Magic Words

Selected for the Best American Short Stories, 2009

Because Paula Blake is planning something secret, she feels she must account for her every move and action, overcompensating in her daily chores and agreeing to whatever her husband and children demand. Of course I’ll pick up the dry cleaning, drive the kids, swing by the drugstore. This is where the murderer always screws up in a movie, way too accommodating, too much information. The guilty one always has trouble maintaining direct eye contact.

“Of course I will take you and your friends to the movies,” she tells Erin late one afternoon. “But do you think her mom can drive you home? I’m taking your brother to a sleepover too.” She is doing it again, talking too much.

“Where are you going?” Erin asks, mouth sullen and sarcastic as it has been since her thirteenth birthday two years ago.

“Out with a friend,” Paula says, forcing herself to make eye contact, the rest of the story she has practiced for days ready to roll. She’s someone I work with, someone going through a really hard time, someone brand-new to the area, knows no one, really needs a friend.

But her daughter never looks up from the glossy magazine spread before her, engrossed in yet another drama about a teen star lost to drugs and wild nights.

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