Marc dropped me off a few hours later, disheveled but none the worse for wear. Mom was waiting up for me. I smoothed my hair back and wiped at my mouth, hoping my lipstick wasn’t smudged around my lips. My dress was at least arranged properly. I entered the kitchen.
“Hi, sweetheart,” she sat at the table with a note card and pen. Her blonde hair was cut in a bob that reached halfway down her neck and was hooked behind her ears. She wore small gold hoop earrings and a silk bathrobe embroidered with an Asian motif. Mom was a retired Pan Am stewardess, and had all the grace and beauty that went with that image. Always socially graceful and collected. I was envious of how easy she made everything look. But tonight, she looked tired.
“Still up?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
She looked at me appraisingly and smiled. “Have a good time tonight? How’s Marc?” She indicated my necklace, which was wrapped around my neck the wrong way, hanging down my back.
“Uh, he’s fine,” I fiddled with the chain, trying to pull the charm around my neck. My hair was moist with sweat and humidity. I had taken it out of a hair tie earlier and now the necklace was wound in it. “He’s good,” I amended, and sat down.
She put her note card and pen aside.
“I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to talk to you. How are you handling things?” She waited, looking carefully at my face. I didn’t answer right away.
“I heard you cry out in your sleep last night,” she said.
“Oh… yeah,” I said, but I hadn’t realized I had done that.
“It was just a dream. I saw Eva. But it’s okay…I’m okay, I guess. Just worrying about school,” I said, avoiding her eyes.
I did not want to have this conversation with her right now.
“That’s exactly what’s on my mind. I was thinking perhaps you should consider postponing things. You could start in the spring,” she added, pausing to wait for a response from me. When I didn’t give one, she continued, “You know it wouldn’t be the end of the world and it would give you a chance to recover a little.”
I sat down across from her.
Mom had perfect hands. Her fingernails were tastefully French manicured, and she wore a beautiful ring of channel set diamonds on her right hand to complement her engagement ring and wedding band. “This has all been pretty traumatic,” she continued, “and going without Eva…” She stopped there and regarded me. “Rowan, I’m concerned. I’d feel better if you waited a semester to start school.”
I wasn’t biting. Most of my friends would be taking off in a couple of weeks, including Marc. Ronnie would be busy running her parents’ restaurant full time. Beth was starting school in Florida. Jen was going to Rhode Island. I didn’t want to be left alone in my hometown with my parents.
“No, Mom. I want to go. Everyone will be gone. I need to be around my friends.”
“And Marc?” she asked.
“Yes, and Marc.” I answered.
“Well, think it over. I’m sure the university would hold your place for the spring, given the circumstances.” She got up and bent to kiss me goodnight before leaving me there to think about the coming semester and a dorm room without Eva.
I went down the hall and into my bedroom. A poster of Duran Duran that Eva had given me hung on the wall. I still had some of her clothes there, too. A T-shirt I’d borrowed one day as a cover-up at the beach. A pair of flip flops she’d forgotten at the house one day. A skirt she’d loaned me for a date with Marc. I’d neatly folded and stacked them to give to her, but I’d forgotten them there until after the accident.
I went to the window, opened it, and looked out and up, through the trees. There was a beautiful triple birch tree just outside my bedroom window, which looked out over the front yard. It was glowing a silvery white in the moonlight. Beautiful sentinels reaching up from the earth into the sky, gracing the dark. And the sky was filled with a million stars. I listened to the frogs singing, noticed the smell of the night air. The tops of the trees rustling softly in the night breeze.
Nice night for a walk.
I closed the door silently behind me and turned left toward the cul-de-sac at the end of our street. Lake Shore Drive ended in a circle and there was a little boat launch onto a lake there. I walked toward the end of the street, listening to the crickets. They stopped singing as I passed by them, and then resumed when I was a safe distance away. Their awareness was amusing and interesting. Cricket mind. As if by pausing their song I might not notice them. Or maybe they stopped, curious, to watch a strange interloper on their world pass by. No doubt human visitors were few at this time of night. How, I wondered, does a person look to a cricket?
