She knew that none of her fellow passengers on this flight to Phoenix would have any idea what kind of journey she was embarking upon. If they bothered to guess, they might get part of it right: a grandmother, traveling alone so probably widowed, on her way to visit grandchildren who lived across the country. This was all true. It was the part she admitted to her seatmate, a flushed and swollen woman in her middle thirties who ordered two Bloody Mary mixes with her tomato juice, when it wasn’t even noon yet in any of the time zones they would inhabit during the flight. The woman was on her way to see her sister in a desert rehab facility favored by celebrities. “She was always the wild one,” the woman told Helen, not seeming to notice the peanuts that fell out of her clenched fist and inside her shirt. “Just because I’m older doesn’t mean I could have done anything about it — it’s not my fault.”
“I’m going to see my son and his family,” Helen said. “They live near Camelback.” When Ethan and Sandra had moved there twelve years earlier, Helen and Bob kept up with them on a hike to the top of the mountain (Helen had thought she would be the one to slow down the excursion, but it was Bob who stumbled, twice on the rocky climb, and wouldn’t let Helen shout ahead to alert Ethan and Sandra) and then they all celebrated by going out for Mexican food. Helen and Ethan and Bob ordered margaritas, and after Sandra smiled at them while asking the waitress for a seltzer, she and Ethan broke the news that she was pregnant. Helen remembered the expression on her son’s face as he reached for his wife’s hand and let her say the actual words. He looked the same way he had on his first day of kindergarten, when all the kids stood outside the classroom door with their mothers, waiting for the teacher to call their names, at which point they crossed the threshold and went inside to begin school. At both moments, his face betrayed the belief that he might not be able to bear the weight of the emotions the occasion required of him.
But he had; he had borne them. And much more, Helen knew, even though she had not been present at her granddaughter’s birth, or at her grandson’s, or at the moment Ethan received Helen’s own phone call notifying him of his father’s death. She had not been present when the doctor summoned Ethan and Sandra into his office to explain what was happening in Ethan’s bloodstream, what they could do for him, and for how long. Though she would not dare confess it to anyone, Helen was ashamed to feel glad she had not been there for that appointment. She was quite sure she would have failed to manage it. She had no idea how she was going to manage the trip she was making now, which was not in fact a visit, but something else.
Reaching under the seat in front of her, she lifted from her purse the notebook she’d dug out from the box beneath her bed, when it became clear that today was imminent. She opened it to the first page, which was blank despite her previous efforts to come up what she should put there — what she should outline, and maybe even rehearse, in the hope of saying the right thing when the time came.
You say so many things to your children. How many words, over the years – a million? She had never been good at estimates or calculations. But whatever the count, she knew that most of what she’d said to Ethan had not been important. She understood that now. The page remained blank in front of her.
“She doesn’t know I’m coming,” the woman next to her mumbled as they began their descent. Helen had thought she was asleep. “If she tells me to fuck off, I will — I’ll get on the next plane back. I’m her sister, not her mother. Why do I need to put myself through that?”
Sandra and Robert picked her up at Sky Harbor. Helen almost didn’t recognize her daughter-in-law, though it had only been a month and a half since she’d seen her last. “I know it’s a cliché for people’s hair to go white when they’re scared,” Sandra said, trying to laugh as she hugged Helen in greeting. “But really it’s been this way for years. Or would have been. I haven’t made it to the hairdresser this summer – I just can’t see the point.”
As they pulled out of the parking lot she told Helen that Cadence was at the hospital with Ethan, reading to her father from the novel she was writing.
“Novel?” Helen said. Her granddaughter was eleven.
Sandra smiled, at least with her lips, in the driver’s seat next to Helen. Behind them, Robert leaned forward and said to his grandmother, “I’ve read it. It’s good, actually. It’s about a girl who can make anything she wants happen, just by wishing for the opposite thing.”
“That happens to me all the time,” Helen said, but neither of them seemed to realize she was trying to set up a joke. “For instance, I asked for a window seat on the plane today, but instead I got the aisle.” Though she knew it was what the kids would call lame, she felt giddy with the desire to make everyone feel better, so she continued. “I asked for nice grandchildren, but instead I got you and Cadence. I asked for – “ But her voice faltered without her realizing it was going to, and she faked a cough, as if that was what caused her to stop speaking.
In Ethan’s hospital room, Cadence and her father were both asleep – he in his bed, she in the vinyl puke-colored chair pulled up close to its side. (During Ethan’s first treatment the kids had gotten a lot of mileage out of Robert’s adjective for the chair’s color, but that felt like a long time ago.) The notebook Cadence was writing the novel in was not unlike the notebook Helen carried in her purse; it had fallen to the floor, and Helen picked it up to read the opening aloud. “’What a gorges day, she thought as the sun peaked through the window. I wonder whats going to happen next?” Her voice woke Cadence up, and she blinked a few times before getting up to hug her grandmother. She’d always slept hard, particularly as an infant. Once when Helen and Bob were babysitting during a Christmas visit, he’d gone in to get her up from her crib because he thought she was napping too long, and when he couldn’t rouse her, he panicked and called Helen in, sure that the baby was dead. Helen rushed in with alarm in her heart, but not because she thought Bob was right; she’d fallen asleep herself, which she’d promised herself not to do until Ethan and Sandra got home. Cadence woke up and started crying, and she was still crying when her parents returned. Helen and Bob never told them why because Bob was embarrassed that he hadn’t known better, so the story was Helen’s alone now. “I like your novel,” Helen told Cadence. “I only read the first two sentences. But Robert told me what it was about.”
Her granddaughter shrugged. It was a gesture intended to convey that she could take or leave the compliment, but Helen could tell she was pleased. “How’s your dad?” she asked, and Cadence seemed only then to remember where they all were, and why.
“He’s good. I mean, not good. You know what I mean. But at least he makes sense today.”
“It’s the drugs,” Sandra explained to Helen. “They make him go in and out, but when he’s in, he’s lucid.” She turned to her son and daughter. “When he wakes up, I’m taking you guys home for a while, and Grandma can stay with him.” She said it firmly as if she expected the children might object, but both of them appeared to brighten at the prospect of being able to leave the hospital room. It struck Helen that this was not how they should be spending their summer, while their friends splashed around in pools and ate ice cream.
“Maybe you could all go to a movie or something,” she suggested to Sandra. Robert’s eyes lit up, but then he saw his mother and sister looking at Helen with the condescending pity reserved for someone who was — as she knew the kids would say — totally clueless, and he arranged his own features to mirror theirs.
