Laura approached the Duane house cautiously, like a burglar, trying to silence her footsteps on the hard, crunchy snow covering the concrete walkway. The house was small, with a shingled hip roof and rusty gutters that ran next to the porch and bounced against the wooden railing after each of Laura’s footsteps. She knocked twice and Mrs. Duane opened the door and ushered her into the foyer.
“Please, get out of the cold, ” she said, placing a hand on Laura’s shoulder. She was wearing a blue polka dot dress that went all the way down to her ankles. Her feet were covered by white socks. Around her waist was white apron, a clean wooden spoon sitting face-down in one of the pockets. “It’s so good to see you again. I hope you’re hungry. I made too much food. I don’t know what I was thinking … maybe we could put some in some Tupperware before you leave. ”
She put her coat on one of the empty wooden hooks on the wall and inhaled deeply through her nose. It smelled like lavender diffusers, the kind she let sit in her bathroom for months on end, gathering sticky soap scum along the glass base. For the past eight weekends, she’d exchanged her diffuser and bathing salts in her apartment for a small shower stall in an old motel that contained two small bars of sticky soap and one small bottle of shampoo plus conditioner.
“How are you, Jamie? ” Mrs. Duane asked. Her warm fingers touched Laura’s back, guiding Laura into the kitchen, where two separate stainless steel pots were sitting on the stove with steam sneaking out of the glass lids. Laura imagined some sort of stew—whenever her family had visited their aunt in Nebraska, they always had potato stew, the blandest meal her aunt and uncle could possibly create. Mr. and Mrs. Duane reminded Laura of her aunt and uncle: both religious, old-fashioned, trying desperately to avoid the pesky little ingredients that made food so much better.
“I’m doing well, ” Laura said. She hoped she hadn’t responded too slowly. She was nervous and her mind kept telling her Your name is Jamie, Your name is Jamie. She was seeking God. Redemption. She had also made up a story about an addiction to pain killers, but they hadn’t asked about her personal life yet. She’d been sure they would ask about her personal life.
Laura stopped in front of the refrigerator, staring at the three pictures hanging next to the handle. In the top one, Mr. and Mrs. Duane stood in summer clothes with their daughter Samantha between them. In the background, the sun was setting over a small blue L-shaped lake. The second picture was a glamour shot of their daughter, her curly red hair darkened in grayscale, hanging over her shoulders. She had a thin face, very high cheekbones and wide lips. She wore a frilly white dress, the photo cut just above her cleavage.
“I’m so glad to see you again, ” Mrs. Duane was saying, moving between the pots on the stove with a thick pink oven mitt over her left hand. “I feel like this is becoming a tradition, you coming over every weekend. We look forward to it. ”
“Your daughter is so beautiful, ” Laura said. She meant it—she’d never met the Samantha but Laura’s ex-husband had shown her pictures. That was a year after the divorce, when Laura could wake up in the morning without feeling a pain inside her stomach, after she could confront the devil inside that told her she’d failed. After a year, she could see the marriage as the mistake it had been. A small part of her was happy.
Mrs. Duane grabbed the towel hanging from the handle of the oven and wiped her hands. “That was taken at the church festival last year.”
“I don’t remember seeing this before, ” Laura said, thinking back to last weekend’s dinner. “It’s such a nice glamour shot. ”
“Oh, it’s been so hard since she moved away, ” Mrs. Duane said. “She was our little girl. ”
“Tell her about the contest,” Mr. Duane called out from the next room. He was sitting in a brown easy chair in the corner, reading a very large book with the title Creation as Science printed in bold, silver letters. He used a highlighter and ran it across the page. It was the same book he’d been reading every Saturday evening for the last three weeks. Before that, it had been Left Behind.
Everything in the living room was at least fifteen years old. No television. No computer. Brown carpeting in the living room that hid years of wear and tear inside its dark fibers. A bookshelf next to the easy chair made of real, solid oak—not the cheap particleboard that comes from Target and everywhere else. On the shelf were copies of Reader’s Digest and collections of the Left Behind series, a handful of Bible study guides with bright hard covers.
