The phone call from Brianna had been strange, to say the least. Elouise had hung up the phone deliberately, and stared at her blank computer monitor for a moment while she waited for the swirling thoughts in her head to subside. She had just sat down at her desk as the phone had rung, had not yet fired up her desktop machine. She had not even had a coffee yet this morning, and she briefly considered the possibility that she was still lying in Zach's bed, dreaming the morning away. She couldn't quite make herself believe that little fantasy though. She watched as Lawrence walked past her door, looking in from the corner of his eye as he did so. She called his name, and he stopped, retraced his last two steps, and stuck his head in. Elouise, wrapped up in the strange events of the morning, did not notice the sallowness of his skin, or the grey pouches under his eyes. If she had, she would have mentioned them. Lawrence examined Elouise, wondering what on earth was going on with her this morning. The phone call from Kasey had been cryptic enough, but now Elouise had turned up at work and gone from acting normal, sunny even, to this strange staring creature with a haunted face.
"Is ... Um, is everything ok, Elouise?" Lawrence stammered.
"Ahh. Yes, I think so," Elouise responded slowly, "but something has come up that I really need to deal with. Is Mister Schultz in his office yet?"
Lawrence said that he hadn't seen their boss arrive yet this morning, but offered to investigate, and Elouise asked him to please do so. As soon as his head had disappeared from her door, she looked back at the blank monitor, searching it for answers that it did not have to give.
The phone on her desk sprang into life with the shrill bell of an internal call, and Elouise jumped, startled out of her blank reverie. She picked up the phone and spoke her name, trying not to sound shaken, but her normally brusque "Elouise Walker" nevertheless came out sounding flat and wary, even to her own ears.
"Oh, Elly, it's Francine over in Mister Bird's office, are you alright? You sound tired," Francine and Elouise had worked side by side as personal assistants to two of the partners of the firm since they had been promoted together from the secretarial team a little over three years ago - right about the time Elouise had started seeing Zach.
"Fran, hi, yes I'm alright, I think. I've just had a little personal emergency, and I'm going to have to go home though. It seems as though Kasey has gotten herself into some trouble. But what were you calling for?"
"Look, Elly, Kasey is much more important, I'll bug one of the other PA's with this one. You go to Kasey and I'll cover you today."
"Thanks, Fran, I appreciate that. Hopefully I'll be back this afternoon, but I'll send you a message and let you know what's happening."
"Don't come back today, Darl, just get things sorted out. We'll all still be here in the morning. Now go!" Francine's tone told Elouise there was no point arguing further and, knowing her co-worker and friend would be able to handle things for the morning at least, Elouise said goodbye, hung up the phone and reached for her handbag.
Elouise was back at Central station, waiting for the next outbound train and practising reasons for her absence from work this morning by the time Lawrence stuck his head back in her office. Lawrence frowned, figuring it must have been pretty urgent. At least he wouldn't have Elouise looking over his shoulder all day now. He turned to his own computer terminal, opened a browser window, and called up Facebook.
Still sitting in the gutter with her back to the train station and what she suspected was her mother's body, Kasey strained her ears to hear Brianna's hushed conversation. She couldn't hear anything other than an occasional word here and there - 'train station', 'police everywhere', 'I don't know', 'it's closed off', 'yeah, ok'. She guessed that Brianna was asking someone to come to the station and get them, letting her parents know what was going on, probably. Kasey kept her head down on the knees, feeling as though she wanted the ground to swallow her up, how had today gone so terribly, terribly wrong so very, very quickly? She heard Brianna hang up the phone with a 'See you soon, then. Bye." and the crunch of the rough bitumen as her friend came back and sat down. She felt Brianna touch her arm, and smelled the musk of her body spray as she leaned in close. Brianna spoke softly in Kasey's ear, her breath tickling the fine hairs on her cheek. Kasey heard the words she spoke, understood each of them individually, but could not make sense of them as they were strung into a sentence. She looked up, and stared at Brianna, disbelief and misunderstanding clouding her pretty features, "Don't lie to me Bree," she said under her breath, enunciating each word carefully and with a touch of malice, "That will not help right now". Brianna shook her head, "I'm not lying Kase," she said, a smile starting to play on her face now, "I just spoke to your Mum, she's okay, she's on her way here now". The second time the words were spoken, the meaning started to crystallise, and ever so slowly, and completely unexpectedly, a smile crept up on Kasey too.
