Night Road

Page 28

"No," he said miserably. He took her hand, squeezed it. She felt his touch like a shimmer of heat on the road: distant, fleeting.
"She would forgive you, Zach," Jude said. It was the truth, and all she could think of.
Jude stared dully out the window. I do not forgive you. The last words she'd said to Mia.
"Why didn't I just tell her I wanted to go to USC?"
Jude thought about telling him about Mia's last decision to go to SCC with Lexi and Zach, but what was the point? It would only hurt him more to learn how much Mia loved him.
"Mom? Maybe I'll go anyway. For both of us."
Jude saw how desperate Zach was for her approval, and it broke her heart. As if a college choice could undo all of this tragedy somehow and return their family to them. It was her fault he felt this way. She'd made college so damned important, and he wanted her love as much as he needed Mia. She knew she should talk to him about this, tell him it was a bad idea; her voice was gone, though. All she could think about was the woman she'd been before. The mother to whom USC had been so important.
I do not forgive you.
She flinched at the memory of those last terrible words. "None of this matters now, Zach. Just sleep."
She knew she should say something more, help him with his grief, but what good were words to them now? She looked away from her son's sad, sad eyes and stared out the window at a bright and shiny day.
It felt like they'd been at the hospital for days, but it had been less than thirteen hours. While Jude sat at Zach's bedside, news of the accident spread through Pine Island. By early evening, the phone calls had begun. Jude answered the first few, eager to have something to do, to think about beside her loss, but within seconds she knew it had been a terrible mistake. Even as she listened to murmurs of support, she heard the relief in other people's voices, the immense gratitude that it wasn't their child who had died. She heard I'm so sorry until she despised those words as she had never despised anything in her life, and she discovered an anger in her soul that was new. Toxic.
Finally, she turned off her phone and buried it in her purse and let Miles handle the condolences. She drank so much coffee she felt jittery, a racehorse at the gate with no race to run. A mother of twins who only had one child.
She paced the hallways, walked up and down the bright corridors, seeing nothing. She couldn't sit by Zach anymore, couldn't talk to Miles, couldn't go see Mia. Her existence was defined by that which she couldn't do or have. So she kept moving, sobbing on and off, clutching wads of Kleenex that turned into soggy gray lumps in her hand.
"Jude?" She heard her name as if from a distance and looked up, disoriented. Where was she?
Molly was in front of her, holding an overnight bag clutched to her stomach. Without makeup on, dressed in pink Juicy sweatpants and a white cardigan, with her white hair a spiky mess, she looked as ruined as Jude felt inside.
Molly moved toward her awkwardly, let the bag thump to the floor between them. She kicked it aside and took Jude in her arms. When Molly began to cry, Jude felt as if she were floating away, disappearing, only her friend's embrace kept her in this corridor at all.
"I'm so-"
"Don't say it," Jude said, easing out of Molly's arms. "Please." Her eyes felt painfully dry, sandpapery, and yet her vision was blurred. She saw now where she was-near the entrance to the waiting room.
Molly tried gamely to smile, but it didn't work. "I brought you some clothes. Toothbrush. Whatever I could think of."
Jude nodded. The last thing in the world she wanted was to stand here, pretending she wasn't shattered inside, but she couldn't make herself move, either.
Just down the hall, in the waiting room, she saw the crowd of women sitting together, watching Jude from a safe distance. They were women she knew from the island, women with whom she'd chaired committees, played tennis, had lunch. Women with whom she'd shared both motherhood and friendship. Neighbors, friends, acquaintances. They'd heard about the accident and come to help in whatever way they could, the modern equivalent of a quilting bee. In hard times, these women came together to help one another. Jude knew all of this because she was one of them. If someone else's child had been killed, Jude would have put everything else aside and come to offer help.
They needed to support her. Jude could see that, but she couldn't seem to care about it.
How could she make them understand that the woman they knew was gone? She wasn't the woman who'd befriended them anymore.
She wasn't the durable woman she'd always imagined herself to be. She wasn't courageous. If she'd been a soldier in wartime, there would be no hill charge led by her. She wouldn't throw her body on a grenade.
Rather, she froze.
There was no better word for it. All the strength she had-and it was a slippery thing, her strength, as small as a guppy and as hard to hold-she used to control her emotions. She didn't see how she could accept sympathy or make other people feel included. It took everything she had inside to pretend to be "handling" this.
"They're here for you, Jude," Molly said. "We all are. What can we do to help?"
Help. It was what women did for one another, even when there was no way to accomplish it.
She took a deep breath and tried to straighten her shoulders. The attempt was a dismal failure, and she ended up rounded again, a woman curling up inside like a thin strip of wood. Still, she clutched Molly's hand and moved forward, one step at a time.
The women in the waiting room rose as one, an audience getting to its feet.
