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The Beginning After by Kiersten Modglin (6)

Six

PEIGHTON

Back at the house, Peighton paced furiously around her bedroom. How dare he? How dare he come here today? She hadn’t seen that man’s face, hadn’t wanted to see that man’s face in years. Rage tore through her, though she had to remain seemingly calm. Her house was filled with guests who were mindlessly picking through casseroles and doting over her and Kyle. Isabel was busy entertaining, allowing Peighton to slip away for a moment to clear her head. She still needed to talk to Officer Nealson, who was wandering around aimlessly, obviously feeling out of place and trying to stay out of the way, yet she couldn’t bring herself to focus on that just yet.

The door opened slowly, causing Peighton to suck in a deep breath. She let out a sigh of relief when she saw Frank’s face. He approached her, shutting the door behind him quietly.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

She shook her head, staring at him. “No, nothing’s okay. Drew is here.”

His eyebrows raised, the weight of the situation apparent on his face. “What? Drew Drew?”

“Yes,” she said firmly, covering her face. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what he wants, why he’s here.”

“Did he say? Did you talk to him?”

“Briefly. Kyle was there. I couldn’t say much. He must’ve heard about the funeral on the news.”

“He can’t be here, Peighton,” Frank said through gritted teeth, anger radiating across his face.

“Don’t you think I know that? I certainly didn’t invite him. I want nothing to do with him.” She stared at him, the panic they both felt filling the room.

“That man is a monster. If Todd knew he was here,” Frank began, his fists clenched.

“I know what he is. I know what he’s done. He almost ruined our marriage, Frank, our lives. I want him gone. But I know what sort of damage he can do. We have to tread lightly here. If news gets out about the affair

“Nothing will get out, Peighton. Nothing. I’ll make sure of it,” he told her. “You just have to stay calm. With that cop wandering around, you can’t let him get a sense that anything is up.”

“The cop, yes…listen, he’s here because they found something on Todd’s computer. I haven’t had a chance to find out what. You don’t think…?” She trailed off, letting Frank figure out what she meant. He shook his head sternly.

“I’ve covered all the tracks. There’s no way anything could be leaked, trust me. Find out what they found, though, and let me know. And as for Drew, I don’t want you worried about him. You just stay away from him, okay? I’ll handle it.”

Peighton nodded. “I don’t want him around Kyle.”

“He won’t be. You know I won’t let anything happen to you or Kyle. I’ll take care of Drew, just sit tight.” He nodded, touching Peighton’s shoulders gently before turning and leaving the room. After he disappeared, she took a deep breath, glancing in the mirror and grabbing some powder to cover her cheeks. She touched the brush to her nose gently, covering up a bit of shine before hurrying out the bedroom door.

As she rushed down the hallway, she ran straight into someone exiting the bathroom. “Oh, excuse me,” she apologized. “Officer Nealson!”

His jaw dropped. “Oh, hello, Peighton. I’m glad I ran into you. I was worried I’d lost you for the night.”

Peighton couldn’t help but wonder if he’d overheard her conversation with Frank. After all, he was just a room away when they’d been talking. She’d never heard anyone coming down this part of the hallway. “No, I’m still here. I just needed a few minutes to clear my head, you know?”

“I figured.” He offered a sorry grin. “Are you ready for me to go over the new evidence? Or do you need more time?”

“No, no, I’m ready. I mean, it’s tough. Today was a lot harder than I realized it would be, but I’m ready.”

“Great, is there somewhere we can go to talk in private then?” He looked around the empty hallway, the soft sounds of the crowded living room could be easily heard.

“Yeah, let’s go into Todd’s office,” she said, pointing to a door on her left. He followed her inside, flipping on the light. Peighton looked around. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to go inside Todd’s office since he’d passed. Not that she was ever there anyway, it was his own private space. But still, staring around the room, it was as if she were staring at a small piece of her husband. The desk was cluttered with papers, files, notes, and books. His laptop and a few files had been confiscated by the police, but for the most part the room looked just as she remembered. She looked at the pictures on the wall, most of them of Todd at the Capitol, one on his first trip. She remembered it well. A few posters from the previous campaign hung on the wall, proof of their hard work. There was his diploma, he’d graduated top of his class at Duke, where he’d met Peighton. She moved around the room in slow motion, soaking up every piece of her husband she could. A book lay open on his desk, she ran her fingers across it, wondering when his fingers had last done the same. On the back of his chair hung his favorite old sweater, one Peighton had teased him about for years. At that point, it was more thread than actual sweater, but Todd loved it. Peighton took it from the chair, wrapping it around herself though she was not cold. She could still smell him on it and it made her sigh. If she closed her eyes, she could have imagined he was still there, holding her in his arms, making her laugh.