The friends held each other closely, this time crying tears, not so much of happiness, but more of relief and release. Slowly, the tension in the air began to unravel, like threads from a torn woollen jumper, flapping in the breeze as it dried on the line. Kasey felt layers of stress peel off her back, her shoulders and though doubt would continue to linger until she could lay her eyes on her mother, alive and well, she suddenly felt a fool. With this realisation came the understanding that her father was down there on the platform, what could he be doing, if it was not her mother's body lying in the grass? Kasey stood suddenly, left her school bag lying on the footpath, and ducked under the police tape leading down to the outbound platform, "Dad!" she yelled as she ran, "Dad! Dad, she's alright! Mum's ok, Dad, she's ok!"
People made a path for her as she ran, and like looking down the aisle of a church, she saw her father sitting, broken, with his back against the fence at the end of the platform. She watched as he ever so slowly raised his head, noticed the gleam of hope shine in his eyes quickly followed by a sharp sliver of doubt. He tilted his head to the side, trying to work out what she was doing and as she collapsed beside him on the hard ground he gathered her head up into his shoulder, resting his blonde head on top of hers, their hair flowing together, indistinguishable from each others, "Baby-girl, tell me again, she's okay ... ?" Kasey heard the upward inflection of hope, her father’s statement that was somehow a question, but the lump in her throat prevented her from speaking, so she nodded her head against his white shirt, leaving a trail of tears and snot on his shoulder. Finally, she managed to get something past her tears, and she whispered, "She's ok, Dad, she's ok. We're going to be ok."
Elouise sat on Platform Twelve at Central Station, waiting for the next train that would take her out to Redton. Her mind was totally occupied, thoughts jostling each other for room, for her attention, for enough time at the forefront of her mind to be explored fully. Brianna had told her that there had been some kind of body found at the train station and that Kasey had for some reason that it was her, Elouise, when Lawrence had told her that she hadn't arrived at the office yet. Brianna had also said that her husband, Robert, had arrived at the station and had been talking to the police. Elouise wondered how he had gotten there so fast. It seemed so unlike him to put thought into action so quickly, although she had never seen him under this much pressure. It made her realise how much she must mean to him, for him to react so violently, without thinking the matter through fully. The thought disturbed her, she had always thought that he felt much the same way she did - the relationship was okay, they had fallen into a rhythm long ago, and each played their role, husband, wife, mother, father. She had even assumed that he had probably had relationships of his own outside the marriage, although she only had her own infidelity as proof of his.
Elouise felt curiously elated at the fact that no one had suspected what she had been up to, why she was really late to work, although the fact that everyone had thought her dead was reasonably discomforting in itself. Though it didn't help her explain where she had been. How was she going to explain away the missing two hours or so from her morning? Another thought suddenly hit her, and the force of it made her reel - it wasn't just Robert and Kasey who she was going to have to explain the missing hours to, her explanation was likely going to have to withstand the scrutiny of the police also. Elouise swallowed uncomfortably. She checked her watch - and realised that she had only about twenty five minutes to come up with a story that was sufficient enough to hold up under questioning by the police, and also wash with her husband and daughter. She did not for a minute think that the truth would suffice. She had no intention of leaving Robert, and, until now, no intention of leaving Zach either. The problem, she realised, was that she had gotten away with it for so long now, she had started to get complacent. She idly wondered if she was going to be forced to choose now, if Robert had gotten wind of the situation.