Alone with her son after the nurse had come in to check on things, Helen moved the chair a bit back from the bed, so she could see him better. “Not exactly my idea of a summer vacation,” she told him. “I don’t appreciate this one bit.”
“You’ll get over it.” Ethan’s voice held the laughter he would have let out if he’d been able, and Helen rushed to supply it for them both. It had been one of Bob’s favorite phrases, and it had always been a secret unfunny joke between Helen and Ethan, because Bob said it regardless of how likely it was that the person in question might actually “get over it.” He said it when Helen lost the second and third pregnancies to miscarriage. He said it when Ethan didn’t make the basketball team that supposedly took everybody who wanted to play. He said it when the stories about him in the local newspaper made his wife and son afraid to go out of the house and be recognized. For all Helen knew, he might even have said it now.
“What do you think?” she asked her son. She knew she did not have to elaborate; Ethan would understand what she meant.
Against the pillow he tried to shrug, but she could tell that a pain shot through him halfway into the motion, so he stopped. “Maybe a day or two,” he told her. “Maybe less. It’s weird, Mom. I can feel it.”
They had always been able to talk this way. It made things both better and worse in the present circumstance. “Don’t feel like you have to keep me company,” she said as Ethan struggled to keep his eyes open, and in the wake of her reassurance he slept again.
Six o’clock in the evening. Sandra had said she’d return with the kids by eight. Helen got up and looked out the window. The vegetation on the rise above the hospital was still unfamiliar to her, though during her visits to the Southwest over the years they had all tried to teach her the names of the various cactus types – wolf’s cholla, organ pipe, saguaro. The last one, she did recognize. It looked like a man standing with his arms raised to either side of his body, lifting them toward the sky in supplication. She looked at the tallest one for a long time until she heard her son’s voice behind her, asking a question it took her a moment to ascertain.
“Do you think there’s anything out there?” At first she thought he was referring to the landscape beyond the window. Then she realized that he meant heaven, or God. She had not expected this question from him, and she had not prepared an answer.
She urged herself to just tell him the truth, but when she opened her mouth she found – to her own surprise and chagrin — that she wasn’t sure what the truth would be. “Sometimes,” she said to Ethan, who even at this stage of his life managed the energy to look disappointed in her reply.
“But you don’t think I’m going to run into Dad or anything, right?”
“Well, if you do, you’ll get over it.” She knew as soon as she said it that it had been a mistake. The time for jokes was over. He’d seen this before she did.
“Mom,” Ethan said, and when his voice split on the word, as when he had been an adolescent, she held up the cup of water so he could sip from the straw. He swallowed in jerks, then had to take a moment to recover. Helen fought the impulse to look away as he summoned all of his energy to ask, “Do you think he did it, or not?” before falling back against the pillow.
She did her best not to choke on the shock. She’d thought that they were beyond this, too: that question. It had not occurred to her, flying out here, that in his condition and with the time he had left, Ethan might ask her whether she believed his father had committed the crime he’d gone to prison for.
She’d expected it back then, beginning the night before Bob reported to the Fishkill Correctional Institute, in Ethan’s last month of eighth grade. They sat their son down, and Bob did the talking, as they had agreed. He had no idea why the girl’s mother would say what she did, he told Ethan. He had no previous record of such behavior, and it didn’t make sense that in his position as a school administrator, with so much to lose through such an indiscretion, he would start now. These were pretty much the same words his lawyer had used in court.
People didn’t like that he used the word indiscretion. “Sexual touching of a child is not an ‘indiscretion,’” the editorial said. “The charges involve a six-year-old. It is an offense and a crime.
“He’d be more outraged if he were innocent,” the editorial continued. “Robert Metzger’s demeanor is one of a man who has been found out.”
Though Helen tried to ignore it, the last lines stuck in her mind like a mantra she had not invited, which she found herself unable to shake. She could not imagine exhibiting the calmness Bob displayed, let alone feeling it, in the face of being accused of something horrendous and shameful she hadn’t done. Too, he had refused to testify, which she did not understand even when he tried to explain it to her. (“I’m not refusing, I’m declining. There’s a difference. I’m declining to dignify this trial by participating in any way.”). Bob told her that since he knew the truth, as of course she and Ethan did, that was all that mattered. The stance all three of them took, both within and outside the family, was that they had been wronged. Though Helen wanted desperately to move to another town – if not to another state – because of the way everyone treated her and Ethan during that time (they both grew used to feeling either invisible or like criminals themselves; though she would not have guessed it beforehand, invisible was worse), Bob said he understood but he begged her not to leave, reminding her during one of their early visits together that it would only make people more certain that his conviction had been just.
During the two years Bob was in jail, she waited for Ethan to ask whether she believed his father was guilty. Dreading the question, she thought she might be able to answer if she wrote down all the possible permutations of a response in the notebook she’d bought when it caught her eye in Walgreens the day she stopped to pick up the medicine she took briefly, after Bob went to prison, in an effort to feel happier – until she realized that there was good reason not to feel happy, her mind and her body were reacting in exactly the right ways to her circumstance, and she stopped taking the pills. But she’d kept the notebook. She thought that if she wrote enough, someday, it might appear on the page by accident – the answer – in the same way she’d heard once that if a bunch of monkeys were placed in a room filled with typewriters, eventually one of them would reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare.
But she never wrote anything, and Ethan never asked her, even on their drives to and from the correctional facility, which looked like a cross between a monastery and one of those old resorts in the Catskills – sprawling, on a hill, with turrets. Ethan had planned to accompany Helen on her first visit after Bob’s conviction, but as they approached the prison he changed his mind. “I’m sure it’s not all that bad inside,” Helen had told him, but her son shook his head and said it wasn’t that – it wasn’t how it looked that skeeved him out – but he’d done some research on the place and learned that it had begun as a hospital for the criminally insane. For the furiously mad. “Did you know that, Mom?” he asked.
She had not. For a few moments, hearing it, she’d been tempted to turn around and drive them both back home. Bob was expecting them, though; and not only that, she knew she couldn’t put it off forever. Ethan said he’d wait in the car, but then across the highway they noticed a pop-up carnival boasting of a Whip and a Gravitron, and she dropped him off there instead.
