Authors: Jodi Picoult,Jennifer Finney Boylan
I turn off the ignition and unhook my seatbelt, but Asher doesn’t move. “Ash?” I say softly. “You don’t have to do this, if it hurts too much.”
I am lying as I say the words. I think he
have to do this, or he will always regret not saying goodbye.
Asher stares out the windshield, his eyes fixed on nothing. “What do they do with her?” he asks. “Since the ground is frozen.”
“Well,” I say. “When Grandma died, it was January. We didn’t bury her till April, when the ground thawed.”
He turns to me, waiting for the rest of his answer.
“I think there’s a room at the funeral home where they keep the bodies till winter’s over.”
Asher’s face goes white.
“Or they may have decided on cremation.”
“So she might not even be here,” he murmurs.
“Yes, but that’s not the point. Ash, whatever is…left. It’s not Lily.”
His face goes almost feral. “Don’t you think I know that?”
I find myself recoiling from him. Immediately, his face crumples. “I’m sorry. It’s just…” His voice hitches. “Every morning I wake up and then I realize I’m
“I’m not going to tell you it doesn’t hurt.” I reach for his hand and squeeze it. “But it’s not going to feel like this forever.”
When Asher looks at me, he suddenly seems very, very old. “Not because I’ll stop missing her. Because I’ll get so used to that, it’ll become the new normal.”
He folds himself out of the car, and this time I’m the one who is left behind. He is right; you don’t ever recover from losing someone you love—even the ones you leave behind because you’re better off without them.
As soon as we step inside the funeral home, I see the small polished wooden box on a draped table, a framed photo of Lily beside it. Cremation, then. The moment Asher sees it, he stops moving beside me.
There are kids from the high school here, some of whom I know and some I don’t. Teachers that look familiar. My arm is linked with Asher’s; I feel him tug me forward inexorably toward the table, on which is a spray of—of course—lilies.
I think of Alexander the Great, who died in a faraway battle, and whose body was preserved during the trip home in a coffin full of honey. I imagine Lily, frozen in liquid amber, forever nineteen.
Asher stops walking when we are still several feet away. “You okay?” I whisper, but his face is completely wiped of expression. He is a statue beside me, his eyes vacant and pale.
Suddenly his friend Maya barrels toward him, throwing her arms
around his waist and sobbing into his shirt. He doesn’t embrace her; doesn’t react at all. It’s like she is hugging a tree. “Oh my God, Asher,” she cries.
A few people turn, watching the encounter.
That’s the boyfriend. I heard he found her. Poor kid.
Maya draws back, tips up her chin. She has long black hair that hits her waist—it’s been like that since Asher was six and they were book buddies in kindergarten. They used to play in the tree house my father built for me and Jordan hundreds of years ago, Maya always choosing their adventure: pirates on the high seas, paleontologists finding a new species of dinosaur, astronauts on Mars. There was a time when I was sure they’d wind up romantically involved. But Asher was horrified when I offhandedly mentioned this—that would be, he told me, like kissing his sister. I remember, now, that Maya was the one who introduced him to Lily. That she and Lily were best friends.
I can see the pain glazing Maya’s face, and her confusion as Asher doesn’t commiserate. “Maya,” I say, pulling her into a hug. “I’m so sorry.”
She nods, rubbing her wet face against my shoulder. Then she sneaks a glance at Asher, who stands beside the photo of Lily, his back to us. He looks like a sentry, like the queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace, who will not show a flicker of emotion, not even if you make silly faces or shout at them. Maya’s brow wrinkles. “Is he okay?”
“Everyone grieves differently,” I say softly.
“Will you let him know that I’m…here?” Maya replies. “I mean, if he wants to talk or anything?”
“You’re a good friend,” I tell her.
Maya’s eyes flicker away toward Asher, and suddenly her mothers are there, embracing her.
We adults acknowledge one another. One of the women—Deepa—shakes her head. “What a tragedy,” she says.
