Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
Braden frowned. “If you had nothing to hide, you’d show it to me.”
“What do you think I’m doing on Facebook?” I said, incredulous.
“You tell me,” Braden replied.
I rolled my eyes. But before I could say anything, his hand shot out for the paper.
. That’s what it said. The name of my first dog and my
birth year. Blatantly uninspired; something he could have figured out on his own. But the principle of the whole stupid argument kicked in, and I yanked the page away before he could snatch it.
That’s when it changed—the tone, the atmosphere. The air went still between us, and his pupils dilated. He reached out, striking like a snake, and grabbed my wrist.
On instinct, I pulled back and darted up the stairs. Thunder, him running behind me. My name twisted on his lips. It was silly; it was stupid; it was a game. But it didn’t feel like one, not the way my heart was hammering.
As soon as I made it to our bedroom I slammed the door shut. Leaning my forehead against it, I tried to catch my breath.
Braden shouldered it open so hard that the frame splintered.
I didn’t realize what had happened until my vision went white and I felt a hammer between my eyes. I touched my nose and my fingers came away red with blood.
“Oh my God,” Braden murmured. “Oh my God, Liv. Jesus.” He disappeared for a moment and then he was holding a hand towel to my face, guiding me to sit on the bed, stroking my hair.
“I think it’s broken,” I choked out.
“Let me look,” he demanded. He gently peeled away the bloody cloth and with a surgeon’s tender hands touched the ridge of my brow, the bone beneath my eyes. “I don’t think so,” he said, his voice frayed.
Braden cleaned me up as if I were made of glass and then he brought me an ice pack. By then, the stabbing pain was gone. I ached, and my nose was stuffy. “My fingers are too cold,” I said, dropping the ice, and he picked it up and gently held it against me. I realized his hands were trembling and that he couldn’t look me in the eye.
Seeing him so shaken hurt even more than my injury.
So I covered his hand with mine, trying to comfort. “I shouldn’t have been standing so close to the door,” I murmured.
Finally, Braden looked at me, and nodded slowly. “No. You shouldn’t have.”
I HAVE SENT
a half dozen texts to Asher, who hasn’t written back. Each one is a little angrier. For someone who seemingly has no trouble interrupting his life to text his girlfriend and Dirk, he has selective communication skills when he wants to. Most likely he was invited to eat dinner somewhere and didn’t bother to tell me.
I decide that as punishment, I will make him clean up the evergreens still strewn across the porch, since my bee-stung hand hurts too much for me to finish stringing the garland.
On the kitchen table is a small bundle of newspaper, which I carefully unwrap. It was placed in the decoration box by mistake, but it belongs in the one with our Christmas ornaments. It’s my favorite—a hand-blown glass bulb in swirls of blue and white, with a drippy curl of frozen glass at the top through which a wire has been threaded for hanging. Asher made it for me when he was six, after we left Braden behind in Boston, and I got a divorce. I had a booth at a county fair that fall, selling honey and beeswax products, and an artisanal glassblower befriended Asher and invited him to watch her in her workshop. Unbeknownst to me, she helped him make an ornament for me as a gift. I loved it, but what made it truly magical was that it was a time capsule. Frozen in that delicate globe was Asher’s childhood breath. No matter how old he was or how big he grew, I would always have that.
Just then my cellphone rings.
Asher. If he’s not texting, he knows he’s in trouble.
“You better have a good excuse,” I begin, but he cuts me off.
“Mom, I need you,” Asher says. “I’m at the police station.”
Words scramble up the ladder of my throat. “What? Are you all right?”
I look down at the ornament in my hand, this piece of the past.
“Mom,” Asher says, his voice breaking. “I think Lily’s dead.”
DECEMBER 7, 2018
The day of
From the moment my parents knew they were having a baby, my father wanted me to be a boy. Instead, he got a daughter: boyish in some ways, I guess, but not in the ways that would have mattered to him. Every day he took time to remind me of all the ways I’d disappointed him, not because of anything I’d done, but simply because of who I was.
Sometimes I think what he liked best about seeing me in my fencing gear was the fact that he couldn’t see my face behind my mask.
I could have told him,
You can’t always get what you want
. Everyone recognizes that as a song by the Rolling Stones, but did you know that Keith Richards takes off his low E string to play guitar? Once, a long time ago, when this song came on the car radio, I mentioned this to my dad.
He switched off the volume. We drove along in silence for a while, and finally he said,
You don’t know everything.
I wanted to yell at him, but instead I said nothing: a pretty good strategy for dealing with Dad. Of
I don’t know everything. But I want to.
Last summer, when my mother and I left Point Reyes for New Hampshire, Mom said,
This is our second chance,
and I thought about how she said
like it was her chance, too.
We were driving along the northern edge of the bay, through the
wildlife refuge, the so-called scenic route. Mom does have a thing for back roads. It was the beginning of our long trip east, a trip that would take ten days, including the stopovers for college tours and auditions. I wondered whether I’d ever come back.
