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Eighth Annual Popular Fiction Awards Crime Winner: "Moms' Night Out"

“Moms' Night Out,” by Tessa Wegert, is the First Place winning story in the crime category for the Eighth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Grand Prize winner Sandra Anthony and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Tessa’s winning entry.

Moms' Night Out
by Tessa Wegert

Fate is an excuse. It's a free pass to dismiss your decisions, your mistakes – to tamp down your free will and pass the blame. Could I have written off that night as something predestined, something beyond my control? Yes. But it wouldn't have changed a thing.

"How is it?" I asked from inside a cloud, a hot and fragrant mist. "Not as good as the wine."

Across the table from Josie, Mira and I both grinned. Laughed a little. Raised our glasses to it all: the steaming Korean noodles, the steaming Korean noodles on an October night in Chicago, the steaming Korean noodles on an October night in Chicago with two half-empty bottles of Grenache. I'm sure we were also thinking of our husbands

– at home with the kids, two apiece – but nobody mentioned that. As if speaking their names might cause us to slip from our shallow spoons of bliss and shatter our porcelain illusion of freedom.

Now that I know the cost of that freedom, I wish that someone had.

I raised my ramen spoon – more of a ladle, really – to my lips, chased the slippery noodles into my mouth, and surveyed the room. The seating in the narrow Logan Square soup shop was communal and crowded, patrons at the rough-hewn tables perched on wooden cubes so heavy it took all three of us to arrange ours just right. It was loud in there, the air humming with sound, but we were louder, laughing and carrying on like a pack of teenagers with too many neon wine coolers under our belts. It was early still by the time we finished the last bring-your-own bottle. Josie set down her glass.

"I know a place a few blocks West of here, an Irish bar, O'Neill's. They have live music on Saturday nights. What do you say?"

I was the first to check my watch. If I'm being honest, the idea of climbing into a warm cab and heading home, to my husband on the iPad and the kids with their pink cheeks and fuzzy pajamas, was pretty appealing. But the choice wasn't entirely my own. I didn't know these women well, not yet, not enough to put my own desires above a rare night out. And maybe I felt just a little pathetic thinking about leaving them, when it wasn't even ten p.m. and not one of us was paying for a sitter.

Flushed with spice and liquor on our breath we stepped out into the cold, emboldened by the idea of a new scene. It was farther than Josie remembered, and we didn't even make it halfway before we were flagging down a cab. That cab…if we hadn't taken that cab, we might have understood right off the bat what was going on. As it was, we filed out in front of O'Neill's and walked directly into a mob. We saw how the people were dressed, we saw, but we were fixated on getting inside. There was a group of people freezing on the curb, wanting to snag our cab, and we didn't want to keep them waiting. There was a haze of heat around the pub's open door, shimmering like an oasis.

"What happened then?"

I took a breath and it caught in my throat, stopping the flow of words like sopping handfuls of leaves choking a rain gutter. Until now, neither of the men had said too much. I figured this was how it worked, how it was done. Probably it was some rule they'd learned in cop school: shut up so the witness can spill it. Give the accused a chance to incriminate herself, and you might not need to do a thing. I reached for the coffee that long ago had gone cold in its white Styrofoam cup. The sight of the skin of cream floating on top – ivory, satin smooth – flooded my mouth with the taste of bile.

"I saw the bride," I said. Saw her fitted ivory dress and her breasts spilling over the bustline. "All three of us did. Mira said, 'Oh! A wedding!' and added something about how weird it was to have the reception in an Irish pub. When we were close enough to touch her, Mira put her hand on the bride's arm. 'Congratulations, sweetie,' is what she said."

"She spoke with her? Mira did?"

I nodded. "And the bride thanked her. She looked right at the three of us and thanked us. And Josie was wearing jeans. I mean, we had on nice tops and heels, but still."

"So she saw you. She acknowledged that you were there."

It was the question they'd been asking all night. Did the bride know you were there? As if that would have made any difference at all. "She smiled at us, and so did the guy she was dancing with. It wasn't her husband," I said before they could ask. The cop named Peron raised an eyebrow, so I told him how I knew for sure. "He was wearing a suit. Not a tux."

As a man, both cops leaned back in their chairs. I could feel the unspoken dialogue, an invisible communication fizzing in the dead air between their seats. Patterson straightened first, heaving his weight forward, pushing his sleeves up to his elbows. On the table his arms looks like ruddy ham hocks, unnervingly devoid of hair. "You said you were underdressed. All three of you?"