Her wife, Sharon, hugs me. “We had to get Maya a prescription so she’d sleep at night,” she murmurs. “I can only imagine how hard this has been for Asher.”
I think uncharitably.
He loved her
I mumble something in response, but my attention is distracted by Asher. He is moving toward the box holding Lily’s ashes. He stops six inches away and reaches out one hand as if to touch the wood. Instead, his fingers hover above, shaking violently. He closes them into a fist, with just his pointer extended, and traces the edge of one lily petal.
I step beside him and slide an arm around his waist. I can feel people staring. I try to tug Asher away, but of course he is bigger and stronger than I am.
Suddenly there is a volley of raised voices in the far corner of the room. It breaks Asher’s concentration, too, and he turns toward the sound.
Ava Campanello is flushed and red-faced, her eyes nearly swollen shut. She wears a shapeless black dress and is arguing with a man I’ve never seen before—someone in an ill-fitting suit who holds up his hands in surrender. Two women try to calm Ava down, but she yanks herself free of them and runs out of the room.
The man looks around. With slumped shoulders he starts for the door, veering toward the polished wooden box on the way out. He touches it, then looks up. “Asher,” he says and nods in greeting, and then he walks out.
“Who was that?” I whisper, but Asher’s face has drained completely of color.
“I’m going to throw up,” he mutters, and he races out of the room.
By the time I reach the hallway, where the restrooms are, Asher is already inside one. There are two separate doors with unisex signage on them. Taking a guess, I knock on the closest one. “Ash?” I whisper.
The door opens and I find myself facing Ava Campanello. The collar of her somber dress is damp, as if she has been splashing her face at the sink. Her eyes are too bright.
“Ava,” I say. “I am so, so sorry.”
I think of how bees that cannot find their queen will choose to be where her eggs are. They will do whatever it takes to come back to her offspring. I think of what it would feel like to be separated from your child for the rest of your life.
” Ava repeats. Her voice is a hot knife. “If it weren’t for your son, I’d still have a daughter.”
Stunned, I blink at her. She shoves past me, her heels clicking down the tiled hall. At its mouth she is absorbed by a flutter of women who glance at me and whisper as they usher her back into the gathering room.
The door to the second bathroom opens, and Asher steps out. Hectic color stripes his cheekbones. “Can we leave?”
“Yes,” I say. “Absolutely.”
I turn to find Mike Newcomb leaning against the wall, his hands in the pockets of his trousers. His detective badge glints at his waist, like the sun in a rearview mirror that makes it impossible to see the road. “Asher,” he says. “Got a minute?”
MIKE TELLS US
this is routine; that often, after the fact, there are follow-up questions. We follow behind him in our own car to the police station again. He leads us back into the same conference room we were in days ago, pours us two glasses of water, sets the same small recording device on the table. “Asher, thanks a lot for coming in,” he says amiably, but Ava Campanello’s accusation tickles the back of my mind. “Now that the crime scene investigators have gone through the house, there are some discrepancies that we hope you can help us clear up.”
Two words lodge in my throat. “Crime scene?”
Mike does not even look at me. His eyes remain on Asher’s face. “A healthy young girl died. If we didn’t look thoroughly at what happened, my ass would be on the line.”
My face feels hot. “Asher told you everything he knows.”
“Is that true, Asher?” Mike says evenly. “Or would you like to help us?”
“I just want to know what happened to Lily,” he replies.
The detective relaxes, and it has a ripple effect. Asher leans back in his chair. Seeing him breathe, I breathe, too.
Whatever Ava said to me must be born of grief. She lashed out
because when you hurt someone else, you’re less likely to feel your own pain.
“We’re trying to put together a timeline,” Mike says. “Can you walk me through your day? What happened from the time you woke up, until the time you ended up at Lily’s house?”
“I went to school,” Asher says, shrugging. “It was…school.”
