Recap of Chapter 10: The news Penny’s dad brought was worse than she could imagine. Her past was being revisited in a five-year anniversary story that had gotten some traction online. The memories of the actual events flooded in, causing Penny to become more and more uncomfortable and her dad to become full of concern. Her mind seemed to be fixated on the painful memories from five years ago.
Penny came through the kitchen door as always, stashing her purse and tying an apron around her waist. She greeted the staff, each one looking shocked to see her, causing her to immediately wonder if she’d made a mistake. The owner came in, grabbing her by the elbow. “What are you doing here?” he whispered urgently, ushering her into the hallway. “It’s my shift,” she said. “Nothing is going to change by my staying home today. It was my ex, not my husband, and he was killed in bed with another woman—no surprise there—so I’m not sure I’m expected to do the grieving widow bit.”
Charlie studied her face. “But how are you feeling? I mean, are you up for this? You know every single customer will ask about it, all the while watching for signs of you cracking—or worse, of guilt.”
Penny was shocked. “Guilt? Do people think I did this? Are people thinking that I murdered my ex?”
Charlie shrugged. “I’ve heard talk.”
“What kind of talk?”
“The kind that makes me think it would be better if you stayed home for a few days.”
She measured his expression. “Seriously?”
Charlie looked as if he felt bad. “Just until this all blows over. I’m trying to spare you a whole lot of ugliness, okay?” Then he added quietly, “I don’t think you did it, if that helps.”
As Penny ditched the apron and collected her purse, she heard the staff offer their support. She heard, “Hang in there” and “We believe in you,” as she marched through the kitchen toward the back door. She made no eye contact.
Face flushed, she quickly made a beeline for her car. Once inside, she sat in shock. The realization hit her: The tongues were wagging, and she was the subject. They thought she murdered her ex-husband.
She drove directly home, pulled her car into the garage and shut the door. She went in through the back door of her own house, suddenly afraid to let people know she was home. In the living room, she drew closed the curtains that faced the front of the house. Right before the curtains met in the middle, she saw the neighbor sneak a peek in her direction through her window. And so it begins.
Meanwhile, Detective Jackson was looking at the evidence gathered at the murder scene. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he complained. “Who would want to kill these two?”
“Could be anyone,” Detective Wilson answered. “He didn’t have the best reputation, and she, as it turns out, was married. The husband seemed like a likely suspect, but it turns out he had an alibi. Just got the details. He’s not happy about his wife being tangled up with that guy, but he didn’t do the murdering.”
“He could’ve hired someone,” Jackson offered. “Oh hell, I don’t know.” He sipped from the bottle of Dr. Pepper, lukewarm on his desk. “Didn’t seem like he had the kind of money it would take to hire a hitman.”
Detective Wilson scratched at his chin. “Oh, I don’t know about that. You’d be surprised how little someone will take to kill another human being.” He leaned back in his chair, watching the ceiling fan rotate, thinking. After a few minutes, he sat upright, elbows on his desk. “What do you think about the ex-wife?”
“What would be her motive? She already divorced him, after she caught him cattin’ around.”
“That’s just it. It was a pretty big scandal around here. Maybe she wanted revenge.”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t seem like the murdering type.”
“No one does, until they murder someone. Maybe we keep an eye on her, look into her financials, phone records and the like. We might as well rule her out early on.”
Back to the present, Penny rose from the table, kissed her dad on the forehead and decided to distract herself with hard work. “You should go take a walk around the lake, Dad,” she suggested, mustering up the confidence she didn’t really feel. “Or go fishing? You can get a license at the Big R here in town. I don’t have a pole, but I’ll bet they have one you could pick up for cheap.” She attempted to smile at him, while she gathered the plates from the table. Her dad watched her movements, knowing everything she did and said was to distract her from a growing fear that her story—the very story she was trying to put behind her—would find her here in this start-over place and cause a scandal anew. He placed his hand on her arm. “You okay, Baby?” he asked, concern etched on his brow.
“I’ll be okay,” she said, unconvincingly. “Maybe some good old-fashioned hard work is what I need to clear my head. There’s not a lot I can do about it anyway, so I might as well be productive.”
“Maybe that’s just what you need,” he agreed. “I guess I’ll get out of your hair for a while. Let you get to it.” He rose from the table, gathering his jacket.
With her dad off exploring, or at least pretending to, Penny aimed for the kitchen. Jesse approached her, as if wanting to share urgent business. He hadn’t yet had the opportunity to tell her about Matthew’s visit or what shape he was in. Penny put up her hand. “Whatever it is, Jesse, do NOT tell me. Not now.” The warning look she gave him would have been enough, but her words hit their mark. Jesse held his hands up, nodded, and backed away, giving Penny the space she needed.
As she scrubbed the chef’s workspace, Penny’s thoughts were scattered. The alone time seemed to have the opposite effect of forgetting. Instead, she heard the snickers and whispers behind the menus when she did her best to hold her head high after she returned to work. She saw flashes of the detectives showing up at her door unannounced, and remembered the pinch of the handcuffs they fixed around her wrists. She blinked at the flash of cameras as she was marched out of her house toward the squad car, the officers holding back the reporters who had lined the sidewalk—far more than the pie-loving Mr. Franklin from The Granville Gazette. She rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand and exhaled. Her arrest and processing were the first surreal experiences in a long line of unbelievable things that seemed to happen out of nowhere. She dipped her rag in the caustic cleaning solution and squatted to scrub the table legs and lower shelf. She hadn’t put on gloves, and she was beginning to feel the sting on her cuticles. She put her back into the project, willing her mind to clear of the horrible memories, and at the same time wondering if she’d ever truly be free of them.