Jude moved into their midst, let them surround her, hold her . She wished they wouldn't cry, but they did, and their tears kept hers at bay.
Jude stayed as long as she could, engulfed by the women who'd defined her for years, feeling desperately alone. As soon as possible, she got back to her feet, shaky now, more vulnerable than before, and ran back to the quiet in Zach's room.
For the next twenty hours, she rarely ventured into the hallway again. She knew people were out there, hovering and drifting and whispering-Molly and her husband, Tim, and several of their island neighbors, and her mother, but Jude didn't care.
She and Zach sat together, both staring dully at the TV hanging from the ceiling, saying little. Mia's absence filled the antiseptic-scented air, and her loss was all either wanted to talk about, but neither had the strength to form such painful words, so they sat in silence. The only time they turned the channel was when the news came on. The media had picked up the story of the accident, and neither Jude nor Zach could stand to watch the coverage. Miles, thankfully, handled the influx of calls with a calm "no comment."
Finally, on Tuesday morning, the hospital discharged Zach.
On the drive home, Miles kept up a steady stream of conversation. He was trying to "go on," to merge into the lane of their new existence, but neither Jude nor Zach could go there with him. Each of Miles's attempts landed in the big empty backseat of the Escalade, and he eventually gave up, turning on the radio instead.
"… Pine Island teen killed-"
Jude snapped it off and the silence returned. She slumped in her leather seat, with the heat cranked high enough to warm her frozen core, staring dully out the window as the ferry pulled into port. She was so mired in grief that she hardly saw the familiar island landscape until all at once she recognized her surroundings.
Miles had turned onto Night Road.
She gave a gasp of recognition. "Miles."
"Shit," he said. "Habit."
The trees on either side of them were giants that blocked out the struggling mid-June sun. Deep shadows lay banked on either side. High in one of the branches, a lone eagle perched proudly, watching something far below.
They turned a hairpin corner, and there it was: the scene of the accident. Twin skid marks scarred the gray asphalt. A tree was cracked, half of it fallen aside. At its base, a memorial had sprung up.
"Oh, man," Zach said from the backseat.
Jude wanted to look away but she couldn't. The ravine between the road and the broken tree was strewn with bouquets of flowers, stuffed animals, high school pennants, and photos of Mia. Parked along the side of the road was a van with a satellite disk perched on top: a local news vans. Jude knew what she'd see on the evening news tonight: images of teenagers, kids she'd known since they had gaps in their teeth, looking haggard and drawn now, older, crying about Mia's death, laying mementos of her short life on the ground, holding lit votives in small glass jars.
And what would happen to all those stuffed animals that had been put here? Fall would come and rain would pound the color out of everything, and this place would become another ragged reminder of their loss.
Less than a mile, she thought as Miles turned onto their gravel driveway.
Mia had died less than a mile from home. They could have walked …
At the front door was another shrine. Friends and neighbors had layered the entrance with flowers. When Jude got out of the car, she smelled the sweet, heady fragrance, but already some were fading, their petals beginning to curl and turn brown.
"Get rid of it," she said to Miles.
He looked at her. "They're beautiful, Jude. It means-"
"I know what it means," she said tightly. "People loved our daughter-a girl who is never coming home again." Her voice caught, and she hated how overwhelmed she felt when she looked at these flowers. She would have done the same thing for a neighbor's child, and she would have cried as she bought the flowers and placed them here. She would have felt an incredible sense of loss, and the sharp, sweet relief of knowing that her kids were okay. "They'll just die," she finally said.
Miles pulled her into his arms.
Zach came up beside them, leaned into Jude. She wanted to put her arm around him, but she felt paralyzed. It took concentration just to breathe with the cloying scent of all these flowers.
"She liked white roses," Zach said.
At that, the grief came at Jude again. How had she not known that about Mia? All those hours she'd spent in her garden and never had she planted a single creamy white rose. She looked down at the flowers by her front door. There were dahlias, zinnias, and roses of every color except white.
In a burst of anger, she scooped up all the flowers and carried them over to the woods behind the garage and threw them into the trees.
She was just about to turn away when something white caught her eye.
An unopened rosebud lay on the top of the flowery heap, its petals as rich in color as fresh cream.
Jude scrambled through the brush, feeling stinging nettles lash across her face and hands, burning her skin, but she didn't care. She picked up the lone rosebud, clutching it in one shaking hand, feeling the prick of thorns.
She heard Miles's voice coming at her. Clutching the single stem, she looked back at him.
In the harsh sunlight, he looked slight suddenly, fragile. She saw the hollows of his cheeks and the spidery look of his fingers as he reached out. He took her hand and helped her to her feet. She stared up into the gray eyes that had been her only real home and all she saw now was emptiness.

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