A Novel


By Anita Shreve

Read by Dennis Holland

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A rookie paramedic pulls a young woman alive from her totaled car, a first rescue that begins a lifelong tangle of love and wreckage.

Peter Webster pulls a young woman out of a car wreck that should have killed her. Sheila Arsenault haunts his thoughts, and despite his misgivings Peter is soon embroiled in an intense love affair — and in Sheila’s troubled world.

Eighteen years later, Sheila is long gone and Peter is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone. But Rowan is veering dangerously off course, and for the first time in their quiet life together Peter fears for her future. He seeks out the only person who may be able to help Rowan, although Sheila’s return is sure to unleash all the questions he has carefully been keeping at bay: Why did a mother leave her family? How did the marriage of two people so deeply in love unravel?

A story about trespass and forgiveness, secrets and the seismic force of the truth, Rescue is a masterful portrayal of a family trying to understand its fractured past and begin again.


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Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

A Preview of Testimony

Copyright Page

Webster jogs down the narrow stairs in stocking feet and says, "French toast," as he rounds the corner.

Rowan blushes over the pan, the one that has more scratches on it than Teflon.

Webster loves his daughter's face. Even when she was an infant, she had that extra, what, quarter inch above the eyebrows. As though someone took a pair of pliers, stretched her head a little. It makes her blue eyes open up. It makes her look a bit startled by life. Webster likes that. Rowan has the same widow's peak as Webster's, her hair brown, almost black. Rowan covers hers with bangs. Webster covers his, more pronounced, with a baseball cap. The widow's peak is a problem, always will be.

Webster, on automatic, opens the fridge for the juice.

"I already did that," Rowan says.

Webster turns and sees that the kitchen table is set with plates, silverware, napkins, and butter in the old butter dish instead of just a saucer, the juice in proper juice glasses. Rowan has on a pale blue sweater from J. Crew that he bought her for Christmas. Something is ending, and they want to mark it. Webster has been thinking this for months now.

The birthday has to be celebrated in the morning. Webster has the night shift.

Rowan slips the French toast onto the plates.

"You should have applied to culinary school," Webster says as he sits down and pulls the chair closer to the table.

Mistake. He sees the tiny wince at Rowan's mouth. It's there, and then it's gone.

Rowan has been rejected by three schools, one of them Middlebury, her top choice. Webster remembers his daughter waiting at the computer in the kitchen for five o'clock on March 15, the day and hour at which some of the schools sent out acceptances and rejections. Webster was messing around with the dishes, washing the same glass twice, pretending he wasn't there. He knew to the minute when five o'clock arrived. The minute came and went. More minutes came and went. Not a sound from Rowan. No joyous yelp, no happy shout. Maybe the schools were late with the results, Webster thought, though he knew that whenever you hoped for divine intervention, it never worked out.

That day, he gazed at her back. The girl was still, studying her hands, fiddling with a silver ring on her middle finger. Webster wanted to say something, to touch her, but he couldn't. It would embarrass her, make it worse. Better if Webster left Rowan her dignity. After twenty minutes in the same position, Rowan stood and left the kitchen. She went up to her room and didn't come down, even for supper. Webster was angry with the schools, and then sad. By morning, he had worked himself around to encouraging. He talked up the University of Vermont, which had been her safety school and to which she had been accepted in the fall. She didn't want to go there, though. She had hoped for a smaller college. What Webster minded most was the loss of the joyous yelp, that happy shout.

Rowan deserved it.

Webster deserved it.

"Delicious," Webster now says.

The bread is thick, drenched with egg and milk and perfectly toasted. Rowan loads her plate with syrup. Webster eats his toast plain, the way he's always done, though sometimes he covers the last piece with jelly. Webster doesn't recall buying the eggs, and he's pretty sure the syrup can had only crust at the bottom.

"I've got the four-to-midnight," Webster says. "Covering for Koenig. His daughter's getting married. Rehearsal dinner tonight."

Rowan nods. Maybe Webster has already told her. "I've got practice till six anyway," she says.

What to do about Rowan's supper? He's been asking himself that question for fifteen years. He lifts his head and notices a wrapped plate of extra French toast on the stove.


"Open your present now," Rowan says, the first time either of them has acknowledged the birthday, the father forty today. Rowan, five nine and seventeen, stands and glides into the dining room. She returns and sets the present to one side of her father's plate. The box is wrapped in gold paper with red Christmas trees. It's almost June. "It's all I could find," she says.

