Read The Excerpt: Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

MotherMayIExcerpt_NovelSuspectsExcerpted from the book MOTHER MAY I by Joshilyn Jackson. Copyright © 2021 by Joshilyn Jackson. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

I WOKE UP to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.

She was little more than a dark shape with a predator’s hungry eyes, razor-wire skinny but somehow female, staring in through the partly open drapes. Sunrise lit up the thin, silvery hair that straggled out from under her hat. I should have leaped up screaming. I should have run at her with any weapon I could find.

Instead I thought, I hope she’s not standing on my basil plants, hazy and unworried. Even half asleep, I knew that there was no such thing as witches. I’d long forgotten the most important thing the theatre had ever taught me—that the human body can hold two truths at once. Even truths that seem to rule each other out: There’s no such things as witches, true. And I was looking at one.

I didn’t understand she might be a real person until our eyes met. Hers widened in surprise. She lurched sideways and was gone, leaving me with the impression of a craggy old-lady face with a sour, turned-down mouth.

I bolted upright, heart rate jacking, letting out a strangled sound that wasn’t quite a scream. Too soft to disturb the kids, but it woke up my husband.

“Bree?” Trey’s voice was thick with sleep.

“I thought I saw someone. Looking through the window at us.”

That got his eyes open.

“A person? In the backyard?” He was already climbing out of bed.

There was a careless six-inch gap between the edges of the drapes. Even as he pushed one all the way aside, my rational brain was catching up, trying to dismiss it.

I said, “It was a witch. I mean, I thought I saw a witch. So . . . grain of salt.”

Trey was peering out, forehead pressed against the glass, but that turned him back to me, a smile starting. “Big pointy hat?”

The memory was dream-soaked, but when he said it, my brain made it so, snapping my hazy mental picture into focus. Not a cardigan. A tatty robe. Not a knit cap. A pointy witch hat. It made the whole thing ridiculous. Of course there was no witch in our backyard, staring in with hungry, haunted eyes.

“I think so,” I admitted. “Her mouth was sunken in, and she was all in black.”

I must have been dreaming, I decided. I was prone to postpartum nightmares, though not usually about anything so concrete as witches. My bad dreams after each of the girls had been almost Victorian, all footsteps and fog.

“The gate is closed and locked. Unless your witch looked spry enough to bounce over an eight-foot privacy fence . . .”

That made me laugh, though it was more of a relieved puff of air. “Nope.”

Trey let go of the drapes. “Want me to go outside and check?”

“Do I want you to sashay around the backyard in your boxers looking for a witch?” I asked. “No. No, I do not.”

He grinned, and I smiled back, even though the animal at the base of my brain was saying that yes, actually, I did want him to He-Man out there and stomp the perimeter, preferably with a golf club cocked up over his shoulder. It was a primal thing, physical and irrational.

There was no witch, obviously, and even if I had seen someone, a flesh-and- blood little old lady was the least threatening type of person on the planet. Only in stories did crones offer poisoned fruit to princesses or snatch up tasty children. But I couldn’t think of an innocent reason for anyone to watch us as we slept. And her flat, greedy gaze! Not confused or blank, like someone’s sweet lost granny. Her hunger was the clearest thing in my memory.

Trey read my doubt. “Seriously. I’ll grab some pants and go check. Just to put your mind at ease.”

I shook my head. I’d been raised on Grimms’ fairy tales by a mother who saw the world as something huge and wild—carnivorous. Her world was full of witches. She’d have already called the cops by now, or even snatched one of Trey’s hunting rifles out of the gun safe and loaded it. She’d be in the backyard already, making the world safer by accidentally shooting our neighbor’s nice old Labradoodle. Or worse, shooting our nice old neighbor.

I wasn’t like her. I didn’t want to be like her, so I pushed away that small, wise voice in my head that kept insisting, You saw something. You saw someone.

I told my husband, “No. Come back to bed.”

Trey tumbled in, and I rolled toward him, running my hand under his T-shirt to feel his heartbeat. It was slow and steady, same as always. Wearing a shirt to bed was new, though. Trey had turned fifty this year. He’d always been built thick, but now he had a bit of a belly, and his chest hair was going gray.

