It’s not that Sarah was a person who judged others exactly. If you asked her, she’d say not at all. And she’d say she’s not suspicious of others, certainly not of those she deems to be, well, not quite like herself.
But a person notices things. And if you notice something that’s obvious, right there in front of you, what are you supposed to do? Be dishonest and pretend it doesn’t exist?
When she and her husband came across their house a few years ago on a real estate site, she was a bit concerned about moving to a “mixed income neighbourhood,” as she delicately put it.
“You never know,” she had said to her husband, her dewy, perfectly shaped brow furrowed with concern, “maybe it’s not that safe. Right? I mean, it’s downtown, which is great but, well, it’s almost inner city.”
But Henry, her husband, smiled reassuringly and said he thought it would be fine – a good learning experience for the kids. He had a way of looking at her, with his perfectly coiffed hair and his white, dental-poster teeth, that told her everything he said was right.
And it had been ok, mostly.
There was one small thing that worried her, though. It almost wasn’t worth mentioning. In a city of millions of people, there were bound to be people, even in her neighbourhood, with whom she would prefer not to socialize. But the bus stop was the bus stop and unless they put their kids into private school, which they had decided not to do, they couldn’t help who travelled on the bus with them. Nor could they help who the parents of said kids were.
Of course, they could drive the kids to school in the car, but then Sarah saw the bus as an extra bit of socializing for the kids, and she didn’t want to take that away from them. Especially not just because she was a bit uncomfortable about some of the other families in the neighbourhood.
Take for instance Sophie. She was young still, only in first grade, but she had already lost her cuteness. Or perhaps it had never been there. There was an edge to her, a toughness. It could have been because of her thrift store clothes. These were not, Sarah thought, the trendy kind of thrift store clothes.
It was really Sophie’s aunt who Sarah found disconcerting, though. The aunt was rough around the edges and lacking any understanding of basic social cues and norms. But, Sarah admitted, she had taken Sophie in after already raising her own kids. That was something.
Sophie’s mother had abandoned her at birth, and no one knew who the father was. So the little girl, after bouncing around foster homes for a while, finally went to live with her aunt in community housing.
And this was the issue Sarah had with the neighbourhood: around the corner from them, backing right onto their nice, bourgeois street, were the social housing buildings. Sarah just couldn’t understand how the city planners worked.
Every morning, the aunt, whose name Sarah hadn’t remembered, would walk with Sophie from their social housing unit around the corner to the bus stop. There she would do her best to make small talk with the other parents, including Sarah.
Sarah was not rude, of course. No, she had been raised better than that. Sarah was polite and would smile with just enough kindness to bestow her grace upon the aunt and to appear charitable in the minds of the other parents, while remaining distant enough so as not to encourage too much unwanted conversation.
On the infrequent occasions that Sarah and the aunt passed each other in the street without their children, Sarah would smile with the same polite smile, nod slightly, and continue on her way. She didn’t have time to stop and chat anyway.
On the day in question, Sarah was walking back from the neighbourhood store with some last minute groceries for dinner; they were having company that night.
She turned onto her street, two blocks east of her house, and the park came into view in front of her. Although it was here that the nice residential area she lived in ran right up against the seedy city core, the park itself had always been clean, safe and orderly. In fact, her neighbour had just mentioned to her the other day that she thought they were very lucky to be able to live downtown in an area that remained an oasis, when so many other places in the city centre had disintegrated, turned to crime and disreputable activities.
As Sarah was passing the park, she noticed Sophie’s aunt standing just inside the gate talking to two other women. Her first thought was one of trepidation; she did not want to get drawn into some converstaion with these people just now.
Sarah smiled the smile she reserved for people like these and gave her stiff little wave.
The women were huddled quite close together, smoking. Sarah noticed then that the two women were a bit strange. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it but they were sort of cagey, shady maybe. For one thing, they wore an awful lot of makeup, thought Sarah, and it was kind of all over their faces. She turned up her nose slightly. They were younger than the aunt, but had the same rough aura about them. Their hair was uncombed and their tight, dark clothes were a bit inappropriate for hanging around a park in the middle of the afternoon.
Sophie’s aunt seemed to pause before returning Sarah’s greeting, which was strange because she was usually so friendly – almost overly so. And in that moment’s pause, Sarah saw her surreptitiously take something from one of the other women and quickly stuff it in the front pocket of her jeans. Only then did she raised her hand in a wave, but her eyes remained dark and unsmiling.
Sarah’s heart skipped. She forced her gaze forward, toward home, and walked on past the women. She couldn’t help but imagine what had been going on there.
Well it was obvious, wasn’t it, she thought. The aunt was buying or selling something at the corner of a downtown park.
It had to be drugs, Sarah thought.
She followed her tumbling thoughts along to the next horrible set of possibilities. Maybe the aunt had some prescription drugs and was selling them to make a bit of cash. Then what Sarah would have seen was her pocketing the money.
Or…or the aunt wasn’t all that benevolent a caregiver after all, and was actually buying drugs, maybe even doing them with little Sophie there. Well, thought Sarah, unable to hold her thoughts at bay by now, well that would explain why Sophie seemed to be so hardened. That must be it!
Sarah was beside herself by the time she reached her house. She knew they should never have moved in here, she thought, accusingly thinking of Henry’s calm reassurances. They would simply have to move, she decided.
Lyne watched Sarah’s elegantly clad back disappear down the street for a moment, her boots clicking slightly as she hurried along. Then she looked back at the girls. It was hard to believe they had found her after all this time, and hard to believe that they were all still friends with her daughter, Tammy.
She remembered them as little girls playing together in each other’s back yards, when innocence was on their side.
Shaking her head, she brought herself out of her reverie and back to the present.
“Thanks for bringing me this,” she said again. “I hope Tammy really is alright?”
“Ya, she’s doing fine, like I said, she just wanted to tell you that herself.”
The girls turned to go. Lyne tried desperately to think of something to say to keep them there just a bit longer, to give her more information about Tammy. But they had said all they came to say and were ready to leave.
As the two girls walked away, Lyne reached into her front pocket again to touch the crumpled up piece of paper that was lodged there. She would hurry home now, she thought, and read the note from Tammy in privacy. It was the first time she had heard anything from her daughter in two years.