The Jaguar made a sound like nuts and bolts tossing in a dryer, somewhere by the front left wheel. It always made it now when you pulled up to the curb. Andy jerked his hand to the key and shut it down, both to stop the noise and any additional damage it might do. He would try to fix it, but putting in the key and turning it was all he knew.
The house was the same, only visible to the whole neighborhood. There was no way to quiet it. Its accusations were on the outside – the siding in need of a power wash, Emma’s finger streaks of paint on the steps, the brown patches in the yard. The big jobs, well people could understand that. Maybe there’s no money for them right now. They must be saving up for the roof. But the little ones, the ones he was going to pay a handyman to do – you couldn’t shut them up. They shouted that the man who lived here failed at the simplest parts of living.
Morse was out checking for mail. Andy got out and greeted him.
“Hey, Andy. Nothing yet,” he said, looking up as he closed the mailbox. He was in and out all day seeing if the mailman had come. Andy suspected it was an excuse to be outside. It wasn’t that he was a snoop, exactly. He just had the old widower’s need to be a part of the world long after running out of reasons to interject himself.
“How you holding up?” he asked. “You two all right?”
“Yeah, we’re getting by. New territory for me.”
“I’d say. I wouldn’t want it myself. It was hard enough raising ours together. And for you, with…” He looked embarrassed, an old man not thinking before he spoke. “Um, any word from Elizabeth? Any idea when she’ll be back?”
“She’s all right.”
“She called you?”
“She… she’s all right. She needs time, you know?”
“Sure. So do you, friend.” He poked a finger in Andy’s breast. “Everybody needs time. Come over for coffee someday, ok? Bring Emma, I’d love to see her.”
“Sure. I will. Thanks, John.”
John gave an “It’s nothing” toss of his hand and turned up his walk. Andy headed for the house. It was a rare time off. He should go to a park. He should nap under a tree. He should go see a movie. But he headed for the house because that’s where the beer was.
A rectangle of sunlight lit the cushions of the black leather sofa. It made them too bright. It was furniture for evenings, for parties. It looked too ordinary in the day. The cream-colored wall and the cream-colored seascape hanging on it should have had the spotlight but were thrown into shadows by the contrast. All her choices, but he liked them. He wondered how long he could hold on to them before they’d have to go back to Rent-A-Center. The room was too still for him to be this sober. He started for the kitchen, then smelled the smoke.
He inched around until the kitchen table came into view through the doorway. She was sitting at it, turned toward him with her legs crossed, one arm across her belly and the elbow of the other propped on it, the smoke of her cigarette spiraling up. She was a Forties femme fatale, or a Bond villain who’d let her hair go wild. It was ridiculous except that his gun was on the table in front of her. He stared at it.
“John’s home,” he said.
“Why would I care?”
“His hearing’s still good.”
She didn’t answer that. She said, “Where is she?”
“We’re all alone.”
“I know that. I’ve been through the house. I saw you come out of the car by yourself. Where is she?”
“Abby’s girl’s having a birthday party. I left her there. Have to go pick her up in a couple of hours.”
She gave the slightest start, the first crack he’d seen in her. He was carefully not looking at the gun now.
“Enjoy it while you can,” she said. “In ten years…”
“She’ll always have friends. I’ll make sure she does. These kids aren’t like we were.”
“I have to get her.”
“You can call. Tell them that piece of shit finally broke down.”
He gestured to a chair at the near end of the table. She hesitated, then nodded. He eased himself in, and they looked at each other.
“You’re smoking in the house again?”
She looked at him in disbelief, like he was an idiot.
“You think it matters now?”
“I never thought I’d see you back here. Back here, I mean.” He rapped the dark wood of the table. She took a drag on the cigarette and looked away when she blew the smoke out. “I guess they’re right,” he said. “What they say about the scene of the crime.”
“I guess so. Chekhov was right, too. What he said about the gun.”
He furrowed his brow.
“About a gun? I don’t think he said anything about a gun. Maybe it was Sulu?”
She swung back at him. “No, I…” Then she stopped and flashed a quick smile in spite of herself.
