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For the Karps—
your house isn’t exactly next door, but it’s plenty close enough. We couldn’t imagine better neighbors or friends.
“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…”
“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.
I lock the front door behind me and walk to my Volvo wagon. As I get closer to the car, I see Ben’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich glued to the rear seat.
“Ben hit me with his lunch,” Caroline says.
“It was her fault,” Ben says. “She started it. She wouldn’t move her stupid feet.”
“Shut up,” Caroline says.
“Hey! We don’t use words like that,” I say, pulling out of the driveway.
“Yes, we do,” Joey says. “All the time.”
“Well—we shouldn’t,” I say. So much for today’s lesson in parenting. We drive past the post office, the Stop & Shop, the dry cleaners (damn—I left Ned’s tie hanging on the doorknob). We drop Joey off at the high school. They are still arguing about whose foot belongs where.
But I’m lost in thought, wondering about the weird phone call.
“What do you guys know about Vinny Kelso?” I ask as we make a left onto the street that leads to the school.
“He’s new,” says Ben.
“Keep going. What’s he like?”
“Nobody likes him.”
“And why is that?” I ask. The crossing guard in a shiny yellow vest holds up a hand to let a bunch of students cross.
“He’s a nerd. He reads all the time.”
“Well, shame on him,” I say. “How does he expect to make friends, with an attitude like that? No wonder everybody hates him. But I bet you’ve been kind to him. Right, Ben? Taken him under your wing. Shown him the ropes.” I keep my eyes on the road, but I’m sure Ben is squirming in the back.
“Well…I heard his mother got sick,” Ben says, desperate to change the subject.
“Yeah. Casey in my class said she heard two teachers talking.”
“That must be pretty scary for Vinny. For all of them.” Suddenly, my heart goes out to the Kelsos. New in town. Family emergency. No one to turn to.
“Why are you asking about him?” Ben asks.
“We’re going to do his dad a favor today. We’re driving Vinny to soccer.”
“Oh, Ma. Please, no!” Ben says. A look of horror crosses his face. I get it: an unpopular, possibly uncool kid will be sitting next to him in our car. If anybody sees…Ben’s a goner.
We are almost at the school parking lot. I swing the car around and let them off in one mad rush of coats and science projects and lunch bags. The car gets very quiet all of a sudden. Then Ben, standing on the curb, taps on the window.
“Don’t expect me to pay for your lunch,” I say. “That’s what you get for hitting your sister with a sandwich.”
“No. I was just thinking: why did they ask us?”
“They didn’t ask us. They asked me.”
“Why didn’t they ask Darcy? She lives next door to them, too.”
“I dunno. Maybe they didn’t like her brownies.”
He shrugs and runs up the steps just as the bell rings. The heavy metal door slams behind him.
As I drive off, though, I realize the kid’s got a point. Darcy left them a note, with her phone number on it.
So: why me?
When I go back home to pick up Ned’s tie, the dust balls meet me at the door. I know they’ve missed me, because they follow me from room to room. To kill time, I vacuum the whole house. Then I write a few checks. Then I empty the dishwasher.
I can put it off no longer. I’ve got to deal with Harry.
Harry, the H of H & M Cleaners, is standing behind the counter as I walk through the door. As always, he’s frowning. He is a short, stubby man with deep lines in his face from intense scowling. Harry wears granny glasses that are always speckled with dirt.
“Hello,” I say, pulling the butter-stained tie out of my bag.
“You’ll have it Tuesday,” he answers, curling the tie around his hand and dropping it on the counter. That’s Harry’s way of saying Hello. Nice to see you again. How’s the family? Harry and my son Joey must be enrolled in the same charm school.
Harry punches a few numbers into his computer, prints a receipt, and peels it in half. I get the pink half.
“Can I have it tomorrow?”
“You want it tomorrow, you should have brought it in yesterday.”
“But it only got stained today.”
Harry shrugs. “So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to have it tomorrow. Look,” I say. Then I point to a huge faded sign that has been hanging there since 1967. “It says IN BY TEN, OUT BY THREE.”
“Look yourself,” he says. “It’s ten fifteen.”
“But today’s only Thursday. What if I brought it in tomorrow before ten? Would I have it tomorrow by three?”
Harry shrugs. “I can’t promise anything. Tomorrow is the weekend.”
I get back in the car and slam the door. I’m annoyed at Harry, but just as annoyed at Ned, who insists I go to H & M Cleaners. I don’t understand a lot of things Ned insists on. Mouthwashes that burn. Sitting in the first row of a movie theater. Then again, when we were dating and I accidentally got pregnant with Joey, another guy might’ve walked. But Ned insisted on marrying me. You’ve got to love a guy like that.