“I hate this stupid shirt,” I told him. I wanted the comfort of tucking in close to his bare skin, wrapping my arms around the warm, strong bulk of him.

He pulled me closer. Close enough for me to know he wasn’t thinking about witches. “I could ditch the shirt. We are up early.”

I glanced back at the clock. “The alarm goes off in twenty minutes. You think you can make it worth my while?” I said it flirty, like a challenge, cocking my eyebrow at him.

His teeth flashed in the dimness. “I can damn sure try.”

He kissed my neck, my shoulder. To my surprise I felt a twinge of something good starting. My sex drive had flatlined in my third trimester. I’d assumed it would resurrect in a few months, when Robert started solid food. That’s how it had worked after the girls. But here was our familiar magic, already sparking up between us.

Maybe it was the dream. That witch had genuinely spooked me, dumping a ton of adrenaline into my blood. As my husband kissed me, my body arched into him, electric, as if to say, We could all die! Quick, make more people! It apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about Trey’s vasectomy. I kissed him back, serious about it.

“Yeah?” Trey said, surprised.

“Yeah,” I said, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the window. Of course there was not a witch in the yard. Or anyone. But I added, “Close the drapes all the way and you’re on, mister.”

He hurried to yank them shut while I started peeling my nightgown off over my head.

That, of course, was the exact moment a soft gurgle came through the baby monitor.

We both froze, our eyes meeting.

“Oh, Bumper, no!” Trey said.

“Oh, Robert, no,” I corrected automatically. I wasn’t going to bend on this. When I was pregnant, we’d all called him Bumper, as in “the bumper crop.” That had been cute back when it meant my swelling belly. Trey, who’d grown up in Buckhead with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys, still thought it was cute.

The sound faded. We waited, holding our breath. It could go either way. After ten silent seconds, I lifted a victory fist and Trey started toward me.

Robert started babbling then. He was awake and pleased about it, but if I didn’t go get him, he’d start fussing.

“So close!”

“Rain check for tonight?” I asked, pulling my nightgown back on.

Trey shook his head, rueful. “I wish. I fly to Chicago today.”

“Ugh, that’s right. I must have repressed it.” I got up.

He’d be there through the weekend and most of next week, too, thanks to Spencer Shaw. Spence was less than a bosom friend but more than just his partner at the law firm. Their mothers were cousins, so they’d gone to the same schools from the time they were three, even pledging the same frat at UVA. They hadn’t gone their separate ways until law school.

Spence had opted out of this Chicago trip because tonight was the firm’s annual Spring Gala, and he wasn’t one to miss a party. He loved himself a top-shelf open bar and pretty women in cocktail dresses.

Trey wanted me to go to the gala, too. To represent. But I always felt a little out of place at firm events without him. I’d said I would, unless Robert had a cranky afternoon. I had a strong premonition that he would.

“Spence is having a rough time, Bree,” Trey said.

Spence was in the middle of an ugly divorce, his second. My husband would carry him through it, just as he’d carried him during his first ugly divorce.

“So are you. You’re working crazy hours,” I said, shrugging into my robe. “Mostly because of Spence.”

“No. It’s this client.” He and Spence were working with a large Atlanta-based company that was absorbing a family-owned chain of grocery stores. “This is not a marriage of equals we’re officiating.” He leaned close, as if telling me a dirty little secret. “Our groom is a cannibal.”

I let it go. Trey was an equity partner, but Spencer’s name was third on the firm’s letterhead. His father’s name had been first before he died. Also, Robert’s babble was getting whiny around the edges.

“I’ll plan us a date for next weekend. Dinner, wine, kissing,” I promised, then went next door into the nursery.

This room used to be my office, before Robert surprised us. Now the heather-gray walls were covered over in giraffe wallpaper and my desk nook had a changing table in it.

I didn’t mind. I didn’t need an office now; I’d rolled off the boards of the Alliance Theatre and a statewide literacy nonprofit, promising to roll back on in a year or so. The girls had taught me how brief Robert’s babyhood would be. I didn’t want to miss it. I’d blinked, and here he was, already ten weeks old.

