I don’t make friends easily. I never have. I’m inherently suspicious of people: their motives, their lies. That’s what I hate the most, the monstrous untruths people tell in the name of self-preservation.
Though I’m a hypocrite. I’m guilty of lying myself, but I have a conscience and I despise myself for the charade. Keeping up the pretense is hard. I’m not sleeping well. I’m edgy. Lamenting the mistakes of the past and trying desperately to keep a grip on the present.
This sham I’m perpetuating won’t end well. I know this. I have a plan. It’s complicated and risky, but aren’t all good things in life worth taking a risk for?
I can see my future so clearly. I deserve to be happy. But one false step will bring my carefully constructed façade tumbling down and I’m incredibly nervous.
I hear sirens and foreboding trickles down my spine. Silly, because I haven’t hurt anyone. Not really. They can’t be coming for me.
But as the wailing intensifies and flashes of red and blue light illuminate the room, every muscle in my body tenses, ready for flight.
I take a deep breath, blow it out, and do it again, calming myself before I cross to the window and peek out. Three police cars pull up next door and the sirens are barely cut before the doors fly open and officers exit the vehicles, twelve in total. Some wear uniforms, some are plain-clothed detectives.
My gut twists with dread as I watch them stride up the path—thankfully not toward my front door—and I’m instantly remorseful for such a selfish thought.
Something bad has happened. That many officers wouldn’t show up for a simple disturbance or grievance, and certainly no detectives. I hope nothing’s wrong with one of the children. There are several youngsters in our cozy enclave. I see them playing in the park and it brings a simple joy to my complicated life.
I can’t see who opens my neighbor’s door no matter how hard I crane my neck. An officer notices me peering out my window and our gazes lock for a moment before I back away and draw the curtain so I’m out of sight.
While I hope my neighbors are fine, particularly the children, I don’t want to draw attention to myself. It’s the last thing I need.
I must relax and try to distract myself with mundane tidying, web surfing, even mindless reality TV. But I’m still on edge and when I hear a scream, a chill ripples over me, raising goosebumps.
Is it the anguished cry of a mother whose child is in jeopardy?
Or the shriek of someone who’s lost everything?
I believe in love at first sight.
The moment I laid eyes on 8 Vintage Circle in Hambridge Heights, I fell hard. It came as a shock because after living in Manhattan for so long I never envisaged moving to Brooklyn. But Andre and I needed a fresh start—our marriage depended on it—so I took the plunge and put in an offer on the delightful brownstone, knowing in my gut I’d made the right decision.
It seemed like fate when we got the house and moved in five years ago, a sign. Andre had begged for another chance and I relented. Nobody’s perfect. We all make mistakes. We’d been married for eight months when he cheated on me. A slip-up, he said. A drunken one-night stand that meant nothing; a stupid lapse in judgment that wouldn’t be repeated. He’d made a lot of trite excuses at the time, and eventually I grew tired of hearing them; his genuine remorse got to me after a while. I didn’t want to absolve his sins but I had a few of my own to hide so I forgave him. Luna was born eight and a half months later and the moment I glanced at her squished face after an exhausting sixteen-hour labor I was glad I gave him another chance.
My daughter is my world and I didn’t want to be responsible for blowing hers up. I wanted to preserve our family, to give my daughter the stability of having two parents in the same household, parents who could work through problems rather than running away. Even though I’d forgiven Andre quickly after he cheated, once Luna was born I became intolerant of his idiosyncrasies. Silly things, like the way he chewed peanut brittle with his mouth open so I could hear every annoying crunch, and leaving a trail of clothes to the bathroom when he showered. I didn’t have postpartum depression, but my haywire hormones made my irrational anger escalate and I had to do something about it. Turns out, because I’d forgiven him so quickly for the sake of the pregnancy, I still harbored antipathy toward him and needed to deal with it. It took four weeks of therapy before I finally let my resentment go, and that’s when we bought this place and moved here.
Andre and I have been solid since then. Luna is a happy, well-adjusted five-year-old, my career as a lifestyle vlogger is thriving, and Andre’s graphic design business sees him working from home more days than he’s away.
We’re happy. I’m happy.
