FATAL OPTION – EXCERPT

PROLOGUE

 

FATAL OPTION cover

 

 

The blizzard winds hit the bedroom windows with brute-force, the wump sounds registering in the recesses of Stephen Porter’s mind as he hugged the extra pillow and yearned for a blackout sleep to take the sad night away. His arms and legs were heavy, his sinuses swollen from the emotions that had struck the moment he had climbed into bed. From downstairs he heard the faint chimes of the grandfather clock—a lonely sound resonating through the sparsely furnished rooms of his sprawling suburban house.

Wump

The windows shuddered again as he slipped into a deeper doze. He sensed a vague threat in the sound—a notion the glass might break as it persisted—

WumpWUMP

—louder now, nudging its way into the dream-space between wakefulness and sleep, still a part of the physical world of his bedroom and his house . . . but with a reverberation of the past.

No, he thought.

Not again—

Not tonight—

He tightened his hold on the pillow, as if it would slow the backsliding feeling; tried to move against the solid weight on his chest as the sound and the memories took him back to another kind of storm, with gusting winds and thunder and lightning shattering the heat of an August day. Back to the rapid-fire deluge of rain on the roof. And the sight of it overflowing the gutters and pooling in the streets. And the conversation at the front door, riddled with assurances that did not ring true.

“It’s 9 o’clock.”

“But I have to go—”

“It’s not safe—”

The voices had a tinny, ethereal tone, and gave way to images triggered by both certainties and imaginings of what must have been:

The Lexus, silver-gray in the steely downpour, backing up and driving away.

The rain obscuring visibility as it traveled from the neighborhood streets to the highway and then toward the mountain to the north.

The Lexus moving too quickly for the weather or the narrow road as it climbed, up and up toward the mountain’s highest perch.

The Bluetooth ringing, the calls ignored as the speedometer needle swept higher, and higher—

50

60

70

“STOP!”

He felt a jolt in his neck as his eyes flew open, the sound of his voice—either imagined or spoken—still echoing through his mind as he sat up—

And heard the ringing phone, a dislocated sound amid the nightmare images still flickering through his mind as he looked at the clock:

12:13

He rubbed his eyes as the room began a slow turn around him, and listened as the next ring was interrupted by the click of the answering machine kicking in with his own recorded voice:

You’ve reached the Porters. We’re not here right now—”

His temples throbbed as he reached for the receiver, and knocked it to the floor.

He groaned as he picked it up.

“Hello?”

He heard nothing in response. The connection had broken. He thought of his son, Kenneth, soundly asleep in his room down the hall, and his daughter, Sara, at her friend Madison’s house, just four blocks away.

Nothing to worry about.  He sucked in a deep breath, willing his mind to calm. Everybody’s okay.  

He gazed at the empty space beside him as the phone rang again.

There was a mild tremor in his hand as he answered.

“Hello.”

“Daddy . . .”

The line filled with static as the windows shuddered from another gust of wind.

“Sara?” He pressed the phone against his ear and spoke louder. “I can barely hear you.”

“Something happened—”

There were several seconds of silence before her voice came through again.

“—scared. I don’t know how—”

He heard a dial tone. His heartbeat quickened as he turned on the bedside lamp. His cell phone was on the dresser, plugged into the charger. He scrolled to Sara’s number, and went straight into her voice mail.

The landline rang again. He snatched it up.

“Sara, what’s wrong?”

He heard more static. “The Jeep won’t start—I’m stranded. Can you come pick me up?”  

Stranded? The word hit him wrong. He remembered that she had driven to Madison Reidy’s house; remembered cautioning her about the icy roads. But if she had had car trouble it would have taken no more than five minutes to walk back home.

“Is Madison with you?”

Sara sniffled. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“I’m somewhere else. I really need to get out of here.”

“Where’s Madison? Where’s her mom?”

“I don’t know. I’m not with them.” She paused, and took a deep, audible breath, as if mustering her composure. “I’m really sorry daddy—”

And then she started crying—with hard sobs that made it sound as if she was struggling to catch her breath.

Stephen pressed the phone harder against his ear as he opened the bedside table drawer and scrambled for a pen.

“Sara, tell me where you are. What’s the address?”

“I’m . . . at a house, with a boy from school. It’s 4334 Rolling Road. Off 15 North. Up on the mountain. Can you please hurry?”

And then they were cut off again.