Webster leans back and takes a sip of coffee. He has the present in his lap. He sees that Rowan has been generous with the tape. With his Swiss Army knife, a present from Sheila a hundred years ago, Webster gets the package open and puts the silver cube on the table. He begins to fool with it. He discovers that if he lays it on one side, it tells the time and date. If he sets it on another, it shows the weather for the next four days: two suns; a cloud with rain coming out; and then a sun.

"It's hooked up to a weather channel somewhere," Rowan explains as she moves her chair closer to her father's. "It's better if you keep it near a window. This side is an alarm clock. I tried it. It's not too bad. The sound, I mean."

Webster guesses the silver cube cost Rowan at least three days' pay from her job at the Giant Mart over the state line. She commutes from Vermont to New York and back again two afternoons a week and every Saturday if there isn't a game. Webster puts his hand on Rowan's back and lightly rubs it just below her long neck. "I can really use the outside temperature thing," he says. "And what does this side do?"

Rowan takes the silver cube from her father and demonstrates. "You rock it from side to side and then set it down. It tells your future inside the black square."

Webster remembers the black balls of his youth, the ones with sayings floating in who knew what liquid. Probably something toxic.

"Whose future?"

"Yours, I guess. It's yours now."

Rowan returns the cube, setting it on her father's lap. They wait. Abruptly, Webster flips the cube over, but not before he's seen the ghost of his future struggling to the surface. Prepare for a surprise. He refuses to own the prediction.

"Why did you do that?" Rowan asks.

"Surprises, in my business, are nearly always bad."

"You're too cynical," she says.

"I'm not cynical. Just careful."

"Too careful for your own good," she adds as she glances at the clock. "I have to go."

She slips from her chair and kisses his cheek. He watches her graceful movements, performed a thousand times. She holds up her hair, twists it, and lets it fall over her right shoulder. He's never seen this particular gesture from his daughter, and it hits him in the gut.

"Thanks for the breakfast and the present," he says.


Webster swivels back to his French toast.

He registers an odd silence in the hallway, not the rattle of the knob, the usual friction of the warped door in its frame. After a few seconds, Webster turns his head around.

His daughter is still in the back hallway, gazing out the window of the door.

"What's up?" he asks.




"Don't bite my head off."

Webster notices what might be the outline of a hard pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her light jacket. He suspects his daughter is drinking. Is she smoking, too? Is she experimenting? Is this normal for a girl her age?

Webster can't remember the last time he's felt relaxed with Rowan. For a few moments earlier this morning, his heart lifted: Rowan remembered the birthday, Rowan cooked for him, she was excited about his present.


"What?" Rowan asks, grabbing her backpack from a hook.

"I just… I just want you to be happy."

Rowan sighs and rolls her eyes.

Webster struggles for the high note of the birthday breakfast. "Love my present," he says again.

Webster can feel his daughter's impatience. Eager to be away.

He turns back to the table. He hears the tug and pull of the door, the necessary slam.

He walks to the window and looks out. As he watches his daughter get into her car, an ache moves through his chest, sucking him empty.

Rowan is leaving him.

She's been leaving him for months.

Eighteen years earlier

Webster got the call at 1:10 in the morning. "Unresponsive female half-ejected one-car ten-fifty." He made it from his parents' house in to Rescue in two and a half flat. He parked the secondhand cruiser near the building and climbed into the passenger seat of the Bullet as Burrows put his foot to the floor, turned down the lights and the siren, and swooped into the left lane. Webster had his uniform over his pajamas; his stethoscope around his neck; his gloves, trauma shears, flashlight, tourniquet, oxygen key, and window punch on his utility belt; his radio in its holster. In his head, he ran through the protocol for a 10-50. Assess scene safety, including potential for fire, explosion. Wires down, leaking gas tank, turn-out gear and visor if extrication indicated. Open the airway. Jaw thrust, if necessary. Assess breathing and circulation. Stabilize spine. Check the pulse, get a blood pressure check, and look for lacerations. Webster was twenty-one and a rookie.

"Where?" he asked.

"Near the garden store where 42 takes a bend."

Four minutes out. Max. Maybe less.

"Victim wrapped herself around a tree," Burrows said.

Burrows was a beefy guy with cropped blond hair where he still had it. His uniform shirt was missing two buttons, which he tried to hide with a zippered vest. The guy had a bad scar on his right cheek from a melanoma he'd had removed a year ago. He fingered it all the time.

Because he was a probie, Webster was the packhorse. Burrows, his superior, carried only the med box and his own protective clothing. Webster dealt with the oxygen, the trauma box, the c-collar, and the backboard.

