13 - An Unwanted Truth

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Armed with a stack of papers bearing names and addresses, Nat cleared a space on the kitchen table and opened her laptop. It was a battered thing, a holdover from college, now many years out of date and terribly slow. But it was comfortable, well-worn, several of its keys worn bald with use. She'd always had a struggle to embrace modern technology, feeling a discomfort in her skin that she associated with having been born in the wrong era — a hunger for a different time, an anachronistic yearning.

Of course, had she been born at a different time, she would not have had a wife and a business and a home in the suburbs.

And so she accepted modern life, however grudgingly, as an occasional necessity.

She missed library research, or at least the aesthetics of it if not the practicalities. Pawing through dusty stacks, leafing through brittle paper. That musty old-vanilla scent of old books and decomposing ink. Quiet basements with their microfiche archives, documents and reminders of lives otherwise anything but noteworthy to history. 

She missed the library, but the internet was undeniably convenient, and the best tool for the task at hand.

She'd set a kettle to heat on the stove for tea. The water inside was beginning to bubble, making quiet sizzling noises against the kettle's interior. She listened to it, the pop and fizz like a rainstorm, and waited for the laptop to finish booting up. It, too, creaked as if in protest. In the silent house, every sound seemed magnified. 

She thought about turning on some music. There was a gramophone in the spare room, and a stack of vinyl she could sort through -- old music, and new albums, rare editions advertised to the intersection of hipster and connoisseur. There was a battery-powered boombox, too, propped up by the kitchen sink, if she didn't feel like the effort or care of choosing something serious. 

But on the balance, she decided that silence would make for good company. In the new house, in her new life, quiet was a rare visitor. 

At last, the computer connected to the house wifi, and the kettle began to scream. She got up, relieving the pressure of the screeching kettle, and poured a hot stream of water into a mug, lowering in the ball containing loose leaf tea. Steam billowed up from the mouth of the mug, warmth slowly spreading outward through the thick ceramic. She held the cup in both hands, careful not to slosh the scalding water over her fingertips. 

As she crossed the kitchen, moving from the stove to the table, she thought she heard something from the sitting room — a rustle, like the shifting of weight. A house-settling noise, maybe, but this house was not old enough to creak and sigh. She had never heard it pop or groan before. 

"Fluff?" she called, tentatively craning her neck for a glimpse at the front door, but it was impossible to see it from this angle. An archway obscured most of the sitting room from view. Where she sat, she could see only a narrow sliver of the room: a grandfather clock, and a hint of shadow cast by some piece of unseen furniture, its shape rippling and distorted by the shafts of light trailing between rustling curtains. 

The cat answered with a low meow, trotting up to her from down the hall; he had likely been snoozing in the now-empty master bedroom. He had a preference for Nat's pillow and would curl up on it, enjoying the comfort and warmth of dozing out in the open on days he did not need to hide beneath the bed. 

Fluff jumped up on the table, and though he wasn't supposed to be there, Nat welcomed him with an outstretched hand, tickling along the top of his skull and behind his ears. He answered with a purr, and it filled the silence of the house amicably. Whatever had made the noise hadn't done so again. 

Sitting in her chair, Nat turned to her search. The cat stretched out behind the computer, lazily sprawled on his side, the tip of his tail curling; if it weren't for the intermittent twitch of that tail tip, Nat thought, he too would appear stuffed. A rotund beanbag of a cat, more rug than animal, lazing in the beam of sun that cut across the table from the partially opened curtains.

Nat pulled the envelopes close, checking the spelling on the names of the Rivera family. She had an address, but there was no telling how old the envelopes might have been; people who rented storage units often used them while they were moving, or facing a home foreclosure, or otherwise transitioning from one place to another. There was no guarantee they still lived at 1121 Cimarron Dr, or that their mail would be forwarded to the right address if they didn't; and if Nat were to send a package of photographs to a dead address, she may as well have kept them for herself.

She typed in the first of the names, expecting to find a social media account or wedding announcement or online whitepages listing -- a place to start, if not the whole answer to her question. The laptop took a while to think about her request, and she blew across the top of her tea mug, waiting for it to be cool enough to drink. 

The page loaded. Nat set the cup down heavily, tea sloshing over the rim. A hot bead of liquid spilled over her finger, but she hardly noticed. She leaned forward, nose close to the screen, reading the results a second time to be sure she had not misread. 

Man kills wife, daughter in brutal Verde Vista slaying.

Three dead in bizarre family murder-suicide case.

'He was such a nice guy,' neighbors say of man responsible for last week's murder.

The page was filled with similarly-worded results, multiple news sources reporting on variations of the same story. She hovered the cursor over one of these links, a hollowness clenching deep down in her gut. 

She did not want to click. 

Maybe it's a different family, Nat thought, almost desperately. Some other Riveras.  

She clicked. 

The photograph accompanying one of the news stories quelled any hope of mixed identities. Staring up at her from the screen was a family snapshot similar to those scattered around her on the table: A picture of the Anthony and Suzanne Rivera sitting on the same antique couch that now occupied Nat's garage, a young girl seated cross-legged on the floor between them, all three smiling up at the camera with no idea of what would happen to them. It was Christmas time in the photograph: a tree, decked out in holiday splendor, was just visible at the edge of the picture. The little girl held a wrapped present in her lap.

And in the background, standing watch in the corner of the room, the black hound, its glass eyes turned upward as if gazing into the camera. 

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