Authors: Lisa Scottoline
He turned back to the computer, palmed the mouse, and clicked
but nothing had changed on the news page. Still he refreshed another time, and the only sound in the quiet office was the
of the mouse and the thrumming of the rain outside the window. He and Ryan were the only people who knew that the woman was dead, and as far as the world was concerned, no crime had occurred and she was alive and well.
Jake wished he and Ryan could live inside that reality, in the very interstices of time, tucked under the comforter of not-knowing, sleeping as soundly as they used to, the Before the same as the After. But even so, he couldn’t wait another second for the woman to be found, gathered up, lifted onto a gurney, and taken from the horrific scene, out of the rain, away from him and Ryan, and finally safe.
The horror of what he had done brought new tears to Jake’s eyes. He clicked
again and again. He wanted to know the precise moment that After began.
But by morning, when it still hadn’t happened, he got dressed and left by the kitchen door.
Jake hurried into the chilly garage, holding his jacket over his arm and carrying his empty traveler’s mug. He was dressed for work in an old wool sweater, jeans and sneakers, the way he always did on a Saturday; he’d worked at least one day of the weekend for as long as he could remember, because it was the quiet time he needed, to think without phones and interruptions.
He checked his watch—6:15 in the morning, which was when he usually left. He’d gotten ready quietly enough for Pam to remain asleep and he was doing everything the way he always did, just in case she woke up. He hadn’t checked on Ryan because that would’ve been out of the ordinary; the Saturday routine was for Jake to go to work early, Pam to get up around eight o’clock, let the dog out, and leave for the gym around nine thirty. Ryan would stay in bed until eleven o’clock or so, if he didn’t have a game or practice.
Jake hustled to the car, stopping to double-check the damage to the front bumper. It was too dark to see well because the only illumination came from three small windows in the garage door, but he wouldn’t normally turn on a light, so he didn’t now. He straightened up, chirped the car unlocked, opened the door, and jumped inside, throwing his coat on the passenger seat and screwing his travel mug into the console.
He buckled into his harness, hit a button on the rearview mirror to open the garage door, and while he waited for it to
upward, he surveyed the front seat and floor of the car, scanning for any errant napkin, sign of blood, or anything from the accident scene or his efforts to clean up. Everything looked in order, and there wasn’t any sign of blood or anything else on the front seat, dashboard, console, or steering wheel.
He twisted on the ignition, reversed out of the garage, and cruised down the street. It was too early for any of the neighbors to be out starting their Saturday errands, and he cruised past the darkened houses that sat silently behind the blue recycling bins and rolling trash cans. He fed the car some gas, switched on the heat, and turned right, heading for the office. He didn’t breathe any easier once he left their street, but on the contrary, felt more nervous, either because he was leaving Ryan alone with Pam or because of what he had to do next.
What about the car?
Jake tried not to think about it as he drove through their development, the only car on the curvy, man-made streets with their oddly high curbs, taking the perimeter road, past the mandatory forestation and specimen plantings required by the township zoning board. The trees in the front row were the builder’s-grade evergreens, planted in that telltale zigzag for maximum privacy, and though they’d grown and filled out, Jake remembered when they’d been only four feet tall, shaped like gumdrops the same height as Ryan. He’d taken a photo of Ryan with one of the trees, and they had the picture in the house somewhere, Pam would know where.
Jake steered past the Chetwynd Springs sign at the grandiose entrance/exit of the development and flipped on the radio. It was tuned to the local news channel from last night, but it was weather on the nines. He didn’t need a meteorologist to tell him it was a crummy day, under a sky opaque with thick gray clouds.
Fog is a cloud on the ground.
Jake hit the open road and joined the line of sparse traffic, his thoughts shifting into gear at the task that lay ahead. He had a plan and he knew where he was going. He knew what he had to do and what he had to say. He had done the research he needed on the computer. He told himself to stay calm, and that he had to see his plan through, as dreadful as his purpose was, it was the only way to protect Ryan. He drove on autopilot, listening to the radio and waiting for the news as traffic got heavier, with people getting the jump on the day, ready to check off items on their things-to-do list. They’d run to Acme and Whole Foods in pre-snowstorm panic, stocking up on salt.
