Authors: Mary McCluskey
“This novel raises comparisons to
and some of the other recent stories about characters who aren’t who they seem, but McCluskey’s beautiful prose elevates it above most of them…Haunting and lyrical, understated and true.” —
, starred review
“Mary McCluskey paints a delicate, deeply convincing portrait of a marriage riven by the loss of a child.
is both a classy thriller and a psychologically acute tale about the vulnerabilities grief can open up in us.” —Pamela Erens, author of
“In this stunning psychological drama, the choppy waters of grief and pain rock the stillness of a fragile marriage and a nearly-forgotten friendship. I was gripped by McCluskey’s authentic characters, daring prose, taut story, and deft plot twists.
is an utterly compelling debut!” —Ellen Meister, author of
Dorothy Parker Drank Here
“Gripping and emotionally complex, this heartfelt novel talks of loss and of how we deal with it, of the long shadow of grief, and of the havoc that can be caused by a need for retribution. It’s a dark tale, beautifully told. It will linger in the mind and heart long after you have closed the book.” —Charles Lambert, author of
The Children’s Home
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 Mary McCluskey
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Little A, New York
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Little A are trademarks of
, Inc., or its affiliates.
ISBN-13: 9781503953062 (hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1503953068 (hardcover)
ISBN-13: 9781503953048 (paperback)
ISBN-10: 1503953041 (paperback)
Cover design by Kimberly Glyder
For Nick, with love
he narrow hotel bar, with its dull, disguising light, ran alongside the crystal ballroom. Kat Hamilton, seated on a barstool at the far end of the room, sipped her fourth gin and tonic and wished that she could fade like a ghost into the wall. The formal attire pinched. She had worn only casual clothes since the funeral; on bad days she wore her nightshirt all day. On this evening, the classic black dress chafed against her skin, like a winter sweater on sunburn.
Her husband, Scott, had visited her twice, stealing sips from her drink, taking deep breaths as he surveyed the room. He hadn’t tried to persuade her to join him in the glittering ballroom: he knew she would say no. Scott was to receive a Los Angeles Lawyers Pro Bono Award for negotiating a lease for a halfway house run by a local priest and reformed gang members. Kat had not wanted to come.
“Just for an hour, sweetheart.”
“Why? The partners won’t notice if I’m there or not.”
“Not for the partners. For the kids.”
“Yep. They’ve worked hard.”
“Okay. One hour.”
She could see Scott at the far side of the ballroom, Glenda Lilley, his smart female associate, at his elbow, Father O’Connor jubilant beside him. Scott shook hands, smiled, appeared in control. He had never lost control. Not even when their world imploded at 10:31 a.m. on a Saturday morning twelve weeks and three days ago when Kat lifted the phone to hear a police officer’s voice say,
I am very sorry to have to tell you, ma’am, that your son, Christopher . . .
And after an enormous whoosh, when the air was sucked out of the universe, she had screamed and screamed until Scott ran in from the garden, took hold of her shoulders, and held her tight to his chest. The officer’s words resonated in her head every day. She wondered if Scott still heard screaming.
“You plan to hide out in the bar all evening?”
James Dempsey draped his long body onto the stool next to her. An attractive young black man they had befriended when he was a summer clerk, he was now a hotshot associate, trying hard to make partner.
“Hi, James. Not
evening. I suppose I have to be at the table when they make the award. Then, I hope we can just slip away.”
He took her hand.
“Not getting any easier for you, Kat?”
“No. It’s not.”
“Scott doing better?” he asked.
“Scott has admirable self-control. And a stiff upper lip.”
They both looked over at Scott, still holding court in the center of a group.
A typical urban lawyer,
even to the serious eyeglasses.
Still a handsome man, though, at least to her.
“I thought you Brits had the prerogative on that,” James said. “But I guess it’s the manly way.”
“What’s the womanly way?” she asked. “Tears?”
“Tears are fine, Kat. You’re in pain.”
“Yes,” she said. “Pain. You know, Chris’s death hurts more physically than his birth did.
Kat knew she was talking too much, four drinks were hurtling around her bloodstream, but she could not stop.
“It’s like someone took a knife and just scooped out everything—heart, guts. We’re the hollow ones, now, Scott and I. All scooped out.”
She looked helplessly at James. He reached out and placed an arm around her shoulders.
“It’s grief, Kat. It’s normal.”
“But if I’m normal, what’s Scott? I can’t move, and he can’t stand still. He’s working twelve hours a day.”
“That’s maybe his way. He’s doing great work for this project.”
“I know that.”
A young black man with a shaved bullet head, an earring, and a solid buffed body stopped beside them and stared at James.