“Are you okay, Lily?” Mom asked.
I started to tell her that I was fine, because that’s what she needed to hear, but instead my throat closed up. I turned away, as if I were suddenly fascinated by the highway signs.
NEXT EXIT VALLEJO
“I’m a mess, is all,” I said.
Mom reached over and took me by the hand. “You’re not a mess,” she said. “You’re a hero.”
I glanced down at the scars on my wrist. I wondered what the kids in my new school were going to think if they saw them. I figured I could wear a scrunchie, or friendship bracelets for a while. To cover them up. I wondered if this was going to be the new beginning my mother thought it would be, or the same old bullshit.
“I’m not a hero,” I told my mother. “I’m just somebody who finally figured out how to stop being sad.”
ASHER KEEPS SAYING,
I have the best Christmas gift for you, ever! It’s so good it’s coming early.
Maya thinks he’s going to give me his grandmother’s ring. “She used to take us for these crazy expeditions,” Maya says. “One time she drove us to Santa’s Village—in July—which was
because they make actual snow in the middle of the summer
And Asher pitched a fit because he wanted to go down the road to Six Gun City and pretend to be a cowboy so we stayed overnight, like, on the spur of the moment, at a shitty motel where Asher and I had to share a bed.” Then she glanced at me, as if she realized what she had actually said. “I mean, we were like six years old, so you don’t have to be jealous or anything.”
I’m not jealous, not like she thinks. But Maya has known Asher since they were in kindergarten together. That’s a piece of his life I won’t ever have, and sometimes, I am so hungry for the parts of him that I don’t know yet I feel like I’ve been starving for decades and he’s
a feast. I try to remind myself that even if Maya played house with him once, I’m the one he sketched this fall, hair up, top off, wearing the autumn sunshine like a cape.
Asher’s going to be here any minute. I take one more look in the mirror. It’s December in New England, so it’s not exactly bikini weather. But my hair has grown out long and curly—I haven’t cut it since we came east. I’m wearing lapis earrings that make my eyes look more like jewels and less like a brackish pond, and the shirt Maya and I found at the hippie store last week. It does not have long sleeves, just three-quarter, but I don’t care about Asher seeing the scars. He already knows the whole story.
He says it doesn’t matter, but it matters to me.
I head down the stairs. Mom’s sitting by the fireplace with a glass of wine. She’s still wearing her National Forest Service uniform—the khaki shirt, the green pants. The shirt has her badge over her left breast and her name tag over the right shirt pocket:
. On one sleeve is the green patch with the gold pine tree and the letters that spell out U.S. and the words
up top and
Department of Agriculture
on the bottom.
Her silver Stetson felt hat is upside down on the floor next to Boris. I call him a black Lab, but he’s mostly gray.
She can track anything: wildcats, black bear, porcupines, coral snakes, opossums. Also: humans. After I brought Asher over to the house for the first time, I found her in the yard the next day looking at his boot print in the mud. I said,
Your boyfriend is left-foot dominant, so likely left-handed.
She taught me how to remember the signs of the zodiac in order, with the sentence
The ramble twins crab liverish; scaly scorpions are good waterfish.
(Ram, Bull, Twins, Crab, Lion, Virgin, et cetera.)
She knows exactly what knot you need in every situation, and how to tie it: clove hitch, bowline, sheet bend, square knot. “And then there’s
the Gordian knot,” she says. “Which you can only untie with a sword.” Does Mom have a curved ornamental sword that she got in Japan, and which she has hung on the wall above the fireplace? Yes, she does. She says it is called a
By the time Mom had graduated from Syracuse with her forestry degree, she had already been skydiving, rock climbing, bungee jumping, and shark-cage diving. Also, I think she had seen the Grateful Dead fifteen times, although she doesn’t like to talk about that. She is still angry at Jerry Garcia, she says, for “dying like a beached whale.”
Her best friend is me; her second-best friend is herself. I call her
On the surface you’d think she’s this calm, sweet-tempered person. Which she is, unless you try to mess with her daughter. At which point she would pull the brim of her ranger hat down low, and say,
Mister? You have just made a serious mistake.
MOM LOOKS OVER
at me and smiles wearily. She’s been looking more and more tired this fall, in part because she traded her park ranger job in Point Reyes for the desk job here in New Hampshire with the Forest Service. At least I
that’s why she looks tired—but there might be other reasons, too, ones that have to do with me.
“You look nice,” says Mom.
look kind of wrung out. Are you okay?”
She takes a sip of wine and smiles. “I’m fine. Don’t worry.” Her long braid hangs down over her left shoulder. I think,
Boris isn’t the only one who’s turning gray.
“Too late. I
worry. If you’re not working, you’re asleep. Or talking to the dog.”
She smiles again. “He’s an excellent listener.”
“Mom, Boris is deaf.”
Mom looks down at Boris. “My secrets are safe with him.”
“You have secrets?” I ask, and I’m only half kidding.