If Bob was surprised or hurt or both that his son had not come to see him, he didn’t show it, and Helen remembered only then something he’d told her once about cats: as their species evolved, they learned that it was to their benefit not to signal any distress. She and her husband spoke about things (anything either of them could think of ) besides Julie Coyle. He told her the older inmates said the prison was haunted by ghosts, the tormented souls of those who’d died in the building when it was an asylum. She searched his face for signs of amusement, but saw none. “You don’t believe that though, right?” she asked – there could have been no bigger skeptic than her husband about the mystic or supernatural. He shrugged and smiled and said “Of course not,” but not before she’d seen something cross his face she didn’t recognize, something that caused her to question further whether she knew him as well as she’d thought she did.
When she picked Ethan up afterward, he told her he’d thrown up twice. Helen did not confide in him that she’d vomited, too, in the skeevy ladies’ lavatory before she forced herself to calm down, for Bob’s sake more than her own. The sight of him smiling at her as she entered the visiting room had caused her stomach to flip again, but she was pretty sure she managed to hide it. I can be like a cat, too, she thought.
When the carnival shut down at the end of the first October, Ethan agreed to go inside the prison with Helen. But he never asked his father if he was guilty. Nor did he ask him in all the years after Bob came home to live with them again and Ethan went off to college, graduated, married, and moved away. Helen knew this because Bob told her in a tone of pride, the source of which was his assumption that his son did not have to ask, because he knew his father could not possibly have done what he’d been accused of.
When Bob returned to them, he began seeing a therapist as ordered by the court. He never told Helen what they talked about in his sessions, which he attended every week until he died the year before their grandson was born. As a new widow, Helen made several appointments with the same man, hoping she’d be able to learn something from him – the most crucial thing – about her husband. During her last session, she confessed that she thought it was possible her husband had fondled Julie Coyle.
And if she thought it was possible, she asked the therapist, what did this say about her marriage? What did it say about her? Though the therapist made it clear that he could not in good conscience betray a dead man’s confidence, when he responded to her questions by shifting and clearing his throat, she interpreted it as confirmation of her suspicions. She never went back.
In Ethan’s hospital room, she let her eyes flick again toward the window and sent a quick prayer to the saguaro, because she didn’t know what her answer should be. She had never lied to him (unless you counted Santa Claus, which she did not), and she would have liked to have shared it with him – this burden. He was the only one in the world who would understand.
But what did it mean that she would even consider sending her son out of the life she’d born him to, with such a thorn lodged in his heart? How could that be the right thing to do? It was possible, she thought, that even the way Ethan had equivocated in the question was his way of letting her know what he needed.
She turned back to him from the window, hoping he’d fallen asleep. But he was staring at her with an intensity she hadn’t seen since before he got sick, waiting for her answer. Then she couldn’t resist, or, as she would think so often later, she didn’t resist; the anticipation of the relief she knew she’d feel, being able to say it – finally, to the one other person who had lived it with her – overwhelmed her. She told herself that saying what she was sure they must both believe would relieve him, too. “I think he might have, honey,” she said to her son, and only in the next moment, seeing his face, did she understand what a miscalculation she had made.
When he fell under the drugs again, she tried to get comfortable in the puke-colored chair. A nurse came in to adjust something in Ethan’s IV, which she promised she could do without waking him up. Helen took her purse and went down the hall to the cafeteria, which was practically empty at this time of night. There were two young women, whom Helen took from their white coats and dazed expressions to be doctors at the end of their shift, sitting across from each other at a table by the window and pulling French fries from a plate on the tray between them. They didn’t speak or look out the window, through which Helen made out the same saguaro she’d seen from Ethan’s room.
Helen approached the counter, where another woman in a different white uniform told her that the grill was closed, but that she could take any of the wrapped plates she wanted from the crisper. She hadn’t eaten anything since the peanuts on the plane, and although she suspected that she wasn’t supposed to be hungry — because of grief — she was. Down the railing she slid her tray carrying a tuna sandwich with chips, and when she reached the register, she asked the woman for a soda.
“It’s free,” the woman told her, and when Helen didn’t understand at first, she repeated, “It’s free. The food. They don’t charge for it after seven-thirty.”
She mumbled a thank-you and carried the tray to a table, where she pulled out a chair and sat down intending to eat. Almost as soon as she unwrapped the sandwich, she realized that not having had to pay for it made her not want it anymore.
When she returned to the room, Sandra had come back with the children, and Helen tried not to notice that her daughter-in-law disapproved of her having left Ethan alone. His breathing had progressed to the agonal stage, and hearing the nurse say the word agonal made Helen flinch to such a degree that Sandra put her arms out, as if afraid Helen might collapse. He died two hours later. One of the two dazed-looking women doctors she had seen eating French fries came in to declare the death. Helen saw a smear of ketchup on the doctor’s coat sleeve, and this, after everything, was what made her stumble, cry out, and reach for the chair. When they finally had to leave, Cadence kicked her notebook under the bed and said she was never writing a stupid fucking novel again. Helen got down on her hands and knees to retrieve it, but she knew better than to offer the book to her granddaughter. “I’ll keep it in case you ever want it back,” she said, and it was only then that Cadence began to wail.
It didn’t matter now – what she had said to Ethan. Did it matter? Of course it mattered, but Helen had not been able to figure out yet, exactly, how. She had been back, in her life in the East, for a month after her son died when she awoke one morning from a dream featuring a landscape she had inhabited as a child. Her grandparents had owned a cottage situated on a bluff overlooking a small lake in the Helderberg Mountains of upstate New York, and on weekends in the summer Helen and her mother made the forty-five minute drive north to where the air always held at least a slight chill, even on the hottest days. This was because the lake was surrounded by old, high trees that blocked and blunted the sun, except as it beat down directly on the water itself. Though she knew how to swim, she was squeamish about doing so in the lake, because of the squishy bottom. Her grandfather would stand in a spot just beyond the dock and try to coax her out. “There’s a stone in here somewhere with your name on it,” he’d tell her. “How are you going to find it if you won’t even come in?” In her younger years, she believed he meant a stone that literally contained the letters spelling Helen, even though her grandmother always chided him by saying “Henry, that isn’t nice.”
What she loved best was to spend her Saturday afternoons floating on the patched blue raft her grandfather dragged up for her each week from the cottage’s basement, over the cement steps and out the flimsy bulkhead doors she’d learned to stay away from, and fear, when she climbed on top one day trying to get a better look at a hummingbird, and fell through the doors when they gave way under her weight.
During that fall, in less than a second’s worth of time, she experienced her first mature complexity of emotions: terror at the idea that she was about to die – that all of this was going to be over far more abruptly than she had ever imagined; exhilaration because, at the age of seven, something dramatic and remarkable (the most dramatic and remarkable thing, after all) was finally happening to her; and, worst of all, disappointment at recognizing that if she did die, as she expected to, she would miss witnessing the reactions of other people to her death. When she landed half on her back, half on her butt on the cellar’s soft dirt floor, it took her more than a few moments to understand that she was still alive. She knew she would always remember that moment, though she never articulated these nuances of understanding to herself or anyone else; of course, surviving turned out to be not nearly as momentous or rewarding as, during the fall, she’d thought it would be.