Yet as Luna and I cross the road in front of our house and enter the community garden, a sliver of foreboding makes me pause.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
My gorgeous, sweet daughter is staring up at me with big blue eyes so like her father’s. With her blonde hair, dimple in the right cheek and easy smile, everyone says she looks like me. But the shape of her eyes, the unique blue that I’m certain turns indigo when she’s emotional, is all her father.
“Nothing, sweetheart. Are you looking forward to the party?”
A stupid question as she starts hopping from one foot to the other, not even looking at me, and I follow her gaze to find her attention fixed on two long tables draped in white linen, covered in a variety of pink and blue cupcakes, candies and lemonade.
“Duh.” Her eye-roll is cute and I struggle not to laugh.
I have no idea where she’s heard that, probably one of those cartoons she watches when I need to keep her occupied. I love the flexibility of working from home—being a full-time mom and earning a great wage—but it has its challenges, like Luna wandering into the kitchen when I’m doing a live stream.
“What are we waiting for, Mom?”
“Nothing,” I say with a smile, and with that she’s off, running to join a group of children clustered near the cupcakes.
I’m more reticent. I wouldn’t say this to anyone but I’ve never really understood the point of a gender reveal party. It usually means the most to the parents. And this one is particularly odd, as our new neighbors, Saylor and Lloyd Abernathy, only moved in two weeks ago. Why invite the whole neighborhood?
We’re a close-knit community, thirty houses surrounding a square of garden that is perfect for kids and parents alike, and we congregate here on major holidays like Fourth of July and Christmas Eve, each family bringing a plate and sharing food and conversation.
Maybe the party is Saylor and Lloyd’s way of trying to fit in? If so, I applaud them, but I’m also wary. Not their fault, mine, because having a high profile online means I’m cautious with strangers in general. Some people equate popularity with ownership and I regularly receive a plethora of emails and DMs from men and women, who feel like they know me, want to date me, or want to be me. It’s disconcerting, having fans reach out like I’m their best friend. Some gush, some ask for advice, and some tell me personal stuff I’d rather not know. It scares me, being so well known, when I’ve spent most of my life fading into the background.
I hadn’t expected my vlog to take off. I started it a few months after I had Luna as a fun way to pass an hour or two when the rest of my day was filled with feeding, diaper changes and rocking her to sleep. Never in my wildest dreams had I anticipated earning a six-figure income from my ramblings about motherhood, home cooking and decorating, let alone have millions of daily hits. Viewers had told me they’d been drawn to my honesty initially, when I’d show them my disasters in the kitchen, like the time I was pureeing organic squash for Luna, hadn’t screwed the blender lid tight enough and ended up wearing orange goop. Or the time I’d been so exhausted because I’d been up half the night with a teething Luna and had forgotten to add baking soda to my sponge and it had turned out flat as a pancake.
But as Luna got older and I grew more comfortable in front of the camera, I became more competent. I’m obsessed with perfect pictures online, so I try to emulate some of the stylists by presenting pretty food and wearing cutesy matching outfits to match my theme of the day. Luckily, my viewers like my new image as much as they liked my food-splattered one and my vlog has thrived since.
But I worry that my amazing job might vanish at any second. It’s crazy, because my followers grow daily, but I’m aware I’m making a living from an unpredictable job. What kind of world do we live in when people hang on the words of a stranger—me—and treat me like a guru? I’m no expert, far from it, and it’s my inherent fear of being labeled a fraud that feeds into this insecurity. What if I lose everything? What if something happens and I lose my major brand partnerships? What if my content isn’t interesting and my followers disengage? Having a steady income stream of my own is important to me and I can’t afford to lose it, which means I need to be careful, keep smiling for the camera, pretending I’m well put together and in control when I’m nothing like it on the inside.
I spot Andre chatting with Ruston, a guy who lives across the park. He’s leaning close to Ruston, attentive to some anecdote that has him flinging back his head and laughing loudly in the next second. I can’t help but smile when I hear his laugh. It’s spontaneous and natural and one of the things I love about him.
I may seem happy most of the time, but deep down I’ll always harbor doubts about us. Namely, will he cheat again? Not that he knows I struggle with suspicion at times. I’m good at pretending for Luna’s sake, but I lost my ability to trust the day I learned about his betrayal. I’m so tired. Exhausted down to my soul. Faking it—for my followers, for my friends, for my husband—is taking its toll.