“You said last time you were here that Lily was home sick, so you texted her…?”
“Yeah. She was out for two days. I texted her, but she didn’t write back.”
Mike scribbles something on a pad. “Did she tell you that she was staying home sick?”
Asher flushes. “No. I found out from a friend of ours. Maya.”
“Why didn’t Lily tell you herself?” Mike asks.
“I hadn’t talked to her in a few days,” Asher replies. “We were in the middle of a fight.”
I shift in my chair. Asher and Lily had been fighting? Why hadn’t he told me?
“What were you fighting about?” the detective asks.
Asher clears his throat. “Her father,” he says, his gaze darting quickly to me and then away. “She hadn’t spoken to him in a really long time, and I thought she should…”
Because you don’t talk to
“…but Lily didn’t want to.”
I think about the man at the funeral with the dark eyes and the wrinkled suit who had fought with Ava, who had called Asher by name.
“Was that all you were fighting about?” the detective asks.
He leans forward. “You can tell me, you know, if she was seeing someone else.”
“What?” Asher is genuinely stunned. “
“So you texted her five times that day, and you really needed to see her—”
” Asher clarifies. “I was checking on her.”
“How’d you get into the house?”
“The door was open. Like, literally.”
“You didn’t think that was strange?”
“I didn’t think about it at all,” Asher says. “I knocked and pushed it all the way open and went inside. I called out Lily’s name.”
“Did Lily answer?”
“No,” he says, quietly. “She was lying at the bottom of the stairs.”
I open my mouth, because I can see that Asher is about two seconds away from falling apart, and if Mike walks him through Lily’s death again, that’s exactly what will happen. But to my surprise, Mike glosses right over it.
“Did you go anywhere else in the house?”
“You didn’t go upstairs?”
Asher shakes his head.
“But you’ve been in her bedroom before.”
“I. Uh.” His cheeks are flaming.
“You feel uncomfortable talking about this in front of your mom?” Mike asks. “Listen, Asher. This is going to be a lot easier for you if you just tell me the truth.”
telling you the truth. I wasn’t in Lily’s bedroom.”
“Then I guess you don’t know anything about the overturned lamp, the glass on the floor from the broken lightbulb, or the nightstand that was knocked over.”
“No,” Asher answers firmly, “because I
was not in Lily’s bedroom
“That’s interesting,” the detective says. “Because your fingerprints are.”
Asher goes still.
This is a mistake,
This is ridiculous. The only fingerprints in police databases belong to criminals, to kids with records, not kids like Asher.
I suddenly remember him scrubbing at the pads of his fingers in the kitchen sink last spring, trying to remove the ink.
he said, by way of explanation.
All the counselors have to get it done.
“Stop talking,” I say, but my voice is only a wheeze. I grip the arms of the chair and force the words out faster. “
Stop talking, Asher
.” Standing, I look coolly at Mike. “I believe we have the right to an attorney.”
He holds up his hands, a conciliation. “I’m just doing my job,” he says.
“And I’m just doing mine.” I haul my son up by his arm, pull him out of the conference room and through the halls of the police station.
We do not stop until we are in the parking lot. By then, Asher has shaken off his shock. “Mom,” he says, “I don’t know what he’s talking about. I found Lily at the bottom of the stairs. I swear it.”
“Not here,” I say, gritting out the words, and I unlock the doors of the truck.
When you work with bees, the first thing you do is blow smoke. It’s how a beekeeper lulls them into complacency. Or how a teen tries to convince his mother that everything is okay.
Asher gets inside the truck. I lean against its powder-blue haunch and take out my phone. Jordan, my brother, is in Ireland on vacation with his wife and his eleven-year-old son. He is semiretired these days, but he used to be a renowned defense attorney.
It is the middle of the night overseas, and the phone rolls right to voicemail. “Jordan?” I say. “It’s Olivia.”
