Originally Written Short Story, January 2021 for NYC Midnight Short Story Competition
It was all supposed to have been a joke. Just a stupid, harmless joke. But now Rachel Albright was dead, and there was really no doubt that she had been the one that had killed her. Ellie exhaled deeply and glanced at the oven clock which cheerfully read 9:13am in bright blue fluorescence. Was it too early to start drinking?
She stood from the island and made her way across the kitchen. The new house was absurdly large; she had told Dave this when they had taken the tour. But her husband was especially fond of flaunting their hard-earned wealth and prominence, and here they were. At least they were in good company. Wellton, California was a community like Ellie had never seen before. Everyone had money. Everyone. Even their stop signs seemed fancy somehow, with their beveled edges and deeper, more classy shade of red.
As she reached the wide sweeping staircase, the peaceful silence in the house was shattered by the frantic ring of her cellphone. Her heart skipped a beat.
She briskly made her way back into the kitchen and turned over her phone, wincing pre-emptively before she looked at the number. Sonia. Thank God, it was just Sonia. When she brought the phone to her ear, she intended to speak, but no words came out.
“Ellie…what the hell happened?”
A flood of hot tears was welling in her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she whispered hoarsely. “Nothing…I didn’t do anything… well, except for, you know… but that was it, I swear.”
“So, you just… that was all you gave her? Nothing else?”
“Okay, well, try not to panic. Maybe the chick had other issues that we don’t know about. It probably had nothing to do with you. Just freaky bad luck, okay?”
Ellie took a deep, shaky inhale and let it go.
“You’re right…you have to be.”
“Listen, Rachel had it coming to her anyways. That little whore was sleeping around with half the town, and everyone hated her for those condo plans. There’s more than a few people around here that wouldn’t have been sad to see her get it.”
Ellie’s stomach churned uncomfortably.
“I better go. Thanks for having my back Sonia.”
As the phone clicked silent, Ellie leaned her elbows down onto the cool marble of the kitchen island and rested her head in her hands.
The moms of Wellton were a kind of high elite society that she could only have dreamed becoming a part of. They were simply flawless in every way. Well groomed, well dressed and impossibly gorgeous, they moved through the town like some kind of designer-clad wolf pack, simultaneously terrorizing and charming everyone in their path. Ellie, by contrast, had always identified as being quite average in every way. So, it had been a complete shock when the pack had happened upon her two weeks ago while she was out in her front garden. She took a deep breath and recalled the day.
Ellie had looked up at the mom pack on the sidewalk, clad in multi-colour lycra. Although they were all spectacular in their own right, she had taken the woman who had spoken to be the leader. She walked and spoke with a slightly different swagger than the rest. Her sleek blonde hair was slightly glossier, her cheekbones a little bit more defined, and her crystal blue eyes could have frozen fire.
“Hey. You’re new here, right? What’s your name?”
“Um, hi! Yes, we’re new here. My husband just transferred from La Jolla. My name’s Ellie… well, Eleanor really, but nobody calls me that, and…”
The blonde had put a hand on her narrow hip expectantly.
“Ellie. My name is Ellie.”
She had paused briefly, her eyes giving Ellie the tiniest flicker up and down. Apparently approving of what she saw, she had spoken again.
“I’m Grace. This is Laurel, Sonia, Hallie, Meg and Jilly.” The women had each given a small wave in her direction. “We walk this neighbourhood Tuesdays and Thursdays after we drop the kids at school. You wanna join us on Thursday?”
Ellie had hardly been able to stand it.
“Oh… I’d really like to! Yes please!”
She had hated herself for her desperation.
“Cool. We meet at the park just around the corner. See you there around 10?”
Ellie exhaled, coming back to the present. Part of her deeply regretted that fateful day. If she had never met the mom pack, then none of this would be happening right now. Most likely, Rachel would still be alive. But if she had never met the mom pack, then she would never have joined their ranks. And that simply wouldn’t do either.