For Luna’s sake, I hope if something has to give, it’s not my marriage.
I make a beeline for the gift table. Like me, most of the neighbors have ignored the “no gifts please” addendum on the cutesy stork invitation Saylor had slipped into our mailboxes, and brought something. Mine’s nothing fancy, a set of body lotion for mom and baby, but my wrapping—all pale blues, pinks and lemons from the paper to the silk ribbons—makes it stand out. I’m all about the presentation, ask anyone. I’m known for it in the neighborhood.
Frankie Forbes, you are divine. You’re flawless. I love your look.
What brand of foundation do you use, Frankie? You look eighteen.
Your clothes are to die for. Which designer is your favorite?
I get comments like this on a daily basis and because anything I recommend sees an instant uptake in sales for the retailer I get a lot of free stuff sent to me. Some days our stoop is piled high with deliveries. Luna thinks it’s wonderful, Andre is tolerant yet bemused and I’m grateful that people listen to what I have to say.
It wasn’t always like that.
In my previous life, Francesca Mayfair was invisible.
I much prefer being Frankie Forbes.
After finding room for my gift and placing it down, I turn away from the table to find a woman standing too close behind me. I stiffen, hating the invasion of personal space.
Sensing my annoyance, she holds up her hands like she has nothing to hide. “Sorry. I’m not sneaking up on you, it’s just that the tag is poking out and your dress is so adorable I was trying to sneak a peek at the label.”
Self-conscious, I muster a smile and tuck the label in. “That’s what happens when you’re running late and grab the first thing from your closet.”
Her eyebrows shoot up. “If how you look is the result of you running late, what’s your secret?”
She doesn’t seem to know me and that’s refreshing.
“No secret. It’s all in the accessories.” I point to my earrings, chandelier-style turquoise feathers hanging from a gold hoop, and then to my espadrilles in the same color.
“You look amazing.” She screws up her nose and points to her jeans and paisley peasant top. “This is dressed up for me. My daughter’s the fashionista.”
“I hear you there. It feels like Luna has been color-coordinating from the cradle.”
“Luna’s a gorgeous name,” she says. “Is your daughter here?”
I nod and point to the cupcake table. “She’s the one in the pink polka-dot dress marshaling the kids.”
The woman glances over and smiles. “Violette is the one hanging back at the end of the line.”
I see a girl about Luna’s age standing apart from the other kids, five rambunctious boys. She’s wearing an impractical white dress, Mary Janes and a dainty pink bow in her hair, a few shades darker than Luna’s.
“We should introduce the girls,” I say.
She nods and casts me a shy glance. “I’m new to the neighborhood, so maybe we should introduce ourselves first?”
I laugh and stick out my hand. “I’m Frankie Forbes, number eight.”
“Celeste Reagan, number ten.”
She shakes my hand and hers is surprisingly icy on this warm day.
“You’re my neighbor?”
She laughs at my obvious shock. “Looks like it.”
Number ten has been vacant for months and I haven’t seen any moving vans recently. Besides, I would’ve heard signs of life next door and I haven’t, which is weird.
“When did you move in?”
“Last night.” She presses a finger to her lips. “Under the cover of darkness to avoid the busybodies.”
I chuckle as she intended. “We’re actually a great bunch, as you can see from the turnout here today.” I gesture toward the crowd milling around. “Saylor and Lloyd only moved in to number six a few weeks ago, so I guess this is a get-to-know-you kind of party as well as a gender reveal.”
Her nose crinkles slightly. “Can I be perfectly honest?”
I like that she feels comfortable enough around me already to be upfront, something I value. “Absolutely.”
She points to the giant helium balloon filled with either pink or blue confetti tied to a stork. “What’s with the gender reveal thing? When I had Violette I wanted a surprise and I sure as hell didn’t want everyone else knowing my business.”
I admire her honesty, pleased to have found an ally in my skepticism. “Same. Guess we’re in an old-fashioned minority because these parties are all the rage now.”
We laugh in sync and I realize I’ve been enjoying chatting to my new neighbor so much I haven’t really looked at her. I think she’s around my age, but on closer inspection she has carefully concealed wrinkles underlying her eyes and threads of gray through her auburn hair. She could be closer to forty than my thirty and there’s a look in her eyes, like she’s seen more of life than I have and it hasn’t been kind.
