Authors: Patricia MacDonald
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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Many people have helped me. None more so than
My husband, Art Bourgeau, who never fails me
Jane Berkey and Meg Ruley, agents and old friends
All at Albin Michel, especially Tony Cartano
My readers in France—mille fois merci
Maggie Crawford, for her insights, and
Otto—thanks for the picture
t’s beginning to get dark so early now,
Keely Bennett thought, pining for daylight as she drove along the quiet streets of Ann Arbor. The November sky had been gray since morning but now had deepened to a leaden hue as twilight came on. The sidewalks of the university town were almost empty as people hurried to reach the well-lit shelter of home before nightfall.
Keely had stayed late at the junior high school where she taught American literature. Monday afternoons, the yearbook club met after school, and she was the advisor. She thought about the pile of essays in her briefcase that she had to grade tonight, and she would also have to help her son, Dylan, with his fourth-grade homework. Somewhere in there, she had to get dinner together too.
If Richard is feeling better,
he can help Dylan.
Then, she dismissed the idea as improbable. Keely’s husband, a science writer for the university press, suffered from migraine headaches, and when one took hold of him, the episode tended to last for at least the rest of the day. Usually, the combination of medication and a night’s sleep alleviated the pain, but lately, to their growing concern, he would often find himself stricken again the next day. This morning, when she got up for work, she found Richard already lying on the couch in his home office, all the curtains drawn and his eyes covered with a wet towel. He had not come down for breakfast—even the smell of food nauseated him. Keely and Dylan had eaten breakfast in silence, then closed the door softly behind them when they left the house.
Keely squinted at the street signs in the dark and made a left turn onto Jefferson Street, where Bobby McKenna, Dylan’s best friend, lived. Dylan and Bobby had soccer practice after school, so Bobby’s
mother had agreed to bring them back to her house until Keely was finished with her duties at Northern Junior High. She pulled the car up in front of the McKennas’ house, parked, and walked up to the door. Allison McKenna answered her knock, wiping her hands on a dish towel and stepping out to hold the storm door open with her hip. “Hey, Keely,” she said.
Keely could see Bobby at the desk in the living room, his head bent over a notebook, the gooseneck lamp making a halo on his dark, curly hair. He looked up and gave Keely a listless wave and then, seeing his mother’s raised eyebrows, went back to his work.
“Homework already?” Keely asked.
“He’s got a pile of it,” said Allison.
“He had a lot of it to do, too. He wanted to get started, so I left him off at your house after practice. Richard’s home. His car was in the driveway and all the lights were on.”
“Oh, all right,” said Keely, turning to step down to the flagstone walkway. “I love the way they’re so conscientious right now. Dylan’s trying hard to get good grades this year.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Allison. “It’s like pulling teeth to get this one to do his homework.”
Keely smiled wryly. “Well, I’m sure it won’t last.” Then she lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think Dylan’s got a little crush on his teacher.”
“Whatever works,” said Allison.
“I’d better get home,” said Keely. “Thanks for picking him up.”
“No problem,” said Allison, closing the door after her, as Keely’s low-heeled shoes crunched on some dry leaves on the way back to her car. The darkness seemed to close around her as she started the car and headed toward home.
So Dylan’s already home. No problem,
Keely reassured herself as she navigated the back-street shortcuts to her house.
Maybe Richard is feeling better. Maybe Dylan will even have his homework done by the time I get there,
she told herself. But she could not seem to banish an uneasy feeling that plagued her. More likely, Richard was still lying there in that dark office. On his bad days, he never left the house.
Fortunately, his job was freelance, so there was no one to complain if he didn’t show up at the office. And Dylan knew, from experience, not to make a noise or turn on the television when his father was “sick.”
She hated the idea of her son coming home to find his father that way again. Home was supposed to be a cheerful place, a place where you could relax and feel welcome. These days, when Richard had a headache, there was a feeling of tension in the house that was oppressive. Keely knew Richard didn’t mean for it to be that way. If he was able to get up, he would, and she knew he would make an effort, if she wasn’t there, to talk to Dylan, maybe pour him a glass of juice or something. But it was always obvious from his pale, sweaty complexion, and the contorted expression of his features, how much such an effort cost him.
It was hard for her to remember now what it was like before things got so bad. He’d always had headaches. Even when she met him in college, he would occasionally disappear for a day here and there, not even answering his phone. She remembered how relieved she had been to find out that it was headaches—not lack of interest—that prevented him from calling her on those days. When she thought back on it now, she realized how naive she had been. The headaches had become a presence in their lives that gave no quarter. Dylan accepted it, because he had never known life any other way. He understood that any plan they made was tentative—it depended on Daddy’s feeling well that day.
At Keely’s insistence, Richard had seen a number of doctors. None of the medications they’d prescribed had cured him. When one of the doctors at the university suggested that Richard try some psychotherapy, he had refused point-blank.
It’s a medical problem,
he had insisted,
and it requires a medical solution.
Keely thought anything would be worth trying if it might help. But Richard was more knowledgeable than she in all fields relating to science, and he regarded psychology with contempt, as a pseudoscience. Try as she might to convince him, Keely could not persuade her husband to seek psychological counseling.
think I’m crazy?
he would ask her.