“There was an auction,” Mrs. Duane said. “To raise money for the church. Our daughter, Samantha, raised four hundred dollars. Took a nice young man out to dinner at the supper club in town.”
Laura nodded. When she first began coming over for dinner, she’d had to bite her tongue too keep her wry comments to herself. Now she was good at it, used to it a little, maybe.
Laura’s ex-husband, Ben, had taken Samantha to the movies for the first time in her life. He picked “The DaVinci Code, ” laughing later on the phone with Laura and wondering if he could have picked a worse movie. Samantha had never watched TV, never been to a theater of any kind, never worked before taking the job on Ben’s soybean farm and most likely never even been on a date. She was thirty-three years old when she started working on the farm.
“I hope you like spaghetti,” Mrs. Duane said. She was all smiles, moving from pot to pot with ease, exchanging wooden spoons as she did so.
“I love spagetti,” Laura said. She stared at the last picture, one with the entire family standing in front of the same blue lake, Mr. and Mrs. Duane less wrinkled around the edges and their daughter standing between them with short bangs hanging over her eyes. It looked at least five years old. “This reminds me of Crystal Lake in northern Wisconsin. ”
Mrs. Duane turned around to study the picture. “Oh, not quite. That’s a bay up on Lake Ontario. Samantha used to love going there when she was younger. Then she got too old for it … you know. ”
“I know. ” She wanted to push the question again, but was afraid she might break the delicate web of trust she’d worked so hard to create. When she first started coming over for dinner, she had expected to feel some sort of rush from being in this house, but instead all that coursed through her body was nervousness, an expectation for police officers to rush in at any moment and very curtly ask Laura why she was using a false name and how she was connected to Ben Hein.
Ben Hein. The father of Samantha’s baby, the man who defiled their perfectly innocent daughter and gave them even more reason to believe that the Devil walks among us. Laura had met the Duanes in church over two months ago, their church—she’d known it was their church because there were only two churches in the area and the other was a Catholic denomination. They’d swooped in on her after the late service was done. She’d stuck out like a sore thumb, the only new face in a small crowd of only three families. She’d cried in front of Mrs. Duane after they stepped outside into the cold night. She’d told so many lies that afterward it had been difficult to write them all down and keep track.
The Duanes had never met Laura’s ex-husband, and she doubted Samantha had ever tried introducing him to them. He never liked religious people and yet he spoke about Samantha with admiration. Laura had often wondered if maybe Ben thought he could save her.
Mrs. Duane set out three white dinner plates while Laura set down a knife and fork for each place. Laura knew where the silverware was: the top wooden drawer next to the sink.
“Dear! ” Mrs. Duane called out.
“Right, then. ” Mr. Duane set the book on the armrest and pulled himself out of the chair with a groan. He waddled over to the table, sitting down next to Laura. She could smell the sweat underneath his arms, raw and untouched by deodorant. He had a thick stomach and wore vertical striped shirts with thin collars.
“Do you plan on coming to church on Sunday? ” Mrs. Duane asked. She used a large fork to heap a clump of spaghetti on Laura’s plate, then scooped a spoonful of sauce over the noodles. The red sauce was watery, gathering in a pool underneath the angel hair noodles. It smelled like ketchup.
“Of course. ” Laura started twirling a long glossy white noodle, then stopped and set down her fork, bowing her head.
“Dear lord, ” Mrs. Duane began, her wrinkled pale fingers folded tightly together, “thank you for this meal. Thank you for helping us through another week. Thank you for helping us overcome our challenges. Please bless our family and Laura. ”
“Amen, ” Laura said, twirling a noodle and carefully sucking it off the fork. The noodle tasted bitter and the sauce stuck in the back of her throat.
“Which service are you going to be at? ” Mr. Duane asked, wiping his fork with his napkin, which he always did before eating.
“Probably the eight a. m. service. I’m still applying for jobs in the area. ”
“Who’s hiring? ” Mr. Duane asked. He held up his hands, frowning. “I’m sorry, I’m being too pushy. ”
Laura laughed. Mr. Duane had very sparse, patchy gray whiskers and when his face contorted, it looked like a smile wrapping around his chin. It threw her off-balance for a moment, and she had to search her mind for the script she’d created. This was the opening she’d been waiting for. An opportunity to bring up a touchy subject and see how they would react. “There’s some work on a couple of farms. I did that for a week and earned a little extra money. ”
Mr. Duane cleared his throat. He twirled a forkful of spaghetti and piled it into his mouth.