He sat on the edge of the bed and tried to process what he had just heard. Sara was not with her friend Madison. She had lied to him about where she was going. And now she was stranded, at a house on the mountain.

On Rolling Road

Images from the nightmare rushed back—with memories of that same narrow, two-lane roadway, hemmed in on both sides by towering trees, undoubtedly coated with snow and ice—             

“Hell,” he whispered, his heart racing as he reached for his jeans and pulled on a heavy corduroy shirt. On the table next to the bed was an empty glass, a reminder of the last shot of straight bourbon; one on top of way too many before. He remembered sitting alone and sipping it slowly, doing his best to blot out the sadness that had followed him up to his room.

It had been less than an hour since that last drink and he knew it was still coursing through his system as he went into the adjoining den where he kept his computer. He turned on the overhead light—a bright white flash that sharpened the pain at his temples—went to Google, and typed in the address.

A map came up. He recognized the arc of Route 70 and the bisecting line of Route 15, and then the turnoff to Rolling Road, a zigzagging thoroughfare that led up to the top of the mountain.

The address Sara had given him—4334—was marked by a green arrow on the screen. He stared at it for a long moment, wondering how tonight—of all nights—she had found her way there.

And then he got moving, returning to the bedroom, where he pulled a pair of woolen socks from the drawer and took a wintergreen Life Saver from the bedside table, the taste reminding him of the antacids that he had been downing almost every day. A wave of nausea made him gag as he moved out to the hall and down the curved stairway. Into the foyer with its green marble floor. Through the kitchen of granite and steel. Into the two-story family room, where the air had grown chilly in the deepening night.

He scribbled a note—GONE TO RESCUE YOUR SISTER IN THE SNOW—on the family message board on the extremely unlikely chance that Kenneth would wake up and come downstairs before they got back, then grabbed his barn coat from the mudroom and stepped into the garage.

Harsh overhead lights flickered on as he pushed the button for the automatic door. It rose a few feet and came to a squealing stop halfway up. He cursed and hit the button again. Like every other upgrade in the new house, the mechanized door had been installed by the builder. It had been on Stephen’s mental list of things that needed to be fixed for over a month but he still hadn’t found the time.

A gust of wind blew a spray of snow into the garage as the door finally rose all the way. He took the shovel from its hook on the wall and moaned, “Good God Sara, you’re gonna kill me,” and stepped out into the brutally cold air to clear a path from the driveway to the street.

He was panting and sweating when he finished, his vision vibrating as he reached for the handle of the driver’s side door.

You drank too much, he thought. Shouldn’t drive.

He swung the door open anyway, and dropped heavily into the seat of the Ford Explorer and turned on the ignition and backed slowly down the sloped driveway and tapped the brake, which sent the car into a sideways skid before stopping at an angle just before the sidewalk.

It’s a blizzard.

Nausea crept up the back of his throat.

Probably even worse, at the top of that mountain.

He sat for several seconds before another option came to mind, then reached into the back pocket of his jeans for his wallet, wincing at the dull twinge of pain that the shoveling had brought to his lower back. He turned on the Explorer’s overhead light and sifted through the unorganized jumble of credit and business cards until he found the worn membership certificate for AAA. The print was small, blurry in his vision, readable only when he squinted.

He tapped the number into his phone and cleared his throat as he looked out at the snowbound night. There were five other houses on the street, all equally grand and new, and all lived in, Stephen expected, by middle management executives who had migrated to the outermost suburbs in the quest for bigger houses, better schools, and safe distance from urban problems. After five months he still knew his neighbors solely by sight since most, like himself, left by 7 a.m. and returned after dark as a result of monstrous commutes to work.

He felt a twinge of loneliness as his gaze came back to his own house, and as he thought of the all the empty rooms inside.

The operator from AAA sounded harried when she finally answered and he had the feeling she was only half-listening as he told her about the disabled Jeep and gave her the address Sara had called from. There wasn’t a trace of give in her voice when she told him there was absolutely no chance of getting it towed any time soon.

His offer to pay a premium was answered with a weary sigh.

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do. We have three tow truck operators in your area and all are backed up with calls because of the storm.”

Stephen cleared his throat, conscious of the tightness of his grip on the phone.

“Look, I’m really worried. My daughter’s only seventeen. She was very upset when she called me. She was crying—scared. I think she’s in trouble.”

“Then maybe you need to call the police.”