Hellbent on avoiding the news, Ellie spent the better part of the day vigorously decluttering and scrubbing every nook and cranny of her palatial home. But she couldn’t escape her. In every corner, in every cabinet, under every bed, was Rachel. Wellton wasn’t exactly a small town, but word about Rachel had traveled fast, and there wasn’t a soul that wasn’t talking about her.
Rachel Albright had been very well known, although not overly well liked in Wellton. She had been here on an urban planning contract to advise the city council on the best strategy for erecting a series of massive high-rise condominiums down by the water. Nobody was happy about the condos, and nobody had been happy about Rachel either. She was young, and insanely gorgeous. The mom pack harboured an especially passionate hatred for her. Most likely, Ellie gathered, because if it was possible, she was even more beautiful than they were. But what did any of that matter. She was dead now.
As Ellie folded cashmere sweaters, she replayed her last interaction with Rachel over again in her head. It had all just been for fun. Just a harmless initiation task, assigned to her by the mom pack as the newest member of their group. Rachel had been scheduled to deliver a big presentation on the new condo plan at City Hall yesterday afternoon. It was to be televised and was open for Wellton residents to attend. The moms had challenged Ellie to invite Rachel over for a coffee that morning and slip enough laxative into her drink that she would either miss the presentation entirely or better yet, embarrass herself in front of everyone. And that was exactly what she had done. It had just been a laxative for crying out loud, right out of her own medicine cupboard. But once Rachel had left Ellie’s house yesterday morning, she had never shown up for the presentation, and she had been found dead in her townhouse hours later.
Ellie was abruptly jolted from her thoughts by the harsh trill of her cellphone. A now familiar pit of dread churned in her stomach. Every ring of her phone, every creek of the floorboards, every passerby outside her window seemed to carry an ominous tone, as if someone had put the pieces of the puzzle together and was coming for her. She took a deep breath and pressed the phone to her ear.
She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes with relief.
“Hi,” she said meekly.
“Ellie…this is crazy. What are we going to do? I’m totally freaking out.”
“I know it is. Laurel…do you think…should I just phone the police?”
“Ellie,” Laurel interrupted, her voice high with confusion. “Have you been living under a rock? Have you seen the news?”
“No. I’ve been avoiding it.”
“They’ve just taken Grace’s husband Hank in for questioning. They found him with some poison called thallium at his work. The same poison that they found in Rachel’s medical exam.”
Grace’s husband Hank was a man befitting of the alpha mom. He was a highly sought-after plastic surgeon and owned a successful practice in Wellton. Just like his wife, he was drop dead gorgeous, one of the most beautiful men that Ellie had ever seen. As she watched and re-watched the media coverage of him being led from his practice with his hands cuffed behind his back that afternoon, she couldn’t help but think to herself that the man even looked good in handcuffs.
The only one who had been able to get a hold of Grace was Jilly, and apparently, she was a wreck. She had sent their two little girls off to their grandparents’ house in Sacramento to get away from the craziness in Wellton and was now desperate to get out of the house herself.
“She just needs to be out, you know?” Jilly had said earnestly. “She was hoping we could do your place tonight Ellie. It’s the furthest from downtown, and she thinks that people won’t know to look for her at your place with all those crazy cameras.”
Ellie had agreed to have the pack over that evening, against her better judgment. It seemed a bit odd to be socializing during a murder investigation, but what the hell. She paced around her house all evening wrought with nervous energy, snapping needlessly at her boys and obsessively checking the news for updates on Hank.
The initial findings from Rachel’s medical exam indicated thallium poisoning as the suspected cause of death. A tasteless, colourless, odourless poison, it was being rather graphically referred to on television as “the poisoners poison”; and Hank had been found with a ton of it.
Perhaps even more shocking than the thallium, was the latest report that there seemed to be some sort of illegitimate relationship between Rachel and Hank. An anonymous tip had come in that the two had been seen together a number of times late at night at both her townhouse and Hank’s practice, and while nothing had been confirmed yet, eager news outlets were already reporting that Hank had murdered Rachel to ensure that his indiscretions remained private.
