Vicious - By Kevin O'Brien


Seattle–April 1998

“It’s probably been going on a lot longer than he says, the son of a bitch. I have to be the world’s biggest sap—”

Pamela Milford realized she’d been talking to herself.

Approaching her on the park’s pathway, a fifty-something ash blonde in lavender sweats gave her a puzzled look.

Pamela was pushing Andy in his stroller; so maybe the woman thought she was babbling to her baby. Dressed in a hooded blue jacket, Pamela’s ten-month-old was enjoying the stroll through Volunteer Park on that chilly April night. He’d point to joggers or people walking their dogs, and then squeal with delight. Now he waved to the blond woman.

It was just after seven o’clock, and the park’s lights were on. The walkway snaked around bushes, gardens, and huge, hundred-year-old trees. Up ahead in the distance, just beyond the greenhouse, was a dark, slightly creepy forest area that Pamela had no intention of exploring.

She usually didn’t take the baby out for a stroll this late, but she was furious at her husband right now. Throwing on her pea jacket and grabbing her scarf, she’d told Steve to cook his own damn dinner. Then she’d loaded Andy into his stroller and taken off for the park.

“He’s adorable!” declared the lady in the lavender sweats. She squatted down in front of Andy, gaped at him in mock surprise, and laughed. “Oh, you’re just so cute, you take my breath away!” She caressed Andy’s cheek. “And where did you get that gorgeous curly red hair?”

“Not from me,” Pamela said, with a strained smile. Andy had inherited his father’s red hair.

Pamela’s chestnut brown hair used to cascade down past her shoulder blades. But she’d gotten it cut short after Andy’s birth. Along with the excess pounds from her pregnancy, the haircut made her look frumpy, more like she was forty than thirty-one. Though she’d lost most of her postnatal pounds, she was still waiting for her hair to grow back.

Perhaps Steve had also been waiting for her hair to grow back—before he started to pay attention to her again. The baby had put a crimp in their love life; all the spontaneity and the passion had dissipated. She’d half expected that.

But Pamela hadn’t been prepared for what she’d discovered this afternoon.

She was an editor for the Seattle Weekly, and usually spent her lunch hours at Andy’s day care. But today, she’d decided to surprise Steve at work and treat him to lunch at Palomino. Lombard-Stafford Graphics was only four blocks from the Weekly offices. Steve wasn’t in his cubicle, and the office was nearly empty. A thin young Asian woman with a pink streak in her hair and a nostril stud, two cubicles away, tersely explained that Steve and everyone else were in a meeting. It was supposed to let out any minute now.

Pamela sat in his cubicle, twisting back and forth in his swivel chair as she waited for him. A “fish-tank” screen saver illuminated his computer monitor. Pinned to the grey cubicle wall were a Far Side calendar; Steve’s football team portrait from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois; a cartoon picture of Homer Simpson; three photos of Andy; and one photo of her—back when her hair was still long.

Pamela got tired of waiting and decided to leave him a note and then take off. But first, she wanted to change his screen saver.

Back when they were first married, Steve gave her—as a joke—a 5 x 7 photo of exercise guru Richard Simmons and faked an autograph: You make me sweat! I feel the heat! XXX—Richard. Two days later, Pamela surprised him by taping it to the steering wheel of his car. A few days after that, she found he’d left the photo for her in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer. The joke had gone on for weeks and weeks. The Richard Simmons Wars, they called them. They’d had time for such silly stuff back then—back when their relationship had been passionate and fun.

Pamela reached for the computer’s mouse. She’d go on the Internet and find a photo of Richard Simmons and turn it into his new screen saver. Chuckling, she imagined Steve as he tried to explain to his coworkers why he had Richard Simmons for his screen saver. She clicked the mouse.

That was when Pamela noticed an e-mail from [email protected], and the smile ran away from her face.

Jill Pondello had been Steve’s girlfriend at New Trier High. Evanston Properties was probably a real estate firm or something. And Evanston was close to Winnetka;