He shook his head. The idea of cops going to Sara’s rescue made him even more uneasy. He wanted to believe her crying was an overreaction, perhaps to the heavy snow and the lateness of the hour and the fear that she was going to be in trouble for lying to him.

“You have to help her,” he said.

The dispatcher hung up.

“Shit!” He punched his fist against the seat as a hard gust of wind hit the Explorer, blowing the snow sideways and nearly obscuring the sight of the house at the top of the long driveway. He narrowed his eyes, seeing a double image of the gauges on the dashboard, and swallowed back the sickly-sweet blend of wintergreen and the lingering taste of alcohol in his mouth; the sensations hitting him like a warning, urging him to heed the dispatcher’s advice.

He dialed 911 and nervously tapped his fingers against the wheel.

“911. What is your emergency?”

Stephen told her about Sara’s call.

And realized his voice was slurring.

The pause that followed worried him; made him wonder if she had figured out what kind of condition he was in. As the silence lengthened he heard the voices of other dispatchers in the background, an undertone of tension among them.

“Hello—you still there?”

“Sir you need to call the non-emergency line at 445—”

“This is an emergency! She’s stuck by the side of the road in a goddamn blizzard!”

There was another pause; the sound of typing on a keyboard.

“I’ll notify the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, sir.” The woman’s voice was a monotone. “We’ll ask a deputy to respond.”

“You have to…please.”

The call ended.

He leaned forward and pressed his forehead against the wheel as he replayed the conversation. He considered the possibility of doing what he had been told and simply waiting until someone from the Sheriff’s office reached his daughter, and then realized that the dispatcher had not even asked for a number where he could be contacted.

He sat back, gripping the wheel with both hands as he thought about the panic in her voice, and about Rolling Road with its blind rises and sharp descents; the hairpin curves that led to Brighton Gorge—

You can’t just sit here.

Can’t leave her up there.

“God help me,” he mumbled, and backed out of the driveway and into the street, the Explorer’s back-end sliding sideways over the icy pavement as he righted the wheel, a torrent of snowflakes blowing into the windshield as he drove into the night.

# # #

Part One

The Day Before

1

The day began in the pre-dawn darkness as Stephen stared at the LED numbers on the alarm clock and counted the minutes until the verdict would be delivered.

I’ll send you a text when the decision comes in, the insurance agent had told him, but we’ll need to talk it through on the phone.

The agent had told him not to expect the text before 7:30 a.m. but he checked his cell the moment he got out of bed any way, and checked it again after he stepped out of the shower. He thought about making the call himself—catching the agent on the way into the office, but decided to focus instead on getting Kenneth and Sara off to school.

They were at the breakfast bar when he stepped into the kitchen, arguing about some kind of special shampoo, purchased by Sara, appropriated by Kenneth, and now at the center of an argument that made him wonder if his two children were about to come to blows.

“It cost me six dollars Kenneth.”

Kenneth gave his sister a cool sideways look under the shaggy honey-brown hair that swept down to his eyebrows.

“I told you I’d pay for some of it,” he said as he reached for the box of cereal.

“Even though you used more than half the whole bottle. Which you took from my closet.”

“The closet’s in the hall. It’s not all yours.”

“Well you have your own closet, with your own stuff. Which is twice the size of mine.”

“God, are you really fighting over closet space?” Stephen wrinkled his brow in mock anguish as he poured a cup of coffee and sat down between them. “If so I wish you’d stop.”

Sara crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re going to take his side?”

“No.” He kept his eyes on hers, but reached across the countertop, his palm up. “Kenneth, give me a dollar.”

With a slight, knowing smile, his son reached into the pocket of his jeans and put a buck in his hand.

Stephen squinted down at the money, and shrugged. “Well, maybe.”

“Dad!” Sara’s eyes widened with indignation.

He laughed. “What can I say? Money talks.”

“And bullshit walks.”

“Whoa . . .” Stephen sat back and frowned at the harsh language and the sour expression on his daughter’s face. “When did you start talking like that?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters. I’m your father, and I don’t like it.”

She said nothing. Her insolent look spoke for itself.

“You’re going to apologize, right?”

Her eyes turned glassy.

“Sara?”

“I’m sorry I said that to you. But sometimes I just hate him.”

Kenneth, appearing unfazed, poured the cereal into his bowl.

“You don’t hate your brother,” Stephen said.

“Sometimes. He acts like such a queer.”