Suddenly, he heard the announcer change on the radio, and the news began, “In headline news, the victim of a hit-and-run driver in Concord Chase last night has been identified as sixteen-year-old Kathleen Lindstrom. A junior at Concord Chase High School, she was struck while jogging. Police are asking anyone with information regarding this incident to please call the main tipline, at number…”
Oh my God, no.
Jake gasped aloud, in horror. His fingers clenched the steering wheel. He almost ran into the maroon Subaru in front of him. He slammed on the brakes, setting his ABS system shuddering.
Jake shook his head, shocked. He clung to the wheel as if it were a life raft and he a drowning man. His heart thundered. He broke a sweat under his shirt. He couldn’t believe it was possible. The revelation stunned him.
I killed a kid. Kathleen Lindstrom.
Jake didn’t recognize the name, but now it was a part of his DNA. It would echo in his head for the rest of his life. New tears brimmed in his eyes. He couldn’t fathom that she was so young. He’d thought she was petite but she was just a
A teenager, only sixteen years old. Her life was just beginning, and now she was gone.
God, forgive me.
Jake flashed on her face, covered with blood. She had been somebody’s daughter. She had parents, waiting for her to come home from her run. They would wait and wait, until they got the call that every parent dreads. They would never see her alive again. Their daughter, their child. His heart broke for them.
Jake felt shaken to his very foundations. Kathleen was the same age as Ryan. She was a student at the same high school. Jake realized, aghast, that Ryan probably knew her. Concord Chase High wasn’t that large, only about a thousand students.
He killed his classmate.
Jake found himself reeling, stopped at a red light. This news would kill Ryan. His son wouldn’t be able to bear the guilt; it would be unsupportable. He didn’t know how Ryan could go to school, ever again. Ryan’s classmates, and all of the faculty and staff would be mourning a girl that he knew he had
It would be impossible, untenable. Ryan was too sensitive a kid to get past this, ever. Jake feared for his son’s sanity, maybe even his very life.
The horn of a car behind him blared, startling Jake out of his reverie. The traffic light had turned green, and he fed the car some gas, following the Subaru mechanically. He felt sick to his stomach and fought the impulse to call Ryan, but it was too risky, with Pam at home. Then he had another, darker thought. What if the news would send Ryan to Pam, to spill his guts?
Dad, I swear, I won’t tell Mom. I won’t tell anybody.
Jake couldn’t process the information. He wanted to pull over but there wasn’t time. He felt his gorge rising, but swallowed hard. He had to stay on plan. He blinked his tears away and tried vainly to ignore the pain in his chest. He drove ahead, past clapboard Cape Cods, new brick split levels, and a Dutch Colonial with white stucco, wondering if Kathleen Lindstrom lived with her family in a house like one of these. Pike Road was only ten minutes away.
Jake gritted his teeth, trying to recover. The stretch of road he was looking for lay just ahead, a two-lane street lined with houses, trees, and a strip mall that held a Chinese restaurant, a Wawa convenience market where he always stopped for coffee on the way to work, and the auto body shop he’d used for years. He’d given plenty of free financial advice to its owner Mike Ayanna, and Mike owed him a favor, but Jake wasn’t about to depend on Mike, favor or no. The police would undoubtedly be investigating the local body shops, and Mike would be compelled to turn over his records.
Jake put on his right blinker when he spotted the Wawa sign, glowing a corporate red, and slowed as he approached its parking lot. It was the side entrance to the store, with a line of parking spaces under a white sign,
NO IDLING—DIESEL POWERED VEHICLES OVER FIVE TONS.
The parking spaces ended next to a bundle of cardboard recycling, a stack of flat boxes, and a green metal Dumpster. The side lot was completely empty, which is what Jake would’ve expected this early in the morning.
He turned into the parking lot and aimed at the Dumpster. He hit the gas, steering slightly to the right, knowing that the damage would obliterate the dents from last night. The Dumpster raced forward to meet him.
Jake braced himself for impact, feeling that if anything went wrong, he deserved to die.