Of course not,
she would say. And it was true. When he was free of the pain, he was the most
reasonable and caring man in the world. Even when he was suffering, he tried not to take it out on them, tried not to lose his temper though his nerves were flayed by his condition.
Every marriage has its problems,
she reminded herself. She never regretted marrying him, despite these problems. He was still the man she had fallen so in love with when she was nineteen. But she felt helpless, seeing him suffer this way. And it was scary to her, how much his suffering seemed to be increasing with the passage of time.
With a worried sigh, she saw their corner house just ahead. She turned the car into the driveway and switched off the ignition. A few of the lights were on inside, and on the doorstep was a seasonal arrangement she and Dylan had made of cornstalks, pumpkins, and Indian corn. But no one had turned on the porch light. No one came to the door at the sound of her car in the drive. She knew then, with a familiar, sinking feeling, that her husband was not better.
Keely walked up to the front door and opened it, expecting Dylan to pop up in the foyer and give her a silent hug of greeting. She knew better than to call out; any loud noise bothered Richard. But there was no sign of her son. Or her husband. Maybe Dylan hadn’t heard her drive in. She had gotten him a Walkman so he could at least listen to his favorite tapes when he was forced to be quiet. Maybe he was in his room, listening to his Walkman. She went into the kitchen and put her briefcase down on the chair. A teacup with milky fluid in it, and the tea bag squashed in the saucer, stood on the drainboard. Probably all that Richard had consumed today. There was no sign of Dylan’s having eaten a snack despite the fact that he was always ravenous after soccer. Keely frowned. The house was too quiet.
She went to the bottom of the stairs, hesitated, and then began to ascend. As she reached the landing, she heard something strange—a very faint whimpering sound. “Dylan?” she called out softly.
There was no reply.
she told herself.
He’s just listening to the Walkman. Maybe it’s Richard.
Immediately she called out, “Honey, it’s me. Richard?”
She was greeted only by silence. The churning in her stomach was unmistakable now. Her breath was coming in little gasps. And there was
an unfamiliar smell in the air, too. Unfamiliar—and unpleasant. Her stomach turned over again. She reached the top of the stairs and looked down the hall. There was a faint light spilling across the hall, coming from Richard’s office. The door was ajar.
“Richard,” she demanded. The sound of the whimpering was a little more distinct now as she walked woodenly down the hall toward the office. “Richard, are you all right? Answer me.” Her voice sounded irritable. But her heart was flooded with fear. Something was terribly wrong. She knew it now. A terrible possibility leaped to her mind, but she banished it, refusing to consider it. No. He wouldn’t do that. Not Richard. She walked closer to the door of the office, then she stopped.
At first glance, everything looked as it always did. The little desk lamp was on, and Richard’s computer hummed, as always. Bright planets hung in the blackness of the screen saver as a spaceship orbited slowly across the monitor. His desk was neat and organized, as it always was. But there was something on the rug. A pattern of tiny, dark spots. It was sprayed on the wall as well.
Please, God. Please, God. Please, God.
She didn’t know what it was she was asking for. But she knew she needed help. The whimpering was louder. It was broken by the sound of a sob.
She stepped across the threshold and entered the room so she could see the entire space. In the instant before her gaze took it in, she knew what she was going to find. But there was no going back. In front of the desk, Richard was sprawled on the carpet, one arm bent crazily beneath him, the other flung out to the side. Beneath Richard’s head, a burgundy stain formed a deadly wreath. Not far from his hand was a dark shape on the rug—it looked like a small, dark animal. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. Even before she bent down, she could see what it was—even though she had never seen one this close before. It was a gun. Keely stared at it. A gun. They didn’t have a gun.
How can there be a gun here?
But even as she wondered, she knew. Sometimes, in the worst of his sieges, he would speculate on where a person could buy a gun. A look of desperation would cloud his eyes. And then, when she begged him not to say that, he would insist he was joking.
Keely reached down and touched her husband’s hair. It was sticky.
When she jerked her hand away, there was blood on her fingers. Behind the closet door came the whimpering sound that had summoned her.
Numbly, as if hypnotized, she stood up, stepped over to the door, and pulled it open.
Inside the closet, Dylan crouched, his arms clutching his knees, his face pressed against his bony kneecaps. He looked up at her, and his eyes were filled with the horror that she felt blooming in the pit of her own stomach.
She crouched down beside him, and he buried his face in the soft green sweater she was wearing. His whole body was shaking. “Mom,” he wailed. She could feel tears in her own eyes, but they were not ready to fall just yet. Clutching Dylan tightly to her, she turned her gaze to her husband’s corpse lying prone on the floor. In a minute, she would get up and call someone. Someone who could help. But for now, all she could do was stare at the gun and the man on the floor. “It’s all right, baby. I’m here now. It’s all right,” she crooned in a whisper, from long habit. And then she reminded herself it wasn’t necessary to whisper anymore. There was only so much pain a person could tolerate. She always knew that. For Richard, there would be no more suffering.
For her, for Dylan, it would be a different story.