Kenneth looked at her. “Which is better than being a bitch.”

Jesus, would you two stop?”

His children went silent, but continued to radiate a smoldering anger at each other. Stephen was once again amazed at how the bumpy rhythms of stress and hormones could flip their moods in an instant. Even so he knew it was only a matter of time—minutes or even seconds—before they slipped back into the natural rapport that had bound them together from the earliest moments of childhood. They had been born one year and one day apart and he often found himself thinking of them as if they were twins, linked on some kind of emotional see-saw, their moods interdependent, with the happiness of one always balanced on that of the other.

Sara picked up the milk carton, read the label, and set it back down.

“What’s wrong with the milk, Sara?”

“It’s whole milk. Which means it’s loaded with fat.”

“You don’t need to worry about fat.”

“Right, tell that to my butt.”

Stephen smiled at her self-deprecating humor, then reached over and brushed her hair away from her cheek. Sara had her mother’s gray-green eyes and clear, pale skin, and a lovely, heart-shaped face that still projected a pensive innocence even under the heavy makeup she had been favoring.

He glanced at his watch, knowing he needed to get a jump on the traffic, but decided he wanted to sit with his kids for a few minutes longer.

“So, what kind of day are we going to have today?”

“Terrible,” Kenneth said.

“Horrific,” Sara added.

“Well all righty.” He clasped his hands together, grinning as if all was well. For a fleeting moment the gesture made both of his kids smile. “Really, what’s happening?”

Sara poured a dash of milk into her cereal bowl. “A test in physics and a stupid role-playing thing in Spanish, followed by various grossities in the cafeteria.” She picked up her spoon and tamped down the cereal. “Drama club this afternoon. I won’t be home till late.”

“What about you, Kenny boy?”

“Just the usual stuff. Classes. Studio art—”

“Getting clobbered,” Sara interrupted.

“Shut up!”

“Well you know it’s going to happen.”

Kenneth was glowering at his sister, his strawberry blond complexion blotchy with embarrassment.

Stephen treaded carefully. “What‘s going to happen?”

Kenneth stared down at the table without responding.

“Yo, Ken.” Stephen used his buck up voice. “Somebody giving you a hard time about something?”

Kenneth pushed his cereal bowl aside and avoided Stephen’s eyes. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

But you have to, Stephen thought. He wanted to get up and hug his son, but at fifteen, that was the last thing Kenneth would tolerate.

So talk around it. But let him know you understand.

“You know, high school basically sucks,” he said.

“Now who’s cursing?” Sara countered.

“It does!” Stephen laughed, and turned to Kenneth. “Tell her I’m right.”

Kenneth gave him a grudging smile. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“So, what the heck. Before you know it, it’ll be over. Then you’ll go to college, graduate and get a job. Get a big mortgage. Add a few lumps to the waistline. End up like your old man.”

 Kenneth met his eyes. “Oh. Great.”

“I can’t believe you said it sucks,” Sara said. “Especially after giving me a hard time about my BS comment.”

“Well, you know my approach to the whole parenting thing. Do as I say, not as I do. Besides, I’m the dad. I have special rules.”

Sara sighed. “Whatever.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Stephen replied. “Who loves you?”

Sara gave him a weary look. “You do.”

“Kenny?”

“You.”                                                                                   

“God it’s so easy living with teenagers. I should write a book about how great I am at it.”

Kenneth and Sara both managed a brief smile across the table, a moment of solidarity in acknowledging the absolute lameness of anyone over thirty. Stephen saw it and relaxed, hoping that enough had been said. His daughter was troubled but undoubtedly tough enough to withstand the pressures of boys and body image that her mother had always predicted. His son was a sensitive kid who was being forced to deal with bullies, but Stephen was almost certain that the smart-ass Porter attitude would carry him through.

His cell phone chirped. He glanced over to the kitchen counter where he had set it down, and anxiously looked at the screen.

It was an incoming call from his office, not the insurance agent.

He put the phone back down.

“Are you going to get that?” Sara asked.

He shook his head, and tried to smile, feeling desperate to maintain the happy feeling the moment of humor had given him, like catching a ray of sunlight breaking through gray clouds.

Focus on something to look forward to, he thought. Something to keep this connection going.

He thought of his brother and his wife and their twin teenage daughters, who were lifelong friends of Kenny and Sara.

