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Authors: Stephanie Butland

The Secrets We Keep

BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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Copyright © 2014, 2015 by Stephanie Butland

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover images © B. Pepone/Corbis, ferlistockphoto/Getty Images

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

All brand names and product names used in this book are trademarks, registered trademarks, or trade names of their respective holders. Sourcebooks, Inc., is not associated with any product or vendor in this book.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

Originally published as
in 2014 in the United Kingdom by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher.

For my grandmothers,

Isabel and Ursula,

who always knew I was a writer

Hey, Mike.

This is stupid. It's 4 a.m. and I'm sitting downstairs in the dark, writing a letter to you by flashlight. I don't want to put the light on. I don't know why not. I don't know anything. I don't know what day it is. I don't know where you are, but I know you're somewhere. You can't just be nowhere. Not all of that you. You can't have just gone.

Blake was in tears and in uniform when he came to the door, and all I could think of was that you were hurt, that something had happened to you, that you'd gotten in the way of some idiot drunk driver or waded into an argument that had gotten nasty. I remember thinking, Murphy's law that you've gotten hurt walking the dog when it's your job that's supposed to be dangerous. I was already thinking about how we would all tease you for getting into trouble walking a West Highland terrier. I didn't want to look at Blake's face. It wasn't a face that looked as though it was planning to do any teasing, so I didn't look. I couldn't.

I took my coat from the hook and I started to put it on over my pj
s because I assumed he was going to take me to the hospital to see you. And then I started to think about it all more seriously. How sad it would be if it was something that meant you couldn't do your job anymore—if you were going to be in a wheelchair, if you had lost your sight—and of how we would get through it, whatever it was, because—well, because what else would we do? It would be you and me, our world inside the big world, a yolk in an egg. It would work. We would make it. It wouldn't have been the first time things didn't go according to plan. I was so ready to be strong.

But my fingers struggled with the zip, and I couldn't see properly, and Blake still wasn't saying anything, even though I was asking, asking, what's happened to him, where is he, was it a car crash, did someone hit him, why can't he ever learn that off duty means off duty. He was just crying, and then he put his hands over my hands and took them away from my coat, and he said my name, twice, once gently, and then again firmly so I had to look into his face, and then I knew.

Blake caught me as I fell. The next thing I knew, I was on the sofa and he was trying to make me drink bloody tea. I think I screamed. I might have thrown the cup—there's a mark on the wall, anyway—and I was shaking, shaking, and he was sitting next to me and talking, but I couldn't hear a thing. Nothing. The newspaper was on the floor. We'd been halfway through the crossword when you took Pepper out. And suddenly I got the one that we were really stuck on. 3 across, Geg (9,3). Scrambled egg. Of course. How often have we said how, once you get it, it's impossible to see how you ever couldn't? And I opened my mouth to tell you. And you weren't there. And just for a split second I saw the world in which you'd never be there again. I think I pulled out some of my hair.

I don't know why I wasn't worried when you were gone so long. I suppose I assumed you'd found some old lady to help across the road. Maybe I didn't think about it at all. Already I look back at that me, happy and unaware, and barely recognize her. Another world. A better world.

Andy came—I suppose Blake had called him—and he took my hand, and he cried, but I didn't. I just felt sick at the thought of how many hands would touch mine in my life, but never yours again. I felt as though I was underwater too, with you, although of course I knew they'd gotten you out. Pepper jumped up onto my lap, and he was still a bit damp—Blake said it was him standing barking on the bank, then swimming around in circles, that drew attention to where you were—and his wet fur felt like the only real thing in this whole horrible world.

And I've been blundering around in the blackest blackness ever since. It hasn't even been two days and already this terrible place feels as though it will be my home forever. I could never have imagined how dark, flat, endless this place would be. Maybe that's why I've stopped putting the lights on: they're pointless. They don't stop the dark.

Oh God, Mike. I can't bear it here, but at the same time I can't be anywhere else. I can't believe that it's true. You wouldn't do this to me. You wouldn't. You promised. You're the person who's supposed to protect me, so you can't be the cause of this.

And anyway, there is so much of you. You can't be nowhere. Where are you?

Come home.

E xxx

Blake and Andy hadn't talked about what they would do when they left Elizabeth with her mother-in-law, eight hours after the emergency call from another late-night dog walker reported a young woman, soaked and unconscious, on the bank of Butler's Pond and whipped their world into chaos. They'd obeyed Patricia's stoical instructions—“You know there's nothing you can do for us, so just let us be for a bit”—and gone, leaving the two women side by side on the sofa. Elizabeth was no longer sobbing but making a strange, sad hum of a keening, as though her body had already forgotten how to breathe without also making a cry. Patricia stared straight ahead, eyes glassy, something throbbing in the jut of her jaw.

Even though there's been no discussion, it feels as though there is only one option for the two men. At the gate, Blake says, “Shall we go and have a look?” A question that's not really a question, and they walk the short mile to Butler's Pond in silence as Throckton starts to wake around them.

