“Hurry,” I heard someone say. “He’s losing a lot of blood.”
Stunned, I sat there for I don’t know how long, listening to the whir of police sirens. Vaguely aware of flashing lights and a flurry of voices around me.
“Ma’am, can you hear me?” one of the voices asks. I squint and look up. It’s a policeman, his face close to mine. He looks concerned. “Are you okay?”
I open my mouth to say something, but nothing comes out. I nod my head yes.
“Do you remember what happened?” the cop asks.
Do I? I’m not sure.
I remember being afraid. Very afraid. A scream. A crash. The screech of metal. And then—
Something is trickling down the front of my face. I taste blood. I lift my hand to brush it away, and a sharp pain rips across my elbow. I look down. A bump the size and color of a plum is throbbing there.
The cop calls out to an EMT guy. “She’s conscious. But her arm looks kinda banged up.”
Suddenly there is a commotion next to me. They have cracked open the door on the driver’s side to get to the driver. More flashing lights. Another ambulance. More voices.
“Come look at this,” someone says, and the cop crosses to the driver’s side. They have lifted the driver out and put him on a gurney. Blood has seeped across his neck, down his shirt.
“He hit his head on the wheel?”
“That’s what I thought, at first,” says the EMT guy. “But look.”
“Jesus,” says the cop. “Is that …?”
“Right,” says the other man. “A bullet hole.”
Suddenly, everything changes.
“Ma’am,” the cop says, “I need you to step away from the car.”
Cradling my arm, he helps me onto a gurney. As they wheel me over to an ambulance, I hear the crunch of broken glass. Then I see the second car, on its side, just to the left of mine. Half on, half off the road. The whole front side of it is smashed in. And slumped over the steering wheel …
I know that car. I know that driver! Slowly, bits and pieces of memories start to come back. A pop. A flash of light. And then it hits me: the horror of what I’ve done.
The two men I love—bruised, bleeding, dying—maybe dead?
And, dear God, it’s all my fault …
Six months earlier
You want to know the whole story? Let me start from the day when everything began to fall apart.
Just an ordinary school morning.
Joey is scrambling to finish his homework. Caroline is still asleep. Ben can’t find his oboe. And my husband and I are arguing.
“This whole oboe thing is ridiculous,” Ned says, gesturing with a piece of seven-grain toast. “The kid hates the oboe. He doesn’t practice from one week to the next. And why he needs an oboe tutor …”
“So he can keep up with the other fourth-graders,” I call out from the bottom of the hall closet, on my knees, searching.
“You’re kidding, right?” Ned yells. But I know what he means. I’ve heard the school orchestra play. Even on a good day, it makes your teeth hurt.
Ben stands there, Pop-Tart in hand, watching as I push aside various snow boots.
“Would it kill you to help me look?” I say.
“Me? Why do I have to help?”
From the kitchen Ned shouts, “Because it’s your damn oboe. You’re the one who lost it.”
“I left it right here on the hall table,” Ben says. “Donna must’ve put it somewhere.”
Donna is the cleaning lady who shows up on Mondays, cleans her little heart out, and for the next six days is systematically blamed for everything that’s lost or broken. Poor Donna has had more things pinned on her than our local supermarket bulletin board.
I get up off my knees. Ned is standing next to me, still fuming. I know I have a choice: Let It Go, as Maggie, our couples therapist, has suggested, or Push Back Gently.
“Look. He’s finally learning to play the scales properly,” I say. Gently.
“And for that I pay seventy-five dollars a week?”
“Seventy-five dollars,” I add, still in my gentlest voice, “is about half what you paid for the tie you’re wearing. Which, incidentally, seems to have a small butter stain on it.”
“What? Oh, for God’s sake.” Ned checks his reflection in our hall mirror. “I just got this tie. It’s an Armani. Here,” he says, carefully unknotting it from around his neck and draping it on the hall-closet doorknob. “Drop this at the dry cleaners, will you?”
He bolts up the stairs, two at a time, in search of another tie—then reappears and kisses me good-bye. His lips miss my cheek entirely. I wait to see if he notices that I have chopped three inches off my hair since yesterday, and I’ve gone from Deep Chestnut to Honey Brown. He doesn’t.
“Be home late again,” he says, checking his reflection one last time in the hall mirror. “Asshole client meeting that doesn’t start till six.” Then he grabs his car keys and leaves.