“We should talk about this summer. Instead of going to the beach, I’ve been thinking about Uncle Frankie’s place in the Finger Lakes.”

Another cell phone rang. Kenneth reached into his pocket. Sara gave him a don’t bother look, said “It’s mine,” and grabbed the purse slung across the back of her chair.

“Can you answer it later?” Stephen asked.

She retrieved her phone, and frowned at whatever she saw on the screen.

“Sara, please?”

She stared at the screen for a moment longer, and put the phone face-down on the table.

Her posture was suddenly stiff. She looked past him, toward the window that offered a view of the backyards of the neighboring houses.

Stephen sighed. “Frankie emailed me yesterday. He’s got a new boat—”

 The cell phone on the counter rang again.

 “Damn it!” Stephen snapped.

The spell was broken. Sara and Kenneth both stood up and rinsed their bowls and put them in the dishwasher, and then trudged up the house’s second stairway, which led from the family room and kitchen to their bedrooms. Stephen stayed at the table, determined to finish the mug of coffee without interruption. A brief chime from the phone told him that a message was waiting. He glanced at the clock, thinking of another ten-hour day at the struggling public relations firm where he’d worked for more than a decade. Lately every block of time he had with his kids could be measured in minutes, and almost always with an underlying sense of fear they were slipping away from him completely.

“Oh, crap,” he muttered as he stood up and then dumped the coffee into the sink and headed into the foyer and up the front stairway into his own wing of the house. He took the last few steps of the morning ritual: brushing and gargling, then tightening his tie and checking the slight jowl under his chin and the exhaustion and sadness that now seemed permanently ingrained in his face.

“Okay, wheels up!” he called out.

He went to Sara’s room and realized she had already gone downstairs as he stood at the threshold to what had recently become an “off-limits” space. For as long as he could remember his daughter had been fascinated by costume drama movies and historical fiction, and had decorated her walls with movie posters and artistic photography. He recognized the images that he had glimpsed on the rare occasions when her door had been left open, but noticed they were now interspersed with dark and disturbing images that didn’t seem to belong: Gargoyles, robed figures, strange shadows under arched doorways.

Goth

He felt a sense of unease. He was still trying to get used to the dark clothes she had come to favor, and to worry less about the great stretches of solitude that she seemed to crave behind her bedroom door. He wanted to believe that he was witnessing nothing more than a harmless phase of adjustment to the new realities of his family’s life.

Yet the anxiety lingered as he stepped back and moved down the hall to Kenneth’s room, an airy haven built over the garage. He started to call out, but through the half-open door he caught a glimpse of his son in front of the mirror over the bathroom sink. Kenneth was tilting his head and gazing at the way the light struck his hair as he combed it. There were highlights that Stephen was fairly sure hadn’t been there a few days earlier, which explained the special shampoo, another one of his son’s experiments …

He remembered the recent, nasty bruise that Kenneth had claimed to be from a fall. Thought of him being clobbered amid taunts as the high school mob mentality gained its inevitable momentum.

Jesus

He took another few steps back so Kenneth would not know what he had seen, his voice unsteady, as he called out “Time’s a wastin’, Kenny boy.”

There was another moment of silence, long enough to make him wonder what else his son was up to as he waited outside his bedroom door.

“Kenny?”

“Ready.” Kenneth stepped into the hall and shut the door behind him, as if sealing off his personal territory.

Stephen followed him down to the foyer and opened the door to a blast of Arctic air under a light gray sky. He turned on the radio as he warmed up the Explorer. The weathercaster was going on and on about the incoming “weather situation” and its likely impact on traffic later in the day as he headed out of the subdivision, then heard the beep of an incoming text.

Violating his rule to keep his hands off his phone whenever he was behind the wheel, he looked down and saw the message from Denise Wong had finally come.

He tapped it open.

Stephen, the investigative committee has reached a decision. Please call me to discuss this.

 He set the phone down on the console and gripped the wheel with both hands. Denise Wong had been his insurance agent for more than twenty years and he knew that she too had anxiously awaited the “decision” that would be part of his family’s history for the rest of their lives.

He was still thinking through the best and worst scenarios when the sharp blast of sirens filled the air.

He froze, his arms and shoulders rigid as he looked in the rearview mirror and tried to see past the column of SUVs and trucks behind him. Three Frederick County Sheriff’s cars and an unmarked sedan streaked by on the shoulder and made sharp right turns into the garden apartment complex ahead.