When a slight frown appears between her brows I realize I’ve been staring. “Let’s introduce our girls now.”
“Violette would love that.” Her frown deepens. “And I would too, because she’s shy and it would be great for her to have friends around her age. How old is Luna?”
“Same as Vi, great.” Her eyes light up. “They might end up at the same school.”
“More than likely. Hambridge Heights has the best.”
“That’s one of the reasons I moved here. I did a lot of research online.”
I warm to her more. As a mother, I can identify with her wanting the best for her daughter. Giving Luna the opportunity to thrive is my major motivator to slather on make-up, put on a bright top, and step in front of the camera when I’m feeling lackluster and blah with a distinct case of PMT.
“It’s a great place to raise kids,” I say.
“Living opposite this park must be a bonus.” She gestures at the lush green space around us. “You must be out here all the time.”
“We like it.” She hasn’t mentioned a husband or partner and I can’t quite see if there’s a ring on her finger. “Is it just you and Violette?”
“Yes,” she mutters, sharp to the point of rudeness, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s a story behind her brusqueness.
My smile is apologetic for probing and she winces. “Sorry. It’s just that Vi’s father hasn’t been there for me or her and it’s a sore point.”
“Don’t apologize, I’m one of those nosy busybodies you were hoping to avoid.”
We smile at each other and once again I’m struck by the shifting shadows in her eyes. Celeste definitely has a story to tell.
Then again, don’t we all?
I spotted Frankie Forbes the moment she set foot in the garden.
Who wouldn’t? She stands out like a graceful gazelle in a herd of clumsy hippopotami. Several women are wearing sundresses but the simplicity of Frankie’s, combined with perfect accessories, make her eye-catching. The aqua sheath dress has bold slashes of emerald swirled through it, like the rainbow ice cream Violette often asks for but rarely gets. All those artificial colors aren’t good for my baby. Nothing but the best for my Vi.
But it isn’t just her dress that makes Frankie stand out. She’s one of those enviable women who have a hint of class, like they stand head and shoulders above everyone else.
It surprised me to see her standing alone though. I expected her to be surrounded by adoring worshippers. I’m glad she’d been by herself. It made it easier for me to strike up a conversation, to establish a rapport. I don’t know why I pretended not to know her. Inferiority? Shyness? It’s silly because she’s nothing but pleasant and I enjoyed chatting with her.
As we head toward our girls I feign interest in her general chitchat as she points out who’s who from the neighborhood, when I’m only focused on one thing. Meeting Luna. Moving can be stressful for kids and Violette’s not great with change at the best of times, so I’m hoping she makes friends and that will help her adjust to living here. From our chat, Frankie seems just as keen to foster a friendship between the girls, which is great. From what I’ve seen at today’s turnout, there are a lot of young boys. Maybe there aren’t many girls Luna and Violette’s age who live around here.
I feel like I already know Luna. Frankie doesn’t stop talking about her beautiful daughter during her live videos, waxing lyrical as she prepares the perfect child-friendly vegetable lasagna or banana bread that hides zucchini and carrot too. It’s “Luna-this” and “Luna-that”.
Why doesn’t Vi tell me knock-knock jokes off-camera like Luna does, making Frankie laugh uproariously? Does Luna really go to bed at seven p.m. on the dot and not wake for a full twelve hours, or does she sneak into Frankie’s bed like Vi likes to do with me, afraid of her own shadow?
I know I shouldn’t watch Frankie Forbes. Her competency and perfection make me feel bad about myself. But I can’t look away, drawn in by her charisma like the rest of her millions of viewers. Her proficiency intimidates me and I expected to dislike her because of it. When the realtor mentioned her name as I inspected the house before signing the rental agreement I thought it would be daunting to live next door to someone so perfect. But Frankie in person surprises me. She’s… nice. Normal. Almost reticent, with a hint of vulnerability I never expected.
We’re almost at the cupcake table when I spy Luna already chatting with Vi and my daughter is more animated than I’ve ever seen her. I breathe a sigh of relief, short-lived when a man detaches himself from a couple and joins us, and ridiculously, I’m nervous.
“Hey, beautiful, glad you could finally make it.” He slides an arm around Frankie’s waist and plants a resounding kiss on her mouth. “What took you so long?”