She waves me off. “Asher’s taking you out? On a Sunday night?”
“He’s giving me an early Christmas gift. He says it’s too good to wait.”
Mom nods. “What are you giving
?” She gives me a hard look, as if maybe I’m supposed to read into this question.
“Christmas isn’t even for twenty-three days,” I tell her. “How do I know?”
She takes another sip of Chablis. “I am assuming this
of his will be in full public view? And the recipient will be fully clothed?”
“And I’m assuming that we will both pretend you didn’t say that,” I answer. “Christmas gifts are so stupid anyway. They’re a complete misreading of the tradition.”
There’s a pause before she says, “We’re talking about what tradition now?”
“The gifts of the Magi. Even if the three wise men
exist, they didn’t visit Jesus the night he was born. It was weeks after—possibly years.”
Mom raises one eyebrow. “You’re reading the Bible now?”
“I read everything,” I tell her.
Mom picks her ranger hat up off the floor and puts it on the raised hearthstone. “All I know,” she says, “is it’s nice to give people gifts. While you are both not naked.”
“Oh my God. Stop. Just stop.”
Mom laughs. “You be sure to tell Asher exactly that when he gives you his special gift.”
A text dings on my phone; Asher’s here. “And on that note,” I say. Boris doesn’t raise his head.
I put on my heavy down jacket and my mittens and I glance at myself in the hall mirror. “Lily,” says Mom. “You really do look nice.”
I smile at her, and I rush out the door into the cold New Hampshire night.
Asher’s ancient Jeep is idling out in the driveway. There’s a little snow coming down, drifting lazily in the cones of his headlights. I open the door and there he is, with a smile that splits his face into fractions, and green eyes that make me think of June, when everything is in bloom. He leans in to kiss me and it is electric as fuck; my heart jumps like an engine being restarted.
After a minute, or maybe a lifetime, he pulls back. “You ready?” he asks. He puts the stick into reverse.
We head down the road. The radio is playing softly, some oldies station. I put my hand down on top of Asher’s as he’s shifting the gears on the Jeep. He steals a glance at me.
“Well?” I ask him.
“Are you going to give me a hint?”
He pretends to mull over this. “Hm, I’m thinking no.”
“Are we going to be gone for a while? Because I didn’t pack a toothbrush.”
“I’ll try to have you back by morning,” says Asher.
A cash register chimes in the song on the radio, and now I recognize the tune. “Money,” by Pink Floyd. It’s one my father used to sing.
“God, I hate this song,” I mutter.
He glances at me. “You want me to change the station?”
I shake my head. “It’s in seven-four. It’s a weird time signature.”
Asher doesn’t say anything right away. “So the time signature is what upset you?”
I don’t want to go into it. “You know what else is in seven-four? ‘All You Need Is Love.’ The Beatles. And Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’ Soundgarden’s ‘Spoonman.’ ”
Asher smiles. “I can’t believe the stuff you remember,” he says.
We both fall silent for a little bit. We don’t say it out loud, but we’re both thinking:
It would be nice if there were some things you could forget.
We drive toward Adams. To the right is thick pine forest. There’s a trail in those woods along the Slade Brook that leads from Presidents’ Square almost to our house. The first week after we moved here I walked along that path and found what I’m pretty sure was bear scat.
“I’ve never seen a bear,” I tell him.
“You’d be fine,” says Asher. “You’d tell him all about the time
signatures of pop songs. Next thing you know, he’d roll right over. You could scratch his belly.”
“My mom told me if you’re hiking someplace where they have grizzly bears, you’re supposed to carry a little bell with you.”
Asher looks at me uncertainly. “Were there bears in Point Reyes?”
“Well, not grizzlies. Bears had been extinct in Marin County for a hundred years. Then a black bear showed up a couple of years ago. He was eating garbage behind a pizza place.”
“What?” I ask.
“I’m just thinking about what kind of pizza bears like.”
“No one likes Hawaiian. Not even bears.”
” I argue. “It’s awesome.”
“Lily, if you like Hawaiian pizza I’m afraid that might be the dealbreaker in our relationship.” But he’s smiling, and I think,
Fuck, I can’t believe he is mine.
We pass the opera house and there’s a sign out front that says,
White Mountain Symphony Orchestra. All Mozart concert
Is Asher taking me to the Mozart concert? Is this the big surprise? But he just keeps driving.
In Presidents’ Square, snow falls on the statue of Franklin Pierce. “Poor dude,” I say. “He looks cold.”
“He’s used to it.”
“His son died in a train wreck, a couple months before he became president,” I say quietly. “The kid was only ten years old. Pierce never got over it.” We’re crossing over the train tracks, passing by the old mill. “You see that with people all the time, something bad happens and it wrecks them. They turn into ghosts.” I can feel Asher looking at me. I try to pull the sleeve of my coat down over my right wrist.
“You’re not a ghost,” says Asher.
Which is ironic, because I am positive Asher is the only person who truly sees me.