“Hey, what’s up, brother?” he asked. James grinned.
“Well hello, Chiller. You here to support your buddies?”
“Man, I’m here to receive my award. I’m a fucking
Kat was sure that James knew this, but he pretended surprise.
“I’m looking forward to seeing that. I’ll be cheering.”
“Damn right. You better be cheering, bro.”
Chiller swaggered off. James, still smiling, turned back to Kat.
“We better get in there. You’re at the main table. Behind the podium.”
The awards ceremony began immediately, while people were still eating, which meant, Kat noted gratefully, that the evening would soon be over. She was having difficulty swallowing. When Scott’s name was called, he accepted the small plaque with a simple thank-you, bowing graciously, and Kat applauded with the others. But there was some whispering between Scott and the MC, and Scott returned to the podium again. He smiled as he took the microphone.
“Well, I also get to
an award this evening. And it’s a big honor for me. It’s to a young man from Compton. While we were negotiating contracts, doing the easy stuff like the leases and the paperwork, a group of kids were out there working fifteen hours a day, painting, rebuilding, fixing. Making it safe. Making it home. Representing that group today—Chiller.”
Chiller headed toward the podium and Scott began to read from the card he was handed.
“I am proud to present this award to Christopher . . .”
Scott faltered, stared at the card in his hand, his face ashen. Kat’s heart leaped. How could this be? Christopher was a blue-eyed, smiling teenager. A boy with fair hair and freckles, just like her own. The hushed audience waited. Chiller turned, frowning. Scott began again. He said the words carefully now, with rigid deliberation.
“To Christopher Richard Washington, aka Chiller.”
The applause was loud and exuberant. Chiller, grinning as a press camera flashed, took the silver trophy and waved it at the audience, holding both arms above his head like a prizefighter. Scott looked over at her and Kat saw that the ice had splintered, the armor shattered and fallen away. His eyes were bleak as they met hers, then he looked away, staring into an impossible future.
In the car, Scott was silent.
“There’s magic in a name,” Kat said quietly. “The Indians knew that.”
“I know,” he said.
He glanced at her, swallowed. She thought again that she could feel her heart breaking.
Once they were home, Scott said he was going to bed. Kat understood this. Understood well the need to burrow and hide. She pulled on her nightgown and then made tea, taking a cup to him as if he were an invalid. He sipped it, and then looked at her strangely, as if he were embarrassed.
“Do something for me?”
“Lie on me.”
“Just lie on me,” Scott said. “Flat. So I’m weighted down. Nothing else.”
She climbed onto the bed and lay down on him; her head reached his shoulder. His body was cold at first. She could hear his jagged breathing.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s fine.”
So Kat lay quite still, weighting him, anchoring her husband to the warm earth, as his tears dampened her hair.
he next morning, Kat, propped up on pillows, watched Scott as he dressed for the office. His movements seemed easier, calmer. Last night’s emotion had been a kind of catharsis for him. In the dresser mirror, his eyes met hers.
“Did you sleep?” he asked.
“A bit. Did you?” she asked as he turned from the mirror.
She picked up the newspaper, glanced at the headlines, put it back on the bed. He had brought it in to her, along with a cup of coffee. He came to sit on the edge of the bed and took hold of her hand.
“You see the therapist today?”
“Yes. This afternoon.”
He was really asking, she knew, whether she planned to go out at all. He worried about the inertia that held her in the house. She had not been back to work since their son’s death, had no idea when she would return.
“I’ll be home as early as I can,” he said. “But there’s a lot going on.”
Kat nodded. She listened as he left the house, tracking his footsteps on the stairs, before she moved from the bed to the window to watch him walk to his car. A slam of the car door, the sudden loud life of the engine, and then he was driving away. She waited until the sound faded as he turned the corner and was gone. Ten hours until he returned, maybe twelve.
Distracted by the whine of a garage door, Kat looked across the street to see Brooke leaving for work in her red Miata convertible. Her neighbor’s blonde hair was tied back with a glowing gold head scarf, and she wore large wraparound shades, though the early-morning light was still dim. Brooke glanced toward the house—must have spotted the shadow of Kat behind the blinds because she waved—then touched her fingers to her lips to blow a kiss before gunning the car engine, heading off into her busy day. Kat, aware that Brooke could not see her clearly, waved to her friend anyway.
In the kitchen, Kat stood at the window looking at the garden, neglected these past weeks, thinking about what Scott had said two nights ago. It’s incredible, he said, how a small thing can so change a life that nothing will ever be the same again.
“Like a truck blowing a tire on the Coast Highway?”
“Christ, yes. That, of course. But things that seem insignificant at the time. You know—an ad for a job, an introduction to someone. Little things.”