“Oh, you don’t want to do that, ” Mrs. Duane said quietly. “Did you apply to Target? It seems like they’re always hiring. ”
“They’ll let you pick your availability, too, ” Mr. Duane said. “A lot of farmers around here, they work day and night in the winter getting everything fixed. Not much time for God. ”
Laura could remember her only winter on Ben’s farm helping him fix all of the machinery in the freezing old barn his father had built. Her memories of that winter could have been applied to any afternoon: numb fingers, the smell of oil, Ben swearing to himself. She couldn’t help with much but he liked having her there; by the time the ground began to thaw, they were already getting on each other’s nerves and he didn’t ask for her help anymore.
“We don’t want to lose you at the service, ” Mrs. Duane said. “If money’s the problem then we can loan you a little. ”
Mr. Duane nodded, grunting and wiping the sauce off his facial hair with his white napkin.
“I applied to Target, ” Laura said, and at this both of her hosts’ faces brightened. She felt trapped in a game of chess at the table, unable to read exactly what they wanted from her. But they did want something. “I made sure to note I wouldn’t be available on Sunday mornings. Maybe that’s why they won’t hire me. ”
“Wouldn’t surprise me, ” Mr. Duane said, slurping a long noodle. “Those companies don’t care about God. Not like they’re supposed to. ”
“We can help, ” Mrs. Duane said, leaning forward under the plastic green kitchen chandelier that hung low from the ceiling. Her bright green eyes seemed to shine. “I always have leftovers. I’m just so used to cooking for three that I really don’t know how to adjust my recipes for less. ”
“Your family won’t mind, will they? ” Mr. Duane asked.
Laura twirled another lump of dry noodles. They stuck together in a sticky, rope-like mess. “My dad and I don’t get along. That’s why I want to move into town. There’s just too much tension. ”
“I hope it’s nothing serious, ” Mrs. Duane said. “Family is so important. ”
“The most important, ” Mr. Duane added, scooping another large lump of pasta into his mouth.
“We’re just on different paths now. ” Laura twirled another noodle, wet with sauce, and used her teeth to slide it off the prongs of the fork. She was careful not to make any noise while she ate because they didn’t make any noise. She wanted to match their sensibilities to make herself appear more likeable.
“Well, we know how hard it is to part ways even if it’s temporary, ” Mrs. Duane said with a smile. “When Samantha moved away six months ago, I felt like I was going to die the first few days she was gone. ”
But where did Samantha go? Laura wondered.
The motel was costing thirty dollars a night. She was eating out for her meals and using her laptop to stay on top of freelance jobs. It’s because of the baby, she kept telling herself when she checked in every Friday night.
When she visited Ben the previous summer, she saw that he had a limp when he put weight on his left leg. She watched him lean on the porch railing with peeling white paint and watch Samantha walk from the big brown barn to the pasture with the wheelbarrow full of farming equipment. She saw how he bit his lip, softened the features of his dry face, and stuffed his hands in his pockets because he didn’t know what else to do with them.
This past summer, Laura didn’t visit. After Ben called and told her Samantha was pregnant, Laura told him congratulations, hung up and cried. She wasn’t sure why she was crying. She knew they’d been a couple of stupid kids when they married.
If he didn’t love Samantha, maybe he loved the baby. He had a right to see his baby.
Ben had said they were zealots. They hid his baby and Samantha. He said if Samantha didn’t want to see him, that was fine, but he wanted to see his baby. He didn’t even know if it was a boy or a girl. The Duanes were devils in disguise, the kind that the pastor at their church talked about every Sunday morning.
