The Brown Purse
By: P.L. Jones
Two "friends" in an odd situation.
Two "friends" in an odd situation.
"It’s for you - eat it!”
Cheryl grimaced at the suggestion.
Glancing down at the disposable plate her friend had set before her, a giant slice of cheesecake topped with one fresh strawberry and delicious drizzlings of ruby red sauce stared back.
Screaming, “Just a bite, come on! You know you want to!!” the dessert threatened to do even more harm to her physique than the past year and a half she’d spent in ExperiLab.
“I…ah…” Cheryl forced herself to say the opposite of what she really wanted to say, “I can’t eat this.”
“And why not? I thought you loved strawberry cheesecake!”
Cheryl smiled as she easily contrived a reply,
“I do, but how am I going to lose the baby weight if I keep eating cheesecake?”
Bennie frowned in annoyance, Cheryl was taking the whole “baby” thing a little too far.
“Cher…we, uh, we both know you don’t need to worry about that.” Pausing, she took a good look at her friend. They’d known each other for a while now and never had Cheryl seemed so pale.
Her recently bleached blonde hair was, for once, a mess.
This was pretty uncharacteristic of the woman she’d befriended a year and a half ago.
Catching the worried look on Bennie's face, Cheryl let her smile drop and let out a sigh.... ‘Great, this is perfect. I knew it… I knew I'd messed it up.’ She thought, feeling like a failure.
From the first day she’d met Bennie, something told Cheryl she ought to keep her guard up, and she should've gone with her gut... but she didn't.
It was impossible to not become friends with the annoyingly kind and hilariously funny woman who constantly cracked jokes at her own expense and brought delicious cheesecake for her to eat!
On the Monday of her second week at ExperiLab, Bennie had given her an elbow nudge and whispered,
“You know people call us the purse twins. Despite the fact that we look almost exactly alike, they notice that we have the same brown purse. Smart group of women, eh?”
They’d shared a discrete laugh and then gone on to form what should have been a fake friendship. Unfortunately, it was quite real.
Coming back to the present and adjusting her expression to one of natural ease, Cheryl grinned as she went on to say,
“Duh genius…but, just play along. OK?”
Lazily picking up her fork, she stabbed the juicy strawberry, scooped up a bit of cheesecake and lifted it.
Examining the dessert, knowing how much she wanted to eat it, Cheryl wished there was a way to extract the caloric intake while preserving it's deliciously sweet taste. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that such a thing might be possible. If the tiny weapon in her purse could somehow summon a seemingly natural lightning storm, forcing it to target, hover over, and utterly demolish one specific location, then there had to be a way to make cheesecake-
“Cher.” Bennie’s voice interrupted her thoughts and Cheryl, snapping back to reality, took a careful bite of the strawberry.
“What?” She asked, in between a mouthful of bites.
Briefly glancing around the empty break room, Bennie lowered her voice to something near a whisper,
“I empathize you know, but maybe it’s time to let it go.”
Pausing mid-chew, Cheryl noticed the plea in her friend’s eyes and felt a wave of guilt.
Regaining her composure, she flipped her hair and at once remembered that she'd forgotten to wash it that morning.
She’d remembered on the helicopter ride over; remembered as she pulled the string on her parachute; but once she’d finally arrived “home” this morning, around 4 AM, she’d jumped in the shower and completely forgotten to wash her hair.
Swallowing what was left of the strawberry, she listened to her concerned friend’s practically hoarse whispering,
“I don’t think anyone who knew what really happened would think less of you. To be honest, people around here are starting to talk. They’ve never seen the baby, they’re starting to smell something suspicious. If you open up, people are more understanding than you give them cred-"
“It’s fishy.” Cheryl suddenly interrupted her friend.
She knew she should have never even attempted to explain things to some suburban housewife who was so far out of the loop she might as well have been living on Novus, the uncharted planet which only a few select government officials knew existed. But somehow, she’d allowed herself a moment of weakness and in so doing, she suddenly found herself pretending that Bennie really knew her, that Bennie was a friend who deserved some sort of explanation.
“What?!” Bennie asked.
Cheryl moved the plate of cheesecake away.
She seriously couldn’t eat those carbs. Not prior to a critical mission for which she needed to be in excellent shape.
In the brief twelve second silence that followed, Cheryl heard a roll of thunder.
She knew it was almost time.
“People say “something smells fishy”, but suspicion doesn’t smell. A smell is too obvious.” Cheryl replied, briefly glancing towards one of the break room’s large windows.
Rain began to fall.
“What?!” Bennie repeated, sitting up straighter and arching a questioning eyebrow.
“Suspicion is a tug at your gut. You always ignore the first faint pull.” Cheryl moved her chair away from the small two seater as she continued, “Then, after you find your suspicions were true, you train yourself to never again ignore a tug. I’m leaving early today…gotta relieve a nanny whose going on vacation.”
“Cher!” Exasperated, Bennie raised her voice as Cheryl stood, “You don’t have a nanny because you don’t have a ba-"
“LATER. I’ll see you later…maybe.” After hesitating, she gave Bennie one last look over her shoulder, "Get out of here before the storm gets bad, OK?"
"Trust me, when it starts rain, leave. Trust me. I've got to go."
Bennie watched in confused irritation as her friend hurried out of the break room.
In the distance, a second roll of thunder practically shook the entire building.
Glancing around ExperiLab’s empty break room, Bennie wondered how wise it had been to sign up for this stupid program in the first place.
Not only did she miss her kids, but her mother-in-law was starting to make snide remarks about "young mothers who left their babies in the care of others for long periods of time."
