Authors: Lisa Scottoline
“I hear you.” Pam regarded him impatiently behind her glasses. “And so…”
“And then, well, to go back a minute, when I picked him up at the movie, I noticed that there were two girls they were talking to.”
“Girls?” Pam lifted an eyebrow.
“Yeah, so while he was texting, I started to ask him about them, who they were and how they came to be at the movie. I was trying to make conversation, to get something going.” Jake was making it up as he went along, but Pam’s manner had changed from impatient to intrigued.
“So what did he say? I didn’t know there were girls going to the movie, or that they were meeting girls there.”
“I didn’t get an answer. But wait”—Jake caught himself—“if I tell you what happened, you can’t talk to him about it.”
“If you say anything, he’ll never confide in me again, and that would defeat the purpose of my going to pick him up in the first place.” Jake realized suddenly that if he could get Pam not to bring up the subject with Ryan, then the boy wouldn’t have to lie to her. “Let us work it out, him and me. I think we did by the end, so let me keep at it.”
“Okay, Coach.” Pam rolled her eyes, amused. Her hands went to her ears, fingering the diamond studs he had given her, checking the backs to make sure they stayed on, a nervous habit. “So, as you were saying…”
“Well, all he would tell me about the girls was that they were from school and…” Jake stopped short, not wanting to tell her about the girl from Texas that Ryan had asked out. “Anyway, when I asked him another question, he kept texting, and I heard him mutter under his breath, ‘It’s none of your business.’”
“That is so disrespectful!” Pam’s mouth dropped open. “He gets that from Caleb, you know. I
that kid. He’s a bad influence.”
Jake bit his tongue. Pam was more right than she knew. “Ryan says he didn’t say it, but I swear he did, and we got in a fight. I told him I thought he was being fresh and entitled—”
“Hoo boy.” Pam’s eyes flared.
“—and he told me that he was too old to be reporting his personal life to his father, and he shouldn’t have to account for everything he did, and we yelled at each other.”
Jake told himself to remain calm. Pam may have been a Ryan expert, but she didn’t know he smoked marijuana and she would disapprove heartily. He had tried pot in college, and she hadn’t even tried it. His wife took seriously the fact that she was a judge and had sworn an oath to uphold the law. Plus she believed marijuana turned kids into underachievers, which in her mind, was practically criminal. Jake reminded himself to get back on track with the story. “He cried from the stress, I guess. I shouted at him. I lost my temper.”
” Pam blinked. “You never lose your temper.”
“I do sometimes.”
“Okay, whatever.” Pam shrugged, but Jake didn’t want to remind her of the night he’d lost his job, when he’d thrown his laptop across the kitchen and cracked the screen. It wasn’t even under warranty.
“Anyway, he pushed my buttons.”
“Did you call him names? Remember, you’re not supposed to call names.”
“Of course not, I don’t call names.” Jake knew from therapy that name-calling was against the rules, like the Geneva Convention of marriage.
“I don’t understand something. Was this in the car or the diner?”
“Was what?” Jake lost his train of thought again. He kept thinking of the woman, how horrible she had looked, lying there.
“The fight,” Pam was saying. “Did you have it in the car or the diner?”
“In the car.”
“After a fight like this, you went to the diner?”
Jake realized it sounded implausible. “Yes,” he answered anyway.
“He went along with that?” Pam recoiled, surprised. “I would think he’d be embarrassed. He’d been crying. What if he ran into someone he knew? Everybody knows who he is, from the team. You can’t miss him, he’s built like a lighthouse.”
“That’s what he said, but I insisted on it. He cleaned himself up in the car. I always have those Wet Wipes in the console, for when I eat in the car.” In truth, Jake was the one who cleaned up using the Wet Wipes. There had been blood on his face and hands. He’d driven away from a hit-and-run, thrown away the Wet Wipes and the marijuana in a Dumpster, and taught their son that dishonesty was the best policy. Jake didn’t know himself anymore. This wasn’t him.
“Why’d you want to go to the diner? You mean Mason’s?”