“A strange English girl looking at you?” she had asked, wondering if he was regretting everything in his life. If he had not met her, he would not be grieving like this. They had been lying in bed and he had turned to look at her.
“A drive around the city—and a whole chain of events follows. Who would have guessed? Little thing like that.”
“Oh, I would have guessed.”
But Scott was right. A drive with an attractive UCLA student so many years ago had changed every aspect of her life: her job, her friends, even her country.
She had been happy enough with her London life until the Los Angeles assignment. Her editor gave her six weeks to write about a new band of young filmmakers in Los Angeles: a plum job, causing some resentment in her office. She had loved LA at once—the sun, the mountains, the palm trees, the energy, and the glitter. She was amused by the enthusiasm and arrogance of the creative young people she met, who believed with their very souls that this was where it was happening. This was the place.
She met Scott, two weeks into the assignment, at a party held by a group of USC film students. She noticed him at once: a tall young man, hair rather long, dark blue eyes, a wide, warm smile. He studied Kat.
“So, Miz Brit,” he said. “What have you seen so far?”
“I’ve seen Sunset Strip, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Malibu,” she told him. “Just about everything.”
He laughed out loud.
“Everything? No kidding? Hey, come see a different LA.”
She thought he was an actor; he was as good-looking as the other young men around and was dressed the same way: blue jeans, T-shirt, hair falling into his eyes. What amazed her was that he noticed her among all those sparkling starlets, with their gazelle legs and pouting mouths.
The next evening, he drove her to Old Pasadena, then on to the San Fernando Valley, through the town of San Fernando, with its Spanish buildings and charming town center, and to Pacoima, with its early flickers of menace and youth gangs.
Back on the freeway, he took her through the streets of downtown Los Angeles, right by The Midnight Mission, and the alleys that housed humanity’s lost and rejected. Then, to a hillside just north of Malibu, where they sat silently, watching the ocean.
“Damn, I’m sorry, but I got to get back,” he said after a while. “Finals coming up.”
“You’re still at university?”
“Second year UCLA law school.”
“You’re going to be a lawyer?”
“You don’t look like a lawyer.”
“Thank you. I guess.”
He leaned over, kissed her softly on the mouth.
“Pick you up tomorrow at seven,” he said.
She should have demurred, said she had other plans, for she did, in fact, have a number of people to see. But she nodded. It was already too late: too late to change the shape of her Los Angeles assignment, too late to change the direction of her life.
“I’ll be ready,” Kat promised.
Two nights after their first date, he took her back to his cramped room near the UCLA campus, and she knew, as she stepped through the door, what she wanted to happen next. Kat had stripped off her T-shirt and bra and was fumbling with the zipper of her jeans when Scott came back from the kitchen, tugging at the cork on a bottle of wine.
“Jesus, you are so beautiful,” he said, placing the wine bottle on an old bookcase and coming forward to take her in his arms. “I love fast women.”
“I’ve never behaved like this in my life,” whispered Kat.
“You were waiting for the right moment,” he said.
They made love with a hunger Kat could never have imagined and a tenderness that left her terrified. She could not conceive of living without him now. They were married the following year. Chris was born three months after their first anniversary.
“A son,” Scott had said immediately after the birth, holding the loudly protesting baby in his arms. “A son with stunning good looks and a big voice.”
She remembered their pride and amazement at having produced such a remarkable infant; she remembered Scott’s wide smile.
Now, sighing, Kat turned away from the window and began to make more coffee. It seemed impossible that they had been so young, so full of hope and self-confidence. That attractive young man and woman, those proud young parents, appeared to her now like people she had known a long time ago, in another life.
She had poured cereal into a bowl and was adding milk when the phone rang. She lifted the receiver uneasily, praying it would not be a colleague from the PR agency of Waters & Chappell, wondering when she would be back to work. But it was not a colleague; it was Maggie, her sister, calling from the UK.
“Thank God,” Kat said when she recognized her sister’s voice.
“Thank God for what, sweetie?”
“That it’s you.”
“Me indeed. And I’ve got a surprise.”
“Look, I know you
you don’t want to do it. But you will, darling, because I’ve paid for it already. And booked my flight.”
“What have you paid for?” she asked.
“Five days at a spa. In Palm Springs. It will do you so much good.”
“I’m not sure I want to be done good,” Kat said.
“It will do me good, too,” said Maggie. “Do it for me.”
“But what about Scott?”
“I checked with Scott,” said Maggie. Kat felt immediately betrayed. “He thinks it’s a super idea.”
There was no way out. She knew it and listened to her sister’s chatter about body wraps and massages with a slowly mounting dread.