“I thought you’d keep running,” he said. He waited. “You know we never talked about it.”
“And we don’t need to.”
“We sat right here. That last morning. I didn’t ask why. I didn’t push you for anything. I let you go.” He was leaning into her, then remembered the gun. He leaned back. “Why didn’t you go? Why didn’t you just go away forever?”
“Where would I go to?” she snapped.
“I don’t know. I always pictured Atlanta, I guess. New Orleans. Somewhere they still care about…” He waved his hand around at all her little touches. The framed platitudes and the candle arrangements and the potpourri. The Target Home Department’s idea of cozy with a touch of sophistication. “Somewhere a mysterious past has glamour. That’s what I thought at first, anyway. But I’ve had time to think about it. How far did you get?”
She frowned, and he knew he’d guessed right.
She snuffed out her cigarette and felt for another without looking.
“What does it matter? I’ve been in Durfee, mostly.”
“Mm.” He nodded. “We’re hicks, Liz. Both of us. Only I could make it in any crappy little town. It’s Fallsville or nothing for you. Fallsville or nothing.”
“You’re back. Doesn’t that prove it?”
“Of course it proves it. You don’t have to rub it in.”
“And that’s why you’re back. If you’re not going to make it, none of us are going to make it.”
“You think you’re making it?” She leaned in now. She jabbed her unlit cigarette toward a cabinet above the counter. “You’re as well-stocked as ever. The sink’s still not fixed, but you’re three deep in Jack Daniel’s.”
“That’s just seeing me through.”
“Through what, Andy?” Her eyes were wide. “It didn’t get you through us. It didn’t get you through Emma. When are you getting through?”
“Monday.” His cheeks burned. She raised an eyebrow. “There’s a meeting Monday. I’m pouring it out before work, and Monday night, I’m going to a meeting.”
She snorted. “Good luck!” Then she thought about it. “Good luck.” She said it softer. She felt for her lighter and lit up.
“You’ve got to let me try, Liz. Give us a chance.”
“You know I can’t.”
“I gave you a chance! I let you go.”
“You let everything go! That’s nothing special.”
“Not anymore. Not since that night.”
“I said we don’t need to talk about that.”
“No, we do. You’ve got to understand why I can’t let you do this.”
“Oh, you’re the big man now?”
“About this, yes, I am.” He was serious. Like she’d never seen him. “I’ve failed at everything. You’ve watched me. But not this. You gave me that, Liz. You gave it to me that night when I sat on Emma’s bed and felt her forehead and stroked her hair while she held her belly and cried and cried. I knew right then. She was everything. She was everything for me, Liz.”
“That’s enough! Call them.”
He didn’t move. She snatched the gun up and leveled it at his chest. The black metal flashed rhythmically with the reflection of the ceiling fan. He didn’t move. With her other hand, she reached for her phone and dialed a number.
“Hi, Abby? It’s Liz. Yes, I know. I’m back. Sorry I haven’t called. I know. No, I’m fine. Just needed a break, you know? Yeah, you know. Let’s have lunch this week, I’ll tell you all about it. Great. Listen, could you do me a favor? I hate to do this, but my car’s at my Mom and Dad’s and I don’t know what’s going on with the Jag, but… Aw, you’re an angel. If you could just ask if anybody’s coming this way? Great. I owe you one. Yeah, this week. Just call me. Ok, you get back in there. Better you than me. Right. Bye!”
She laid the phone on the table, then after a moment laid the gun beside it.
“Liz.” She didn’t say anything. “Liz. Liz, it’s not her fault. She doesn’t deserve this.”
“Neither do I, Andy.”
“Just let us be.”
“She has my mother’s name, Andy. You know what that means to her?”
“You think this will be better?” He took his turn at staring incredulously. “How does your Mom show her face around town after this?”
“You’ve had time to think about things. Well, so have I. And this way it’s quick and it’s over. She doesn’t have to watch it year after year. She doesn’t face year after year of pity from her friends. They won’t have that to hang over her.”
“Jesus. You think it’ll be better when people know her daughter…” Then he knew. “It’s going to look like I did this, isn’t it?”