“Yes, Mason’s.” Jake realized he’d just trapped himself. He was a terrible liar. His heart beat wildly in his chest, as if it wanted to escape his very body.
“But you hate Mason’s. Every time I ask you to go, you say no.”
“I know, but you and Ryan love it, and I thought we could sort things out better there.”
“In public?” Pam didn’t look suspicious, merely critical. “Why didn’t you come home? I could’ve helped.”
“I know, that’s the problem. If we came home, we would have looked to you to settle it, like Judge Mom. I didn’t want that. We had to do this on our own, just the two of us.”
“Really.” Pam nodded, with a new half smile. “So you went to Mason’s because I wasn’t there?”
“Honestly, yes. I have to find my own way with him. That’s the goal, right?” Jake felt he had turned a corner, inadvertently saying something that made complete sense, however false. Still it brought him no satisfaction or relief.
“You keep saying you can’t
my relationship to him. The therapist said that too.”
“So I tempted him with a cheeseburger, and we got over it.”
“Wow.” Pam brightened, genuinely happy, which only made Jake feel horrible.
“So it’s over. We solved it.”
“Whatever, I’ll take it.” Jake managed a shaky smile, and Pam patted him on the back.
“You’re a good guy, Jake. That’s why I knew we’d be fine. Back when, you know.”
Jake’s throat caught. She meant when he’d lost his job and they had their rough patch. She’d dragged him into marriage counseling. It wasn’t his way, with his old-school, close-mouthed, working-class Scottish upbringing, from the other side of town. But like everything else he’d learned growing up, it had been 180 degrees wrong. Pam had taught him that, and now he was lying to her face.
“You’re reliable, and kind, and you try. You really do.” Pam smiled, sweetly. “You know what my mom always said about you.”
Jake couldn’t even fake a smile back. It was something they always said, a marital call-and-response, but the words soured on his tongue. “I’m Husband Material?”
“Ha! Don’t say it that way. Yes, you are.” Pam gave his back a final pat, like a period at the end of the sentence, then turned to go upstairs. “Okay, let’s go up. This week needs to end.”
“Right behind you.” Jake followed her from the kitchen, flicking off the lights. He should be relieved that he’d gotten away with lying to Pam, but it made him sick to his stomach.
He trudged upstairs behind Pam, leaning on the banister and hanging his head. He tried to unravel the night in his mind, to unspool the hours, to undo all the times it had gone wrong. He wished he had told Pam the truth. He wished he’d called the cops at the scene. He wished he hadn’t distracted Ryan while he was driving. He wished he hadn’t let Ryan drive in the first place. He wished he’d never even gone to pick Ryan up. Most of all, he wished that that poor woman was alive and well, back from her run, happy and at home, with her family.
But she wasn’t.
Jake had committed himself and his son to a course, and he had to see it through. Even though the notion filled him with dread.
And the deepest, deepest shame.
Jake turned over, facing away from his sleeping wife, and opened his eyes. The bedroom was pitch dark because Pam liked to keep the blackout shades down, and it made the green digital numerals in his alarm clock glow even brighter. It was 2:45
, and he’d been tossing and turning since he’d showered and gone to bed. He knew he would never fall asleep, replaying the night in his head, starting with him being parked outside the movie theater and ending with his avoiding his rearview mirror, so he couldn’t see the broken corpse of the woman vanish into blackness.
Jake tugged the covers up over his shoulder. In his mind, he went over everything he did and everything he said, then everything Ryan did and said, again and again, trying to see how it could have come out differently, or how he could’ve reached a different decision. But he kept coming out in the same horrendous place, reaching the same unthinkable conclusion.
Anguished, Jake felt like it was a no-win situation from the moment they hit the runner, or maybe from the moment he found out about the marijuana, or maybe from the moment he let Ryan drive. His guilt and remorse drove him to keep trying to parse his decisions and sent him into another spiral of what-if reasoning,
what if I hadn’t gone to pick him up, what if I hadn’t let him drive, what if I had paid attention to the road, what if, what if, what if.
