Dickens did it. So did Louisa May Alcott. Each week, one of the London tabloids would publish another chapter in their sensational tales. I can’t claim anywhere near that level of literary genius, but I can just as easily offer another installment of the romantic suspense story I started on last week’s Red Pencil Thursday.
Still working on a title for this one, but I’m narrowing the field to the following: Shot in the Dark, Private Lies, Silent Lies, Shattered Silence, Loose Thread, Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, or Love Don’t Die. If you’d like to weigh in on your preference, I’d value your opinion.
So here’s Chapter 1 of my WIP. If you missed the prologue, here’s the link to last week’s RPT so you can catch up. And if you don’t want to see Chapter 2 here next week, be sure to send in YOUR first 500 words for a Red Pencil Thursday critique!
One week earlier
Megan Kelley stomped on the accelerator, but her car died again. The guy behind her glued his palm to the horn.
“Yeah, right,” she said to the jerk in her rear view mirror. “Like that’ll get us moving.”
He blared his displeasure in another long blast.
Megan’s right hearing aid whined. The air conditioning had made her car over-heat in this pile-up so she’d turned it off and rolled down the windows. Boston didn’t get too many 90 degree days with matching humidity, but this was one of them. The heavy air made her hearing aid batteries short out intermittently. Megan slipped off her right one and stowed it in the empty cup holder. She didn’t want to risk losing it. The darn things were so expensive. The horn’s blast faded to a tolerable level.
She started her car and goosed it forward, almost rear-ending the white cargo van ahead of her. The honker started a rap-beat on his horn again.
Rather than flip him a gesture that wasn’t listed in the American Sign Language manual, she slipped off her other hearing aid too. Sometimes, it was a blessing to be able to tune out the world around her. Megan sank into a soft hum of unintelligible sound, the white-noise of her uncorrected hearing.
Profound loss, her audiologist described it.
“Not always.” Megan eyed the guy in her rear view mirror. A cool bead of sweat ran down her spine.
She’d ducked out of her last class a little early and taken the T home to pick up her car so she could meet with a new speech pathologist whose office was off the beaten public transport path. Not that her summer school students minded having her gone. A sub was always easier on them than ‘Ms. Kelley the Hun.’ Megan wouldn’t use her impairment as an excuse not to excel. She wouldn’t let them either.
Now she’d be late for her appointment, if she made it at all. The check engine light blinked menacingly.
In the side mirror of the van ahead of her she caught a glimpse of the driver’s square jaw and thin-lipped mouth. A cell phone was plastered to his cheek. He was talking a blue streak.
Megan wasn’t going anywhere, so she decided to practice her speechreading. It might be a little rude. Almost like eavesdropping, she supposed. Since she had some measure of hearing, about 60% of normal with the aids, she didn’t rely entirely on speechreading. She worked hard to stay ahead of her Deaf students in this area.
So who would it hurt if she ‘listened’ in?
She stared intently at the mouth in the mirror.
“ . . .how you want . . . very well, I’ll do . . .”
She wished he’d hold still. His mouth moved in and out of the mirror’s range.
“ . . . a professional . . . If I . . . the job . . .”
The tanned, male arm propped on the driver’s side door slipped inside the van and the window scrolled up. The man’s mouth disappeared entirely. Megan sighed and inched her car forward, crowding the lines on the pavement to get a better view.
White cargo van. No lettering on the back. Probably in a service business, lawn care or something, trying to negotiate with a new client.
The bottom half of his face came into sharp focus in the mirror. “No, no. . . . there’ll be no mistakes,” the lips formed. “If you require an accident, you . . . an accident.”
What on earth is he talking about?
“Once . . . funds deposited . . .,” the lips said, “Valenti . . . dead.”
Megan blinked hard. Surely she was mistaken. Several words look relatively the same if a speechreader was forced to focus just on someone’s mouth with no auditory or context cues. And there were times when he spoke so fast, she missed a number of words completely. Some of the usual markers were off. She wondered if he had an accent.
