Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
For many reasons, I am not a huge fan of Dirk.
But Asher is, and technically, without Dirk, I would not be dating Asher, so I give him the benefit of the doubt. “Dirk,” I say. “What are you doing here?”
He stops whistling, as if he didn’t expect to see me coming out of my own house. “I heard you were sick,” he says. He looks at me like he’s surprised I didn’t call him to tell him all the details.
“It’s probably just a virus,” I say.
“I don’t mean to bother you,” he says. “I’m just— I’m kind of messed up.”
A gust of wind blows his baseball hat off. The weather vane on top of the garage spins again, squeaking. Dirk scoops his hat up from the ground, flicks the snow off, and looks at it in his hand as if he’s trying to figure out if it’s too cold to put back on his head.
I do not want to babysit Dirk. I do not want to be his confidante. I have enough problems of my own.
“Messed up how?” I ask.
He’s holding his hat by the brim with his thumbs and index fingers, suspending it like he’s a puppeteer and his Red Sox hat is his marionette.
“Well, you know I got a likely letter from UC Boulder, right?” He casts a shy little glance up at me. “But I have to keep my grades up.”
The UC Boulder’s hockey team needs a goalie bad enough that it promised Dirk during junior year he could have a free ride, unless he failed out as a senior. Which, judging from the look on his face, he’s about to do.
“I was hoping you could read the paper I wrote for Chopper?”
Everyone except for me lives in fear of Chopper, our English teacher. Dirk reaches into his jacket and pulls out a bunch of papers.
“Dirk,” I say. “I’m sick.”
“Maybe when you’re feeling better?”
I sigh, take the paper from him, and read the title: “The Not So Great Gatsby.”
Dirk twists the visor of his Red Sox cap. “Your mom home?”
I think about this question for a second. Then I say, “Did you need something else, Dirk?”
He smiles, and it transforms him. I suddenly understand why girls at school might hook up with him and brag about it, instead of feeling ashamed for falling under his spell. “I know something’s not right between you and Ash,” he says.
Everything in me freezes. “What did he tell you?”
He shrugs, then takes a step toward me. “Listen, I know it’s none of my business, but like—if you need a friend, Lily? I can be a friend.”
need a friend, somebody I can talk to about this whole mess. Somebody who’s not Asher, and somebody who’s not my mother, and somebody who isn’t Maya. But I’m damn sure the person I need is not Dirk.
He takes a step closer. His words are clouds, a whole weather system between us. “I could be
than a friend,” he adds.
“You should go home,” I say.
“Okay.” He puts his cap back on his head, like he’s decided something.
“I’ll email you,” I say. “After I’ve read your paper.”
“And I’ll come back,” says Dirk. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Another flash of that grin, like he’s giving me a secret for safekeeping. He heads back to his car, a beat-up old Dodge, whistling.
Back upstairs, I lie down on my bed with Dirk’s paper. The first sentence is
Jay Gatsby in the Great Gatsby by F. Scot Fitzgereld is said to be Great, but is it really?
I open my laptop and log on to the Oberlin site.
The admissions committee of the Conservatory of Music has completed its early action deliberations and has deferred a decision on your application until the spring. We received more than 5,000 early applications, and we had many more qualified candidates than we could admit.
Your decision will be reconsidered in February and March with the entire applicant pool. Please be sure the Mid-Year School report is sent to us as soon as
I shut my laptop, hard.
I pick up my phone and open up my favorites and my thumb is just about to press down on Asher’s name before I remember that we’re not talking. What do you do when you really need to talk to someone about your boyfriend, and your boyfriend is the person you want to talk to him about? I remember his parting words to me, telling me I should give my dad a second chance.
You gave me one.
My father used to call second chances
. He thought of me as his chance to get his own life right the second time around. That was a stupid thing for him to think, and an even stupider thing to say. Nobody is a do-over of anybody else, and if you get to do anything at all on earth it’s live your own life, not be some sort of ghost version of somebody else’s.
