This story is by Marlene M. Bell and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The rich leather suitcase with space enough for a small child to crawl in, didn’t belong to my husband. Hotel managers make mistakes. This one certainly did when he directed me to “the best room on the Monterey coastline.” Number eight on the bottom floor facing the parking area.
The door was ajar when we let ourselves into the room. We crept around the bed and the hair on my arms rose to attention. I clutched Will to my side and motioned for him to stay close.
“Don’t squeeze so hard, Mom.” He broke from my grasp.
“Shh. I think we’re in the wrong room. Check the door number again,” I whispered.
A showerhead hissed and sputtered from behind the bathroom door open a crack. No wonder this place rivaled a damp rainforest. Humidity outside meet greenhouse inside.
Will drew an eight on the dresser mirror with a fingertip and nodded. “Dad should turn some air on in this tomb.” He swabbed his forehead with his T-shirt. “It’s hot in here.”
I touched the mirror’s condensation that fuzzed my reflection. A bed-headed blonde with melting mascara from an overbooked airplane. My plan to surprise Seth on race weekend in California had crashed on the hairpin turn. I made a face in the mirror. What was I thinking? Too many miles away, North Carolina beckoned me to our comfy bed in our comfortable home.
Pink and lacy black fabric on the luggage rack caught my attention.
An ache of the worst kind hobbled my lungs, and I fought for my next breath.
“Wait here.” I sat Will on the bed in the opposite direction of the overnighter and studied the bag from a distance. A bra and hot pink chemise like those in the Victoria’s Secret catalog stared back, daring to share their secrets with me.
Not Seth’s room.
It couldn’t be Seth’s room.
The whooshing in the shower stopped, followed by feminine laughter.
Pulled in two directions, I could flee with Will and jump on a plane for the east. Forget this weekend ever happened—or stay and quiz the Jezebel who sang while she dried off in the tub.
Flee? Fat chance.
“Is Dad in the shower with some lady?”
For Seth’s sake, I hope not.
Did Seth love this woman? Will he leave us? I won’t take our son out of school at his age and move to a smaller home. A receptionist’s wage couldn’t support a little boy who lived for sports.
Will rose to his feet and gave me his father’s winning grin. In that moment, I fell in love with the men in my life all over again. He had my eyes and his dad’s smile. He’d managed to secure our best features in blue and dazzling white.
I thought about Seth’s suits at home in the closet next to mine and his habits of late. No lipstick or perfume on his starched shirts. Few late evenings at the office or broken promises to Will. He’d never missed a single Friday night little league game. Always the romantic, Seth remembered birthdays and holidays with flowers and gold jewelry, my favorite.
I’m being silly. We’re in somebody else’s room.
I ran a clammy hand down my capris. “C’mon, hon. Let’s go. This isn’t Dad’s room.”
“Who’s there?” a meek voice asked. “You’re back early.”
“Will, I mean it. Up!” I lunged for him. “Now.”
The bathroom door swung open, and a toweled figure dripping on the tile loomed in the steamy threshold.
“Oh, excuse us, miss. We have the wrong room. You really should lock your door. Anyone could walk in.”
“Like you?” The woman’s ringlets hit her bare shoulders when she glanced at Will. “Cute kid.”
I choked on the cotton in my mouth, wishing I’d gone for option A and fled the scene when we had the chance. Jezebel was stunning without makeup. No woman should look that good in a towel and wet hair.
“If you need a room in the area, there aren’t any. Booked for the weekend on account of the race.”
“Dad’s a driver at lagoon… lagoon…”
“Laguna Seca?” Miss Ringlets clasped her hands, finishing his sentence.
Will pumped his eleven-year-old fist in the air.
“Yeah! That’s it. That’s the one.”
“I know most of the drivers. Who’s your dad, sweetie?”
I’ll show you, sweetie. I crushed the life out of my purse straps to dull the fury bouncing from limb to limb at breakneck speed. I took Will’s arm and met the woman’s stare briefly.
“Apologies for our rudeness. We’ll get out of your—uh—wet hair.”
My sandals glued themselves to the carpet.
I wanted to know her name and when she had met Seth. What he murmured to her when they were alone and if he’d bothered to mention he had a family. Answers that wouldn’t change a thing when face-to-face with the woman having an affair with my husband of fifteen years.
“My name’s Terri Slater. My husband is Seth,” I added, with emphasis on Seth.
She leaned my way, the clean aroma of coconuts and melon floating in the air. Nothing that resembled a glint or shadow of recognition passed behind her eyes. Her hand was cool and dry when she shook mine; not what I expected. She either didn’t know Seth or had mastered the art of the cover-up.
“I didn’t get your name,” I said to her.
“Seth Slater.” Jezebel’s gaze landed on the hotel room door. “Hmm.”
“Do you know my dad?” Will asked.
“Heard of him, but we haven’t met.” The woman adjusted her towel awkwardly. “I’m meeting someone for lunch, and as you can see, I need to get dressed. Close the door hard on the way out. It should lock on its own.” She strode to the overnight bag, flung out a handful of underwear, and waved. “Enjoy the race.”
Will giggled at the waving undergarments, and his stomach grumbled loudly. “I’m starving. Can we go now?”
“Hamburgers and ice cream or a restaurant? You get to pick the place. Your dad can haul his fanny from wherever he is and meet us for lunch.” I dug through my tote and autodialed my Romeo husband.
A phone rang somewhere outside, and I flinched.
Was he sitting in the parking lot, waiting for his Jezebel? Had he seen us arrive?
I tapped the smartphone and ended the call. No way would I have it out with Seth in front of Will—within earshot of her.
“Why don’t you wait in the rental car. There’s water and snacks to tide us over in the back seat. I’ll be right behind you.”
Will twirled the doorknob to exit, but the door pushed open toward him.
“Dad!” He hugged him around the waist. “We’re gonna watch you race.”
My worst fears realized; I couldn’t allow our son to witness an argument that was about to heat up.
“Will, honey, wait for us in the car. We’ll get some lunch in a bit.” I swayed, catching myself on the corner of the bed.
Seth was calm and silent, but something odd lingered about him. He closed the door behind Will and sat in the armchair across from me casually removing his sunglasses.
“Terri. It’s been a long while.”
“What? Don’t use an Aussie accent on me. Save it for her.” I nodded toward the bathroom door, noticing my red face in the mirror. “I don’t find it cute. You’ve put me… put us— How could you do this?”
Seth’s bluish birthmark in the shape of a pear was missing from his neck. Something about his eyes. The color. They were darker, and so were his brows.
The buttery lilt to his voice. A voice from the past.
“Sidney? You’re— alive?” My voice broke.
I glanced at the bathroom door again, shut tight, the woman hidden away. She wasn’t Seth’s girlfriend after all. Her casual disregard made sense, now. Sidney may have used an assumed name with her to hide his true identity.
“I— We thought you’d died. We wept on our entire honeymoon after your train accident! The most beautiful day of our lives, ruined. We grieved for you for years, Sid.”
His rich leather suitcase held the biggest secret of all. A sibling’s time capsule of sorts. Sidney’s passport would tell of his whereabouts but not his reason for disappearing. That would have to come from him.
Seth’s identical twin brother curved a sinful smile and he moved to the door. “Forget you saw me.” He opened it without fanfare.
“I already have.”
As I passed my long-lost brother-in-law, I slapped the smirk from his face.
The sting hurt more than I wanted to admit.