I looked up at the moon and wondered if Eva could see the moon from wherever she was. Or hear crickets. I wondered if she was aware of my dream, or if she was nearby. I thought about her cream colored casket and the gravestone her family had selected for her. It was heart-shaped and bore only her name and dates. That was all. No epitaph. I wondered if some part of her—the part of her that made her uniquely Eva, perhaps, was aware of her gravestone, had seen it.
I wondered if she would like it.
When I reached the lake I sat down on the little pier next to the launch. The moon hung low over the lake, and the water reflected a beautiful wash of moonlight toward the pier. I smiled, remembering a night here a few weeks earlier with Marc.
We’d come here for a walk on a night when the moon was darker. The sound of the frogs and the crickets had been like a song, and the dark moon seemed to conceal us from everyone, everything. There was a breeze, and the trees rustled in a conspiratorial way. We sat together on the pier just listening to the trees and the soft lap of the water against the wood beneath us. I leaned against him, feeling his chest rising and falling rhythmically beneath me.
“Rowan, I love you.”
His breath was warm against my ear. I turned to look at him, my heart skipping a beat. The blue of his eyes was mesmerizing. He was smiling nervously.
He’d never said that before, and he was waiting for my response to it. Instead, I kissed him. I didn’t trust myself to say anything.
He kissed me back, slowly, falling into a rhythm as he slipped his arm around my waist.
“Rowan,” he said, lightly running his tongue along my lower lip. It made me tingle.
I closed my eyes, breathing in his scent. Warm and a little spicy.
“Rowan,” he kissed me again.
He tasted good, his lips firm and full against mine.
“Rowan Thomson,” he was smiling now, while he kissed me. “Baby, say something.”
“Something.” I smiled back, reaching to unbutton his shirt.
His skin was hot and damp, and his breathing was coming harder. I drew a line from his chest to the lowest part of his belly with my finger, playing with the soft hairs there.
“Something.” I kissed him again.
“Mmmm, anything,” he said, his eyes closing. I turned to look at him, beautiful there in the moonlight. His lips were parted, so inviting.
I sat there remembering, letting the memory of it wash over me. It seemed a lifetime ago, now. Or even like a different life.
Marc was my first love. I fell for him at first sight one night at a ski lodge, where our school ski club went every Friday for night skiing. Somehow, he had escaped my attention during the many weeks of taking a school bus packed with other Pemberton Academy students and their ski equipment to the mountain. My friends and I horsed around week after week, smuggling stolen bottles of rum onto the mountain in hair spray or coke bottles, despite the best efforts of the teachers who chaperoned us to prevent it. We were a motley bunch, loud and raucous as a habit, and completely without consideration for the mountain’s other patrons.
One very cold night we came into the lodge looking for our hidden drinks, having frozen ourselves solid in the mountain’s cold night air. Rummaging through our bags, I found an Aqua Net pump spray bottle. Jen’s stash of Canadian Whiskey, stolen from her father’s bar. I took it and poured some into my paper cup of soda before sliding it across the table to her. Seating myself to relax, I unclipped my ski boots and looked up.
Marc was there, leaning against the wall opposite our stowed bags. He was with his own friends, all of them a year older than my friends and me. I was completely dumbstruck. His beautiful eyes and smile dazzled me completely. I’d never seen anyone like him.
My heart raced as I watched him talking with his friends just a few feet from us. A girl I did not recognize came in and sat down next to him. My heart sank. He had a girlfriend.
“Yoo hoo!” Jen was waving her hand in front of my face trying to get my attention.
“We’re going to get some hot chocolate. Want anything?”
I shook my head no, still gazing at Marc.
“Fries? Coke? Nothing? You sure?”
“Jen, do you know his name?” I asked, my voice low.
“The handsome one.”
“Ah, yes. That would be Mr. Marc Stanton. Good skier. His sister Beth is in our class,” she looked at me, one eyebrow raised in the air to indicate her thoughts.
