His Secret Past
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His Secret Past
Table of Contents
Ellen Hartman has been making a living as a writer since she graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and went to work for Microsoft writing documentation for Word. (In those days the company had five thousand employees, windows were glass things you opened to get a breeze and Bill Gates was still single.)
She met her husband while he was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, and they lived there together as newlyweds. They share great memories of meals at Amanda’s and late nights listening to music at Maxwell’s.
Currently, Ellen lives in a college town in upstate New York, where she enjoys writing romances, horrifying her husband with her musical “taste” and watching movies, old and new, with her sons.
This book is dedicated to my sister, Anne, and my
best friend, Stephanie. They keep me sane, share my unhealthy eating habits (another chocolate chip cookie, anyone?) and are always willing to take to the dance floor at the first hint of “Dancing Queen.” As always, my hat’s off to my writing group, Diana, Leslie, Liz and Mary. They kept after me when Anna was eluding me and helped me find her spark. Thanks!
GNOCCHI. ANNA shook her head as she dropped her hoodie on the arm of the sofa.Food bribes? How easy did they think she was?
Her stomach growled as she narrowed her eyes at the big pasta bowl, full and steaming on her brother’s dining-room table.
Something was up.
Anna eased the front door closed and slid the key into the pocket of her track pants. She considered the table with its cheerful centerpiece of daffodils and the wineglasses she’d bought Jake and his partner, Rob, for Christmas last year. She tugged the holder off her ponytail, freeing her curly shoulder-length hair. Someone had gone to some trouble here.
Because Rob swore that making gnocchi gave him flashbacks to his grandmother’s cooking lessons punctuated by her uncomfortably sharp tongue and handy wooden spoon, he made the pasta dumplings only on special occasions. Anna’s birthday. Jake’s birthday. The anniversary of his nonna’s death when he washed the gnocchi down with homemade wine he bought from the Italian men’s club at the end of the rapidly gentrifying street.
Whenever he or Jake wanted to bribe Anna.
She let the aroma of Rob’s secret family recipe spaghetti sauce wrap around her, pulling her toward the kitchen.
“Honeys, I’m home,” she called out as she walked into the brightly lit room, the first Jake and Rob had remodeled since buying the dilapidated Hoboken brownstone three years ago.
Jake was leaning on a stool at the island, one leather loafer on the brass foot rail, his elbows propped on the dark soapstone counter. He turned with careful nonchalance when she came in.
Anna lifted a hand, not committing to a hello before she knew what was up. Staying with her brother and Rob had its ups and downs. On the one hand, she loved spending time with them. Eleven months out of twelve she was on location or flying back and forth to locations for Blue Maverick films, the production company she and Jake ran. If she had anything she’d call a home base, it was here with them.
On the other hand, this was their home and not hers. And because the couple were renovating the place themselves, progress on the brownstone had slowed as Jake was kept busy with the steady stream of film work. She stayed in the cramped guest room, sleeping on a foam chair that folded out into a twin-size bed. Her clothes were stowed in a footlocker Rob had had since college. She rarely bought books or CDs or clothes, or anything, really, because she didn’t have anywhere to keep them. Although she relished her skill at living light, carrying your entire life in a duffel bag had limitations.
“Gnocchi, huh?” Anna said as she propped a hip on the stool next to Jake. The two sat side by side under the cobalt-blue lamps, staring at the cherry-wood cabinets in front of them. “Where’s Rob?” she asked.
“At the gallery. He’s bringing dessert back later.”
“Dessert, too? You’re pulling out all the stops, little brother.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jake asked as he got off his stool and stretched in that maddening way little brothers who outgrew their older sisters by eight inches stretched when they wanted to make a point. Point taken. Six feet tall, sporting a reddish stubble that was a shade lighter than his dark auburn hair, thirty years old, Jake wasn’t so little anymore. But younger siblings never get the advantage, no matter how tall they grow. That was a universal truth.
“Rob made gnocchi so you can bribe me,” Anna said.
He didn’t even flinch. “You want to eat?”
“Chicken,” Anna said.
“Gnocchi,” he countered.
“You’re a chicken. Spit it out.”
Jake sank back down onto the stool and folded his hands in front of him. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. Oh God, he was actually scared to tell her whatever this was. Up to that moment she’d been fooling around. Fun over, she asked quickly, “You’re not sick, are you? Is it Rob? Jake? Say something.”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. Everything is fine. Actually, that’s the thing.”