“The Devil walks among us, ” the pastor said. “He tempts us. He tells us to sin and sometimes he enters our bodies and makes us do things we don’t want. If you love God, if you truly love God, he will protect you and he will show you the light so you can see the devil hiding inside others. ”
The Duanes were gullible. Yes, she decided, that must be where her guilt was coming from. This family ran their lives according to an old book and an old preacher. They wanted to believe Laura’s name was Jamie, that she was a lost soul who had miraculously found herself in the warm embrace of two faithful believers who could guide her into God’s grace. Their job was to deliver her from evil, God willing.
Mrs. Duane looked up from her plate of half-eaten spaghetti, smiling at Laura, her eyes blinking slowly, affectionately, and suddenly Laura felt the tears come out of nowhere, as if the old woman’s look had exorcised the devil from her body.
“Oh, sweetie, ” Mrs. Duane said, standing up and pulling her chair to the other side of the table. She sat down and wrapped one tight arm around Laura’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? ”
The refrigerator photos pressed in place by fruit-shaped magnets burned her back. She wiped her eyes. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. It’s just been … very hard lately. ”
“Well that’s nothing the good Lord can’t fix, ” Mrs. Duane said.
“It’s true, Lord how it’s true, ” Mr. Duane said. They were both smiling, real smiles—the genuine kind that screamed, “We’re doing this for God, but who are you doing it for? ”
“I’m not so sure, ” Laura said. She fought the urge to ask why, why did you hide Ben’s baby?
Mrs. Duane nodded. “Sweetie, God can do anything. All you need to do is pray and ask for guidance. We all deal with our devils, believe me, but we can win with faith. No one knows that more than this family. ”
What was she thinking? Laura wondered. Did Mrs. Duane picture Ben as some sort of Devil-in-disguise? The man who dared to cut out Samantha’s poor sweet innocence? That bastard who showed her the wonders of a moving picture when they should have been studying the Bible? The man who wanted nothing more than to see his child.
The refrigerator hummed. The pendulum clock hanging over the oven ticked, its face covered by glass and housed inside a thick polished wooden frame.
Laura wiped her eyes and looked up at the people besting her ex-husband. Her friend. These people, clutching to an idealized utopia that only existed on the outskirts of small towns in the middle of the Rust Belt, had managed to hide away their daughter and her child. Ben had hired a private investigator, had even gone so far as to call the police, which he never did, not even when he caught a high school boy trying to steal his mailbox. The private investigator spent two months digging and couldn’t come up with a single lead. The police filed a report but despite Samantha’s innocence, she wasn’t a minor.
Ben had spent a month remodeling to accommodate the baby. He told Laura over the phone that he and Samantha were going to live together and that would be the end of it. He sounded neither excited nor angry. When the baby’s due date rolled around, she called and asked how Samantha was doing and he said simply, “She’s gone. ” And then he’d cried. He didn’t say anything else. Just like the only winter of their marriage. He was so good at clamming up.
“I just wish I had someone my age to talk to, ” Laura said, staring down at the white table cover. She felt her face redden, warming the tips of her ears.
“Well, let’s solve that right now, ” Mrs. Duane said, and at that Mr. Duane’s eyes widened but something held him back from protesting, maybe the Devil or maybe God or maybe something simpler. Mrs. Duane walked into the other room, her dress flowing behind her.
Laura tried not to watch her pick up the cordless phone—probably the newest device in the entire house and probably only because it had replaced something broken down—and dialed a number by heart. Laura tried not to get her hopes up, but who else could it be? She had expected them to pry, to try and solve her problems using old biblical fables they enjoyed recounting after church. Instead, they were calling someone real.
“Okay, ” Mrs. Duane said into the phone, walking back into the room. “I’ll let you talk to her. ” She handed the phone to Laura and whispered, “The guest room is the first left down the hall. ”
Laura took the phone with a shaky hand. “Thank you, ” she said, standing up and walking quickly with the phone into the living room, down the hall. She turned into the first room, opening the door and shutting it before answering, “Hello? ”
“Hi, Jamie, ” said the gentle, feminine voice.
“Hi, ” Laura said. The room smelled like vanilla. The only source of light came from a small plug-in next to a large dark dresser. She sat down on the bed, feeling her chest tighten in the darkness.