I bitched about Trey’s job sometimes, but I was lucky. When I was growing up, my mom worked full-time as a 911 operator plus waitressed on the weekends to make ends meet. I might not love Trey’s long hours, the travel, or the social obligations, but Trey’s career meant I got to watch Anna-Claire’s voice lessons and rehearsals, go to Peyton’s quiz-bowl and robotics meets, and still have time and money to support causes I loved.

I bent over the crib, and Robert kicked his chunky legs, happy to see me. He cooed as I lifted him, trusting that a fresh diaper and a warm bottle were next. I inhaled the crazy perfume of his head. Nothing on earth smelled as delicious as new baby, and this version was particular to him. Not just the scent of baby. This baby. My baby.

I took him to the changing table, and he gave me the goofy grin he’d invented just last week, toothless and so charming. He was easy. A good sleeper, a good eater. Anna-Claire had been trickier, lovely as long as everything went her way but instantly enraged by dirty diapers and late breakfasts. She was so mercurial and demanding that I’d planned a three-year gap before the next one, but she was barely Robert’s age when the stick turned blue. Peyton had been born anxious, and she never slept. Even when I was pregnant, my little insomniac kicked and spun inside me all night long.

“You are my sugar baby,” I told Robert, tucking his fat potato feet back into his pajamas and refastening the snaps. “You’re going to be a nightmare as a toddler to make up for it, aren’t you?”

I toted Robert down the hall to the kitchen to warm his bottle, then sat in the great room, holding him close while he pulled greedily at it. By the time he’d taken his five ounces, the sound of squabbling girls was drifting down the stairs. I kept an ear cocked as I marched Robert up and down, trying to thump a second burp out of him. He had one, I knew it, and he’d be colicky if I didn’t coax it out. I hoped the fussing upstairs would resolve on its own. Often it did. But late last year Peyton had gotten her period. She’d instantly synced up with Anna-Claire, and right now we were heading into danger week.

“Mo-om!” Peyton hollered in two aggrieved syllables. “She took my . . .” I missed the last word.

I toted Robert to the bottom of the stairs, jouncing and patting as I walked.

“Anna-Claire,” I called up.

She poked her face over the banister. She was sleep-rumpled, her masses of dark hair a tumbled mess, and still beautiful enough to take my breath away.

“You always take her side!”

She had a point. I did tend to take Peyton’s side. But life had taken Anna-Claire’s. She was built like me, tall and slim, and where I was pretty, she was gorgeous. She had my even features, but her true violet eyes tilted like kitten eyes, and her lips had a natural upturn, as if she were holding a delightful secret in her mouth, readying to speak or swallow it. She’d also come with a whopping scoop of Trey’s confidence and extroverted charm.

She’d never had an awkward phase, while Peyton was slap in the middle of hers. Right now puppy fat clung to her middle, and her skin had gone a little crazy. She was as cute as a button, with her dad’s round face and snub nose, but when she was next to her sister, people overlooked her.

Peyton joined her sister at the banister. “I haven’t even gotten to wear it yet!”

“Give it back,” I told Anna-Claire, mild but serious, still thumping at Robert.

“Fine. It’s in my middle drawer,” Anna-Claire told her sister, then gave me the eye roll she’d perfected in third grade. “It’s too big for me anyway.”

That was straight-up bitchy, but I let it slide with a warning look because Peyton was already off to go get the whatever-it-was. The fight had been derailed.

I felt a sense of relief that was larger than the moment warranted, as if I’d stepped in and diverted a tempest. I shook my head. It was that awful dream. It still felt like a portentous one. The witch’s gaze had been so avid. I felt more than I thought, Something bad is coming for us.

I shook the little voice warning of doom away. My mother owned it. The voice in her own head must be a stentor. My father by all reports had been a piece of work. I’d never met him, and I was grateful, considering. He was the reason she wouldn’t get on an elevator with any man. Not alone. She kept a loaded handgun in a safe by her bed and was always gifting me pepper sprays and safety whistles. I had never once wondered where Peyton came by her anxiety, but I didn’t live like that. I refused to see the world that way. And I wasn’t going to borrow trouble when I was facing a week of single-parenting two hormone-crazed middle-school girls and a baby.