I remember the conversation we had twelve years ago, as vividly as a slap—how angry Jordan was, when he found out the truth about my marriage:
My God, Liv, why didn’t you tell me? I would have come for you. I would have gotten you away from him.
“You told me to call you the next time I need help,” I say into the phone.
Asher’s temple is pressed to the cold glass of the window. His eyes are closed.
I take a deep breath. “I need help.”
NOVEMBER 25–29, 2018
The week before
Afterward, Asher and I start laughing like maniacs, as if we have just robbed a train and are now galloping off with the gold. This goes on for what feels like forever, until at last, out of breath and delirious, we fall silent.
“I think I have splinters in my ass,” I say.
“You want me to get some tweezers?”
This is a lie. I’m
. I am grateful for his arm around my waist, because I need an anchor. I feel like my bones are made of light.
The blankets we brought up here are a tangled mess. I grab an afghan and wrap us up in it.
We lie there on the floor of the tree house looking up at the wooden ceiling. It’s quite a fort Asher’s grandfather built: a window on each wall, the rafters overhead held together by round pegs. There’s a brass telescope in one of the windows, pointing out at the beehives. A rusty lantern hangs down from a chain attached to a thick tree limb. At the far end of the tree house is a hammock slung between two walls, and beneath it a pile of books, definitely worse for wear. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Hunger Games.
Moldy boxes containing Battleship and Candy Land. Asher’s sketchbook. A small wooden box.
In front of another window is a ship’s wheel. It is so easy to
imagine Asher, age seven, standing there with his hands on the wheel, steering through an imaginary storm.
If it came to it, he’d go down with the ship. And I would go with him.
For a while we just lie there, not talking, the two of us folded perfectly into each other, human origami. Sun pours through the open window of the tree house, and a shaft of light pools on the floor like a spotlight in a theater. I imagine all of the people in the past who’ve climbed up here before me. Are we the first people to have slept together—
“What do you call this place?” I ask him. “The tree house? Does it have a name?”
Asher leans up on one elbow and smiles. “The Stronghold,” he says, in a voice kind of like Christopher Lee in those Lord of the Rings movies.
It is impossible not to laugh at this. “That’s very—medieval.”
He looks around. “When I was a kid, we came up here all the time. I spent days here in the summer, me and Maya. We had a whole world. I was the king, she was the queen.” He points to one of the beams on the ceiling, and there are his initials, A.F., and Maya’s, M.B. There are other initials, too: O.McA and J. McA. And D.A.
“O. McA is your mom, right? And J. McA is—?”
“My uncle Jordan. My grandfather built this place for them, when they were kids.”
“Dirk!” says Asher with a smile.
“Let me guess. He was the court jester?”
Asher laughs. “Not quite. In ninth grade we’d come up here to do bongs. We’d look through the telescope to make sure Mom wasn’t coming.” He shakes his head a little, caught in the web of a memory. “You should have seen Maya’s face when she learned I brought Dirk up here. I thought she was going to punch me. She said,
You’re not supposed to get high in the Throne Room!
“The Throne Room?”
I glance around. “I don’t see anything to sit on.”
Asher pulls me over him, so that my legs fall on either side of his hips. He’s hard again, against me. “I’ll be your throne,” he offers.
I lean down and kiss him. “God save the king,” I whisper.
My hair makes a curtain around us. Asher’s hands are on my waist and coasting up and my own palms flatten on his chest. Then he lets go of me, and I hear the rip of foil and the shuffle of our hips as he puts on the condom. I think about how you never realize how empty you feel until you are filled. Then I stop thinking at all.
By the end, we have flipped, and Asher is heavy on me, his nose pressed to the curve between my shoulder and my neck. “This is my favorite part of you,” he murmurs.
“It’s not a super-exciting one.”
“Speak for yourself.” He nuzzles my skin. “I’m never moving. Forward my mail. I live here now.”