Again I nodded. "It was obvious. Anyone would have known that we didn't belong. Probably everyone did."

Patterson cocked his head. "Not everyone."

"No." I cast my eyes down to the table, and my mind back to the scene. We'd had to huddle together to hold our own against the crowd. By now it was barely 10:30, but it was a raucous party, that much we could see. When the throng ebbed a little Josie slipped in front of me. The band would be in the back room, she said, and Mira and I trailed behind her.

The thing of it was, there was no band. Pushed to the back of the polished parquet floor was a DJ stand pumping out chest-thrumming dance music. In front of it, a dozen drunken wedding guests were lurching about under a throbbing rainbow of strobes.

And still we didn't put it all together.

"More coffee?" Peron rose, scratched at his mop of black hair, headed for the door. I shook my head but my gaze wafted his way. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or all the caffeine I'd already had, but the big rectangular mirror by the door was looking smoky. For a second I thought I saw a flash behind the glass. There were people back there; I'd seen Law & Order, I knew how it worked. Suddenly, though, it occurred to me that the cops might not be alone.

A violent shudder wobbled its way up by body and I pitched forward, knocking the cold coffee to the floor. "Shit," Patterson hissed under his breath, his eyes flashing to the mirror. Not ten seconds later Peron was back. In one hand he held a steaming cup. The other clutched a knot of paper towels.

I regarded these men, these detectives, crawling around on knees that snapped and popped like Christmas crackers. It was a little like watching one of my kids trying to

clean up spilled milk; they were only making it worse. But these weren't my kids, and I wasn’t at home, so I made no move to help. They'd be waking up soon, my babies would. So would Paul.

"The bartender." Patterson placed the sopping wad on the corner of the table and looked at his hands with such repulsion that you'd think he'd just picked up after his dog. "Tell me about him," he said.

It took some time for me to conjure his face, longer to realize what I was being asked. "I don't even know his name," I said. Then I remembered what we'd been talking about before the spill, the fright – I cocked my head toward the mirror but thought better of looking – and told Detective Patterson what happened next. "Mira and I went to sit down while Josie got the drinks. When she came back—"

"With?"

"Three vodka tonics." Again I felt queasy; had I really drunk so much tonight? "She told us she almost didn't have to pay for them. The bartender thought we were guests. That's when we knew."

"That it was a private party."

How stupid I must sound to these men. A Saturday night, a bride—a bride—and a bar filled with revelers in party clothes. For a moment it was all I could do to burst into tears. I dropped by chin to my chest and saw the constellation of markings on the table I'd been staring at for hours. Here and there the dents were deep, as though someone had hammered the surface with a sharp object in a fit of frustration, or rage. I wondered what someone in police custody might have access to that could do that kind of damage. Other than the paper towels that were slowly bleeding coffee across the tabletop, the interrogation room was bare.

"Josie had been to the place before. There was always live music on Saturday nights. By the time we realized we were the only people who didn't look like we'd just come from a wedding, we figured the party had to be winding down. Josie—we—thought a band would come on once the DJ was through, that O'Neill's would open back up to the public. You have to understand, there was no indication at all that it was a private event."

"Other than the fact that everyone there was dressed to the nines but you." "There was no sign on the door!" I said it much more loudly than I'd intended,

because the feeling I got when we realized this very thing for ourselves hours – five? Six?– earlier, was back.

"I think we just crashed a wedding." A smile played around Josie's lips. Josie wasn't one to worry about what other people thought – at least, that was my impression so far. If she was at all concerned, it didn't show. She took a sip of vodka. "I had to beg the bartender to take our money. I mean, what does he care if he gives away a few extra drinks?"

"But he did. Take the money." I was desperate for it to be true. By then I had gotten a good look around, at the white tablecloths and the votive candles. The old men with loosed ties and tumblers of scotch cloudy with fingerprints. The wives in spiked heels, teetering on the dance floor.

Josie shrugged. "Maybe I shouldn't have set him straight." Mira laughed at that, and they exchanged a conspiratorial grin.

"Josie, I really don't think—"

"I'm kidding," she said to me, a little too abruptly. "I paid him, okay? I told him why we were here. I even asked if it was all right for us to stay."

"And?" How I wanted her to tell us we should go. Crashing a wedding? The very idea of it made me feel ill. I follow the rules, I always have. Yet there I sat. I hoped against all hope that my new friend, my fellow PTA mom, would say, "Yeah, we should leave. This isn't right."

There was no chance of that, of course. The bartender had given her those drinks.