“You think he’s cute?”
“You have two eyes in your head, don’t you?” I shot back. “Beth, as in Beth Stanton?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yes, your buddy and mine, Beth Stanton,” she said, turning to look at him. “I guess so, yeah, I never really looked at him.” She pulled her wallet out of her ski bag.
“I guess maybe he’s your type, now that you mention it. Looks like he’s with that girl. Sure you don’t want any hot chocolate?” she asked, getting up.
I shook my head no, still watching Marc.
“I’ll leave you here to stare. Don’t go blind.”
And she did leave me there to stare, clomping off toward the concession stand in our friend Bill’s ski boots. They were three sizes too big for her.
When she came back I was still staring at Marc. I hadn’t moved.
“Rowan, come on!” Jen said, exasperated. “I’m doing the next run on Bill’s skis. Want to come watch me break my neck?” she asked, only half joking.
“I guess so,” I sighed.
She looked at Marc and back at me. “Listen, come with me and I’ll see if that’s his girlfriend. I’ll ask Beth when I see her next week. Okay?”
“Yeah. Now put your hat on.”
Incredible that Beth, the girl I’d had freshman English with, was his sister. Class after class, Beth and I had argued over our interpretations of the dialogue Shakespeare wrote for MuchAdo about Nothing. Though perhaps not his most complex work, Shakespeare was nevertheless a revelation for our young minds. We were the most vocal students in our class, causing our poor English teacher, Mr. Waterman, more than one headache. We’d become friends because of our heated discussions, surprisingly. Beth appreciated a good debate.
Fortunately, aside from an expression of some distaste at the news that I thought her brother was a dreamboat, Beth did not seem concerned with the matter of our relationship. Somehow Marc and I met shortly after that night at the ski lodge, and began to date. I never saw the girl he was with at the ski lodge again, so one night I asked him who she was.
“Which one?” he asked.
“The one with the brown hair, dark eyes. Medium height. At the ski lodge,” I prompted, not sure whether to be relieved, annoyed, or astonished at his amnesia.
“Oh, Renee,” he said. “She lived in another town, went to a different school. Salem, I think.” Something in his tone suggested there had been several possible candidates for who I’d seen him with. I probed.
“Renee. Right. Pretty girl,” I looked at him. “Were you dating more than one girl at that time…?”
He smiled, looked down at his lap. So that was it. “A harem of hopeful young ladies?” I asked, half joking, half jealous.
“No. Just three. Not a harem,” he replied, smiling.
Why did boys always get away with this sort of thing? It wasn’t fair. Still, I wanted him, despite my annoyance. “And so, what? Who broke it off? Who were the other two?” It wasn’t any of my business. My questions were in poor taste. But I couldn’t help asking.
“Rowan, it doesn’t matter now, does it? I broke things off. We are together, now.” That had been the end of the conversation.
That night, though, sitting alone on the pier with my memories of Marc, I felt afraid of my feelings for him. I tried to imagine him leaving my life as Eva had. Meeting another girl, perhaps. Or having an accident. A flash of panic gripped me, and then numbness. Some part of me was dying. The part that trusted things to turn out okay was collapsing, violated by Eva’s sudden death, by the seeming meaninglessness of it. By my helplessness to stop it.
Threatened by everything else that could collapse in an instant, I felt nothing but numb fear. I was free falling. Anything could go wrong, no matter how inconceivable. Justice was a notion disproved by life, it seemed.
And in that moment sitting alone on the pier, I had no idea how I was going to get on without any faith.
I walked through the last few days of summer like a ghost. Going to work, coming home, not eating. I didn’t call or see my friends. I began to lose weight. My father told me I was starting to look gaunt.
I didn’t care. My mind turned constantly on the last morning of Eva’s life. The time she’d spent in our kitchen, the words she’d spoken just before she drove away. She’d had an argument with her mother. Over something stupid. Something she didn’t want to talk about.