I laugh and push at him until he rolls to his side. Then I get up and put on my bra and panties. While Asher searches for his boxers, I move the telescope around, looking out on the world he grew up in. I think about him peering through it as a kid, and about Olivia and her brother, too, doing the same thing when they were little. “
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,
” I murmur.
I can feel Asher’s eyes on me. “It’s John-Baptiste Karr.” I translate: “It means the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
I glance over my shoulder, but he’s still staring.
“What?” I ask, self-conscious.
“You,” Asher answers, and just the way he says this sends a thrill of electricity through me, and I think:
You know, I could just rip my underwear off again and we could go for the hat trick.
Sometimes when Asher looks at me, it’s like he’s a flower in a field and I’m a strange rain he just wants to drink in.
A second later I feel Asher’s arms encircle me from behind and I lean back into him. I don’t know how long we stand like that, the two of us. That’s the thing I can hardly believe. That we have all this, and there is no end to it.
My eyes fall upon a rafter on the far side of the tree house, where there is another pair of initials. “Who’s B.F.?”
Asher lets go of me, goes over to the corner, pulls his pants on.
“Asher?” I say, and he gives me a look. Now he’s buttoning up his flannel shirt.
“B.F. is my dad,” he says. “Braden Fields.”
Whenever Asher talks about his dad, the mood shifts.
I just want to keep the door open,
he says, but I don’t really understand why he keeps the door open to someone who’s bound to bust it off its hinges sooner or later.
“So that must have been…a long time ago,” I say. “When he carved that.”
“It was,” says Asher, quietly, like he’s trying to decide whether or not he wants to talk about it. “Before I was born. Mom was pissed that he went and carved his initials, like this place belonged to him. Which it didn’t.”
“I guess I can see that,” I say, carefully. “Maybe your mom wanted, like, one memory that was hers, that she didn’t have to share?”
to share things when you love people,” says Asher, with an edge to his voice that makes me wonder if this is suddenly about him and me.
But then all the heat goes out of him. Asher sits on the floor, deflated. I sink down beside him and put my arms around him. I can
“Sometimes I don’t know if he’s the asshole for what he did,” Asher says, “or if I’m the asshole, because I miss him in spite of all that.”
I’m not sure how to respond. I mean, you feel what you feel. I don’t know if there’s any point to deciding whether it’s good or bad.
“I don’t know, Asher,” I say. “I wouldn’t miss him, if it was me.”
“You don’t miss your dad?” Asher says. “You never wish that he hadn’t died, and the two of you could talk?”
Now I feel guilty—because this is the one thing that I haven’t told Asher the truth about. It wasn’t as if I meant to keep this from him; I honestly had forgotten what excuse about my father I’d made
months ago when we first met. But after everything Asher and I have been through, I’m terrified that if he learns there’s
I hid from him, he’ll walk away for good. I ought to come clean, tell him that the reason my father’s not part of my life isn’t that he’s dead. It’s that he’s a poisonous
who would wreck my world if he knew where I was.
“I don’t miss him,” I say, quietly. “Ever.”
From outside, I hear the
of a mourning dove. It’s only four o’clock in the afternoon, but the shadows are already growing long. Autumn days are short here.
“It’s not that I forgive my father,” Asher says, “for what he did to my mom. But I want to understand him. Because—you know. Whatever I am, is part him.”
I don’t know what to tell him. I think Asher’s father is a first-class bullshit artist.
“I get that. Just…be careful. I think he’s pretty good at manipulating people.”
“You really think he doesn’t give a shit about me?”
“If he gave a shit about you,” I tell Asher, “maybe he’d see you more than once a month? And not just in a Chili’s two and a half hours away?”
idea, to meet way out of town,” he says. “I’m trying to protect my mom.”
“I know,” I tell him. “But why hasn’t he invited you to
place? Have you ever even
his new wife? Met your half brothers? Shane and Shawn?”