They’d been business partners for close to nine years and siblings for thirty. Anna knew when Jake was struggling with the truth. Their perfect parents had been all about putting on a front in their shrink-wrapped Long Island home, appearing normal at all costs. That life of lies was what had driven her toward making documentaries. She liked the facts, not the spin. She and Jake had a hard rule that they wouldn’t lie to each other. But it was difficult sometimes.
“You’re scaring me and the gnocchi’s getting cold, so just say it. We’ll deal with whatever it is.”
That seemed to be the permission Jake had needed because he blurted, “Rob’s boss is selling Traction. He offered Rob the right of first refusal and he, um, we, decided to take it. The deal’s final in August.”
Anna nodded, encouraging him to go on. Rob managed Traction, a gallery on Hoboken’s main street. She knew he’d wanted more control and now he’d have it. So far she wasn’t sure what the problem was.
“I’m going to put up half the money, Anna. Not because Rob needs it, but because I want to. I’m tired of never being home, tired of the schedules and the budgets. Living other people’s lives instead of my own. I loved Blue Maverick, you know that, but I can’t live like that anymore.”
Can’t live like that anymore. Anna felt the room spin. Whatever she’d thought Jake might say this wasn’t it. He was talking about their company in the past tense. “But Blue Maverick is finally solid. The schedules and money and the crazy stuff, they won’t be as bad now. We can get an assistant full-time.”
“The only way it will be easier is if I’m less involved and I can’t do that. I can’t ‘take a step back’ and know that someone else is making decisions for my movies. I need to get all the way out. I can’t do halfway.”
Neither of them could. It was part of why Blue Maverick had come so far in such a short time. They’d started with one documentary financed with credit cards and loans from friends. They’d parlayed good reviews from that film into corporate work, political commercials and issue films for nonprofits. Another documentary in wider release had led to TV work and steadier corporate gigs. In the past two years Blue Maverick had started to feel viable.
“How can you walk away now? We can pick our next project—finally do what we want. We’ve spent the past four months brainstorming, for Pete’s sake. Were you faking that whole time?”
Jake put his hand over hers. He was the one in their family who was easy with physical affection, where she and her parents were apt to stiffen up. Came from being the baby, probably.
“Whatever this last project is, I’m in. Rob agreed to run the gallery solo so we can do one more together.”
“One more? That’s it?” Fine for Jake—he had plans for after. But what did he think she’d do? Blue Maverick had been her life ever since she graduated from college.
As if he’d heard her thoughts, Jake said, “You still love it. Living with other people, digging into their stories and then moving on. But I want to settle down. Here, with Rob. I can’t do that and Blue Maverick, too.”
She pulled her hand out from under his and stepped back. “And I can’t run Blue Maverick without you.”
“Anna,” Jake started but she stopped him with a look.
The finality of his announcement hit her. No Jake. No Blue Maverick. Everything she had worked for… She had to think. Was there a way to go on without Jake? Did she want to? “I have to get out of here before I say something I’ll regret. Tell Rob congratulations and thanks for the gnocchi.”
She spun and walked out. She grabbed her sweatshirt from the back of the couch before yanking the heavy wooden front door open. Closing it behind her, the scent of Rob’s sauce was abruptly cut off. Life would change just that quickly when Jake quit the company. Without her brother she couldn’t do what she did. And if she couldn’t make her films, what would she have left?
HOBOKEN, NEW JERSEY, was one mile square. Anna had jogged the perimeter many times during her visits. Tonight she ran blindly, veering off the curb because it was easier to dodge cars in the narrow streets than pedestrians on the sidewalks.
As twilight descended, she gradually came out of her fog. Trotting tiredly past the green spaces of the Steven’s Tech campus, she became aware of the people around her again. Just up the block two boys were horsing around on the stoop of an apartment building. They wrestled over a basketball and before Anna even recognized the danger, the ball was in the street and the smaller boy darted between two cars after it. The driver of a black SUV coming down the street slammed on his brakes and his horn at the same time. The kid stopped dead and then sprinted for the sidewalk where his friend had gone still. The driver rolled down the window and yelled something at the boy before rumbling off.
Anna closed her eyes and took a breath. When she opened them again, the bigger boy had the younger one in a headlock and was giving him a good-natured lecture. If the car hadn’t stopped, if the kid hadn’t stopped…but they had, thank God, and everything was normal again that fast.
One more film.
One more shot.
Anna remembered the fax she’d gotten but left lying on her desk all week. One more film. Was it time to put her ghosts to rest? Go back to the night when her life had changed in one minute? One argument, one bad decision and nothing was ever the same again?