An ambulance came next, but it was moving slowly, the driver making only a marginal effort to get through the heavy traffic. Stephen pulled over to the shoulder, and waited for it to pass. Its ambling, lumbering pace felt like an omen for the news that Denise Wong had to share. Ambulances raced to accidents to save lives, but they were also called to carry away the dead, when nothing else could be done.

The thought was like an undertow, pulling him toward the darkness. He took a succession of deep breaths, and swiped the moisture from his eyes as he prepared for the day ahead.

# # #

2

Madison Reidy pulled her Range Rover diagonally across two spots at the inner edge of the Langford Secondary parking lot—a fairly bitchy thing to do since spaces were limited, but totally necessary given the probability of dents and scratches from juniors in crappy cars who were still learning how to drive. She was glad to be there fifteen minutes early, which gave her ample time to re-do her eyes and figure out the best way to get even with Sara Porter.

She turned off the ignition and checked her phone. Sara had ignored her text message from twenty minutes before, which only made her angrier as she dialed Marco Niles.

He answered after the first ring. “What?”

The sharpness of his tone startled her. Her mind raced with worry that she might have done something to annoy him. “Are you okay?”

“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

“You sound mad.”

“I lost my wallet.”

She exhaled, feeling relieved. His anger had nothing to do with her. “Oh no. Where?’

“I don’t know. Somewhere.” He sounded short of breath, as if he had been running. But then she heard a rumble of an engine, and guessed that he was behind the wheel of one of his father’s Hummers, on his way to school. “Any way, what do you want Madison?”

She paused, and brought a wounded sadness to her voice. “Sara Porter is such a bitch.”

“What—why?”

He sounded surprisingly anxious. She knew she had his full attention.

She made a vague sniffling sound, as if she had been crying.

“She called me a whore.”

Silence on the other end. She had an uncomfortable sensation—a sense that he might be smirking, given the lengths she had gone to over the weekend to try and keep him happy.

“Marco?”

“Why did she do that?”

“I don’t know!”

“What are you gonna’ do about it?”

The question set her back. In her mind, Marco would be the one doing something about it, not her. She tilted the rearview mirror down to look at her face. Her eyes were what her mother called Indigo Blue and they looked absolutely gorgeous in contrast to the dusty rose blush on her cheeks and the fresh, sunny highlights in her thick dark blonde hair. She would need more lip gloss before she saw Marco at lunchtime.

She squinted slightly, and found just the right words. “I think her brother wants to give you a blow job.”

What?

“I’m serious. You should have heard him working on that display outside the Art League yesterday, talking to one of the other freaks about the aesthetic symmetry or some shit. But of course he got distracted when you walked by.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He said you had a nice ass Marco.”

She heard him gasp.

“And I wasn’t the only one who caught it,” she said. “Tyrone Nichols and Jerome what’s-his-name were walking by and I could tell by the way they glanced at each other they heard it too.”

She waited a moment, for effect.

“I hope they don’t jump you in the locker room or whatever. You know, once word gets around—”

“Holy shit.”

His voice was breathless, as if he’d been punched in the stomach.

“You really shouldn’t be surprised Marco. You already knew Kenneth Porter is that way.”

She heard the squeal of brakes, and imagined him pulling off of the road and overcome with anger. A flighty sensation coincided with the quickening of her heart as she saw Sara Porter’s beat-up Jeep heading toward her, with Kenneth in the passenger seat. Kenneth met her eyes with a shy smile and a tentative wave. She felt a fleeting moment of guilt over the lies she had just told, but decided that in essence they were pretty much true.

“Marco, are you okay?”

“No, Madison, I’m not okay.”

She thought of her mother and the soothing voice she sometimes used after a couple of hours with her “life-coach;” the post-orgasm moodiness that usually precipitated a night of boozy psychobabble.

“It’s really bad for your karma to be angry, Marco.”

She gave Kenneth Porter an exaggeratedly sweet smile as the Jeep rolled by, and then glanced at a group of fellow cheerleaders who had gathered on the sidewalk; all of them waiting for her to step out and accompany them so they could proceed, as a group, into the school.

“But you need to find a way to deal with it if you are.”