I look at my watch. It’s almost four. There must have been a
crazy-ass line at the pharmacy. The salesclerk there is about 120 years old and no one has the heart to tell her to retire. My headache is back and Mom is taking forever to get the Advil. I wish that she was here. Because all at once I realize the person I need to talk to is Mom, and what I need to tell her is everything.
I walk downstairs again to the kitchen, thinking I will make coffee. The caffeine will help the pounding in my head. But I get distracted by the big butcher block with knives sitting right there on the countertop. How very, very sharp a knife is.
The doorbell rings. For a second I just stand there, listening to the quiet. Then, there’s a knock that echoes the throb in my head. Whoever has come to visit is not going away.
DECEMBER 7, 2018
Three hours after
The police department is an unremarkable square building hunkered on the edge of town, the kind of place you do not notice unless you need it, which in Adams means filing a complaint because your neighbor cut down a tree over your property line, or reporting a pothole that bottomed out your car, or taking the Boy Scouts on a tour of the facility. I remember once asking my father what the officers did all day, since crime was basically nonexistent up here. “Only the crimes you can
” he said cryptically, and it wasn’t until years later, when I was married, that I understood what he had meant.
I pull into the tiny visitor parking lot so fast that my truck straddles the two spots. I realize that I have literally run out of my house without taking a purse, my license, anything. Inside, there is a wall of Plexiglas with an officer and a dispatch operator sitting behind it. To my left is a locked door. Behind it, somewhere, is my son.
“I don’t have any ID but I’m Asher Fields’s mother; he doesn’t have the same last name as me because I’m divorced, and he called to say he’s being questioned—”
“Whoa.” The officer holds up a hand and speaks through a tinny speaker. “Take a breath.”
I do. “My son is here,” I begin, and the locked door to my left opens.
“I’ve got her, Mac,” a voice says.
Lieutenant Newcomb is the sole detective in the small Adams
PD, but long before that he was Mike and he took me to my junior prom. I knew, when I came back here, that he had never left; our paths had crossed a few times—at a sidewalk market where I was selling honey and he was on security detail; at town Christmas tree lightings; once when I spun out on black ice and my truck hit a guardrail. There’s gray in his black hair now, and lines at the corners of his eyes, but superimposed over this man is a flicker of a boy in a pale blue tuxedo, chasing a runaway hubcap on the shoulder of the road while I waited and twisted a corsage on my wrist.
“—is fine,” Mike interrupts. He holds the door to the interior of the station open, so that I can walk through. “But he’s pretty worked up.”
“He said that Lily was…” I can’t even shape my mouth around the word.
“She was taken to the hospital. I haven’t heard anything else, yet. I’m hoping Asher might help us figure out what happened.”
“Was he there?”
“He was found holding her body.”
Mike stops walking, and I do, too. “He asked me to call you, and I didn’t think it could hurt.”
Asher isn’t a minor, so they didn’t have to wait for me before taking his statement. I realize Mike is doing me a favor—maybe because we have a history, maybe because Asher is so upset. On the phone with me, Asher’s voice had been a saw, serrated with shock. “Thank you,” I say.
He leads me to a room with a closed door and turns to me. “You should prepare yourself,” Mike says. “It’s not his blood.”
With that, he opens the door.
Asher is huddled in a plastic chair, his tall body curved like a question mark, one knee restlessly bobbing. When he looks up, I see his shirt, streaked red. His eyes are swollen and raw. “Mom?” he says, in a voice so small that I swell forward, folding him into my arms, cocooning him with my body, as if I could turn back time.
ASHER IS FIDGETING,
frustrated. Every time there is a noise in the hall, his head swivels hopefully to the doorway, as if he expects someone to walk in with the information that everything is fine, that Lily is all right. A foot away, on the table, is the recording device that Mike has set down. An untouched glass of water sits in front of each of us. “What were you doing at Lily’s house?” the detective asks.
“She’s my girlfriend,” Asher replies.
“For how long?”
“About three months. I went over there to talk to her.”
Mike nods. “Didn’t you see her at school?”