"Fucking freezing," Burrows said.

"Whatever happened to the January thaw?"

In the distance, a cop with a Maglite directed nonexistent traffic. Burrows made a fast and expert U-turn, pulling to a stop on a flat piece of shoulder thirty feet from a Cadillac that had rolled and come to rest upside down.

"Just kissed the tree," said Nye, a weasel with a chip the size of Burlington on his shoulder. "And what I want to know is what's a fucking girl doing with a two-ton Cadillac?"

Not a girl, Burrows and Webster discovered. A woman, twenty-four, twenty-five. No seat belt. The Cadillac was at least a decade old with rust in the wheel wells.

"Unresponsive," Nye's younger partner, McGill, said as he moved to make way for Burrows and Webster. The medic and the EMT knelt to either side of the partially ejected patient. The shock of glossy brown hair in the artificial light registered with Webster, replaced immediately by acronyms: Airway. Breathing. Circulation. ABC. He maintained spine stabilization and took the vitals. Burrows handled the airway.

"A hundred twenty-two over seventy," Webster read out. "Pulse sixty-six." Even in the cold Vermont air, he could smell the alcohol. "ETOH," Webster reported. "Lips are blue."



"She's in trouble."

"She reeks."

Still, Webster knew, they couldn't assume.

A star pattern on the windshield had produced facial lacerations on her forehead. A crushed window had loosened a shower of sparkles. Webster gently brushed the glass from her eyes and mouth.

"Anyone know her name?" Burrows asked.

Webster watched the Weasel reach for the woman's purse, which had lodged under the car.

Nye opened a wallet. "Sheila Arsenault."

"Sheila!" Burrows said in a loud voice. "Sheila, wake up!"


Burrows administered a sternal rub to wake the dead.

The woman lifted her head in the direction of the pain. "Fuck," she said.

"Nice girl," Nye said.

"Responsive to painful stimuli only," Burrows stated for the record as he fastened the c-collar onto the woman's neck.

"Can we do a clothes drag onto the board?" Webster asked.

"Go around," Burrows said as he removed the rest of the glass from the woman's face and slapped on a non-rebreather mask. He made a slit with his trauma shears down the length of the denim sleeve of her jacket. He started a line in her arm.

From where Webster knelt on the other side of the car, he could see a piece of metal he couldn't identify, its sharp edge pushing into the woman's belly, making the front tails of a light blue shirt bloody. A sheared-off piece of the dashboard? Something that had come up from the floor? Through a slit in the metal, he saw Burrows working on the woman.

"Belly cut," he called out to Burrows. "Looks superficial. If Nye and McGill can bend this piece of metal a half inch toward you, you might be able to slide her out. I'll put a pressure bandage on her as soon as the metal is clear. You have yours ready when she comes through."


"Yes, but not a lot. Wait for my count."

With his flashlight in his teeth, Webster pulled a pressure bandage from his pack. He reached forward to the metal barrier and wedged the bandage as best he could against it and thought that if the maneuver went wrong, he'd get a hand sliced open for his reward. He felt an obstruction at the place where the metal reached her skin. A set of keys and something furry. He unbuckled the woman's belt, eased the free end through a loop, and got the keys, the rabbit's foot, and the belt. He tossed them over his shoulder. He held the pressure bandage at the ready. He saw that the fastening of her jeans wouldn't get past the opening either. "I'm cutting her pants off," Webster said.

Nye, the cop, whistled.

With practiced moves, Webster slit the legs to the waist. He gently slid the pants down to her knees, removed her boots, and took the jeans off. He could see her white bikini underpants, her slim, pale legs. He put a warming blanket over her and tossed her clothes behind him.

"My count," he repeated. "One… two… three."

The cops pried up the metal a quarter inch. As they pulled from the shoulders, there was another spill of blood before Burrows could get his pressure bandage on. A spill but not a gush. A laceration but not deep. The slice looked clean. Another inch, she'd have split her intestines open. Webster folded the woman's feet flat to get her through.

The cops moved away as Webster brought the bundle of clothes around and joined Burrows. He and McGill had gotten her onto the backboard, strapped her on, and put a blanket over her. Burrows administered another sternal rub. Instead of an obscenity, they got only a weak moan.

"Move," Burrows said, and Webster heard the alarm.

They took the backboard to the rig and slid her onto the stretcher, Burrows climbing in with her. "Step on it," he said before Webster shut the door.