Kathleen, I am so very sorry.
The Audi slammed into the Dumpster, and Jake jolted forward, caught by his shoulder harness. His airbag exploded, hit him in the face, and pushed him backwards. The odor of plastic and a chemical powder filled his nostrils.
Abruptly the airbag deflated, imploding in a pile on his lap and draping over the steering wheel. The engine was still running, and the windshield was cracked but intact. The hood had buckled and his right front bumper crumpled into the Dumpster. No one would ever see the dent again.
Jake realized he’d succeeded, but he still felt sick to his stomach. The collision reminded him of last night, a memory embedded in his very body. He moved the airbag from his lap, his muscles stiff from shock, not of the accident, but of the revelation.
I killed a kid and left her dead. To save my own kid.
Jake was alive, but he didn’t deserve to be.
“Jake, Jake!” someone called out, near the car. It was Christopher, a Wawa clerk, hurrying toward him. They knew each other because Jake always stopped here on the way to work. Christopher appeared at the driver’s-side window, his young face creased with concern. “Jake! Are you okay?”
Jake nodded, collected his phone and jacket, opened the door, and got out of the car, his knees suddenly wobbly. “Christopher, My God—”
“You look white as a ghost, Jake. Stay still, I’ll call 911. My phone’s in my locker, ’cause we have to lock it up during work.” Christopher turned to hurry off, but Jake touched his arm.
“No, no, stay. I’m fine.”
“Yes.” Jake tried to recover. “I’m just a little … upset is all. I surprised myself. It’s kind of a shock.”
“Sure, I get it. You gonna toss ’em? You look it.”
“No, I’m fine. Don’t call.”
“You sure you don’t wanna go to a hospital? My manager might want you to.” Christopher frowned, scanning him with worried eyes.
“Nah. I’m fine, thanks.”
“Coulda been worse, I guess, huh?”
“Right.” Jake dusted the airbag powder off his clothes. “I thought I hit the brake, but I must’ve hit the gas instead.”
Christopher shrugged sympathetically. “You didn’t have your coffee yet.”
“Right.” Jake walked to the front of the car, leaned on the hood, and surveyed the damage. He was thinking of Kathleen, her body broken in her running gear. It was too awful to comprehend. There was so much death and destruction, all of a sudden. He shuddered to his very bones, eyeing the car. “Damn, I really messed up, didn’t I?”
“You never know. Mike next door can fix it.”
“I’ll let him take it, it’s not drivable with that windshield anyway. My wife will pick me up.” Jake slipped into his jacket, put his cell phone in his pocket, and gestured at the Dumpster, which had a large dent in its middle. “It looks like I did a number on your Dumpster, too. Sorry about that.”
“Oh, forget about it.” Christopher waved him off, but that was the wrong answer for Jake. He felt bad manipulating the kid, but it couldn’t be helped. That was why he’d damaged their property. They would be required to make a police report for liability purposes, and he needed everything to be documented, so there would be no questions later.
“No, make a report, so my insurance will pay.”
“But it’s just a trash can. Who cares?”
“The store doesn’t own the Dumpster, the hauling company does. See?” Jake gestured at the Waste Control logo on its lid. “The store will have to pay for the damage, and you shouldn’t be in that position. I’ll put in a claim, but we’ll have to call the police.”
“Let’s see what Donna says. She’s my manager.” Christopher turned toward the store just as a ponytailed employee came hustling around the corner. She was heavyset and wore wire-rimmed glasses, her face a mask of worry.
“What happened? Are you hurt, sir?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” Jake had seen her before but he didn’t know her, and he could tell from her expression that she was thinking the same thing about him. “I’m Jake Buckman, I always stop in here before work. I hit the gas instead of the brake and crashed into the Dumpster.”
Beside him, Christopher nodded. “He says he doesn’t need to go to the hospital.”
“That’s lucky. The police will be here any minute, I already called them.” Donna’s forehead relaxed, and she eyed the car and Dumpster. “Any accidents on our property need to be reported. I hope you understand, sir.”
“Yes, of course, please call me Jake.”