Officer Nealson shut the door, bringing her back to reality. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I zoned out for a second there.”

“That’s understandable,” he said. “May I?” He gestured to the chair across from Todd’s desk.

“Of course,” she said, taking a seat herself.

“So, we’ll just get right down to it. I know it’s late and you have guests.”

“I’d appreciate that,” she said, though she wasn’t sure if she should be in a hurry to find out what he was about to tell her.

“What I’m going to tell you…well, it may be hard for you to hear.”

“I can’t imagine anything harder than losing my husband.”

“Ms. Claiborne—” he began.

“Oh, I’m Ms. Claiborne again? Perhaps I was wrong.”

Without losing focus, he went on. “Did you have any knowledge of your husband having an affair?”

She grabbed hold of the desk, accidentally knocking a pen off and swooping down to grab it. “I’m…I’m sorry. Wh-what?”

“I know this is hard to hear, and I’m sorry I have to be the one to deliver the news, but our tech team has found evidence that your husband may have been having an affair with someone he was talking to online.”

“Oh,” Peighton said, “okay then.” Her heart pounded in her chest. “Do you have any idea who it was?”

“We don’t. I was hoping you could help us with that. The email address is registered to a fake name and address: a—” he stopped, pulling out his notebook and reading, “Jane Smith at 123 Sesame Street Lane. But it does have what we believe might be a nickname in it. Have you ever heard your husband talk about anyone called Beelzebub?”

She let out a gasp. “Beelzebub? You mean like the devil?”

“Uh, yeah, actually. I’m surprised you know that, I had to look it up,” he told her.

“I grew up in a very religious household.” She waved off the question. “But, to answer your question, no. I haven’t ever heard of anyone being called that.”

“Okay,” he said, scratching something onto the paper. “What about the numbers 9677? Do those numbers mean anything to you? Maybe an address? The end of a phone number?”

She thought for a moment before shaking her head. “No. What do they mean?”

“They’re in the email address. They could mean nothing, I just wanted to ask.”

“So, what can you tell me about her?” she asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you much yet. We’re following a few leads, reading through years of conversations. It could—” He stopped, noticing the look on Peighton’s face.

Her jaw was dropped open, yet she couldn’t close it. She sucked in a deep breath, unable to make eye contact with him. “Did you say years?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” she said softly. She could feel the rage pounding in her fingertips. “Is that all you needed from me, Officer Nealson?”

“I believe so. For now. Are you all right, Peighton?”

“I’m just…yes, I think I just need to be alone for a while,” she said, her voice unnervingly calm. He stood, holding his hand out to help her up. She took his hand without conscious thinking, standing up in front of him. Their eyes met yet she wasn’t aware, her mind completely elsewhere.

“Yes, of course,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do for you…Peighton? Peighton?” He leaned closer, trying to catch her attention.

She jumped, suddenly back to reality. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what has come over me.”

“It’s been a long day,” he told her. “I’d be amazed if you weren’t a little out of it.” She watched his mouth moving, heard the words coming out, and yet it was as if she were underwater. Nothing made sense. She stared at him, knowing she should blink, breathe, something…and yet she remained frozen. Suddenly, without warning, she felt the cool tears hitting the warmth of her cheeks. She couldn’t move to wipe them.

He reached up, his hand moving slowly, eyes asking if this was okay, and pressed his thumb to her cheek, brushing a tear away. “It’s going to be okay,” he whispered, though Peighton knew he couldn’t possibly know that. Nonetheless, it was what she needed at that moment: someone to take some of the weight away, someone to tell her it wasn’t so bad. She leaned into him, allowing the tears to fall, allowing herself to feel the pain she’d been keeping at bay. He wrapped his arms around her, rubbing her back gently. She felt awkward in his arms, everything about him foreign, and yet it felt safe at the same time. She let her weight lean completely on him and he hardly flinched, holding her up and whispering softly in her ear. “Shhh, it’s all right.” She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that no, nothing was all right. Nothing would ever be all right again.

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