Anna-Claire stomped down the stairs to the first landing and cocked her hip at me. “Remember you’re a snack mom for rehearsal this afternoon.”

“I know.” Robert let out that last, sneaky burp. It was a whopper.

“Don’t bring bananas,” Anna-Claire said. “Cara’s dad always brings those gross generic fruit-snack things, so you need to bring something edible.”

I kept my smile in place, but it went a little stiff when I heard that Marshall Chase was the other “snack mom.” They really called it that, as if male parents were incapable of passing out raisin boxes and bottled waters. To be fair, he was the only dad I’d ever seen do it. Marshall was tall and lanky and attractive; the other moms made jokes about him being the snack, but a couple of months back, when Grease, Junior was cast, Anna-Claire got the alto lead. His own daughter got Marty. It was a good part with a solo, but it wasn’t Rizzo. I hadn’t ever thought of Marshall as the stage-parent type, but there was no denying that the balmy air between us had gone cool.

I hated it; Marshall and I had both grown up way out in Hurd County, Georgia. His wife, Betsy, had lived across the street from me. She’d been my best friend since before I had concrete memory. She and Marshall dated for most of high school, but they’d broken up when Betsy and I moved into Atlanta to attend Georgia State. Betsy had always been wilder than me, bolder, both more reckless and more fun. By the end of freshman year, she lost her scholarship, and she wasn’t even sorry. She went home, got a job, got back with Marshall. They’d gone through the police academy together and gotten married.

Our lives had forked, but Betsy and I had stayed close. We’d been each other’s maids of honor, and we’d been pregnant together; Cara was born a month before Anna-Claire. I’d always liked Marshall, though in that best-friend’s-husband way that rendered him more Ken doll than man.

When Betsy died in the line of duty, five years back, he’d wanted to move to a safer job, for Cara’s sake. Trey had hired him as an investigator. The firm had been thrilled to get him. Marshall was excellent; he’d been one of the youngest cops ever to make detective in Atlanta.

Last year Cara’s public school lost its arts funding. No more chorus or drama club, and Cara was distraught. Trey put in a word at St. Alban’s, and they’d offered her a scholarship. I’d hoped she and Anna-Claire would bond, like a mini me-and-Betsy, because Anna-Claire was also hip-deep into musical theatre and choir. Instead they were competitors, always up for the same parts and solos.

I couldn’t make them love each other, but I could threaten my too-pretty, too-popular daughter with phoneless exile and unending extra chores if she did one single thing to make Cara feel picked on or unwelcome. Cara had quickly found her own friend set, and her grades were excellent, so I considered the transfer a success. For her.

I’d hoped it would finally give me a real friend at the school. I had more in common with Marshall than with any of the other snack moms. At thirty-eight we were a decade younger than the remaining first wives and a decade older than the stepmothers. Most of these women had grown up with ponies and summers in Provence, while Marshall and I had had secondhand bikes and vacation Bible school.

Instead he’d gotten cooler and cooler, until I worried that my daughter was stealth-hazing his. I’d snuck around, eavesdropping at rehearsals, only to find them working well together. Friendly if not friends.

Even so, Marshall got ever more polite, gravely asking me how my day was going in the same professional, cool tone he used on the pampered Gen Two baby-wives of some of the other lawyers at the firm, like the one divorcing Spence right now.

I hadn’t hired a full-time nanny and made a career out of yoga class and blowouts. I hadn’t gotten into an affair and busted up Trey’s first marriage either. He and Maura split up amicably a year before we met, mostly because he wanted children and she didn’t. Marshall knew all this. He knew me, knew my family.

It bothered me, and I guess it showed, because Anna-Claire caught my stiffness and added, sly, “You should bring those organic Bunny Fruit Snacks. So Mr. Chase knows not to perpetrate that crap.” My eldest had a nose for drama, even when she was offstage.

I shook my head. “All fruit snacks are just tarted-up candy.”

“Ho snack!” Anna-Claire said, laughing, “I should tell Cara that you said her dad brought a ho snack. The cheap kind!”

