45 - Celia Rivera

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Celia Rivera lived in a small, tidy house on the edges of town. The address had been easy enough to find, a Google search and some cross-referencing bringing Nat to her doorstep. But now, parked on the curb in front of her home, Nat Loman hesitated. A pack of Marlboros, the first she'd bought since the wedding, sat in her lap, a cigarette lit and trembling between her fingers as her elbow hung from the car's open window. 

Liz had always hated her smoking. She used to complain about the lingering stale smoke-smell in the car when Nat picked her up for dates, those clandestine meet-ups when the divorce was being finalized, when everything was new and exciting and a little bit dangerous. 

When a little bit of danger had been fun. 

Now, Liz's opinion was the last of Nat's worries, occupying a spot low on a very long list. 

This had seemed like such an easy choice when she'd looked up the address. Celia had not replied to her messages after that first attempt at contact, but she was certain that the woman would know something useful, would have something resembling an answer to at least one of the questions burning in Nat's mind. 

Arriving at her doorstep and begging to talk had seemed like an obvious plan. It had felt right.

But that was before, when the idea was an abstract. Before, when she was freshly running on the fumes of shock from Miriam's obituary, when it was dark outside and it seemed better somehow to face a terrifying impossibility than to surrender to the fear of insanity. 

Now, sitting just outside, Nat's guts clenched in doubt.

She didn't know what she was going to say. A dozen questions, insistent and desperate, circled in her mind. But she couldn't seem to put words to them; they hung in her consciousness as unspeakable horrors, nameless anxieties.

The cherry burned down on her cigarette, unsmoked, and the fire eventually died. She exhaled a long, steadying sigh, and dropped the half-smoked cigarette to the pavement, laboring over the process of rolling up the window, adjusting her purse over her shoulder, locking up the car behind her, at each step fighting the urge to call it off and go home. 

She could retreat to the motel. She could go back to Liz and beg for forgiveness or demand an apology or slip right back into the same unbearable stalemate that had driven her away from home to begin with. 

But her feet carried her to the doorstep all the same, and she fidgeted on the porch, waiting for a response as the doorbell rang cheerfully inside.

The woman who answered the door roughly matched the images from her Facebook profile. She seemed older, more worn down and more haggard. She'd lost some weight, Nat thought; skin hung in awkward places, wrinkles pooling at the hollows of her cheeks. She stood with the door half-open, peering up and out with suspicious dark eyes.

"Who are you?"

"Natasha Loman, ma'am. I spoke with you on Facebook."

The door began to close.

Nat reached for it, grabbing at the frame, struggling to hold it open.

"Please. I need to talk to you. It's urgent. It's...about your son."

"Get off my property."

"Please." Nat pleaded, and was surprised at the plaintive keening in her voice. She sounded so weak. She had never felt further away from the image she'd once had of herself — cool and collected, aloof, feline in her detachments. Even the pathetic appeasement she'd shown to Liz these last few weeks paled compared to the humiliation of begging an audience with this stranger. She had never felt so desperate in her life. "Can you help me? I just...I want to understand."

The door open just a narrow sliver, Celia regarded her for a long time with her single visible eye. Then, a long exhale, a sigh like a deflating balloon leaving her lips and crumpling her demeanor. She backed away from the door, wordless, and Nat stepped inside.

The home itself had a certain barren quality, as if its occupant were in the process of moving. Dust accumulated along the baseboards, and there were patches of wall and floor that were brighter than others, the ghosts of furniture that had been removed after a long time in one place. Celia led the way mutely into the living room, where a single chair sat in front of a spindly television stand.

"Sit."

Nat did as she was told, huddling uneasily on the edge of the chair, peering around at the almost-vacant house. Compared to the overstuffed home she'd shared with Liz the past year, the space seemed cavernous, echoing and empty. 

Celia disappeared from view, emerged a moment later with a kitchen chair and two cans of soda. She handed one to Nat. It was room temperature, but she accepted it anyway, holding it between her sweating palms like a lifeline.

"Are you with the papers?"

"What? No. I told you — I talked to you online, I...my wife and I, we bought a storage unit. It had some personal items of your son's."

"Oh. Right. You." Celia's eyes darted up to the ceiling, then, restless, her gaze traveling the room as if expecting something to come loose from the walls. "I told you. Burn it all."

"That's not...I..." Nat swallowed painfully. Her mouth felt sticky, dry. She tried to collect her thoughts, to fight past the absurdity of the question. "We have the dog."

Celia's gaze snapped toward her at that, eyes narrowed. "Bullshit."

The suspicion in her expression made Nat's insides churn. She didn't know what kind of response she'd been expecting, but it wasn't this. "We have the dog. It was in the unit. Along with...a couch, a night stand, some paintings."

"That's impossible." She got up from her chair, moving to stand behind it as if to shield herself behind its spindly frame. Then, her gaze darting around the room again. "I destroyed it. It...there's no way. Are you sure?"

"Taxidermy dog. Black. About this tall," Nat recited, insistent, but frustrated tears were threatening to choke her voice and burn at the back of her eyes. "It's...there's something wrong with it. Please. Just...tell me where it came from. What is it?"

"There is no way that dog was in there. Because I burned it to ash myself." 

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