His lips pressed into a hard line for a moment, then started moving again.
“. . . your call,” she thought he said. “Fine . . . tonight.”
Traffic started moving. The van surged forward and slid into the left lane to inch around the accident on the Zakim Bridge that caused the bottleneck in the first place.
Accident. That might be why she thought she read the word. She must’ve made errors in the rest of the conversation as well.
But what if she hadn’t?
Megan tried to squeeze in behind the van, but an electric blue Honda rushed forward to keep her from easing into the lane. She only managed to see the last couple digits on the plate.
She flipped on her turn signal and babied her Taurus toward the left lane, still straining to read more of the swiftly disappearing number. The car behind her plowed into her rear bumper with a sickening thud.
Her head snapped back and then forward, narrowly missing a knock on the steering wheel. When she looked up, the white van was long gone.
“Great, just great,” she mumbled while she put her hearing aids back in. They crackled with static, but she’d need them to deal with the man who was already climbing out of his car, mouth running and arms flailing.
‘Valenti . . . dead,’ the lips in the van had said.
She pulled her registration and insurance information from the glove compartment. The other driver stomped toward her vehicle. Once he realized she was hearing-impaired he’d probably fall all over himself trying to be nicer.
Pity the poor deaf girl. He could keep it for someone who needed it.
She pawed through her purse and realized she’d left her cell phone at home. She should be texting the police right now.
Over more than just her fender-bender.
Sixty-seven. The only numbers she could see before the van pulled away. Lot of good that’ll do. I can’t even be sure it was a Massachusetts plate.
Megan shook her head in disgust. How many times had Jake complained about the unreliability of eye witnesses? He’d be ashamed of her.
At least it’ll be for a different reason this time.
Megan pushed through the brass-studded door of Clear Speech Associates hoping the practice was running behind on their clients as well. She introduced herself to the receptionist with an apology for her lateness.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Kelley.” The woman had been well trained, looking straight at Megan and speaking slowly and distinctly. Some people thought they had to shout in order for Megan to understand them. All they had to do was face her squarely and not mumble. “Dr. Tanaki has left for the day. If you like, his intern may be able to help you.”
“Fine.” Megan forced herself to return the woman’s smile. She’d short-changed her students by skipping out early, let the humidity do a number on her hearing aids, speechread one side of a very disturbing conversation, and got rear-ended so she could waste her time with an intern.
She decided she must have misread the guy in the cargo van. Not being able to rely on her speechreading made her irritable. There was nothing so frustrating as misunderstanding someone. She knew it shouldn’t matter, but it bothered her beyond measure.
It made her feel . . . less somehow.
The receptionist led her into one of the small rooms in the back and left her with the promise that Dr. Tanaki’s intern would be with her shortly.
The room smelled of the lemon-scented oil used to keep the rich patina of the old oak wainscoting bright. The Clear Speech office was in a historic building, a crenellated monstrosity with brickwork that would cost the earth to duplicate today. Circa 1871, according to the brass plate beneath a sepia-toned photograph of the brownstone hanging on the wall. The imposing building was shown surrounded by open fields in the picture. Now it stood cheek-by-jowl with its neighbors on the crowded Back Bay street.
“Guess I should cross-stitch that on a pillow,” Megan murmured.
A light tap on her shoulder interrupted her thoughts. She turned to look up into an open, even-featured male face. His sandy blond hair was slightly disheveled and his eyes were the color of the waves off Cape Anne on a summer day.
“Cross-stitch what on a pillow?”
He flashed a smile at her, waiting for her reply. She resisted naming the ache lodged in her chest.
Megan wasn’t ready to recount the upheavals of the last three years to a total stranger, even a friendly, good-looking stranger. He didn’t need to hear about the way her life had been squeezed into a narrow space just like the old building now wedged between its neighbors, pressed so tight sometimes it was hard to breathe.
So she said the two little words every hearing-impaired person hates most from a hearing one. The words that mean ‘Communicating with you is too much trouble.’