* * *

Sara had a bad feeling in the brief moment of eye contact with Madison in the parking lot and tried to ignore it as she dropped Kenneth off and watched him head into school. He hadn’t said a word to her in the car, and had been noticeably nervous, gripping his black leather portfolio as if he was terrified someone was going to suddenly rip it away. She felt badly about the way she had talked to him at breakfast, knowing that she had only added to the anxiety of another day at a new school without a single friend to count on.

The sense of doom stayed with her all the way into the afternoon, and spiked with the text message from Madison that arrived during the last class of the day.

fuck u

It was a clear escalation from the one-word text—FREAK—from the morning. The message had stunned her when she had read it in the kitchen, in front of her father and Kenneth. It was cruel, even for Madison, and she could only hope that eventually her former friend would get bored and find someone else to torture.

She glanced at the clock over the door and was relieved to see the hour ending. She closed her laptop and slipped it into her shoulder bag just as the bell began to ring. On the way to the door she had to walk past a girl who was part of the clique that followed Madison’s every move. She made a feeble effort to offer the girl a distant smile. Over the past few days she had attempted to adapt an attitude—or at least an appearance—of indifference to her lack of friends, but she knew that her emotions were betraying her. She was almost certain that Madison and her crew knew she spent much of every day on the very edge of tears.

Just get past her, she told herself. Don’t give her another thought.

Langford Secondary combined grades seven-through-twelve and sprawled over acres and acres of what had once been a big farm. Sometimes it took a full five minutes to get from one class to the next. Fortunately, her next period was in the immediately adjacent wing, and designated as her tutoring time for Aidan O’Shea, a sweet, sensitive, autistic eighth grader who probably wouldn’t have even been at Langford without the guidance of Kieran, his beloved older brother.

As always her mood lifted with the certainty that Kieran would come by the tutoring center at the end of the session. After so many weeks of “friendship” she still felt as if she was under some kind of spell every time she looked into his beautiful pale blue eyes or ran her fingers through his wavy, black hair, or simply gazed at him as he walked the hallways, a teacher who somehow got away with wearing jeans and steel-toed boots and silver studs in his ear, projecting an almost forbidding sense of authority and a mysterious, irresistible vibe.

The happy feeling stayed with her as she passed the Art Wall, a large cinder block space at the interior of the building that had skylights instead of windows and a long wall that had been turned into a display space for the most creative and least popular oddballs in the entire school.

As expected, Kenneth was there, sitting on the tile floor, his attention focused on the sketchpad on his knees. Last week he had told her that his art teacher had given him his first “commission”—a large collage for the wall that would combine photography, graffiti art, and picture frames placed in what Kenneth had called “a deliberately random way along the whole piece.” She had rolled her eyes and called him “pretentious” but had actually been interested in what he came up with. So far the wall was blank but there were two large leather satchels leaning up against it, most likely containing some of the photographs Kenneth had either taken or gathered from the innumerable places in the cyberspace where he spent most of his time.

Even from a distance she could tell he was completely absorbed in whatever he was drawing. She glanced at her watch, told herself don’t worry, he’s fine, and turned around to head to her class.

Everything that happened next occurred very quickly. At the far end of the hall, amid the dense crowd of students in motion, she caught sight of Kieran, standing with his arms folded across his chest, playing the role of hall monitor but somehow finding her, focusing on her across the vast space. The connection between them felt like an electric current, a hum that vibrated through her whole body as she gazed back. She stood completely still but she felt him touching her from a distance; felt a tingle in her breasts and the feather-light brush of his lips, his hands stroking her neck and running through her hair . . .

She wanted to walk toward him but found that she couldn’t move. Even so her knees were vibrating as if an electrical current bad become trapped within her. She stayed that way for an infinite moment before a loud smack made her turn around. She saw Kenneth standing, and then walking backwards, his eyes wide with terror at the sight of Marco Niles advancing. There was a forward hunch in Marco’s broad shoulders and his fists were balled at his sides. She had a brief view of the tile floor as the crowd parted around them, saw the scattered photos and realized that the smacking sound had come from the leather portfolio, upended by Marco and then tossed back down.

Marco shouted “Faggot!” the word cutting like a firecracker through the air.

Panic flooded her thoughts but she remembered what she had told herself she would do when this finally happened.

A witness; a teacher; you need a teacher to witness—

She spun around; searched frantically for Kieran; saw nothing but the blur of teenagers; turned back toward Kenneth, hidden now, hemmed in by a tight circle of football players—Marco’s friends—blocking the view. But then Kenneth’s head rose briefly above the crowd. She realized then that he was being lifted off his feet by Marco Niles and heard a sickening umph as he was slammed backward against the wall; heard it again as she rushed toward her brother and screamed “GET AWAY FROM HIM” just as a fist flew backward, hitting her hard in the stomach and knocking her to her knees.