The train pulled into the station on a noxious cloud of fumes and squealing brakes. Elouise stood as the train slowed to a stop and she stepped into the carriage, her mind like a shaken gumball machine full of high-bouncers. She took a seat near the window on the near empty train, rested her head against the cool glass, and tried not to think about the fact that she now had less than fifteen minutes, and still no excuses. She watched the buildings flick past the window through unseeing eyes, the cars on the highway alongside the rails. Everyone was in such a hurry, it seemed, when all Elouise wanted was for the train to suddenly reverse directions, rewind through time and take her back to Zach's studio, Zach's bed, where she never had anything to worry about, unless it was where she had left her underwear. What on earth could she say? To have 'lost' two hours was quite an achievement. She couldn't blame it on a meeting - it would work on Robert, but the police would be sure to check it out. Could she have been having breakfast somewhere, alone? They would check the venue, she imagined, so that wouldn't work. Elouise tried to think up something she could have been doing, alone, that wouldn't be verifiable. Her mind was far from blank, in fact it was positively filled with thoughts, unfortunately one of them were providing her with a suitable excuse for her absence this morning. She was being posed a lot more questions this morning than she had answers for.
Before Elouise was even close to ready, she saw Redton station pulling into view ahead of them, and prepared to rise on wobbly legs. She was busy concentrating on making her legs hold her weight, when she realised that the train wasn't slowing for the station. A typically unintelligible announcement came over the train's public address system, she caught none of it, but she could tell that they weren't stopping at Redton. As this thought went through her mind, Redton station flashed past the windows in a blur of signs, seats, buildings, and blue uniforms. Elouise sat back down with a bump. Redton had been shut - there had been an 'incident'. All of a sudden, it seemed even more real than it had previously. Her mind had been so occupied with trying to come up with an excuse that she had given no thought at all to the fact that someone had been murdered, she wondered who they had been, where they had come from. She knew so many people by sight at the station - did she know the victim? Her stomach churned, to match the liquidity of her legs and, suddenly, the train pulled in to the next station, slowed, stopped. The doors opened. Elouise stood shakily, and virtually fell onto the platform, keeping her feet only barely in her heels - the heels she had been so proud of this morning, and which seemed so terribly unimportant now.
Robert was back in the car, heading west along the train line to Eaglehill, the next station out from Redton. It had taken some time for Kasey's words to sink in to his brain, and somehow he had still not been able to believe it until he heard Elouise's sweet voice on the phone. She had sounded distant, somehow apologetic and mournful to his ears, which seemed strange, illogical. It was not Elouise's fault that Kasey, and Robert for that matter, had jumped to conclusions, certainly no one blamed her for the misunderstanding. Elouise rarely reacted mildly, he was so used to her flying off the handle whenever something went wrong, that to hear her sounding forlorn and sorry in this situation, which was not remotely of her own doing, seemed at cross purposes, like a single red sock in a load of white washing. All Robert could feel at this moment was sweet, pure relief - his baby was alive, well. He pushed the thoughts from his mind, attempting to convince himself that he was over-analysing the situation, and tried to concentrate on driving instead.
Despite his best efforts, his mind wandered back to his wife. Robert knew the relationship had gotten tired, but he tended to view his marriage like a favourite armchair. It fit him perfectly, they worked well together, it was comfortable and relaxed and he certainly had no wish to see it end. He wouldn't dare express that comparison to Elly, she certainly wouldn't appreciate being compared to old furniture, but he assumed she felt the same way, although she would definitely have a more glamorous analogy to describe it. He, like many of his similarly married friends, was comfortable in his relationship. He could appreciate a fine figure or a shapely thigh when he saw one, but the thought of straying never crossed his mind. The very idea of seeing someone new, someone he had to impress, flatter and notice, filled him with dread. He knew that Elouise knew how much he loved her, he knew that Elouise knew that he wasn't all that observant, he knew that Elouise knew that he appreciated the little things that she did for him, day after day, year after year. He knew that Elouise knew that he had eyes only for her, and that she had eyes only for him. They were two of the lucky ones. So many of his friends had been separated, divorced, and he and Elly just kept on keeping on. It was a wonderful feeling, and when he thought he had lost her so suddenly, it was like his whole world had opened up, yawning at his feet, begging him to just step on down.