Andy pulls out his phone. Dials, waits, wonders whether the sound of his wife, sleep-soft and stretching, will be something he can bear. “It's me,” he says when she answers, then, after a pause, “Not really. Michael died. Michael drowned.” His voice is flat and tight: locked down, for now, until it's safe to start thinking about what's happened. It's too soon to glance at the death of his best friend since childhood for more than a second. Blake matches Andy's steps and listens as he answers Lucy's questions: “I'm with Blake… It looks like an accident… No, I'll go to work… I don't really know, to be honest… OK. Will do.” He ends the call and says, “She says I have to make sure I have something to eat before I go to work. She says to say she's thinking of you.” Blake nods. Andy redials. He is surprised that his hands are steady. “Me again. I meant to say I love you.” He is not the only one, as the news makes its way around Throckton this morning, who will tell someone he loves them. Who will think,
There, but for the grace of God, go any of us.

It's still dark, so the floodlit place where Michael drowned and Kate Micklethwaite was saved seems more strange than sad. Kate is in the hospital, vomiting water from her lungs and guts, shivering and unable to speak or focus or do anything but submit to needles and lines and wires, something she will have no memory of. Michael, his body identified by Blake earlier, is already in the morgue, where a pathologist will later confirm what Elizabeth has already been told, that he drowned. Alive when he went into the water, dead when he came out. As simple as that.

So Blake and Andy stand and watch as the grass, the mud, the water are photographed and scrutinized. Although Butler's Pond is generally accepted as a beauty spot, a place for Sunday strolls and dog walking and picnics, this corner of it isn't the prettiest. It's one of those places where rubbish blows to and breeds. The duty officer, recognizing the watchers, offers to lift the tape, but Blake waves him away. They are close enough.

“Unbelievable,” Andy says after a while.

“You should never underestimate the water,” Blake says.

“He was a bloody idiot to go in there,” Andy mutters. They both think of the time six months earlier when Michael, one of the first on the scene of a house fire, had walked into the building and emerged with a mother and baby. Everyone had raged at him—firefighters, senior officers, Elizabeth, Patricia—but he had remained steadfast: someone had to save those people and the fire trucks were six minutes away, which Michael knew was long enough for a toddler to die of smoke inhalation. So he'd gone in.

Blake had been working with Michael that day. He remembered how they had both raised their faces to the wind, asked each other if they smelled smoke, just before the call came in. They both knew the drill: get the neighbors out, keep people away, and wait for the fire department. Never, ever go into anywhere full of smoke unless you are absolutely sure you can get out again. But Michael had gone in, and then there was nothing to do but wait, and hope. The hope had run out just a second before the first fire engine had pulled up. Turning toward the firefighters, he had told them what had happened; turning back, he had seen Michael running up the path, blackened and hacking, propelling a young woman who was herself screaming, every line of her body a prayer as she held forward a child who was silent and still in her arms.

And then the controlled chaos began, the hoses and the water and the aching, burning smoke.

It had been months until Michael had admitted to Andy—it was late, and drunken, and deniable—that there was a moment when he thought he was going to die, and he'd been terrified, and life had never been quite the same since, but he couldn't say exactly why. Andy had put him in a taxi home and they'd never spoken about it again. Now, he wishes that he'd asked more questions.

“I don't think he will have felt anything,” Blake says, a catch in his voice.

Andy doesn't know whether he's being asked for a medical opinion or a word of comfort, but he agrees with a nod. And then they turn and walk back to the village, avoiding the eyes of the first curious runners and dog walkers as the light starts to make some real headway into the sky. They make a strange pair—or at least they would, were the overall impression that they gave not one of two men walking home after being up all night, united by something outside themselves. Blake is tall and broad, straight and strong. Only close inspection would show that his uniform is not as crisp as it was when he put it on before walking to work sixteen hours ago. His cap hides his receding hairline and so he looks younger than his forty-seven years when he's wearing it. The shadow of the peak hides the shadows under, and in, his eyes. Next to him, Andy seems slight and short, although there's only four inches' height difference, but the doctor is walking with his head down, letting his tiredness show, wearing mismatched clothes, his pale skin made paler by his thick eyebrows and dark brown hair.

He'd gotten dressed in a hurry in the dark, fumbling for quietness and struggling to make the words he'd just heard make sense. “I'm asking you as their friend,” Blake had said, “but your medical eye might help. I don't want an on-call doctor if I can have someone she knows here. Just in case. Come and see what you think.”

Lucy had sat up in bed and switched on the light as he was searching the bottom of the wardrobe for his shoes. “So the boys sleep, for once, and now you're the one who is waking me up,” she'd said, and he'd told her, more simply and quickly than he would have liked to, his own shock speaking, what had happened. Michael, their best man, godfather to their twins, here one minute, dead in the dark water the next. Lucy's eyes, rounding as she listened. Her pushing him away—“go, go to Elizabeth, see what you can do, tell her”—and then she'd hesitated, because, well, tell her what? Andy had kissed the top of her head and gone, sat for a moment longer than he needed to on the top stair, fastening his laces, finding what he needed for what would come next, realizing he was just going to have to do it anyway.

“I have to go back to the station,” Blake says when they reach the market square. “You?”