He seemed not to be offended. “Please have a seat then, Ms. Kelley and we’ll get started. I’m Ryan Knight.”
He pulled a pair of designer frames from his shirt pocket and slipped them on before glancing at her chart. Lean and broad-shouldered, he was already terminally attractive. Megan decided the glasses raised his IQ about 20 points.
“I’ll do your initial assessment,” he said. “Then next time, you can work with Dr. Tanaki.”
“That’ll be fine, Dr. Knight.” Hot or not, he still wasn’t the pathologist she’d hoped to see, but what else could she say? It was her own fault for being late.
“I haven’t finished my doctorate yet. Call me Ryan.” He hooked an ankle over his knee and jotted a quick note on the pad resting on his khaki-clad thigh. “From the quality of your speech, I’m assuming your loss was post-lingual.”
Long after she learned to speak, thank God.
“Summer of my sophomore year of college,” she said. “Meningitis.”
He nodded, acknowledging the cause of her impairment without pity or saccharine sympathy. His demeanor was text-book clinical—approachable, but detached.
His pale eyebrows shot up as he studied her records. “According to the chart your audiologist sent, you stayed on at Boston College and graduated with honors.”
“You seem surprised,” she said, bristling slightly. The college bent over backward to accommodate her. She was allowed to copy lecture notes from another student. She used internet chat rooms to participate in class discussions. BC offered to provide an interpreter, but she resisted learning ASL at first, making do with her hearing aids and speechreading and lots of independent study. She was a good student. She adjusted.
What she didn’t adjust to was the isolation her impairment forced on her.
“My hearing loss didn’t affect my intelligence.” Maybe he wasn’t as smart as those glasses made him look. “Deaf doesn’t mean dumb, you know.”
He frowned. “I meant no insult. I’m just surprised you didn’t decide to transfer to Gallaudet. Their academic program rivals any hearing university.”
“I couldn’t sign well enough,” she admitted. Even now, she lacked the grace and fluidity that characterized the signing of those Deaf from birth. ASL wasn’t her first language. She signed with a hearing accent.
He nodded again. “So you hear too well for the Deaf culture and not well enough for the hearing.”
Megan flinched. No one had ever put her situation so baldly before, but he was right. She straddled two worlds, not quite comfortable with either of them. She felt the tension keenly, but never expected anyone else to realize what she struggled with on a daily basis. Ryan Knight had cut to the heart of her life within ten minutes of their meeting.
What else might he see with those ocean-blue eyes of his?
“Exactly,” she said. “My impairment puts the hearing on edge and the Deaf resent me for thinking I have an impairment.”
Her stomach fluttered. She was grateful that he understood. At the same time, she felt unduly exposed, as if he’d accidentally seen her naked.
“Your speech is excellent,” he said. “What can we help you with?”
“I know I’m understandable,” she said. “What I want . . . is to speak well enough that my impairment isn’t obvious. I’m afraid I’m losing my natural inflection.”
It was easy to forget to change pitch when she was concentrating so hard on making sure she formed her words correctly. She wanted to pass as hearing, to blend back into the world she was born to.
“We can help you with that,” he assured her. “But it’s not really necessary. You communicate quite clearly for—”
“For a deaf person,” she finished for him.
“I was going to say ‘for conversational purposes.’ If you want embark on a public speaking career, we might work on a thing or two.” He leaned toward her. “What is it you really want?”
She blinked in surprise. He was speech pathologist, not a priest. This was no time for true confessions. She settled for something he might be able to help her with.
“I want people to listen to what I say, not how well I’m saying it for a deaf person. I don’t want my impairment to be the first thing someone notices about me.”
He cocked his head at her. “My vision isn’t 20/20 unless I wear glasses. Is that the first thing you notice about me?”
She couldn’t admit the first thing she’d noticed was his startling blue eyes, whether they were behind lenses or not. Little gold flecks ringed his pupils.