By nature, she was a cautious child. She was always checking – her mother’s face, the clock on the wall, her own mouth in the mirror — for signs that things were not as they should be: anxiety, tardiness, crumbs. The first few times she lay on the raft and kicked herself gently away from the dock, smelling comfort in the blue rubber and hearing the sharp call of loons from the trees, she dared to close her eyes and to feel the not-unpleasant sense of suspension this temporary blindness allowed her; but she always opened her eyes again within a few seconds, afraid that she had floated too far away, off-course, while choosing irresponsibly to let her awareness stray.
One day when she was thirteen, lying there with her eyes closed, it occurred to her to wonder what the worst thing that could happen would be, if she decided not to open them – not to check. The lake was small, she reasoned. Though she was worried by the buoys scattered across the surface, her grandfather had assured her that the hazards they signaled, such as tree stumps, were only for the occasional speedboat. She had never found, upon opening her eyes, that she was anywhere other than where she expected to be. She knew how to swim, there was no current, and either her mother or one of her grandparents – and often all three – were sitting on the dock when she set out, watching over her; if she were ever to approach any danger, they would call a warning, if it came to that, save her. She began testing it, leaving her eyes closed for longer and longer intervals, discovering for the first time that it is possible to feel awake and asleep at the same time, and how delicious a feeling this is. Once she actually did fall asleep, awakening when her foot grazed the exact spot she would have aimed for if she’d been trying – the post of the dock where her family sat with their sweating glasses of ice tea, welcoming her back to them and asking if she’d had fun. She still remembered, all these years later, the surprise and relief she’d felt upon realizing that everything was still all right, despite the fact that she’d let her vigilance go.
Other than those afternoons on the raft before her grandparents died and her mother had to sell the cottage, the only time she had felt so safe – so assured that she and everything else would be all right, and so free of the need to monitor what was going on around her – was the first stretch of her marriage to Bob, up until he was accused and convicted and sent away. And not since then.
In her dream after Ethan’s death, lying on the blue raft as the child she had been, she woke up to find herself floating through a narrow rill that had not existed in the reality of her grandparents’ lake. The stream carried her to the ocean, where everything was the opposite of the scene she had just left; the sky was dark with rainclouds, the waves violent and high. They tossed her off the raft within seconds and she plunged straight down through the gray water, to the cafeteria at the bottom of the sea. Able to breathe again, and to shake the seaweed out of her eyes, she chose her items and slid her tray down the rail to the cash register. “You don’t have enough money,” the cashier told her, when Helen handed over the rung-up amount.
“It’s right here,” Helen told her, pointing to the bills and change she had placed in the cashier’s hand. “All of it. See?”
“It’s not enough,” the cashier said, shaking her head as if to let Helen know that she was accustomed to people trying to pull the wool over her eyes. She took Helen’s tray and her money and dumped it all in the trash. Helen tried to protest that it wasn’t fair, but before she could get the words out, she awoke to the room she had gone to sleep in, and the bed she had shared with Bob.
She expected the dream’s ghost to haunt her all morning – it had been that vivid – so she was surprised when, by the time she opened the newspaper with her grapefruit, it had dissolved to vapor while she wasn’t looking. Still, she wished it were a weekday, rather than Saturday, so she could go to work and lose herself in that tasks that had piled up on her desk while she’d been gone. They had offered her some time off – bereavement leave, the HR person had called it – but Helen knew that was the last thing she needed. Too late, she realized that the time to have taken the leave was before Ethan died, so she could have spent those months out there with him and Sandra and the children. But she could only know this in retrospect, because at the time, she had refused to believe it would end the way it did; she’d insisted to herself that he would get better. He had to. She couldn’t conceive of the other thing.
She was supposed to be using this time to sell her house and make arrangements to move out to Phoenix, to be near Sandra and the kids. It was what they had talked about in the wake of Ethan’s death; a few days after the funeral, Sandra had even driven her around some “senior-centered” condo complexes, to show Helen what was available. Through her numbness, Helen recognized and appreciated the fact that her daughter-in-law and grandchildren really did seem to want her around, and weren’t just suggesting the move for her sake. When she was out there, it made sense. But since she’d been back, the idea of leaving felt wrong. She hadn’t contacted a realtor or given notice at her job. Even though she had come to hate Northeastern winters, this was the place she knew.
And she had friends — people who had come around, after Bob was released, to the notion that maybe someone who refused to take a plea deal was innocent, after all. If he’d been guilty, why not say so, serve a shorter sentence, and be home with his family all the sooner? Move away to a place where no one would know them, and start again?
Besides, it was all old news by now. The statute of limitations on the scandal seemed to have run out. Some people, new to the town, had never known about it. Others agreed, without exactly saying so, to forget.
The school district couldn’t or wouldn’t hire Bob back after he came home, but he’d gotten a job at an educational consulting company, where he worked without any problems for almost twenty years – literally until the day he died, of a heart attack at an Outcomes Assessment conference in Indianapolis, the year before their grandson was born. (“What on earth is ‘Outcomes Assessment?’” Helen remembered asking, the morning he left, and when he explained that it had to do with measuring how well a school fulfilled its Student Learning Objectives, she groaned and said, “I can’t imagine anything more boring.”)
Helen’s friends, some the mothers of kids who had gone to school with Ethan, were women she played bridge with or saw in her exercise class and at the Literary League she attended at the library, where a retired English professor, Enid Burkhard, led monthly discussions on classic works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So far since Helen had begun attending, more than a year earlier when Ethan first got diagnosed, her favorite books had been Jude the Obscure, The Death of Ivan Ilych, and Madame Bovary. Helen’s friend Liane, who prided herself on being up on the latest lingo, called Enid “Debbie Downer.” But Helen liked reading about despair, regret, illness, and other obstacles the characters faced, which they found difficult or impossible to overcome. The stories other people called “depressing” made Helen feel both more alive and less alone.
She almost skipped the lecture scheduled for that afternoon, thinking she might follow her impulse to drive up to the lake cottage in the Helderbergs instead. It was the first week in March and the air felt freakishly warm, nearly sixty-five degrees before nine in the morning. Like everyone else, Helen knew it was only a fleeting reprieve.