Shaking off a chill as her adrenaline receded, Anna turned down Sixth Street, heading back toward Traction, the gallery Jake and Rob were buying. It was smack in the middle of Washington Street, Hoboken’s main drag.
As she approached the gallery, the display in the wide storefront window across the street twinkled and shifted. A clever combination of lights, reflective surfaces and electronics created the appearance of a waterfall cascading down the window complete with a foaming spray at sidewalk level. The word Traction appeared randomly in the spray. In the middle of the effect was a display space for a piece from whatever show was currently on. Anna had badgered Rob until he explained how it all worked and then she’d promptly forced herself to forget what he’d said because the illusion was so cool.
It was almost completely dark outside now and the gallery lights glowed brighter. Rob wanting Traction made sense, but Jake? That was a surprise. She knew the complications of their hectic life on the road had started to feel like a burden to her brother. Early on he’d gotten as much of a kick as she did out of starting life over with every project, finding a house-sitting gig or crashing with friends, exploring new towns and meeting people. Making intense connections and then moving on.
But when he and Rob bought their house, Jake had started looking homeward more than ahead. She’d figured once Blue Maverick was more solid Jake would want to scale back. Turned out she’d been partly right, but instead of scaling back he was scaling out.
Rob appeared behind the window and Anna crossed the street. He turned when he heard the door open, and then tensed when he realized it was her.
Rob Parker was slightly shorter than her brother, blond, slender and good-looking in a hot-librarian way. He was the guy in high school who anchored the debate team and then got “discovered” by the cool crowd when he sprouted six inches senior year. His dark-framed retro glasses and longish sideburns fit with his job at the gallery but also looked natural when he was up to his neck in sawdust at the house.
“What would your nonna say if she knew you were prostituting her gnocchi?”
Rob relaxed when he realized she wasn’t angry. “Nonna was the master of the food-for-favor exchange,” he said. “She’d be proud of me for once.”
Anna appreciated that he didn’t even try to pretend the gnocchi hadn’t been a bribe. He gestured to the upholstered chairs set under the photos on the east wall. “Want to sit?”
The show, photographs by an artist who’d grown up in Asbury Park, the nearby shore town where so much rock history was made, was opening the following night. Anna could almost smell stale beer in the black-and-white photos of dive bars and shore bands.
She moved closer to the pictures. The one on the left was a close-up of Mason Star, lead singer of Five Star. His long hair was plastered to his neck in sweaty streaks and his eyes were closed, but there was no mistaking that he was meant to be behind the microphone. Five Star was, after Bruce, the most famous band to “grow up” on the Jersey shore. If she had ever believed in signs, this would surely be one for the ages.
“I’m not staying,” she told Rob as she looked at the next photo. This one showed Five Star walking out the back door of a bar in Wildwood, instrument cases slung over their shoulders. “I need to call Jake but I went out without my phone.” She tried to keep her voice from shaking as she thought about what she was going to do.
Rob pulled his phone out of the pocket of his jeans and held it out to her. “Are you going to yell at him?”
She was touched by his concern for her brother. “Not unless he ate all the gnocchi.”
“You didn’t have any?” And now she heard concern for her, which touched her again.
“I couldn’t eat.” Anna met his eyes. “But if Jake agrees to my plan, I might feel better. If all goes well I’ll be looking for a hearty breakfast.”
Rob shot her a half grin. “That, Nonna would like. She loved gnocchi cold for breakfast.”
Anna turned back to the photo of the Five Star concert. She stared at the faces in the crowd, knowing it wasn’t the show she’d attended but looking anyway.
Jake answered on the first ring. “Rob? Have you seen my sister?”
“It’s me,” she said, cutting him off before he could say something she didn’t want to hear. “I stopped at Traction to borrow Rob’s phone.”
She took a steadying breath as she gathered her courage. Jake said he’d do one last film. One last chance to work with him to find a true story and tell it. Before tonight she’d been lobbying hard for them to make a film about a girls’ hockey team from upstate New York. The competing expectations for on-ice aggression and office femininity created tension for the girls. Overinvested hockey parents with their cowbells and fistfights were a compelling backdrop.
She wanted to tell that story, but if she only had one more project, that wasn’t the one.
“I thought about what you said,” Anna told him as she touched the frame of the picture. “One more movie.”
“The hockey thing is fresh,” Jake said.
“It’s good, but it’s not what I want for our last film.”