We soon find the oboe, of course.
In the one place I’m never allowed to look.
Welcome to Ben’s bedroom.
I am a Navy SEAL, cautiously making my way through enemy territory. I step carefully to avoid minefields.
I am actually your basic forty-four-year-old suburban mom, cautiously making my way through piles of clothing scattered on the floor. It all needs washing, but I am under strict orders never to pick up anything I find lying there. This, as a result of accidentally laundering various dollar bills, student IDs, and cell phones left in pockets that I forgot to check.
A foot from Ben’s trundle bed, I spot the corner of something leathery and brown peeking out from under an Imagine Dragons T-shirt. Sure enough, it’s the oboe case. I lift it up, shake off some Cheez Doodle dust, and carry it downstairs.
Ben frowns and says, “Dad said I didn’t have to go.”
“He said no such thing. Now go get your backpack. And where are your brother and sister? Joey! Caroline! It’s eight twenty-five.”
Caroline comes down the stairs, a vision of long blond hair and denim, holding her sixth-grade science project: a mock-up of the Mount St. Helens volcano, molded out of Play-Doh. She’s only eleven. But with her blond curls and deep blue eyes, someday soon she’s going to break some hearts.
Joey, age sixteen, appears on the top landing—high tops untied, hair gelled and standing straight up so that he resembles a hedgehog. He gallops down the stairs.
“Careful!” I say, as he zips past Caroline. “And would it kill you to carry that for your sister?”
“No! He’ll tip it!” she says, hoisting the volcano high above her head.
“Fine. Whatever. Can we just get going?”
Then the usual mad scramble—lunch bags grabbed, jackets pulled from hooks, protein bars shoved into pockets, the three of them pushing through the front door and arguing over who gets the front seat. Another morning gotten through. I take out my keys and am about to lock up.
And that’s when the phone rings.
“Maybe they’re calling to say it’s a snow day,” Ben says.
“In September?” I ask. But he has a point. When the phone rings that early in the morning, it’s generally someone from the school phone chain with news of a weather day, an early closing, or—these days—a bomb threat.
I go back and answer it.
“Hello,” says a male voice. “Is this Laura Sherman?” The voice is warm and friendly—two things I have no time for.
“Sorry. We’re on the do-not-call list,” I say.
I am about to hang up, when the voice gets more insistent.
“Laura, wait! Please. My name is Vince Kelso.”
“Look, if you’re running for office …”
“I’m your new neighbor. At thirty-seven Maple.”
Thirty-seven Maple. The house next door. A total eyesore. The house had been vacant for quite a while. We were hoping someone would buy it and tear it down. But my friend Darcy, whose house is on the other side, said people moved in last week. She went over with brownies and rang the bell. No one answered. She left the brownies and a note asking them to call if they needed anything.
She never heard from them.
“My gosh. I owe you an apology,” I say. “I’ve been meaning to stop by and bring over a plant or something and …”
“No problem,” he says. “But I was wondering if I could ask a favor.”
“Sure. I mean, I guess. Look, Mr. Kelso …”
“Vince,” he says. “Please. Call me Vince.”
“Vince. I don’t mean to be rude, but my kids are waiting in the car.”
I look out the window to see if this is true. It is. Joey is in the front seat of our dusty Volvo wagon, practicing his best Justin Bieber pout in the rearview mirror. Ben and Caroline are in the back, arguing. As I watch, Ben hits Caroline over the head with his lunch bag. The bag breaks.
“I don’t know a soul here. I was wondering if you could pick my son Vinny up after school today and take him to soccer practice.”
“Today? Gee,” I say, letting my eyes wander to our lawn. The grass needs cutting, and the garbagemen have left our big plastic garbage bins sprawled in the gutter. “Today’s a little tough. See, Thursday’s my busiest day. First there’s my daughter’s dance class. Then I have to get my son across town for his oboe lesson and …”
“I would never be asking,” he continues “but my wife is suddenly quite ill. They had to take her away …”
“Oh. Gosh …”
“And you’re my last hope.”
I hear him take a deep breath. Then he says, quietly, “Honey, I’m all alone here … and I could really use a friend.”
“Of course,” I say.
“Swell,” he says. Swell? Where is this guy from? The 1950s?
“I heard you were an angel,” he says, sweetly. “I guess they were right.”
Who’s “they”? I want to ask. Certainly no one in my immediate family.
But he has already hung up.