“If you do, rest assured I’ll be bringing nothing but bananas for the rest of the year.” She made a face. “Now, scoot. Car pool comes in twenty minutes.”

“I’m mostly ready.” She came all the way down to pet her brother’s head, peeping up at me. “Aw, you look sleepy. Want me to take Bumper so you can get a shower?”

“Robert,” I corrected, but I was smiling. Typical Anna-Claire. She’d torment her sister, push boundaries with me, then instaflip to thoughtful. Moments like these I knew she could grow into a lovely, kindhearted woman, as long as Trey and I kept the parenting tight. She was so beautiful that kids and adults alike catered to her in ways that weren’t good for her. It was hard to find the balance between pushing back on that while still being a hundred percent on her side. “You’re sweet, but I got it. Thank you.”

I kissed her and went to check Trey’s packing. He was so color-blind that left to himself he could end up looking like a Mardi Gras float. I narrowly averted a green/blue disaster, then got him out the door. The girls’ ride showed up soon after, and I fell into my day.

Just errands and emails, but I was operating on New Baby Time. Even the simplest things took four times longer than normal. The final bell was ringing as I pulled in to the parking lot by the new Performing Arts Center at St. Alban’s. Hordes of kids began streaming out of the buildings. I hurried as fast as I could while lugging Robert in his infant carrier, his diaper bag, and a reusable grocery bag full of snacks.

The PAC had a long, narrow greenroom between the chorus’s practice room and the orchestra’s, furnished in a hodgepodge of donated chairs and sofas. The whole back wall was windows, facing the parking lot. I saw Marshall already in there and broke into a trot. He was dressed for work in a blue suit that was older than Anna-Claire. I remembered Betsy buying it. It hung awkwardly on his long frame.

By the time I got inside, he’d already set up the table and was laying out fruit snacks and Capri Sun pouches for a steady stream of chattering kids.

“I’m here, sorry!” It came out chirpy and overbright.

“No problem.” He didn’t look up.

I set Robert’s carrier on a nearby sofa and started putting out milk boxes and Ziploc snack bags of baby carrots with hummus cups.

Marshall looked at my offering, his eyebrows lifting. “Does every bag have the exact same number of carrots?”

They did, actually. Ten. I felt a blush beginning, but I was saved from answering by Cara’s entrance. She looked so much like her mother that it hurt my heart every time.

“Hey, Sugar Peep,” Marshall said.

She shot him a mortified glare at the nickname and then said, “Hey, Auntie Bree,” overly loud and bright.

I said, “Break a leg today, kiddo,” and handed her a milk box.

She hurried out, and I gave Marshall a commiserating look. “Both my girls are in that same stage. Sweet to me at home, but in public I’m poison.”

He smiled, unworried. “I hear that in high school they stop pretending that they budded off of Rihanna and will admit to actually having parents.”

Just then Anna-Claire bounded through the door in full sunshine mode, her friend Greer in tow. She released Greer to hurl her arms around me. “Mom! Hummus! If you’d gotten pita chips, it would almost be a worthy snack!”

“Oh, yeah. I see how it is for you.” Marshall sounded good-humored, but not like Marshall. I couldn’t explain it, but I’d known him long enough to feel the difference.

Greer ignored the snacks. “Hi, Ms. Cabbat! Did you bring the baby?” As soon as she said it, she saw the car seat and dropped down to her knees in front of Robert. He was awake and beginning to make hungry noises. “Hi, Bumper! Oh, I love his feet! He’s so little. I can’t stand it!” She pinched his toes, distracting him, making him gurgle.

“We call him Robert,” I said.

“That’s right, Bumper, we call you Robert,” Anna-Claire said, grabbing snacks and then hauling Greer to her feet. They went galloping out in a swirl of plaid uniform skirts.

I turned back to Marshall to say something about adolescent mood swings, but what I saw over his shoulder froze my body, inside and out. It was a blotch of slow-moving darkness on the other side of the big wall of windows. It stopped my words, my very breath. It was her. The witch, from my dream. The one I’d seen peering in my window this morning. She was in the parking lot. Right beside my SUV.

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