“I have to, Andy.”
“Jesus. You’ve come a long way in a few months, haven’t you? The first time was just going to be an accident. What did you put in that dinner, Liz? I’ve never been so sick in my life. And poor Emma. And you just fine, except for that strange look on your face. It was natural, wasn’t it? Something that could look like an accident. When you were sure it was done, you were going to take enough to lay yourself out, maybe get your stomach pumped. Then start over, with everybody’s sympathy. And now you’re going with us. And still not taking the blame.”
“I’m not to blame.” She was on the verge of tears.
“Nobody’s to blame. You just can’t take it, that’s all. I think I can now, Liz. At least I’m going to try.”
“It’s not all about you. Other people have to live with it.”
“You can let me go pretty easy, can’t you? Tell me, Liz. What was I to you, ever?”
She was shaking. “Andy…”
“I was the money that never materialized.”
“Yes. But before that?”
She was taut like a spring, shivering and not breathing. She nodded, conceded. “There was a time.”
“I know,” he said. “Do you know when it was, for me? The last of it? You remember in eighth grade, that class trip to Niagara?”
“They gave us those raincoats before we rode the elevators down to the base of the falls. I took a photo of you when you were laughing about how you looked like a duck. That smile. You were still a kid, and you could smile for me like that. And we came back and they had everyone put their photos on the bulletin board. You told me not to put that one up, but you were so cute… Then the way you ripped it down. And all through high school it just got worse. This town ate you up, Liz. All that effort to be the queen fish in this stupid little pond. All that worry about who had all the attention. Backstabbing everybody who could have been your friend. Everybody who could have kept you from ending up here.”
She steadied herself in anger. “You think I’m not taking the blame? Where are you in all this? You didn’t want us to end up here, where were you? We grew up, and we’re going nowhere. Emma came along, and you’re gone into your bottles. You think I don’t remember? When we were kids? You think you’re the only one who grieves over that?”
“That was you. The rest of it, sure, I’ve got plenty I’m not proud of. I failed you, Liz. Lots of ways. But you killed the goofy kid in the raincoat. You did that yourself, Liz. And I hung on hoping she’d come back, maybe I could bring her back. Because I loved her. But you wouldn’t stop caring about things that don’t mean a damn. And look where it’s brought you. Look what you’re doing. To your own little girl, because she’s not going to be Fair Queen like you and her grandma.”
“It’s better for her, too. You think I don’t love her? This is because I love her. You like to pretend you don’t care what people think, that’s fine, Andy, but I’m her mother. And I know what she’d have to live with. And she’s better off this way.”
“You don’t get to decide that.”
“I’m her mother, Andy. I have to protect her.”
“You don’t get to decide that. She needs a lot of help from us, and she can’t decide a lot of things on her own. But you don’t get to decide whether she feels about things the way you do.”
“Just stay out of the way, Andy.”
“You make your decisions for yourself. Emma and I are going on. You can come with us, Liz. You can run or you can stay. But I can’t let you take her.”
She didn’t speak. Whether it was because she wasn’t sure or she was done, he couldn’t tell.
“Stay, Liz. We’ll get you help. We’ll get me help. Fallsville be damned.”
She was done. She was biting her lower lip the way she did when talking was over. There was nothing he could do but sit there, the waves of the fan sweeping over them, again and again.
When the doorbell rang, her hand flew to the gun like a doctor had hit her with a reflex hammer. Everything was still for a moment, then she tossed her head toward the living room. She trained the gun on him and her eyes were wild and desperate, but she didn’t stand up with him and didn’t follow him to the door of the kitchen. He looked at her, one last look as he backed away.
Through the window, he could see Bridget, one of the mothers. Emma was holding her hand. When he opened the door, she squealed, “Daddy!”, her pudgy doll face exploding in delight, her smile mirroring the slant of her tiny eyes.
He swept her into his arms and pushed past Bridget. He ran into the yard and fell to his knees, squeezing Emma to him and covering her ears. Bridget’s kids were in the car. He always hated that they heard the shot.