Who sound like cowboys in a Western,
He frowns. “I’m sorry,” I tell Asher, and I am. The whole thing with his father isn’t really any of my business.
Wind carves through the open window of the tree house. Here it is, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and it’s unusually warm, considering it’s New Hampshire, in November. But I wonder whether this is the last time we’ll come up here before spring. For a moment it makes me sad. I’m going to miss this place.
“We should go there,” Asher says, an idea dawning.
“Dad’s house. This Thursday. We should…just show up.”
“What’s this Thursday?”
Asher raises an eyebrow. “It’s
“They always do Thanksgiving a week late. Because Dad insists on working in the hospital on the actual holiday.”
“Okay,” I say, taking this in.
“Don’t you see?” Asher says. “This year, we walk in—you and me!—and we look everyone in the eye. Meet Margot, the twins, sit down at the table. They need to know Dad has a past, and that the past is me.”
I have to say, it’s an interesting idea, although it’s also slightly insane. Does the new wife—Margot—does she even know about Asher? Do Shane and Shawn? It would be nice, just once, to see his dad at a loss for words.
“What if he…throws you out?” I ask. The last thing I’d want is for Asher to be hurt by his father again.
“I’d like to see him try,” Asher says. I can feel it all becoming real to him. “Seriously. We can do this. Make him see us!” He rubs his hands together. “You in, Lily?”
I nod. “Asher contra mundum,” I say. But I’m all but certain that whatever’s going to happen at his father’s house, it is not what Asher is expecting.
“JESUS,” SAYS MAYA,
waving her hand in front of her face. It’s the day after Asher and I were in the tree house, and Maya and I are practicing by the fireplace in our living room. “Did that smell come
I look down at poor old Boris. “He’s getting pretty—pungent.”
“Are you sure he’s not already dead and decomposing?”
“Show respect for your elders,” I say, and pat Boris on the side of his chest. He opens his eyes, but he doesn’t raise his head.
Maya brings her oboe to her lips. “Let us try it again,” she says, then looks at me over the top of her glasses. “Ready?”
I nod, and Maya starts to play. This piece—the duet for cello and oboe by Eugène Bozza—is in six-eight. Maya gets seven measures all to herself before I come in. I know she likes it, because the oboe almost never gets to play solo. But in this piece, for once, Maya gets to be the star.
Of course, she’s the one who gives the first violin the A when the orchestra tunes up. Sure, the first violin gives the note to the rest of us. But the oboe gives it to the violin.
It’s basically the only moment when the oboe gets any respect.
I remember Maya’s initials carved into the rafter of the tree house, and the story of her getting pissed off when she found out about Dirk and the bongs. I remember Asher and me cocooned in the blanket.
Maya stops. “Earth to Lily,” she says.
I’ve missed my entrance. “Sorry.”
“You’re thinking about Asher,” she says, with a grin.
“That’s so wrong?”
Boris releases another dank cloud of swamp gas. Maya raises her oboe to her mouth again. “One more time?” she says. “If you’re back from—Ashville?”
“Fine,” I say. “Go.” She comes in on the five and I listen to her play. Eight measures in, I join her. I love this piece. People don’t know Bozza’s music, but they should because it is genius. I close my eyes and let it all wash over me.
Two minutes later, we both land on the final D, and hold it. Then I raise my bow and we’re done. It does feel, in a way, like excellent sex.
Maya raises an eyebrow. “You were in the tree house again, weren’t you?”
There’s no point in trying to hide anything from her. I nod. “Yesterday,” I say quietly.
Maya smiles. “Your cello sounds different, when you think about him,” she says. “You play it the way an astronaut walks on the moon.”
“Is that…a good thing?”
“Yeah, it’s like you’ve never heard music, and you need to listen to every single note.” She glances at me. “You know he’s never been in
love before.” She looks reflective, as if she’s remembering the times when
was the one in the tree house, ruling over their subjects.