“She was out sick. She hadn’t been answering my texts. I was…I was really worried.” He lets out a long breath. “Look, I want to help you. But…do you know if she…if she’s…” I see the moment he decides to err on the side of optimism. “Is she still at the hospital?”
“I don’t know,” Mike says. “As soon as I get word…” He clears his throat. “So, you went to her house to check on her?”
“How did you get in?”
“The door was open,” Asher says.
“When you came into the house, where was Lily?”
He swallows. “Lily was…” Asher looks down, and his hair falls into his eyes. I watch his throat work for a moment, caught around the rest of his words. “Lily was at the bottom of the stairs and she wasn’t moving.”
I think, quickly, of Lily—who somehow always had seemed in motion, even when she wasn’t; hands moving to punctuate her sentences and her smile flickering in the spaces between words. I think of how she would hold Asher’s hand, and her thumb would rub over his knuckles, as if she needed to convince herself that he was solid.
“There was blood under her head,” Asher says. “I tried to get her to wake up?” His voice scales upward, a question, like he can still scarcely believe it himself.
“How?” the detective asks.
“I shook her, I think?”
“Why didn’t you call 911?”
Asher looks as if he has been slapped.
“Mike,” I murmur. “He’s just a
He looks at me, not in warning, but not in sympathy, either. “Olivia, you’re going to have to let him answer these questions.”
Asher’s eyes meet mine. “Oh my God,” he says, “why
I call them? If I had…if I had would she be okay now?
Is this my fault?
“Asher.” I gently put my hand on his shoulder, but he shrugs it off.
“What happened to her?” he demands of Mike.
“We’re trying to figure that out,” the detective says, grim. “Was anyone else there?”
“Just her dog.”
He nods. “Let me get this straight. When you got to the house, you found Lily at the bottom of the stairs. But when the officers got there, Lily was on the couch. Who moved her?”
“I guess I did, but I don’t really remember doing it,” Asher admits. He shakes his head. “The next thing I knew, Lily’s mom was standing in front of me asking what happened. She called 911 and then she kneeled down in front of Lily and I…I backed off. And then you guys showed up.”
Mike flicks the button on his pen twice. He stares at Asher, then nods. “Okay, Asher. Thanks for answering my questions. I really appreciate it.”
He stands up, but Asher remains in his chair, gripping its arms. “Wait,” he says. “How did she fall?”
“I don’t know,” the detective says. “We’re still trying to determine what actually happened.” Suddenly there is a buzzing, and he pulls his phone from his pocket and holds it to his ear. “Lieutenant Newcomb.” I watch his face, but it remains smooth, implacable. “Thanks. I understand.”
As he hangs up, Asher rises on a current of hope.
Mike shakes his head, meeting Asher’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Asher folds in on himself, crumpling onto the floor. He draws up his knees, buries his face in his hands as he sobs.
He is making a noise that is inhuman. With muscles I did not know I have I help him to his feet. As we are walking out of the conference room, Mike puts his hand on my arm. “Keep a close eye on him,” he murmurs. “We don’t need another tragedy on our hands.”
THE NEWS THAT
the American colonies had won the Revolutionary War took two whole weeks to reach Adams, New Hampshire. For that reason, when I was growing up, the town celebrated Independence Day two Saturdays after the Fourth of July. There was a little parade, a petting zoo on the green, and a fire engine and police car for little kids to climb in. When Asher was four, Braden happened to have Adams Day weekend off, so we made the trek from Boston to visit my mother. We sat on the curb and let Asher catch candy that was thrown from the parade floats that limped past—antique cars bearing politicians seeking reelection, a local barbershop quartet, the Girl Scouts. While Braden stood in line to get us cotton candy, Asher spotted the police car and darted toward it.
I chased after him. The blues were flashing, which is why it took me a minute to realize that I knew the officer who was lifting kids in and out of the car in a regulated flow. “Oh my God, Mike,” I said, before I could stop myself. “You’re still here?”
He grinned. “Hey, Olivia. Old habits die hard.”
Braden walked up, holding the cone of spun sugar. His arm snaked around my waist. “Who’s this?” he asked, smiling.