"Look, we explained it," I told the cop named Patterson. "We'd misread the situation, that was all. We didn't know the reception was going on in advance. We didn't go to take advantage of the open bar or…or to be able to say that we'd done something wild. It was a mistake. We told the bartender that, right from the start. He told us—Josie, he told Josie we could stay."

It had been a while since either policeman had taken any notes, but this set them both to scribbling. I felt my cheeks grow hot and berated myself for it. It wasn't a lie; I had nothing to hide. They would ask the bartender the same question, and his answer would match up with mine. If anything, I thought, this was his fault. He should have told us to leave. Then maybe things would have been different.

Slumping again, Sergeant Patterson ground his knuckled into his cheek. It was just as pink and hairless as the rest of him. "So you had a couple of drinks."

"Drinks that—"

"That you paid for yourself. Yeah, we got it." Tap, tap, tap. Patterson's pen cap hit the pad, and I cringed. "Here's where I'm still confused. You buy your drinks, you realize it's a private event, eventually you get that there's no band coming on tonight." Patterson lifted his eyes from his notes. "But you didn't leave."

It wasn't a question, just a statement of fact. I wasn't sure I had an answer anyway. Why did we stay? Because it felt illicit? All three of us had texted our husbands telling them where we were, what we'd done. All three of us – small, all occasional drinkers with two bottles of wine in our systems already – were plowed, and the night was getting interesting. Had we gotten the sense that we weren't wanted, though, we would have left. If remarks were being made, fingers pointed, we didn't notice. Why did we stay? Because we could.

"I guess we told ourselves it was all right. We weren't doing any harm." "But there were complaints. The bride's aunt—"

"That was after." "After what?"

I paused. "After we started dancing. That was Mira's idea. The dance floor had cleared a little, so we thought no one would mind. We'd only just gotten up from our seats when the bride appeared. She started dancing right behind Mira with a couple of other girls. Mira told her she looked beautiful, that she made a beautiful bride." Now I hesitated.

"And?" That was Peron. His accent reminded me a little of Mira's. I wondered where she was now. Josie too. It didn't really matter. I'd be following them soon enough.

"She thanked Mira, and told her she was worried about her boobs."

A current of energy shot through the room and bolted straight up the spines of Patterson and Peron. Men. Of course that would get their attention. Patterson, the idiot, was beaming.

"Her boobs."

"Yes, her boobs." I repeated it, because the word made me feel as though I had gained a mite of power. "That's when she told us she was pregnant. Nearly four months."

Again Patterson checked his notes, and a file, too; he flipped a couple of pages, scanned the type, nodded to himself.

"I would never have known," I said, as much to myself as to them. "Her stomach was almost totally flat. But when she said that and I took another look, I understood what she meant about the size of her…chest."

"This entire conversation happened on the dance floor. Between the bride and three strange girls, surrounded by wedding guests." Peron clucked his tongue, shook his head. "Didn't she seem concerned that somebody might overhear?"

I thought about this. "She didn't whisper it or anything like that. But then the music was pretty loud…" In truth it had seemed odd that a bride would confess a pregnancy to three strange women at her wedding reception. I even remembered wondering – rather sanctimoniously – if she'd been drinking, too.

"It's her wedding day," Mira reminded us. "She blissed-out. Probably just happy to get it off her chest."

I laughed at his in spite of myself and we danced some more, watching as the bride spotted her fresh new husband in the other room, picked up her skirts and darted after him. It wasn't five minutes later that we noticed a woman. Watching us.

It was me she approached. "Who…can I ask…um, how do you know Liz?" She wasn't smiling, exactly; there was a sourness to her expression that twisted up her mouth. Mira and Josie exchanged a look that said, here we go.

"We just met her tonight," Mira said, sweet as can be. "She makes a beautiful bride."

"So you don't actually know her. Liz." Mira smiled. "No. We just met."

"It's just that, well…this is her wedding. Did you know that? I don't…get…why you're here." This was hard for the girl to say. She was in her early twenties, probably, maybe a cousin. Someone had sent her over to talk to us, and the act was killing her.

"Look," said Josie, "we came because there was supposed to be live music. We didn't know there was a wedding. There was no sign on the door. We're just finishing up our drinks—which we paid for ourselves—and then we're heading home."

It would be hard to argue with that explanation, I thought. The girl must have agreed because she turned and walked away. Mira, Josie, and I looked at each other, triumphant. Relieved. "She's just jealous," Mira said, shrugging the whole awkward incident off. " We aren't even dressed up and we look good." This struck me as hilarious, so I was laughing when I sensed a body behind me. Felt a tap, tap, tap.