“Anna, stop saying ‘last.’ You can get someone else. With your reputation and the commercial work we have lined up, you can keep going. Colin Paige would work with you in a heartbeat and he’s not the only one.”
She nodded. “You’re right. But Blue Maverick is me and you. Maybe I can keep making movies without you and maybe I can’t. Either way, it won’t be Blue Maverick. So I want our last project to matter.”
“You have an idea?” The familiar surge of interest in his voice made her grip the phone tighter. She’d miss the perfect connection she had with Jake.
“I got a fax two weeks ago from a band. They’re making a new album, first one in fifteen years, and they want a promotional film. Something they can show on TV to help sell the album.”
He was hanging in but he sounded confused when he said, “But that’s commercial work.”
“It was Five Star.”
There was a long silence. Anna put her hand over her mouth, forcing herself to give him time to think. “Is that a joke?” Jake finally said.
“I make movies to tell stories no one’s ever heard. The truth. I want to tell what happened to Terri that night on the Five Star bus.”
“What happened to Terri was a tragedy but there’s no story there. It was an accident.”
“The crash was an accident. But no one ever said why she was on the bus or who she was with or anything. It’s like she was just a body and whatever happened to put her there didn’t matter.”
“Digging into that isn’t going to help the way you feel about Terri. It wasn’t your fault she got on the bus.”
“Jake, she was seventeen and she died in that horrible crash surrounded by strangers who couldn’t even be bothered to explain what she was doing on the bus after she died. She deserves to have her story told.”
“So if we do this, if we go after this and find out what happened, what does that get you?”
He waited for a second. “We shouldn’t do this on the phone. Come home.”
“No. I know this is the one.”
“But you said they want a promotional film for a new album. The tour bus crashing and Terri and those other people dying practically wrecked their band. They’re not going to talk about that when they’re releasing a new album.”
“Jake, please,” Anna said. She straightened and paced to the door, looking out at the well-lit street. “Getting people to talk about stuff they don’t want to? It’s our job. We’re good at it. Let’s end Blue Maverick the right way.”
“I’ll do what you want, Anna,” Jake said. “But I want you to be sure this is the one. I’m in if you want it.” He paused. “Make sure you want it.”
“I want it.”
Jake’s quick “okay” made her miss him more.
She said goodbye and then handed the phone back to Rob. “See you in the morning for cold gnocchi.”
“I’m sticking with Wheaties.” Rob pulled her into a quick hug. “But thanks for not hating me.”
Anna patted him awkwardly. “See you.”
Back on the street, she turned downtown, heading for the Strand, Hoboken’s art house movie theater. Red River was playing. If Montgomery Clift couldn’t distract her, nothing could.
She’d look for Terri’s story—her last shot to find it—starting tomorrow. But for tonight, she’d escape.
Anna handed her money to Stephen, the Strand’s owner/ticket taker/projectionist/popcorn maker, at the ticket window where he perched on a wooden stool.
Stephen had been a friend ever since he screened Anna’s senior film here.
“No date tonight?” he asked.
“Too many offers, didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Stephen liked to tease her about her love life, maybe living vicariously since he’d been in what he called a “dry spell” as long as she’d known him. She didn’t want to find out what that felt like. Her situation was different. She’d broken up with her last boyfriend, Boring Bob, on purpose.
“Maybe if you put some effort in you’d get more men,” he said as he surveyed her well-worn track pants, black T-shirt and grey hoodie disgustedly.
“How do you know this isn’t my best effort?” she shot back.
“I’m in a dry spell, not blind. You’re hot under all that I’m-a-bad-dresser camo.” He handed her a ticket, a box of popcorn and a large Diet Coke. “Just once I’d like to see you in a dress.”
“Dream on,” she said, laughing. In fact, Anna didn’t own a dress. She had two suits, exactly identical, one navy, one black. The navy she wore to business things and any time she had to film a dress-up event. The black she wore to funerals.
She pushed open the door to theater one and found a seat halfway back on the aisle. The lights went out and the familiar darkness flowed over her. The projector clicked on, dust dancing in the light streaming toward the screen. Anna was home.
She made movies to tell the truth. She watched movies because they made her forget the truth. She was sure, deep in her bones, that she wouldn’t be able to keep making movies without Jake. He was the only person she trusted enough to be as open and vulnerable as she needed to be to find the stories. Jake made her life work. He was her business expert, her partner, her friend, her home base. If she wasn’t making movies, what could she do? If she didn’t have her movies to fill her life, what would she have?
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