Bright white light flashed in her vision as Marco finally stepped aside and gave her a full-on view of Kenneth, his eyes half-open and dazed, the blood streaming from his nose as he slid down the pale yellow cinder block wall.

* * *

“They’re ruling it as a suicide, Stephen. I’m really, really sorry.”

Denise Wong’s voice sounded as if it was coming from the end of a long tunnel, her tone as surreal as the message she was conveying. Unable to respond, Stephen pinched the space between his eyebrows and shut his eyes. In quick, flickering images he saw his wife coming briskly down the stairs and pulling her jacket and umbrella out of the hall closet; recalled her drawn, anxious expression during the mysteriously awkward conversation in the foyer; his mind capturing in freeze-frame the downward tilt of her head as she stepped out the door and into the rain.

Her last-minute appointment with the decorator they had hired for the new house had been scheduled for 9 p.m. At 8:45, according to the official police report, a driver had rounded a bend and seen her Lexus at the bottom of Brighton Gorge, filling with water from a flooded stream. The man had called 911 and then climbed down the embankment, and had nearly been swept away by the fast-moving current as he tried to reach her.

“The investigators are wrong,” he said. “Lori would never . . .”

He looked at the closed door of his office and fought to hold back the tears.

“I honestly don’t believe it either.” Denise told him. “Unfortunately the lead investigator said he can only look at the physical evidence.”

The evidence. No seat belt despite the fact that Lori always buckled up. No sign that she ever touched the brakes. No way to challenge the investigator’s estimates that his wife had hit a speed of 70 mph as the car struck the guard rail, then flipped and tumbled down the gorge.

“They’re only seeing what they want to see,” he said.

Denise was silent. In the weeks leading up to this moment she had advised him of his right to contest the decision that would be made by the insurance company’s claims department if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. She had assured him there would be “due recourse,” but not without expensive lawyer fees, and depositions, and arguments that would dredge up the details of Lori’s death again and again.

He had also endured numerous conversations with the Frederick Sheriff’s Department Detective, which had been repetitive and draining.

Something’s not right, Mr. Porter.

Call me Stephen.

All right, Stephen. I think we need to go over this again.

He turned his attention back to Denise. “Did the committee look at Detective Caruso’s statement?”

He heard the click of her fingers on a keyboard and a sense of resignation in her voice as she responded.

“They looked at everything, including the report that came in last week.”

Stephen sat up straighter. “Last week?”

“There was an addendum from Detective Caruso. Basically just saying that the investigation would be ongoing, which means, I think, that he also still has questions. But he reiterated the medical examiner’s determination of the cause of death.”

Stephen pressed his fist against his lips and thought once again about the circumstances that had been in the initial report:

The malfunctioning airbag.

Her head hitting the windshield.

The water rushing in.

“He also conveyed his concerns about the note,” Denise said.

The note had been addressed to “My Wonderful Family.” Stephen had found it underneath the hand mirror on Lori’s chest of drawers the day after she died. It was typewritten, and printed out on plain white paper, and unsigned. Just a simple short letter describing her “deep sadness” and desire to end her life. It had been dated the day of her death, but Stephen had found no trace of it on the computer he and Lori shared, nor on those used by Sara and Kenneth.

“I told Detective Caruso, Lori did not write that note.”

“Well I’m here for you if you have any other questions,” Denise told him. Her voice sounded more grounded now, more in tune with her professional persona as a representative of the insurance company that went by the slogan, “Agents for Life.” Stephen remembered her office walls were covered with Asian art conveying various symbols of luck and fortune.

The thought of those images only made him feel more worn-out as he whispered the question that had been at the front of his mind for five months.

“What am I gonna tell my kids?”

Your mother loved you, he thought. She would never leave you.

“Stephen, I’m so sorry. If you need to talk to someone—”

He set the receiver down on the desk, disconnected the line, and felt a hollow, scraping sensation at the back of his throat as the receptionist buzzed him.

He hit the speaker button. “I’m not taking any calls, Carole. I need to be left alone.”

“It’s Sara calling. From school. She said it’s urgent, Stephen. I think she’s crying.”

# # #