Feeling sick to her stomach for Grace, and mortally ashamed of herself for her own relief, the only constructive thing that Ellie could think to do while she waited was to put two more bottles in the wine fridge. She wasn’t sure how much wine it would take to numb the pain of your husband poisoning the woman that he was cheating on you with, but she was certain that it was more than a glass or two.
Ellie had put her boys to bed early, and unceremoniously ushered Dave out the door to go watch the basketball game at his friend’s place. She waited with nervous anticipation for the pack to arrive and was hugely relieved when the doorbell finally rang.
For someone who’s personal life was crumbling, Grace still showed up dressed to kill in a knee length, black lace turtleneck dress and dramatic knee-high Chanel boots. Ellie was equal parts intimidated and infatuated with her.
As the pack assembled in Ellie’s living room, Grace made it clear that she was not interested in talking about Hank, nor Rachel.
“I’ll go back to my train wreck of a life tomorrow,” she said with a measured smile. “Tonight, I’d love to just relax for a bit.”
With the help of some alcohol, the mom pack settled into comfortable, light-hearted conversation. They had been at it for nearly an hour when Grace stood up wordlessly and made her way around the corner into Ellie’s kitchen.
The conversation turned to whether or not Laurel should consider lip implants, and as the moms debated the topic, Ellie absently traced the rim of her empty glass, thinking about Grace. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something off about her tonight. Something about the coldness in her eyes. She seemed detached from the scene somehow, as though she were here in body, but absent in mind.
The minutes ticked by and Ellie glanced towards the kitchen, then back to the girls, who had moved on to discussing the hot new gym teacher at the elementary school. She set her glass down, and stood, making her way in the direction that Grace had.
She came around the pantry wall into her kitchen and inhaled sharply. Grace was standing on the other side of the island staring directly at her with steely eyes. Sitting atop the counter, two inches from her right hand, was a bottle of Ex-Lax. Ellie looked from the bottle, back up to meet Grace’s piercing gaze.
“You should throw this out Ellie. It’s past its expiration date. You wouldn’t want anyone to get sick.” Grace’s voice was smooth and emotionless, and Ellie felt the blood drain from her face.
A sickening realization washed over her as she recalled Grace asking for an Advil the last time that she had been in her kitchen. How she had carefully observed where Ellie had retrieved the pills; how she had been left alone when she had requested a specific vintage wine from Ellie’s cellar.
She could hear the banter from the living room and took a step backwards. Grace picked up two glasses of red wine sitting on the island and made her way across the kitchen towards her. Her steps were smooth and weightless, almost like she was floating.
“Here,” she said, extending one of the glasses to Ellie.
Ellie looked from the glass to Grace, to the Ex-Lax, and remained motionless.
“It’s rude not to take a drink when someone offers it to you.” Grace said coolly.
With shaking hands, Ellie reached out to take the glass.
“Hank is a cheating son of a bitch. You don’t have to worry about him. None of us do anymore.”
The two women said nothing for several moments; the silence sitting heavily between them. Grace took another step towards her.
“Ellie, have you ever heard the expression…”
She leaned into her so close that Ellie caught the scent of vanilla in her lip gloss as her lips brushed her ear.
“The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” she murmured in a sultry tone.
Grace paused a moment, and then reached down, took the wine glass from Ellie’s hand, and took a long, deep drink. An enchanting smile danced on her lips, but her eyes remained ice cold.
“It’s a good thing that you’re part of the pack, right?” she whispered, pressing the glass back into Ellie’s hand.
As Ellie stood face to face with her, eyes locked on her leader, the natural order of things seemed to have been restored. Grace was their alpha, and both Hank and Rachel had gotten in between her and what she wanted. And Grace was a woman who always got what she wanted.
Dully aware that she was holding her breath, Ellie gave a tiny nod of her head. Grace leaned in and pressed her lips against her cheek with a rush of citrus perfume. She floated past Ellie, winking at her over her shoulder before disappearing around the corner. She may as well have been howling at the moon.