Her mother had inherited the cabin from her parents when they died, but had to sell it shortly afterward to send Helen to college. Helen had begged her not to do it, but her mother refused to let her take out a loan. A few times after she’d married Bob and they had Ethan, she’d driven up to circle the lake, but she always stopped short of turning down the short, private dirt road to the cabin. She never brought her husband and son, or even told them about it; for some reason, she wanted to keep the lake, and what it had meant to her, to herself. The last time she’d driven up was before Bob’s arrest, which made it almost thirty years. When she realized that, she decided not to risk seeing what the place might look like now – who knew whether the cabin was even still standing or not? – and went to the library instead.
It turned out she had read the wrong book for that day’s session, but it didn’t matter. It was fine with her to just sit and listen to other people talk. The novel was Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir. Probably because it was such a beautiful day, there were fewer people present than usual. Helen counted eleven, including herself. Most of them she’d seen here before, but after the lecture itself, when Enid asked what people what their “takeaway” had been from reading the novel, a newcomer at the other end of the room raised her hand and said, “I thought it was incredibly depressing. She has two goals in life: not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. In the end, she doesn’t get either of those things. What’s the point of reading a book like that?” Though the woman’s words might have suggested she felt duped or angry, her tone sounded more as if she really wanted Enid to explain why she had assigned them all such a miserable experience.
Next to her, Helen felt Liane jerk a little in her seat and reach out to put a hand on Helen’s knee. Puzzled, she was about to whisper “What?” when she realized that the woman who’d asked the question was the mother of Julie Coyle. Liane’s sudden movement had drawn Rae Coyle’s attention to the row of seats behind her, and Helen felt herself be recognized even as she was still feeling the shock of recognizing Rae.
It was not the first time they’d seen each other since that day in court all those years ago. But those other times were all from a distance – at the town’s Fourth of July parade, in line at the post office, across Harrah’s Bistro on a Saturday night. In each case, they both pretended not to notice the other. It was too late for that now.
Other people had taken note of look exchanged between them, but Enid Burkhard was absorbed instead by the literary question at hand, and she was so commanding a figure to members of the group that when she went to answer it, the attention in the room swung back to her. “Zola said once” – she glanced down at her notes – “’All I care about is life, struggle, intensity.’ Well?” She spread out her hands and shrugged. “Isn’t that what we get in this book?” She was inviting everyone else to respond to what Rae had said.
With a measure of animation Helen could tell was aimed at impressing Enid, Liane raised her hand and said, “It was so real it was almost too much. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to stand it when the undertaker carries her out at the end and he says to her” – she flipped to the last page in her book, so she could quote the exact words — ‘There, there, you’re all right now. Night-night, my lovely!’”
Helen rose on legs she barely felt and let them propel her stiffly through the doors of the library’s conference room and into the lobby, where she lowered herself onto a cushioned bench. If she’d stood up again and taken a few steps down the corridor, she would have seen the chart on the wall marking the progress of all the children enrolled in the Reading Rodeo, which she herself had been involved in organizing when Ethan was in first grade. For every book a kid read during the school year that wasn’t assigned for a class, a cardboard horse designated with his or her name was advanced a certain distance around the track, and there was a prize for reaching the finish line – usually, a gift certificate donated by The Paperback Rack, which sold “gently read” and “formerly enjoyed” books. The Rodeo was always careful to emphasize that it wasn’t a race or any other kind of competition, but the kids didn’t see it that way. Ethan won more times than not, which embarrassed Helen. It also embarrassed her that he wanted to participate in the Rodeo as long as he did, through junior high, long past the age when his classmates had dropped out. Helen knew she couldn’t say anything because what was she supposed to do, discourage her son from wanting to read? She was relieved when he said, the summer before entering high school, that maybe it was time to hang the Rodeo up.
As far as Helen knew, his favorite book had always been Of Mice and Men. He even wrote about it for his college application essay: “People don’t stop to think about how destructive it can be to mistake the intentions of someone who is actually innocent.” He went on to write about his father’s experience – how he had been imprisoned for something he didn’t do (although Ethan avoided specifying what the conviction was for) – and how he’d learned from this that it was crucial to dig as deeply as possible, in any given situation, to ensure “a judgment based on fact instead of fancy.” Helen had tried to get him to change that last phrase, because to her it sounded like a cliché. (She also wasn’t crazy about him writing about the whole thing in the first place, though Bob didn’t seem to mind, which impressed her.)
After Ethan sent off those applications, the subject of his father’s imprisonment had never come up in conversation among any of them until Ethan lay dying in the hospital bed.
“Night-night, my lovely!” A sock to the gut, recalling. The nurse had let them all sit in the room with him for a half hour, before coming in to close the curtain around the bed, her tacit signal that it was time for them to go. Helen had not expected to survive leaving her son behind in the room, knowing she would never see him again. In the library lobby, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall. Not even a full minute passed before the door from the conference room opened and Rae Coyle joined her in the hall.
“Are you okay?” Rae said.
“I’m fine,” Helen told her, laughing almost out loud at the wrongness of the word for what she was. The question, coming from this woman of all people, had surprised her. At the last moment she turned it into a choked swallow, giving herself a dramatic thump-slap on the chest.
Rae hesitated, appearing unsure about how to interpret this gesture on Helen’s part. “I heard about your son. I’m sorry,” she said, adding “Ethan” in a surreptitious tone as if testing whether Helen would challenge her right to say it.
But Helen only thanked her, automatically and without gratitude. She was trying to figure out what she might be being set up for, with Rae Coyle being so nice.
“I saw he had children.” Now Rae did venture to perch herself on the edge of the bench, and Helen felt her heart quicken. “My daughter just had her first, a boy. I went down to visit them in Atlanta last month, to meet him and help her out.”
“How many daughters do you have?” Helen asked, not turning to look at Rae as she spoke, directing her words instead to the air in front of her.
“Just the one.” Though Rae had dared to speak Ethan’s name, she seemed to understand that the conversation would not withstand her uttering Julie’s. “She hasn’t had an easy time of it – two divorces behind her, and she’s not even married to the father yet. But I’m hoping the baby will calm her down.” She bit at her finger, exclaiming as she drew a bead of blood.
Seeing this, Helen wanted to ask her “What’s wrong with you?” and when she heard these words in her head, she remembered Bob saying “What’s wrong with people?” whenever they saw stories on the news about a husband throwing acid in his wife’s face or someone robbing an elderly woman pushing a stroller or a Goodwill worker being stuck by dirty syringes concealed in a box of donated clothes. Now that she thought about it, she didn’t remember him saying it after he spent time in prison. It was as if he’d stopped wondering, or had finally gotten an answer that satisfied him.