“But what?” he said. “Without my glasses, you could say I’m impaired.”
“There’s a difference,” she said. “You don’t have to explain to me how I can help you see better. Your glasses do that. Even with my hearing aids, I have a loss. That’s why every time I meet someone new, I have to tell them how they need to speak to me if they want me to understand them. I’m so sick of it.”
He was silent for a few moments.
“I see your point,” he said. “You seem to speechread very well.”
“Not nearly well enough.” Megan thought about the man in the white van. She mangled that reading so badly, she half-convinced herself he was a mob hit man taking on a contract, for pity’s sake. Obviously, she watched way too many re-runs of The Sopranos.
She pushed the white van and the man in it out of her mind as Ryan Knight started leading her through a vocal exercise.
Megan stepped out of the bathroom with a towel turbaned around her head. She slipped on her nightgown, enjoying the feel of fresh cotton sliding over clean skin.
“Susie, time to go to bed! Where is that dog?” she called, putting two fingers to her larynx to assess changes in pitch and volume. Ryan had shown her the vibrations were much different from high to low, loud to soft. Once he learned she had a hearing-ear dog, he encouraged her to practice talking to Susie.
Her furry companion crawled out from under the bed skirt, stretching and yawning.
“Silly girl.” Megan scooped up the little dog and put her on the foot of the bed. Susie looked like a dust mop with feet, but she was trained to alert Megan to a knock at the door or a fire warning. The dog woke Megan each morning when her alarm clock buzzed and pranced in circles when a text came in on the cell phone or TTY, a landline for the hearing-impaired. But mostly, Susie was good company and that was important.
Now that Megan was single again.
Her wedding ring was still on the sterling holder she kept on the bedside table. It was decent of Jacob to insist she keep it. The diamond was a little over a full carat and of good quality. If she had a rough patch, she could always sell it, he’d said.
Rough patch. Is that what he’d call it? Didn’t he know there were some things money wouldn’t fix?
She picked up the ring and the stone caught the glow of her lamp. The refracted light danced across the ceiling, splintered into hundreds of little prisms.
Kind of like her marriage.
“Do not go there,” Megan ordered herself as she put the ring back in its place. She should probably take it down to the bank and put it in the safe deposit box. But she wasn’t quite ready not to see it anymore.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing Ryan Knight though,” she told her dog.
Professional ethics put her off-limits to him, she was sure. It also made him safe. She could indulge in a harmless little fantasy about a hot guy with no expectation of anything else.
It was easier not to have expectations.
She turned out her light, piled into bed and flicked on the small bedroom TV. Closed captions scrolled across the bottom of the evening news. It was a good way to work on her speechreading since the captions helped her catch up if she missed something.
An earthquake in Sumatra, new electronic voting machines for the coming election, a hole-in-one at a local golf course. Megan settled deeper into her pillows. She was almost ready to call it a night when the talking head announced a breaking story. His lips formed a name she recognized.
She sat bolt upright.
This just in. A body was recovered from the Mystic River this evening. The coroner has identified the deceased as Anthony Valenti, an associate professor in mathematics at MIT.
The Mystic River. Megan walked Susie along the footpath skirting the river every morning.
Valenti’s half-submerged vehicle was found in the river. Based on skid marks near the scene, police believe Mr. Valenti lost control of his car and ran it off the road. In other news, the Boston Red Sox—
Megan turned off the TV and stared into the darkness.
Anthony Valenti didn’t lose control. He didn’t run his car into the water. His death was made to look like an accident, just like the lips in the white van had promised.
She was a better speechreader than she thought.
With unsteady hands, she picked up her cell and began texting. At the very least, she could tell the police that Anthony Valenti’s death was no accident.
She just wished the only homicide detective she knew wasn’t also her ex-husband.
Since this is Red Pencil Thursday, it’s your turn to offer your suggestions for this story. This is a new sub-genre for me so I value your input. At the very least, let me know what you think about the possible titles. Thanks!