Webster pushed the Bullet to seventy, the most he dared on 42. Sometimes, he was able to take note of a rising sun on a hayfield or the reflection of the moon on the creek that flirted with the route, but that night his thoughts were at the back of his head, listening hard to Burrows, who was trying to get a response from the woman.

At Mercy, Burrows went with the patient to give a report to the ER. Webster wanted to follow the stretcher with the glossy brown hair falling over the metal edge, but his job was to clean up the Bullet and put all the gear away. Inside the ambulance, he found a dozen stained bandages, indicating more bleeding than Webster had previously reported. Burrows returned with the stretcher before Webster was done. Webster peeled off his gloves and stepped up to the driver's seat. Normally, as the rookie, Webster would have driven both ways, but, in the interest of time, Burrows had been at the wheel when Webster had pulled into Rescue earlier.

"Fine-looking woman," Burrows said as they headed back to Rescue, a squad that serviced five towns besides Hartstone.

"Not a local."

"Blood alcohol point two-four."



"Shit," Webster said.


"I tossed the keys that were on her belt onto the grass."

"Find them on your own time."

"There was a rabbit's foot."

Burrows laughed. "Lucky girl."

After Webster had cleaned the equipment in the basins at Rescue, restocked the Bullet, and hosed off the outside of the rig, he got into his car and drove back to the scene. This time he noticed the quiet road, the .2 moon, the farmhouse just beyond the place where the Caddy had rolled. A tow truck was pulling onto the road. Nye put out a flare he'd lit behind the tow truck. "Why are you back?" the cop asked.

Never a How's she doing? with the Weasel.

"I tossed her keys onto the grass," Webster said.

"If it was her car keys, don't bother looking."

"No, it was something else."

"She oughta go to jail. She could have killed someone. Herself even."

"Then jail wouldn't do her much good, would it?" Webster said as he began to search the depressed grass where the car had come to rest. As Nye and his partner got into their blue and white Hartstone Police car, Webster thought he heard a faint snigger.

Webster had his flashlight for the search. He began to crawl around the frosty perimeter. Maybe the rabbit's foot did work, he thought. The woman didn't kill anyone. She didn't kill herself. She hadn't broken her neck. She hadn't severed an artery. She hadn't suffered a traumatic amputation.

The image of the shiny brown hair came and went. Webster wanted to find the rabbit's foot. He pictured himself returning it to the woman named Sheila. In his mind, she still had sparkles on her face.

An owl called out, and Webster could hear in the distance the whine and downshift of a semi. He turned off the flashlight, stayed on his knees, and turned his face away. After he felt the whoosh, he switched his light back on.

It took him twenty-five minutes to find the keys. With them, he stuffed the rabbit's foot and the coiled belt into his jacket pockets, got back into his cruiser, and let himself shiver until the heat came on. Fuck, it was cold.

Two hours later, Webster, showered and dressed, said hello to his father at the breakfast table. He lived with his parents, trying to save money for a piece of land he coveted. He was pretty sure he could convince the guy who owned it to sell it to him when the time came because Webster had helped to save the man's wife from dying of cardiac arrest a couple of months earlier. Normally, Webster didn't think like that. He and Burrows were a team, and it was usually his partner who shocked the patient and pushed the meds. But only Webster had known instantly where the farm was located, having driven past it a dozen, two dozen times, just to see the hillside with the view of the Green Mountains. He'd told Burrows over the radio where to go and had taken the cruiser. When Webster got to the farmhouse, the woman was barely responsive and sweating profusely. After she lost consciousness, he cleared her airway. He started CPR. He worked on her for over two minutes before Burrows arrived. They had her on a demand valve, an oral airway in place, and on the cardiac monitor inside the Bullet, pushed the meds seconds after that. With that kind of a call, a minute could make a difference.

Webster's father, Ernest, ran a hardware store in town and was up at six every morning. A man who believed in routine, he ate Raisin Bran and bananas for breakfast, four cookies with lunch every day, and had a nighttime ritual that seldom varied: two Rolling Rocks when he got home, the only time he and Webster's mother, Norah, kept to themselves; then dinner; then a half hour with the paper. Another half hour with the catalogs. One television show. Then bed at nine. Webster couldn't remember the last time he'd seen his father with a book, but the man knew everything there was to know about hardware and what to do with it. On the place mats at Keezer's Diner was an ad for his father's store: Webster's Hardware, depicted with a likeness of Webster's grandfather, a banner, and the tagline "Quotes Cheerfully Given."