Biting her lip, Bennie recalled the advertisement that had first caught her eye, “Expectant Mother’s Needed for 24-Month Study; Receive up to $10,000 in Compensation and An Additional $40, 000 (tax free) upon Completion Of the 24 Months”.
Her husband, Ron, had just been laid off. She’d been unsuccessfully looking for work and on top of everything, had found out she was pregnant…again. A third child was great, fantastic even, but with their looming financial issues… they needed a miracle.
ExperiLab was a miracle in more ways than one. Not only had she been accepted as a candidate for study and signed a contract obligating the internationally acclaimed company to fork over $40,000 as soon as twenty four months were past, but she’d actually made (what she thought was) a friend.
Cheryl Smocks, a brunette when they’d first met, and Bennie Cangelosi were constantly mistaken for each other, with their similar coloring, quiet and slightly intense demeanor, not to mention, their matching pregnant bellies.
After several conversations, the women were pleasantly surprised to find that they both grew up in homes where Italian was the native language, they’d both been art majors in college, and perhaps not so surprisingly, both of their husbands had just been laid off.
But, as Bennie now picked up her bottled water and took a sip, she began to wonder if Cheryl actually was an art major or if she was even married, after all, she’d never been pregnant.
Shaking her head at the memory, Bennie recalled waddling into Gia’s Place, an upscale Italian restaurant. Arm in arm with Ron, she placed a hand on her belly as they passed the bar and Bennie suddenly paused, her eyes drawn to an all too familiar face.
Cheryl Cangelosi, her pregnant belly somehow gone, sat at the bar, downing a Long Island Iced Tea and in the midst of a deep conversation with an enraptured audience consisting of the bartender and a well dressed man who sat a stool away from her.
Cheryl, smiling wanly at something the well dressed man must have said, raised a hand to gesture and as she did, met Bennie’s eyes.
Her smile faded.
The next thing Bennie knew, Ron was inside the restaurant, patiently waiting at their table, as she and Cherly stood outside.
She glanced down at Cheryl’s suddenly flat stomach.
“What’s going on?” Bennie asked simply.
She wasn’t angry, just confused and venturing into a feeling of disorientation. For a moment, she’d even wondered if she was dreaming…
In retrospect, Cheryl’s guilty demeanor, her sigh, and later, her tears seemed the slightest bit practiced.
“I’m sorry… Bennie, it’s just that-something awful…really terrible, I don’t want to talk about it…but, you deserve an explanation.”
That’s when the tears began.
Bennie, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, gently prodded,
“I’m not asking you to explain anything, but if you need a friend to listen, I’m here.”
The surprised look in Cheryl’s eyes was sincere and perhaps the next few tears that fell, raining down her cheeks as she spoke, were also (for once) honest,
“It was a pseudo pregnancy. I found out two weeks ago. I haven’t told anyone, not even the therapist my GYN recommended me to yesterday.”
She took a deep breath,
“My doctor says I shouldn’t rush out of my normal routine, so I’ve been going to ExperiLab. When I’m ready, I’ll tell them and I don’t expect them to pay me a dime of course.”
“Oh…” Bennie was dumbfounded, ignoring the tug at her gut; a silent alarm disturbed by suspicion, she pulled her friend into a hug, “Honey, it’s okay.”
For the next two months, when Cheryl showed up with her fake belly, Bennie told herself it wasn’t weird at all, considering the situation. She told herself she had no right to judge, whose to say how she would have handled the situation had it been her own…When Cheryl was absent one day and the lab coordinator announced that she’d gone into labor the previous night and was now the proud mother of a beautiful baby girl, Bennie didn’t question a thing.
Instead, she went with a group of women to visit Cheryl in the hospital, where they were told that little Imogen Cangelosi and her mother, asleep, were under doctors orders to not be disturbed.
She thought it best to not ask questions, to just let Cheryl talk when she was ready. The thing about it though, was that Cheryl never wanted to talk, she acted like it was all perfectly normal.
Annoyed, Bennie decided to take Cheryl’s advice and cut out a few hours early.
She’d relieve her stressed out mother in law, go home, start dinner…whatever.
As she pushed herself away from the table, her foot hit something that didn’t quite feel like the table leg.
Glancing down, she saw a large brown purse. It was Cheryl’s .
Reaching down, she picked it up and set it in her lap.
Unsure, she bit her lip thoughtfully.
Well, what if it wasn’t Cheryl’s? Just in case…it couldn’t hurt to check…
Opening the purse, Bennie’s eyes widened as she took in the sight of what seemed to be a complicated weapon, a computerized device about the size of a cell phone, and a large manila folder.
Terrified, curious, but more curious than terrified, Bennie opened the manila folder and looked at a sheet of paper with ExperiLab’s header and a long equation riddled with chemicals she’d remembered from the Periodic Table.
Gasping, reality hit and thunder rolled as the sudden summer storm gained momentum.
Unexplained silences in conversation, Cheryl’s lightening fast reflexes, her intent way of observing nearly every move the ExperiLab staff made; in the craziest, most impossible way- it all made perfect sense.
Realizing that her hands were shaking, Bennie closed the folder and slid it back into the brown purse, which she promptly closed before carefully returning to it’s place under the table.
With that, she hurried out of the building, headed towards her car.
As soon as she left the parking lot, the rain started.
She could hear it, with surprisingly thunderous force, hitting the ground behind her. Noticing the clear skies up ahead and realizing that the rain hadn't touched her car, Bennie glanced in her rear view mirror.
What she saw made her pull over.
On the side of the road, Bennie slowly stumbled out of her car and watched in awe as a violent storm swirled above ExperiLab's building. The repeated strikes of lightning and pounding hail battered the building while touching nothing else in the vicinity.
The storm grew worse and Bennie gulped as she shakily returned to her car.
Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the wheel, and headed home.