Robert snapped out of his reverie when he noticed the street sign pointing to Eaglehill station, the little stylised picture of a steam engine directing him down a narrow back street. He indicated at the last minute, turned the corner a little too fast and braked suddenly when he saw Elouise stepping carefully across the broken footpath towards the drop off point in ridiculously high heels. The sight of her was like balm to his eyes, she was okay!
Elouise picked her way across the footpath in front of the Eaglehill railway station. She heard a car taking the corner too fast and looked up to see Robert's company car come speeding around the bend. Rob, eyes wild and hair sticking up in tufts, peered through the windscreen at her, as if he was trying to determine if it was, indeed, Elouise. When the identification was positive, he grinned like a mad man and hit the brakes. The little hybrid car came to a screeching halt in the centre of the road in front of Elouise, and he leaned across the passenger seat to open the door for her. Elouise plastered a smile on her face in return, although she could feel that it wasn't quite reaching her troubled eyes, and climbed into the open car. She had hardly gotten both feet into the footwell when Rob had reached across the centre console, grabbing her and holding her tight. She felt, rather than saw his tears - smelt rather than heard his relief.
"I love you Elly," he murmured, "I love you so much, when I thought you were ... well. I'm glad you're not, anyway. I am just so happy you're okay."
Elouise wasn't sure how to cope with the rush of emotion, and her throat clamped up. She was nervous, petrified, but most of all, guilty. Her guilt was like a living thing inside her - a black, viscous slug of a being, writhing and threatening to choke her if she so much as opened her mouth to offer her husband a platitude. She nodded her head against Robert's chest, unable to speak, and hoped that he would take her reticence as being overcome by emotion, rather than overcome by pure, filthy guilt.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity to Elouise who had not dared to break the embrace, Robert released his hold on her, sat back in the driver's seat, and gently appraised her with his eyes. She tried to smile, but it felt like a tight, false thing, so she relaxed the muscles around her mouth again, and looked back at him, wondering when his questions would start. Surprisingly, Robert didn't say anything. He simply turned to look through the windscreen and, with a small irrepressible smile playing around the corners of his mouth he dropped the car into gear and pressed the accelerator.
Elouise's reprieve did not last long, however. They had been driving for mere minutes when Robert pulled up at a red light, turned to her and, looking almost sheepish, said softly "You gave Kasey and me a hell of a scare this morning. And Brianna too. What happened? Where were you, Hun?"
Although she had been expecting it, the question when it came was like a blow to Elouise, the air rushing instantly out of her lungs, leaving her breathless and gasping. Slowly, she swallowed, trying to gain some composure, then, stuttering, "Well, you see, it's ... well, recently I've been spending some time in the mornings in the park. You know, the one near Central there? It has a little man-made lake in it. And I have been spending some time there. Just, you know, working on reports and such. Nothing ... nothing else, really. This morning, well, I guess this morning time got away from me. I spent longer than normal there, didn't get in to the office until late. It was, it is, rather ... well. Rather unfortunate. I guess." The words, which had been so difficult to come up with in the first place, were surprisingly easy to say in the end. Once they had left her mouth, though, Elouise could feel them hanging in the air between them. She realised she was holding her breath, waiting for Robert to give some kind of indication of whether or not he believed her. Eventually, Robert smiled, nodded slightly, and Elouise released the breath she had been holding.
"It would be nice weather in there at the moment. Early in the morning it would be quite pleasant, I bet. I wish I could do something like that before work". Elouise relaxed further, felt a smile come to her face. A real smile this time, not a fake, plastered on one. Finally, she felt able to respond to Robert's declarations of love, and she looked him in the eye, reached a soft, manicured hand to his stubbled cheek, and whispered, "I love you too, Rob. Thank you." Robert grinned in response, the light changed to green, and they sped off, reconciled, at least for now.