Rae Coyle pursed her lips around the wound she had given herself. Sucking, she told Helen, “Listen. My daughter says it was all in her imagination.”
“What?” Helen assumed she had not quite made out the words correctly, since the other woman had spoken them around the finger inside her mouth.
“When I was down there. A few weeks ago. I was showing her how to burp the baby, and out of nowhere she says, You know what, Mom, it never happened.” Now it was Rae’s turn to laugh without a trace of enjoyment in it. “I had no idea what she was talking about. It’s not something we ever mentioned. In fact, I was pretty sure she had forgotten the whole thing.”
As Rae spoke, Helen tried desperately to find a way to stop her, without realizing that she was doing so. But the other woman did not receive the message.
“She said Mr. Metzger – your husband – was just helping her at the water fountain. He lifted her up so she could reach it – that’s all. They’d had someone come in to teach the class about ‘bad touching,’ and she got confused.”
A squeeze to the lungs, recalling. Doing dishes at the sink, looking out through the window at the trees nodding through the black night. Bob still sitting at the table with his Sanka. He always offered to help her clean up and she always refused. She knew he knew she would refuse but she didn’t mind, because it was easier and faster to do it herself; she did the dishes and he sat with his coffee as they reconstructed their days for each other. That night, Bob told her that the School Board had recommended hiring a group called CAPE – Child Abuse Prevention Education – to come in and talk to all the grades about sexual abuse. Why all? Bob asked, at a meeting of the principals, and he was told, Because it cost the same whether they visit sixty classes or one. Bob thought maybe it was okay for the fourth- and fifth-graders. Maybe even third. But kindergarten? First grade? “Aren’t they too young?” he asked Helen. “They’re still so impressionable at that age. Wouldn’t it just go putting ideas in their heads?”
She’d thought about it as she rinsed a pot out, then told him No, she didn’t think so. It was probably not a bad idea. Just in case one or more of the kids had an uncle or a neighbor who was up to no good; at least they’d know it wasn’t their fault, and to tell somebody.
So the joke was on her! Persuaded by his wife’s words, Bob had invited the CAPE people in, and now she was being told more than thirty years later that he’d been right all along – it had put an idea in Julie Coyle’s head.
“That can’t be true,” she said to Rae Coyle, wondering whether she’d actually spoken the words aloud or only planned them.
“What do you mean, it can’t be true? I thought you’d be happy.” Rae seemed to have forgotten about her bloody finger. She’d tucked the tops of her hands under her jeans and was sitting forward on the bench, looking down at her own scuffed loafers. “I should apologize. I am apologizing. Wait a minute,” she said, the energy in her voice swelling as a new thought appeared to dawn on her. “Are you saying you thought he did it? Oh, God. That never occurred to me. I mean, you stayed with him. You took him back. I always assumed you never believed it.” The expression on her face had evolved from contrition to something bordering on salacious intrigue.
Helen drew in caution on her next breath. Whatever she did, she could not betray herself, or Bob – their marriage, their family (though of course, she would realize moments later, she’d already done so) — and let Rae Coyle know that she was right. Instead of answering she said, “So is this just some kind of coincidence? You happen to run into me at the library and decide to – what – confess?” She made her voice sound accusatory, as if accusing the other woman, at this point, made sense.
Rae shook her head, not seeming to take the offense Helen had hoped she would. “No. My friend Cheryl, the one I came with, told me she’d seen you here. I was interested in the book club, anyway. I was kind of killing two birds with one stone.” She appeared to regret the word killing the moment it was out.
Helen said, “You could have written me a letter.”
“I thought about it. But then I thought this would be better.” Rae’s shoulders shrank. “Who writes letters anymore?” She seemed to hear the combativeness in her voice, and dialed it back to concession. “I guess I was wrong.”
The Literary League was letting out of the conference room, Liane leading the way. She was trying without success to contain the excited curiosity in her face about what she might find in the lobby, with Helen and Rae Coyle having both left the room. Helen saw her friend coming toward her and stood up. They had made a date to go out for coffee, but in a voice she tried to keep from shaking as she left Rae Coyle alone on the bench, she told Liane she didn’t feel up to it.
That night it occurred to her that she hadn’t thought to ask whether Julie Coyle might be willing to recant, officially, what she’d said all those years ago. She went so far as to look up Rae’s phone number in the town directory, and to think about how she might bring up the question, but stopped short of dialing the number. Instead she called her daughter-in-law, and asked Sandra to make her an appointment with the realtor in Scottsdale they’d met the day after Ethan’s funeral. What changed her mind? Sandra asked, and Helen shook her head before remembering that Sandra couldn’t see her. “It’s just time,” she said.
Days, months, even years later – after she’d moved out to Arizona, taking a few things with her from the house but leaving or selling most of it behind her – she had allowed herself, mostly, to forget it all. Mostly. Fallen away were the woman fumbling peanuts down her shirt on the plane, the two doctors pulling French fries distractedly from the same paper plate, her daughter-in-law’s white hair (although it had been restored, since, to the smoky brunette color Helen had always associated with Sandra, which was a relief), even the beseeching saguaro outside the hospital room. The only thing she couldn’t lose, no matter how hard she tried, was the expression on her son’s face when she told him she thought it was possible his father had done the inexplicable, inexcusable thing he’d been accused of.
It was not the same expression she would have seen if she had pointed a cocked gun at him or approached his face with a pillow. It was not panic or fear or dread. It was shock, pure and simple, and it was worse than any of those others would have been. Which was why, she knew, it would not leave her.
Eight years passed, and she was sitting in the fifth row of bleachers at Cadence’s high school commencement when she glanced up toward the observation window separating the lobby from the gym, where the overflow audience had to stand, and saw Bob straining for a view of his granddaughter graduating.
It couldn’t be, of course. She knew that. She looked away, to the row of seniors in their caps and gowns moving across the stage to collect their diplomas. The principal was still reading off the Ls; Cadence would be in the next batch. Helen looked up to the window again expecting the figure of her imagination to have vanished, but there he was, trying without much success to press closer to the front row next to the glass. Her husband. The woman next to him said something to him about his nudging – Helen saw her lips move, an unhappy mouth — and he lifted his hand to her like a white flag of surrender before backing away, out of Helen’s sight.