The answer was presumably lost. Just as Eva’s life was lost, the answers to so many questions, hopes for so many things, were lost. I tried to digest that fact. I tried to accept the fact that everything we had planned would never happen. That I had to move on.
But it was too hard.
Mom was carrying on, fussing over what I would pack for my first semester at UNH. Making lists and shopping for first aid supplies, extra socks, detergent, small appliances, whatever she imagined I would need. She was building on a pile that Eva and I had started at the beginning of the summer. It ran the length of one wall of my bedroom and was two feet tall. I paid little attention, walking around it without stopping to notice what she bought, or thinking about what I would need or want in my dorm room. I knew she needed to keep busy and I felt grateful for her attention.
Kori didn’t say much. She kept busy with her animals and sports and Billy was mostly at camp or tinkering with a computer. They stayed away, which I only noticed when when they didn’t.
Meanwhile, my father was quiet. A tall man with dark hair, he’d always been slender, but he was looking thinner than usual. He started to come home late from work, where he was the vice president of operations for a technical division. Tetra Corp designed and produced robotics for the computer industry. My father had worked there for over twenty years.
Since Mom had retired from the airline, we’d always had dinner together. And often, Eva ate with us. Her parents were often so busy with work or volunteer activities that she and her sisters were left to conjure dinner for themselves, so she had taken to joining us for dinner whenever she was around. She was like part of our family, here so often that my parents had become accustomed to her constant appearances and often made extra food in case she would be joining us for meals. But now, Mom, Kori, Billy, and I ate alone because Dad was working late. We were decreased from six to four at the table.
Dad would come home well after dinner time most nights and have a drink. He said little before retiring for the night. He looked a little grayer since Eva had gone. I noticed this, but had no way of reaching through my own grief to ask him what was happening. I was too absorbed with my own loss. We grieved together, but separately, each of us carrying on with work and the daily business of living. The house was quiet.
Then one evening the phone rang after dinner. It was my father’s friend Travis. He was coming from Texas for a visit.
“Aren’t Brian and Gina starting school soon?” I inquired, assuming Travis would bring his family.
“I’m sure they are,” my father replied, “But Travis is coming alone.”
I was silent as I absorbed this. It was unprecedented. Dad and Travis had known each other for years. They had met when both of them were young, newly married, and before we, the children, had been born. Every couple of years one family would make a kind of pilgrimage to visit the other family. We had been doing this for as long as I could remember. But no one had ever made the trip alone, as far as I knew.
“Why?” I finally asked.
My father’s jaw started to work, the bottom grinding back and forth against the top as he considered his answer. He was staring at a glass of beer he had on the table in front of him. Finally, he looked at me, his icy blue eyes resting on mine.
“Because I need his help.”
I just stared, unable to speak, my heart in my throat. Travis was a state police officer. Was this what my father meant? I dared not ask.
Dad got up and left the table with his beer, going out onto the patio alone. I looked at Mom. She heaved a deep sigh, the beginnings of dark rings starting to form beneath her eyes. Not a good sign.
“There’s been a lawsuit brought against us, honey,” she said, giving me a weary look and pausing, perhaps trying to decide whether or not to continue.
“. . . for wrongful death. And your father called Travis because we need him to come up and see what he can do to help us.”
Mom nodded, pursing her lips nervously.
“We received a letter this week from Eva’s parents’ lawyer, Rowan. John Verdano is suing your father for wrongful death.”
I blinked, silently repeating what she said. Wrongful death. A mix of disbelief and anger started to rise as I tried to understand what she was saying. John Verdano, Eva’s father, was suing Dad. Was that what she had said?
The act of staying upright in the chair was an effort as my head swam with this news. Tears sprang into my eyes, followed immediately by a kind of confused rage. This was senseless. Was this why Dad had been so withdrawn? I tried to clear my head, catch my breath, recover my vision. “What the hell are you talking about?” I finally managed to choke out, my anger dominating.