“I hope my parents aren’t giving you a hard time. ”
“No, ” Laura said. “They’ve been really wonderful. ”
“God bless them. ”
Laura could feel her heart beating in her ears. She didn’t have to disguise her voice—she’d never talked to Samantha, never had a meal with her or gone shopping together or read the Bible together. Ben had kept her a closely guarded secret, as if he was waiting for the right moment to unveil her to the world. After all the of religion had been purged and she had experienced television and Internet and cellular phones.
“I don’t know what you’re going through, ” Samantha said, “but you’re not alone. You’re never alone. ”
“Uh-huh, ” Laura said through pursed lips. Her hands felt clammy. She wanted to hang up, before she had to lie to this young woman, too.
Samantha exhaled too close to the phone, a phone Laura imagined she wasn’t used to using yet. “I can relate to just about anything at this point. I … things don’t happen the way we expect. You think you have the world figured out, and then all of a sudden God shines a light on a shadow you missed. A spot in your life you didn’t even know existed. ”
“And sometimes God loses sight of the Devil, ” Samantha continued, her voice shaky. “Sometimes, the Devil fools even the best of us, and we don’t recognize him when he shows up. Sometimes we’re blinded by something. It takes another person to see him. ”
Laura closed her eyes. The room felt cold. She could feel goose bumps along her lower neck.
Samantha was silent on the other end for a moment. “Do you have a family? ”
“No, ” Laura said quickly. “No one I’m close to. ”
“I have a son, ” Samantha whispered, as if she were ashamed and proud at the same time. “He’s my anchor. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t look at him in the morning when I wake up. ” She cleared her throat. “What did my mother make for dinner? ”
“Spaghetti, ” Laura whispered.
“She makes such awful spaghetti. ”
Laura laughed. “The sauce is a little runny. ”
“She never learned to use many spices, ” Samantha said. “ I didn’t even know what I was missing until I started my first job on a farm. ”
Laura felt her heart beat faster. “What do you mean? ” she asked.
“My boss. I … well, he sometimes cooked and it always tasted so wonderful. Stir-fry chicken. It tasted so different from what I was used to. He used all these spices I never knew existed. It was so wonderful. ”
Laura wiped a hot tear from the corner of her eye. Ben had never cooked for her. “I think your mother’s calling me, ” she said quietly. “Thanks for talking with me. ”
“I hoped I helped, ” Samantha said. She laughed lightly. “I hope God helps. ”
“You did. And he will. Good night, ” Laura said. She turned off the phone, looking at it in the darkness. She took out her cell phone and opened the Contacts list, then pressed the “talk” button on Mrs. Duane’s phone, hit “redial, ” and watched the numbers pop up on the green backlight just below the earpiece. She copied the number down and turned the phone off before it could connect, then returned to the kitchen. Mr. and Mrs. Duane were sitting at the table, their hands crossed in front of them.
“Did it help, sweetie? ” Mrs. Duane asked.
Laura sat down, handing the phone to Mr. Duane, who set it next to his glass of orange juice. “Yes, ” she said. “Your daughter is wonderful. ”
Mr. Duane simply nodded. Mrs. Duane dipped a slice of plain white bread into the runny sauce.
Later that night, after packing up her things in the motel, Laura stopped by the cafe on the edge of town for a quick sandwich. She signed on to the wi-fi service and typed Samantha’s phone number into a free online phone database. The address popped up onscreen and she copied it down.
Ben picked up after two rings. “Hello, ” he said in a low voice.
“It’s me, ” Laura said simply.
“Hi. ” He groaned, turning over in his bed. “It’s late. What’s wrong? ”
“Turn on the light and grab a pen, ” Laura said. “You got one? ”
“Hold on. Yeah. Okay. What is it? What’s wrong? ”
“Fifteen West, Forty-two North. South Redridge Lane. Denton, Nebraska. ”
“What’s that? ” he asked. He sounded more awake now and she could hear the springs of his old bed creaking as he sat up.
“That’s where your son is, ” Laura said.
“My son, ” he said. “My … son. ”
She hung up the phone and turned it off. Her sandwich arrived with a full plate of fries and she ate them one by one, dipping them into the ketchup and relishing the taste of the seasoning.