't Catholic. She'd been raised by an Earth Momma in true ecumenical hippie fashion, but she'd heard Mary's story. Mary, she'd thought, would understand both the joy of having her son returned from the dead and the crushing responsibility it brought.
No answer came. No heavenly finger pointed the way. But she saw the marker for the cemetery. Brian had been fascinated by cemeteries ever since visiting Disneyland's Haunted Mansion last year.
Olivia followed the signs into the graveyard. It was small, and she searched it quickly. He wasn't there, in front, or behind the one large tombstone. Turning right, she took the path that led to the Sacred Garden and the Bell Wall. If she couldn't find him here, she'd go straight to the administration office and demand they close the exits. If they thought she was an overprotective, hysterical mother, so be it. Better to be labeled overprotective than neglectful. She'd learned neglectful had terrible ramifications.
She drew closer to the arched entrance and saw movement. A flit of navy blue against the beiges and browns. She ran.
Through the archway, next to a barred window in the wall of the Serra Gate, stood her son. Her relief was so extreme, her thighs grew weak. She slowed and sidled up to Brian a foot at a time like someone might approach a runaway colt. No sudden movements. No rushing forward and throwing her arms around him. "Hey, buddy. What're you doing?" Her voice sounded falsely cheerful even to her own ears.
Brian didn't seem to notice. "I saw somebody walking around over here. I thought maybe there was another room — like where the Native Americans used to live."
Olivia placed a hand on his shoulder. "You know you're not supposed to take off."
"I couldn't find you." His voice grew sulky. "You're not supposed to take off either."
"I only went into the chapel for a minute. Mrs. Margolis and the other mothers were right there." Or they should have been.
Brian turned and walked toward the cemetery. "Can we get ice cream? Some of the kids are going to get ice cream after."
Olivia thought about saying no. Disobedience ought to have consequences. Wandering deserved punishment, not rewards. But she said, "Sure."
Since she and Davy, Brian's father, had divorced three years ago, she'd been thrust into the role of enforcer. Davy was the yes-man, the fun guy, Mr. Party. She made sure homework was done, teeth were brushed, rooms were cleaned and, most important, Safety Plans were followed.
She'd wanted today to be fun. She'd wanted her turn to spoil her son. "We're going to have to talk about this," she said, and Brian looked at his feet. "But not now. Tonight."
Olivia glanced over her shoulder as they left the Sacred Garden. Movement, a flutter of white, a large bird maybe, disappeared behind the Bell Wall. They walked past the entrance to the graveyard in silence. "So, what was in the window?" she said when they reached the courtyard.
"It was all black. I couldn't see anything." Brian sounded relieved to change the subject, then darted ahead to join his classmates who were lining up to leave.
"In the gift shop then?" Mrs. Margolis said with a smug smile.
Olivia tried to suppress the anger in her voice. "In the graveyard." She was pleased to see the complacent expression slide off Mrs. Margolis's face.
MIRACLE OF MIRACLES, the next day Olivia pulled into the soccer field parking lot, and Brian was jogging straight toward her car — backpack flapping behind him, cleats in hand. She was so shocked to see her son where he was supposed to be at the time he was supposed to be there, it took her a moment to recognize the tall form behind him.
She lifted her hand to wave to Tom, St. Barnabas's math teacher and assistant soccer coach, but Brian opened the passenger side door and thrust his gear into her waiting arms. "Let's go."
Olivia had thought about Tom a surprising number of times since she'd met him last month. He seemed nice and responsible, and she was pretty sure he was flirting with her whenever she saw him at school or on the field. But all at once the car filled with hurried, sweaty boy, commotion, and confusion, and any thought of Tom fled from her mind. Olivia shifted Brian's things into the rear seat before he sat on them and helped him untangle the seat belt that caught on his gym bag.
By the time she turned to look out the windshield for Tom, he was gone. The disappointment she felt was unexpected. Romance had been the last thing on her mind for a very long time. She should probably keep it that way.
Excerpted from "The Scent of Wrath"
Copyright © 2017 Greta Boris.
Excerpted by permission of Fawkes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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