That was how she knew it was her husband – the raised hand saying Okay, You’re right, I give in. He had made the same gesture throughout their marriage, even before. He’d made it the night she told him she thought having the CAPE people in to talk to the children about “bad touching” was a good idea. He’d even made it, she remembered, the morning of the day he died, when she said she couldn’t imagine anything more boring than Outcomes Assessment.
She stood and began moving to the end of the bleacher aisle. “Sorry, guys,” she whispered to her daughter-in-law and Robert, both of whom looked at her as if she were out of her mind. They had all arrived at the school three hours early to claim these seats. Sandra asked if she was okay, but Helen didn’t answer. How could she, with what she might be moving toward?
Of course, by the time she reached the lobby, he was gone. She pushed through the overflow throng until she was next to the woman who’d been elbowing Bob aside. “Did you see a man trying to get in here to see better? Kind of short, kind of bald?”
“Not that I noticed,” the woman said without looking at her. Someone tapped Helen on the shoulder and said, Do you mind?
She stepped away until she had enough room around her to take a breath.
She spotted him in the parking lot, walking toward a beat-up Rambler. It was entirely too easy to overtake him, grab his arm, and say his name. Of course, it was not him – not her dead husband (what was she thinking?). The man she’d followed (chased?) turned his head at her touch and inclined it, showing an expression she could not read (defiance? Alarm? Pity?) as the echo of Bob’s name rang in the air between them.
Confused, she saw that in fact he did not actually resemble her husband in some important ways; this man had long hair, long enough to stick down behind his shirt collar, and he wore the shirt untucked. These were two aspects of appearance Bob would never have allowed. He fitted a key into the door-luck of the Rambler. He was clumsy, palsied or hurried or both, and it took him three tries. “Not me, not me,” the man muttered, shooing her; he might as well have been saying Get away, get away. He sped off without looking but there were no other cars leaving the lot, with the ceremony still going on inside the school. She watched the Rambler recede ahead of her in the distance, toward Camelback. Standing there between a Volvo and a Camry, she clenched and unclenched her fists at her sides in a state of paralysis both physical and psychic, until behind her she heard a firecracker explode.
That’s what it sounded like, though it did not take long, after everyone had been evacuated and it was determined that the only injuries were superficial, for the first responders to ascertain that the sound was that of a bomb going off, but not in the way it might have. Before the cheers and congratulations and cap-tossing in the gym could commence, the powder in the backpack left behind by the man in the Rambler popped and fizzled beneath where he’d sat in the bleachers. Was there a timing device he activated after fleeing the building, perhaps moments before he heard Helen calling him by a name that was not his own? Or had he set it off after he waved her away – as he tore into the street thinking that he might witness the carnage he had caused, from his rear-view mirror? Did it make him even happier than he might have felt otherwise, to look her in the face and anticipate what she and the rest of them were about to suffer?
But the suffering turned out to be minimal, because Helen had interrupted and no doubt flustered him. She was the one responsible for his being caught, when she responded to the police’s plea, in a press conference, for anyone with information to come forward. She could not tell them that she chased a man she’d thought was her dead husband, so she said only that she had gone out for some air and seen the man speed away just before the building blew up. When they asked for a description, she described Bob, and they put out a sketch that looked so much like him that she had to turn away when it was flashed repeatedly on the TV. The man was arrested that same night, in the drive-thru line at Filiberto’s.
The news reports referred to Helen as a person in the right place at the right time, because the exchange she’d had with the bomber had apparently delayed his ability to detonate just long enough to avoid the blast he had intended. “’Hero’ is more like it,” Robert declared, and it was so like something Ethan would have said that Helen had to put on a sweater against a sudden breathtaking chill. She was not a hero, but the opposite, she understood – a coward who’d pursued a phantom she hoped would absolve her of what she’d done to her husband and what she’d done to her son. Was she crazy? She wished she were crazy, so she could blame it on that.
The accused man did not deny it, but he did resist the accusations of terrorism. It was not terrorism, he explained. He’d planned the explosion because his ex-wife had not invited him to their daughter’s commencement. Helen could tell, from the earnestness of the statement he made before the court, that this made sense to him. His ex-wife and daughter could have died if the bomb had done what it was supposed to do, but he had known this would happen, and it was only fair because of what they’d done to him. What about the innocent people who could have died along with them? The man had shrugged. “No such thing as innocent. Everybody’s got something they should be punished for.”
Four years later, it was her turn. She knew it without needing to hear it directly from the doctors, and she did not tell Sandra and the children, who were not children anymore. At the end of October, for what she understood was the final time, she flew back East, and hired a nurse’s aide named Phyllis to drive her up to the lake. It had been so long, and she was taking such strong medication, that she wondered briefly if she would remember which way to go. But when it came time to direct Phyllis, she felt no hesitation, only a growing sense of calm she could not recall since before Ethan had been diagnosed. Actually – she realized, as Phyllis eased her car over the bumps making up Lakeview Road – she could not remember feeling this way since long before that, before the trouble had happened with Bob and Julie Coyle. She gulped it in (this sensation she was tempted to call joy, even in the face of what would come soon), along with the scent of pine and the breeze on the sun-chilled water as they pulled off the road at the top of the private dirt drive. She asked Phyllis to wait for her, then got out and headed toward the cabin and the lake, which spread out on three sides in a winking silver sheen.
She’d worried that the cabin might have been left to deteriorate, after all this time. But instead a whole wing had been added, along with a wraparound deck. The exterior had been re-painted, not long ago by the looks of it. It occurred to Helen that her grandparents would not have recognized this place as the one they’d bought so many years ago. She pictured them sitting on the deck together, side by side as always, as they worked duplicate copies of the same crossword puzzle – not competing against each other, but enjoying the shared challenge.
It was obvious that the place had already been shuttered for fall and winter. She walked by the bulkhead, anticipating the anxiety she had always felt near it, even after her grandfather put sturdy aluminum doors in place of the rotted wood ones she’d fallen through. But this time she felt no fear. Approaching the water’s edge, she saw that the dock had been rebuilt, widened and lengthened to extend another ten feet into the lake. As a child – especially after she’d fallen into the basement – she’d been afraid every time she and her mother and her grandparents were on the dock at the same time; the wood always shook a little beneath her feet when she took the first steps onto it, though her grandfather said this was just her imagination.
But these planks were solid, and she walked out to the end. Despite the chill in the air she sat down, took her shoes and socks off, and dunked her feet. The water’s coldness shocked and gratified her, and she wondered how many generations of minnows had spawned between the ones she watched shoot away from her when she was a child disrupting their habitat with her kicks, and the ones that dispersed now from her intruding feet. “Too yucky,” she’d always called to her grandfather when he tried to entice her into actually standing on the bottom.