And I do. Most of the time.
Once Joey was born, Ned insisted we move to the suburbs. Overnight, I kissed my half-assed acting career good-bye. Okay. So my life isn’t quite Shangri-la. But I can’t complain (although I do, all the time, in couples therapy). I have a lot of laughs with the kids. Ned is a pretty good father. Life could be a lot worse.
And when I read all these stories about husbands who cheat and lie and put their family in harm’s way—I know Ned would never do anything like that.
“Welcome to Best Buy, sir,” the young salesman in the red T-shirt says, smiling as he greets the customer at the door. “Can I help you find something?”
“No thanks,” Vince Kelso tells him, waving him off with his hand. He heads deeper into the store, toward the cell phone aisle.
Soon another salesman approaches—this one bald, with a bad case of acne.
“Just looking,” Vince tells him. Vince wanders around until he sees exactly what he’s looking for: a young salesgirl. She has long red hair and is standing by a cash register.
“I wonder if you could help me,” he asks her.
“Sure, sir,” she says. As he expected, she is sweet and perky—perhaps a trainee, determined to make a good impression.
“So many cell phones. What’s an old guy like me to do?” he says. He shrugs helplessly and looks at the plastic name tag on the young girl’s shirt. “Amber,” he adds.
Amber looks him over. He doesn’t seem that old—way younger than her father. She thinks he was probably cute as a teenager.
She gestures to the aisle behind them and begins the sales pitch they taught her in orientation. “Okay. So, a lot depends on how you’re going to use it. So, like, if you surf the internet, or do a lot of texting…”
“Now, honey,” he says, looking right into her eyes, leaning in so he’s a lot closer to her. “Do I look like a guy who texts a lot?”
She blushes a little. It’s sweet.
“No, sir—all I meant was…”
“Actually, I’m looking for one of those prepaid ones.”
Her face lights up. “Oh. Like a disposable? Sure. Those are at the end, over there. They’re pretty popular. The contract fees are much less, and you can…”
But he’s already shaking his head.
“I’m a pretty simple guy, Amber. Don’t even need a contract. I just want something I can use and then toss.”
“Oh!” Amber says. “So, like, a burner. Here’s the one most people go with.” She reaches for a black phone in a blister pack, hanging on a hook.
“I’ll tell you how good a saleswoman you are,” he says. “I’m gonna take six of ’em.” He pulls five more off the rack.
“Awesome,” she says, all smiles. It’s her biggest sale of the day. Maybe even her biggest sale ever. Vince turns one over, to see the price. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wallet. He peels off four fifty-dollar bills.
“I knew I could count on you, Amber,” he says. “Why, I bet, if I come back here in ten years, you’re gonna be running the place. Am I right?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” she says. She looks away shyly.
“One last thing,” he says as he pockets the change. “I don’t know this brand. Where do I find the phone number?”
“It’s right inside,” Amber says, cracking open one of the blister cases with the cash register key. “Let me show you.” She pulls out an instruction manual. “Oh, look—you got a good one. 914-809-1414.”
“914-809-1414. I like that,” Vince says. “Easy to remember. Well, you take care now,” he adds. “And remember what I said. Don’t let me down.”
“No, sir,” she replies, smiling. “Have a nice day.”
He winks, puts the phones and the instruction manual in his briefcase, and leaves without taking the receipt.
The time: 2:30 p.m., outside Copain Woods School. And it’s starting. A snake pit of road rage as the SUVs line up, each driven by an impatient mom or dad, jockeying for position. I like to think of myself as an A-team player at this.
The minutes pass. Suddenly it’s three o’clock. A bell rings. Doors open. Out spills a gaggle of students, grades one through eight. They scatter in all directions in search of a familiar car. Horns honk. Drivers shout names. Caroline spots me quickly and waves. Ben appears behind her. I pull closer to the curb and they both jump in.
“Where’s Vinny?” I ask. My eyes search the crowd. Down at the end is a face I’ve never seen before. A boy leaning against the building. The kid wears a reddish-brown shirt the same color as the bricks.
“That’s him,” Ben says, pointing. Then he scoots down in his seat so none of the other middle school kids can see him. I pull closer to Vincent Kelso Junior and roll down the window.
“You must be Vinny,” I say. “I’m Mrs. Sherman. Hop in.”
Vinny walks slowly. Behind me, the honking grows louder.
“A little faster,” I say sweetly. He has some trouble opening the door. A nice kid, I think. But not too swift.
- On Sale
- Jan 8, 2019
- Page Count
- 608 pages
- Grand Central Publishing