"Excuse me." This woman was older, mid-fifties or early sixties, and she wasn't pleased. She looked me over with disdain. "Who are you?"

Immediately I looked to Josie for help, but it was me the woman was glaring at, so I started blathering, repeating everything Josie had just said.

"So you don't know Liz," the woman said flatly. "We know she's four months pregnant," I said.

The woman, Josie, Mira – everyone froze. Oh, Jesus, Jesus, why did I say it? I was looking for something, anything, I could use to justify our presence, because suddenly I did feel unwelcome. And it was the most horrible feeling in the world.

Peron cleared his throat. "What did the aunt say? It was the bride's aunt, wasn't it? A"—he checked his notes, sliding a fingertip across the page—"Cynthia Weeks."

"I don't know. I don't know her name. She didn't say anything. She just turned and walked away." But the look on her face…God. It wasn't just that we were unwanted. To her we were vile, a loathsome force that was threatening to destroy her niece's wedding. No. Her life.

"You told Sargent Ramirez—you remember him? He was one of the first on the scene—that the aunt went to get the manager."

"I don't know who got the manager." "But the manager came."

"Yes."

"She asked you to leave."

God, I was tired. All around me the room was swimming. I nodded. "She approached us on the dance floor and asked who we were. We told her everything. She was understanding. She invited us to go upstairs to the other bar." Here I laughed, a single yelp. "We didn't even know there was another bar, not even Josie. That's where they had the live music."

A black eyebrow crept up Peron's forehead. "You're kidding." "A couple of guys with fiddles."

I was coming to the end of my story. This was the worst part and I wasn't sure I would make it through, not again. It was all starting to feel like a bad dream: the dinner, the drinks, the bar, the bride. I'd seen a movie once where a bunch of guys on their way to a boxing match right here in Chicago got stuck in a bad part of town. It was just bad luck on their part, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it shattered them. Nearly costs a couple of them their lives.

That's what this night had been: wrong, in every way. But most of all in the way that it ended.

"Come on," Josie said, following a waitress to a door we hadn't noticed before. The woman pushed it open and stuck out her hip.

"It was a misunderstanding," I told her, following Josie up the stairs.

"Maybe so," the waitress said, "but if I were you, I wouldn't come back down here. The bride is really upset. You totally ruined her wedding."

That stung. By the time we got upstairs all three of us were reeling. Ruined her wedding? Ten minutes ago she was dancing with us, happy as can be!

"Bitch," Mira muttered as we claimed a round table by the window and dropped our handbags to the floor. Apart from the Irish fiddlers there were exactly six patrons up here, plus us. I thought I saw the bartender giving us a bitter look and suddenly I was paranoid – what if she knows? It took a minute for me to remember that we hadn't done anything wrong. Had we?

The bartender was at our table now. "Three glasses of your house red," Josie said, handing her a credit card. Thank God, I thought, my head in my hands, the dance music from downstairs still pounding in my chest.

We wouldn't be staying long.

"And we didn't. It was midnight when we left." "You checked your watch?"

"The clock in the bar, downstairs. The only way to get outside was by going back down to the ground floor." It was a long, long walk down those stairs. None of us wanted to face the guests again. And then… "Everyone was gone."

Patterson's lips had parted just a little. I could smell stale coffee on his breath. "Everyone?"

"When we went upstairs there were a hundred people still drinking, at least. Twenty minutes later, they were all gone."

The detectives waited. Watched me. "That's when we went outside."

I looked up at the sky. Navy. Splattered with stars. The air was cold but soft. At some point while we were in the pub it had snowed, and now there was a fine dusting of white powder on the street. My heel slid when I stepped onto the sidewalk. I felt the cold settle over the tops of my bare feet. "Taxi?" I asked. The girls nodded and we started walking west, hugging the exterior brick wall. "Shit," Mira hissed as she slipped, reached down to rub the ankle she'd twisted. She'd stopped directly in front of an alley. I saw movement in the dark, and something else, on the ground. A place next to the dumpster where the snow looked a little thicker. A little fuller.

One step. Two. Three, four, and there she was. The bride. Her body collapsed against the wall, her white gown spread around her like a glacial pool. A circle of blood spreading on her stomach.

"He didn't know," Patterson said. "Believes the kid wasn't his—no possible way, he said. We found him a block from O'Neill's, with the knife the bartender used to cut his limes and lemons. Blood on his hands."

"Her husband didn't kill her," I said, feeling so very tired. Feeling my life as I knew it grow slippery, watching it slither away. "I did."

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