It was in the mailbox, addressed to Elizabeth, a slim, innocent time bomb masquerading as a letter. He'd tried to disguise his handwriting, but I could tell it was from Danny, and I knew Elizabeth couldn't read what he had to say. Is it stealing if you take something from your own mailbox? I know what the pastor would say. He'd say yes, Grace, it's stealing if it is not addressed to you. And then he'd give me his disappointed look. He was good at that, his blue eyes always verging on tears when gazing upon me. Me: the disappointing daughter, the queer one, the shameful one.
Now I really had something to feel ashamed about. I stole Danny's letter right out from under Elizabeth's nose, shoving it into my backpack. And there it burned all through dinner. Like usual, it was me and Elizabeth and the baby, a normal family dinner, stirring up the pea puree and flying messy spoonfuls into Bixby's rosebud mouth while Elizabeth drained a glass of chardonnay and told me about her day. A pot of soup bubbled on the stove, chicken with coconut milk, a new Thai recipe I thought Elizabeth would like.
We sat down to eat. I held Bixby with one arm while I ate with the other. I was getting good at this, finally. As I jiggled him on my knee, he giggled, "Ah, ah, ah, ah!"
"Someone's a happy boy," Elizabeth said, admiring our son. Her son, technically, born of her sinner's womb, not mine. She smiled at me, seeming to really notice me for the first time that evening. "And are you happy, my sweet Gracenote?"
Of course I was happy. I had a home, a baby, Elizabeth. Wasn't I happy?
Danny's letter smoldered in my bag. What had he written? How we'd betrayed her? Or mostly how I had? Because it was entirely my fault. I tempted him, shamelessly. Repent of your sins, the pastor would once have said. Repent, Grace. But I was already barred from the pastor's heaven. He'd made that clear.
I suddenly saw a future without Bixby's solid weight in my lap, without Elizabeth's sharp wit, without cozy nights watching Nova or film noir.
Confession is supposedly good for the soul. But it had never done my soul any favors. When I told the pastor that Elizabeth and I were in love, the sadness in his eyes iced over, glacial. Salvation was not to be mine. Never to be mine.
Elizabeth was staring at me. "Earth to Grace," she squawked, mimicking Danny, making it sound like air-traffic control calling on the radio. "You okay? You look funny."
"Just tired, I guess," I lied. What's a little lie, added to all my other sins? What's one more?
"Mind if I take a bath?" I asked, swinging Bixby over to her lap.
When the tub had filled I tore open Danny's note. Inside on an oblong of ivory rag he'd scrawled, "Thank you for that copy of your book, Lizzie-Lou. I'm proud of you! – D" and that was all. Unless it was written with invisible ink, he made no mention of the night he and I had spent together.
I tore Danny's note into confetti, sprinkling it like the ashes of a dead person across the water in the tub. I sank into the steaming bath, relieved that Danny wasn't going to tell and ashamed at my relief. For an hour, I steeped in my shame. Then as I'd learned to do, I unstoppered the tub, and let the shame and guilt drain away.
BIO: Elaine Olund is a writer, designer and artist in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her short fiction has been published in 34th Parallel Magazine, 5x5 magazine, everydayfiction.com, freeflashfiction.com and Turk's Head Review. "A Double Life," her story of a future world with human clones, won Editor's Choice Award from Gather.com, and is available on Amazon.com at http://tinyurl.com/bq2kuxm. She is editing her first novel, a tale of family life set in the the year 2195, in the dead zone of Indiana.