Webster's mother taught fifth grade at Hartstone Elementary and, at sixty-one, was thinking of retiring soon. Webster had been a late baby, his parents unable to conceive until his mother was thirty-nine. Once a blond, but now gray, she had wide hazel eyes and a widow's peak she'd bequeathed to her son. Every night, she'd take an armful of papers out of her briefcase and sit down to grade them. She was the peacemaker in the family but could be stern when the occasion called for it. Webster had sometimes wondered what she was like with the more unruly students in her classes.

"Can I make you some eggs?" she asked as she stood by the counter.

"No, toast is OK," Webster said. "I have to get back to Rescue."

He didn't. He intended to return to the hospital.

"You were just there, weren't you?" she asked. "I heard you come in."

"Just some follow-up," Webster said. "I'll be back home soon."

"Well, I think you'd better," she said. "You need to get your sleep."

Webster was a part-time EMT, hoping to work his way into a full-time position, one that would require that he be at Rescue while in service. For now he got the calls at home, and his parents were used to the tones and to watching their son stand up from the dinner table without a word and take the stairs three at a time, or to hearing a car door close in the middle of the night.

Just before Webster's senior year in high school, when his father suffered his own mini-recession at the hardware store, Webster began to look at junior colleges he could commute to, convinced that by the time he graduated there would be money for the University of Vermont in Burlington. But when Webster graduated with a certificate in business—about as useful as an old Christmas card, he'd decided—he chose not to take over his father's hardware store, which had always been the family plan.

The idea of it filled him with dread. He wasn't for the open road like a lot of guys he knew, but he wanted to do something more exciting in life than stand behind a register six days a week. He remembered the evening he told his parents at the kitchen table, his father stoic and nodding, his mother stunned. They assumed he had something better in mind. He didn't, but he'd seen an ad that had triggered his curiosity.

"An EMT," he said.

"An EMT?" his father asked, incredulous. "You're kidding."

"How long have you wanted to do this?" His mother's voice was higher pitched than normal.

Webster lied. "A year or so."

"It doesn't pay very well," his father, ever the pragmatist, said.

"Eventually the pay's OK."

"You'll see horrible things, Peter." This from his mother, her eyes distant.

"Where do you train?" his father asked.

"I'm looking into that right now," Webster said, and with that his future seemed destined.

He took an EMT course at Rutland Hospital, went on observation tours, and passed the exams. His interest in emergency medicine grew steadily the more he learned about it, and it seemed to him that he had accidentally made the right choice for himself. He was twenty-one when he got certified.

For his graduation present, his parents gave him a sum of money that he used to buy a secondhand police cruiser, all the markings gone but still as fast as the day it had rolled out of the factory. Speed was everything for a medic, though in winter, when he had to put the studded tires on, he lost some of that.

Webster studied the woodwork around the window over the sink and guessed there probably wasn't a right angle in the entire house. He doubted the farm had ever been prosperous. When his parents had bought the place—Webster had been seven—the kitchen floor was linoleum, the walls made of lath and goat's hair, and the dining area was white with plaster dust. Up a flight of stairs was a sitting room with a blocked-up fireplace, a porch that had been finished off to make a sewing nook, and a decent-sized bedroom that his parents took over. In the attic were two small rooms that his cousins and aunts and uncles used when they visited.


On Sale
Nov 30, 2010
Hachette Audio

Anita Shreve

About the Author

Anita Shreve passed away on Thursday, March 29 after a long and very private fight with cancer.  Anita was the author of 18 novels, 14 of which were published by Little, Brown, beginning with Resistance in 1997.  Her novel The Weight of Water won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.  In 1999, Oprah Winfrey selected The Pilot’s Wife for Oprah’s Book Club, and it went on to sell more than 3 million copies.  In all of her work, Anita deftly explored the intricacies and nuances of relationships between men and women, often hinging on the ripple effects of a single, dramatic moment.  She wrote the details of history, from the 19th century to the 1920s to World War II, as if she had lived them herself.

Of her novel Rescue, Augusten Borroughs said,  “Her prose is so flawlessly disciplined and elegant; the characters seem too real to be made out of words and the story she unfolds is gripping, fiercely intelligent and deeply moving.”  These words describe the work but also Anita herself.  Anita was a beloved figure for all of us who had the privilege of working with her.  She was both elegant and modest, kind, funny, and always observant of every nuance of human interaction.  She had impeccable taste and was a thoughtful gift-giver, with a warm laugh and an abiding love for her Boston Red Sox, the Maine coastline, the occasional light beer, and, above all, her children.  She was a beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend and we will miss her deeply.  Our thoughts are with her family in this difficult time.


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