“And he always asked, ‘How can you know that unless you try?”
She spun around so fast she knocked her foot on the dock post, but didn’t have time to notice the pain through her alarm. Bob. He was standing at the head of the dock, smiling across at her. She leapt up and exclaimed, realizing how stupid she’d been to leave Phyllis behind – to come down here where no one could help her if she ran into trouble.
It wasn’t really him, of course. She knew that, after the first moment, even though she saw him standing right there in front of her, dressed in work slacks and a button-down shirt, and the tie she’d given him on the birthday before he died – red diamonds scattered on a bright blue background. It had been a dare of sorts, and he never wore it when he was alive. He’d never been a man comfortable in bold colors. But the tie looked good on him, as she had known it would.
“It’s you who believes in ghosts, right?” he asked. “Not me.”
“You’re not real,” she whispered, more to herself than to him.
The apparition laughed. “You know what I am.” It was his natural way as a teacher not to answer a question directly. He’d told Helen once that most of the time, people already possessed the answers they wanted; they just needed to be led to what they already knew. He stretched his arms toward the sky, a gesture she’d never seen in him and one that touched her, unexpectedly.
But everything about this encounter was unexpected, wasn’t it? And could it be called an encounter when you were really just inventing the other person in your mind – when it was a hallucinatory side effect of the powerful medication you could not do without?
Yet even as she understood this, she still spoke out loud to him, as if they were two people standing twelve feet apart from each other after a separation of twenty years, not to mention the further separation that divides the living from the dead. “I wish you were real.” She took a step closer, even though she was afraid it would make him disappear. “There are so many things I would say to you.”
He shrugged and smiled, a combination of movements she remembered all too well – it had always struck her as inviting and dismissive at the same time. “So say them.”
“But what’s the point? I’d only be talking to myself. It’s not as if I can actually apologize to the real – you.” She laughed, feeling flushed. Another symptom or side effect that hadn’t appeared before now? “It’s too late.”
“You have nothing to apologize for.” The real Bob would have moved toward her then, to reinforce how much he meant it. The imagined one stayed where he was.
“Yes, I do. Of course I do. I found out from Rae Coyle – the truth.” Helen faltered, coughing slightly on the old name she hadn’t spoken in years. “But you must already know that. Right? You know about Ethan, and you know I thought you might have – “ But even though there was so little left to lose, she failed to finish what she’d set out to say.
“Yes. I know.” Now he did take a step closer, and she blushed from shame.
“They said kids didn’t make up things like that!” She covered her face with her hands, then yanked them away so she could focus on accusing herself. “But how could I have believed anything more than what you told me?”
He’d come near enough to touch her, and she willed him to reach out so that she’d be convinced beyond measure of how false this all was. But his phantom hands remained alongside his phantom sides.
“Yes,” he murmured. “How could you?”
The world wavered in front of her. I’m going to faint now, she thought. Please, let me faint. But then he reached out to hold her up. She could feel his hand on her elbow. How was that possible, she managed to wonder, when she knew he didn’t really exist?
“I always thought we would talk about it,” she told him. “Someday, during all that time after you came back home. But I didn’t know how to say anything, and you never brought it up.” She paused to lick her lips, the gesture she’d heard cats make when they feel like puking. “I think I took your not bringing it up as a sign of – something.”
Did he smile, hearing this? No: the opposite. “I didn’t think I had to,” he said, and he’d never sounded so sad.
Of course she had misread what was on her husband’s face. If she’d been able to read him correctly, none of this would have happened.
“Did you think,” he asked, “that because I seemed content to go to conferences about things like Outcomes Assessment, that because I was so boring, I must have some secret life? Some hidden excitement I couldn’t share with you or anybody else, like the excitement of touching a child?”
Until she heard it, she hadn’t identified this thought to herself, though now she understood that it had always lodged itself just below her own reach. Why did he have access to it, when she had not?
Because, she reminded herself, he is that part of your mind. It was almost enough to make her smile.
“Well, it turns out the joke’s on you, Hel – I really am that boring!”
She let all her muscles go slack and waited to collapse on the dock, but he wouldn’t let her. “You know what did excite me? I liked going to work in the morning, and I liked coming home at the end of the day. I liked sitting there with my Sanka after supper, when we talked. Did you ever realize that after I came back from Fishkill, we never did that anymore?”
No, she didn’t think she’d realized this. Things had just been one way, before, and then they were another.
“I liked our house with all of us in it. I liked hearing what you and Ethan had to say. This was before Julie Coyle, of course.” Saying the girl’s name took something out of him, whether he was real or not – she could see this. “It wasn’t her fault,” he added. “She was so young. She was confused.”
Even as she felt overwhelmed by febrility, Helen remembered that had always loved this about her husband: the way he refused to think the worst about anyone until it had been proven to him.
“But she ruined your life.” She had to lick her lips to continue speaking. “Our lives. Ethan’s.”
“No,” her husband said. “You did that.”
The words struck her chest like a shove. “I did that,” she whispered. “You’re right. It was me.”
When he did not respond, she considered it a mercy. “And Ethan,” she said, their son’s name a cry in her throat. “The last thing I said to him – when instead I could have told him you weren’t capable of such a thing – “ She waited, praying for Bob to punish her for it. But he did not.
A haze approached from the horizon. Or was she seeing something else that wasn’t there? She summoned everything inside her to ask the question it had all been leading up to – not just in these moments on the dock, but for more years than she cared to count. “If a person regrets something she’s done, but there’s nobody left to remember, does it matter that she did it? Or does it all get erased as if it didn’t happen?” The desperation in her voice would be evident to both of them, she knew. “Or say she also did some good things, things that could even be called – heroic. Does it all even out?”
He was on the other side of her now, speaking from the lake. “You know the answer to that as well as I do.” He held out a hand. “You know it better.” She took the hand as she stepped down to join him in the water. It was warm now, not cold, but she felt no surprise.
“There’s a stone in here somewhere with your name on it,” he reminded her. “Somewhere on the bottom.”
She told him, “I’m afraid of this,” as he drew her deeper, though she wasn’t sure it was true.
“You’ll get over it,” he said, and then he did smile.
“Wait,” Helen whispered. “Wait! I’m not ready. Not finished. I – ”
But he had vanished. A saguaro stood in his place. The flimsy door buckled and shattered beneath her, and she began to fall.
“It’s me. You’re all right now. Night-night, my lovely!” She deserved no comfort, but he insisted. So she gave in and let him carry her to the end.