“Braden, Mike,” I introduced. “We went to school together a thousand years ago.”
As they shook hands and made small talk, Asher climbed into the open rear door of the police car, curling his chubby little fingers through the wire mesh of the cage that served as a divider. Mike reached for him. “If you’re going to ride in a police car, buddy,” he said, “you definitely want to be up front.” He swung Asher into the driver’s seat.
Later that night, when we were getting ready to go to bed, Braden stood beside me at the bathroom sink. He watched me rub moisturizer onto my cheeks, my neck.
“Did you date him?” he asked.
I laughed. “Mike? I mean, for a hot second. But we were kids.”
Braden’s eyes met mine in the mirror. “Did you fuck him?”
I closed the jar of moisturizer. “I’m not going to dignify that with an answer,” I said.
Suddenly his hands were at my throat. My gaze flew to the mirror, to his fingers pressing against my windpipe. “I could make you,” Braden replied.
As stars started to narrow my vision, Braden abruptly released me. Coughing, I pushed past him. Instead of going to my old bedroom, where we had left our overnight bags, I went to my mother’s sewing room, curling onto my side on a narrow couch, trying to make myself as small as possible.
Hours—or maybe minutes—later, I woke to the shape of Braden kneeling beside the couch. It was so dark that he was only a shift in the seam of the night. He held out his hand to touch me, and I flinched. “I just can’t stand the thought of you with anyone else,” he whispered.
“I’m yours,” I told him, as he fitted his body against mine.
For days after that, Braden would leave me love notes—on the bathroom mirror, in my wallet, in the stack of Asher’s folded clothes. He brought me flowers. He kissed me, just because. Until it got back to the point where, when he touched me, my body instinctively softened, instead of going tense.
WHEN WE GET
I am surprised to see the pine boughs and wire and Christmas lights on the porch where I left them. It feels as though I’ve been gone for months, not hours. Asher, shell-shocked and silent on the ride, gets out of the car before it even rolls to a complete stop. His movements are jerky, shuddering, those of a wooden puppet instead of a boy. I hurry after him, but he is already halfway up the stairs when I get inside the house. “Ash,” I call out. “Let me get you something to eat.”
“Not hungry,” he mutters, and a moment later, I hear the door to his room slam.
I hang up my coat and go into the kitchen. Even though Asher has turned down dinner, I heat up some soup and bring it to him. When I knock on his bedroom door, he doesn’t answer. I hesitate, cognizant of his privacy, but then remember what Mike said. I balance the tray of food on my hip and briskly turn the knob, as if I’ve been invited in. Asher lies still on his bed, staring at the ceiling, his eyes so red it looks as if all the blood vessels have burst. He isn’t crying. He’s barely breathing.
“I know you said you aren’t hungry,” I say softly. “But just in case.”
There’s a canyon between us.
“If you want to talk—”
The slightest shiver, a
“Maybe if you eat something, you’ll feel better…?”
I retreat to the door again, realizing that there isn’t any food I could cook that would fill the hole inside him. That I brought him a tray to make
feel better, not him.
AN HOUR LATER,
I knock on Asher’s door again. He is in the same position, his eyes still open. The soup is untouched.
This time I don’t bother with words; the ones we need don’t exist in the English language. Even the syllable
feels like a cliff, and we’ve fallen.
I FIND AVA
phone number in the PTO directory of the high school, a PDF I filed in a saved folder on my computer without ever looking at it. I have talked to her only twice: once after an orchestra concert where Lily was featured performing a stunning cello piece, and once when she came to pick Lily up from our house to go to a dentist’s appointment. Both were polite, friendly
conversations—people who do not know each other and yet are linked by circumstance. It made me think of how, when you pull a frame from a hive, bees create a chain across the space: me, then Asher, then Lily, then Ava.
I am not surprised when she doesn’t answer. She must have…people. Friends or relatives…someone who is with her at this moment. And yet, I vaguely remember Asher saying something about the father being out of the picture, and I know Lily was an only child.