Mom recoiled at my language. Her green eyes were sad and filled with tears. I was making this harder for her, I knew. She was concerned about me; I had been hard to talk to, withdrawing into myself since the funeral.
“Maybe you should talk to your father about this.”
I pushed myself away from the maple table that had been in our kitchen forever, hitting the chair rail behind me and making a mark in the cream colored paint. Mom saw the damage, but didn’t react. Rather, she got up silently and went into the cellar, which meant she was going to retrieve a bottle of wine.
When I opened the slider onto our patio Dad was there, looking out into the woods. He had worked hard the year before creating the patio—leveling the ground and setting the stones into it until the patio measured twelve foot square. Marc had helped him finish it with a stone edge that became a wall where they had added earth to level the patio. It had taken most of last summer to complete. My father’s hand was shaking. He didn’t turn to look at me.
He took a drink of his beer. Standing still and looking into the woods. “Dad,” I repeated. He sighed, turned to face me. I had my mother’s green eyes and I leveled them on him carefully. He met my gaze.
“Rowan, your mother and I didn’t want to trouble you with this just before your semester was due to begin.” He paused, his jaw working as he thought about what he wanted to say before continuing. “But it’s become apparent that you will be required to give a deposition at some point, and rather than keep something from you that is bound to come out, we decided you should know,” he finished, sounding steady and confident. But I still did not understand why we were being sued.
“Dad, why is Mr. Verdano suing us? What do we have to do with Eva’s accident?”
He took a seat at the patio table and motioned for me to join him. He looked tired. His jaw was grinding again. “It would seem that Mr. Verdano thinks I had something to do with the failure of Eva’s car. Specifically the wheel that came off while she was driving.”
“But that’s crazy…” I looked at Mom’s potted geraniums, which were sitting at the edge of the patio. Red and brilliant, their presence seemed to suggest that everything was all right. But it wasn’t. Nothing was all right.
“Her Civic was here a lot. And I changed her oil and checked her brakes for her a few days before the accident, remember?”
“Yes. But what has that got to do with anything?”
“Mr. Verdano seems to think it has everything to do with Eva’s accident. He has charged me with negligence and wrongful death. In other words, he thinks I made a mistake while I was working on her car and he wants me to pay for it.”
“Did you touch the wheels?” I asked.
“Yes. When I changed her brakes,” he spun his drink carefully on the table.
“But I remember the work I did and I feel certain that everything was tightly refastened when I was finished,” he said.
“I’m sure we can prove I’m innocent of his charges if this goes to court. But I want Travis to come up and look at the car, ask some questions, and see if he can’t shed some light on this mess for us.” He sat looking at his beer, seeming to forget for a moment that I was there.
And then, looking up suddenly, he finished, “Okay, honey?”
His confidence was reassuring, but the weight of the implications was heavy. Dad had always done all of the maintenance work on our family’s cars. There had never been a problem. He had offered to do Eva’s oil change and brakes because I was in the car so often, and he wanted to ensure our safety.
I felt a burning anger at Mr. Verdano. I had known him for years, spent countless hours in their home with Eva. I pictured him and his wife, Eva’s mother. They were a very handsome couple, my best friend’s parents. Popular and well-respected in the community. I tried to fit this new development, this new piece of the puzzle, into my picture of John Verdano. When I thought about how well I knew Mr. Verdano, I realized that many years of friendship with Eva had amounted to very little time in her father’s presence. I could probably count the number of hours I’d spent in his company on one hand. He was usually not around, and when he was at home he was polite, but never casual. He always maintained an air of formality around his daughter’s friends, excusing himself and disappearing to work in his office—a room I’d never entered—whenever we were around. Still, he’d never made me feel unwelcome in his home and I’d visited there often enough, sometimes sitting with Eva and her sisters in the family room to watch movies or paint our nails.
John Verdano might not have been a close friend but he was a member of our community, and someone I felt was at least a friendly acquaintance by virtue of his relationship to Eva.
How could he accuse my father of such a thing?