Jake squeezed his eyes shut, keeping tears at bay. He slept on the side of the bed closer to the door, because he was supposed to protect everybody, the Daddy-dragon guarding the Dutch Colonial. The thought made him cringe, after what had happened. He’d protected his son into a nightmare. And if he was having a sleepless night, he could only imagine that Ryan had it worse.
He eased off the covers, got up quietly, and padded down the hallway to Ryan’s room. He turned the knob carefully, opened the door, slipped inside, and closed the door behind him. The bedroom was dark, and moonlight came through the striped curtains. Ryan made a large mound under his comforter, and Jake could see his head on the pillow, but couldn’t make out his face. Moose was curled up on the bed, his head resting on Ryan’s feet, and the golden retriever didn’t stir.
“Dad?” Ryan whispered, and Jake crossed to the bed and sat down on the edge.
“How are you doing?”
“Horrible. How are you?”
“Horrible, and worried about my boy.” Jake’s eyes were adjusting to the light level, and he could see the shadows of Ryan’s young features, the hollows of his eyes and cheeks, and the dark waves in his hair. “Are you getting any sleep?”
Jake sighed heavily. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that it happened.”
“Me, too, I’m sorry, so sorry. Everything is my fault, all of it.”
“That’s not true.”
“It is, you know it is. I was the driver. I’m the one responsible.”
“No, it was an accident. That’s why they call it an accident. Accidents happen.” Jake had been giving himself the same speech for the past hour. “We weren’t doing anything really wrong, it just happened.”
“Come on. I
doing something wrong. I wasn’t watching the road.”
“You happened to look over for a minute, a second, even a split second. You were having a conversation with me, and that happens every day, in cars all across this country.”
“You weren’t texting or talking on the phone. In the fraction of a second you looked away, we hit a blind curve, and a runner was in the street. Who knew that she would be running that time of night? And she didn’t have any reflective gear on, either.”
“It’s not her fault she got hit.”
“I didn’t mean that.” Jake realized he was lying then, too. He did mean that. He had just blamed an innocent victim for getting herself killed. He must be losing his mind. A wave of guilt washed over him, so profound he had to close his eyes until it passed.
“Lots of people run late at night.”
“I know, but it’s not your fault that you hit her. That
Ryan moaned. “No,
hit her, you just said it.”
“Ryan, we’re in this together, and we will get through this together.” Jake stroked Ryan’s hair back from his face, a gesture he did without thinking, then realized that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d done it. He felt his throat thicken. “I love you, do you know that?”
“I love you too.”
“You’re a smart and able kid, and you’re stronger than you think.” Jake swallowed hard, not really knowing what to say. “By the way, everything went okay with Mom. But I didn’t tell her the story about Caleb and you getting in a fight. I told her that you and I got in a fight about texting in the car.”
“What?” Ryan asked, a new note of anxiety in his voice.
“I changed the story.”
“Why did you do that? We decided on the Caleb story.”
“I know, but this is better.”
“No it isn’t.”
“I think it is.” Jake hated himself, fussing with his son over which lie was better. “It makes more sense because it keeps everything between us and doesn’t involve Caleb. We don’t want her to start talking to Caleb’s mom, do we?”
“Oh, no, because of the weed,” Ryan answered sadly.
“That wasn’t what I meant. I was just saying that I don’t want any chatter between the moms about tonight, and also I told her that she shouldn’t bring it up with you. If she does, just say you don’t want to talk about it.”
“You think that’ll work?”
“For you, it’ll work. For me, no chance in hell.”
“That’s a random thing to say, Dad.” Ryan fell silent, then pulled out his iPhone. Its home screen glowed in the dark, showing a funny photo of Moose rolling on his back, his four big paws in the air. Ryan started to scroll to the Internet. “I looked online, but the news doesn’t have anything about the lady. Does that mean they didn’t … find her yet? Does that mean she’s … still lying there?”
“Not necessarily. Maybe they found her but haven’t released it to the public yet. They have to inform the next of kin.”
“That means her family, right?”
“But she must live with her family. They would know that she didn’t come home from her run.”
“Maybe she lives alone.”
“Do you think she does? Could you tell … how old she was?”