“I don't know.” There's time for Andy to go home, take a shower, watch cartoons with the boys, and tell Lucy he's all right: there's time to touch them, all three of them, just the simplest stroke of hair or brush of hand that might help. But he's not sure he trusts himself. “I think I'll go have half an hour at the office before I start.” The bed in the consulting room will be too narrow to be properly comfortable; the staff shower will run out of hot water before he has finished washing. Better, safer, for now.

“I'll look in on Elizabeth later,” Blake says. “I can take Pepper out when I walk Hope.”

“I'll call on my way home,” Andy says. And, even though they see each other often, they shake hands as they part.

• • •

“It's terrible that we have to be practical, but we do,” Patricia says later. Elizabeth nods but doesn't agree. She's barely moved from the place Blake steered her to when he brought the news. Every now and then Patricia picks up the balled tissues that lie around her daughter-in-law. Every now and then she stops to have a few tears herself, caught unawares by something she comes across: her son's handwriting on the notepad in the kitchen, his muddy sneakers by the back door. Early on the first day, the phone had rung, and neither she nor Elizabeth had gone to answer it. Instead they'd sat, transfixed by the sound of Michael's recorded voice, cheerfully telling the caller that they'd get back to him or her as soon as they could. It was the only time that Patricia had been comforted by Elizabeth: what seemed horrifying to the newly childless mother gladdened the widow who afterward, during the night, would switch the answering machine on again, sit on the bottom step, and call the number from her cell phone over and over, until her husband's voice became like a blanket, the words heard so often that they became meaningless, but the sound warm and soothing.

Less than forty-eight hours from the knock on the door that would always mark the Before and After of Elizabeth's adult life, she's had conversations about identifying Michael (which Blake has done), the inquest (opened and adjourned), the funeral (a week away), visiting the funeral home (which everyone seems to think she should do), her sister coming over from Australia (which everyone seems to think Mel should do), and the girl Michael saved (hospitalized, shocked, and distressed, but not in any physical danger). She has agreed to meet the vicar, the funeral director, and Michael's boss. She has flinched from every mention of death, or body, or even any use of the past tense as far as Michael is concerned. She feels as though she is being asked to do an awful lot of adult things at a time when she has never been less able to do them. When she looks in the desk for the envelope Michael had put there—
written across it in large letters, next to the one marked
and which she runs her hands over, wishing, wishing that it had been her, so she didn't have to bear any of this—she cries again. But these tears are not grief: they are gratitude. Elizabeth remembers the afternoon Michael had sat them down and suggested they do this.

It was not long after they'd married, and she'd laughed at him, but when she'd seen the look on his face, when he'd said, “Elizabeth, you and I of all people know how suddenly people can be lost,” she'd felt ashamed of herself and taken the job seriously. They'd both already lost a parent. They'd each put a copy of their will in the envelopes. Then Michael had photocopied the details of their burial plot so they each had a copy of that.

“Seriously?” Elizabeth had asked when he'd bought the plot. “We could have a great weekend away for that money.”

“Yes,” he'd said, “but a space in a graveyard is forever.” They'd written lists of who they wanted to have their possessions. They'd chosen hymns and poems and laughed about how Elizabeth's choice of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” would go down in Throckton. “It will make you smile,” she'd said, “and Mel and I used to sing it every Sunday at church. We chose it for our mother's funeral. It's our theme song. Throckton will just have to lump it.” When it was done, they'd sealed the envelopes and gone to bed with a bottle of wine.

Elizabeth is so glad of the envelope. Instead of making decisions she can brandish sheets of paper at people. No to medical research, no to an official police funeral, no to cremation. Yes to “Abide with Me” and “The Lord's My Shepherd” and being buried in his uniform. She decides that if it isn't in the envelope, it doesn't matter, and lets Patricia choose caterers and cars and go through her wardrobe and pick out something for her to wear for the funeral. Between conversations, she sits, mostly quiet, and waits. Waits for this not to be true.

• • •

Elizabeth has never been to a funeral home before. She and Patricia enter the building together and then take turns going into the room. Patricia goes first and comes out swollen-faced and silent, nodding and clasping Elizabeth's hands. So, still unsure, she rises and faces the oak-effect door.

It's a smaller room than she thinks it will be. The light is low, and the smell of flowers, from a complex arrangement in which some of the smaller blooms are dying, is a mixture of sweetness and must. There's a cross. And there's a seat, next to the coffin. Because there's a coffin. There's a coffin. Elizabeth closes her eyes and tries to make herself breathe. She looks again. Yes, there's a coffin. Mike's coffin. Her soul winces. The top part is open, the rest closed.

Experimentally, Elizabeth puts her hand on the wood near the bottom, where she would imagine Mike's feet to be, were she able to think about his cold, dead feet in a box. She checks her heart and feels nothing new, nothing worse. She takes a step farther up. Her hand is where his knees would be. The wood is smooth. Her palm runs up thigh, over stomach, rests on chest, in a horrible pantomime of what she's done so often in life. Her mind is saying,
Well, if Mike was gone, this is how it would be, yes, but he can't be gone. He can't be.

BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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