Authors: Will Allison
Also by Will Allison
What You Have Left: A Novel
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Will Allison
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Free Press Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
First Free Press hardcover edition May 2011
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
ISBN 978-1-4516-0819-9 (ebook)
For Deborah and Hazel
It’s hard for me to imagine the person you’ll be when you read this—probably on your way to college and a life of your own. Sometimes that feels like forever away. But other times—when you get into the car wearing your mom’s perfume, or shush me distractedly as you study the menu at a diner, or manage to throw a baseball that goes exactly where you want it to—I feel time racing by so fast I can hardly breathe. Not knowing where things will stand between us ten years from now or how this letter will change them, I need to make sure you understand, before I go any further, how grateful I am to have you in my life, how lucky I am to be your father, how sorry I am for the way things have turned out between your mom and me since the accident. I know it’s been hard. I know it’s been confusing. My intention here is to be honest with you about all of it, to write down for later all the things I can’t very well tell an eight-year-old now.
You may be wondering why I’m doing this. I won’t pretend I’m not hoping you’ll forgive me, but please don’t think I’m asking for forgiveness, or that I think I deserve it. Detective Rizzo once told me that all confessions boil down to one thing: stress. People confess, he said, to relieve the psychological and physiological effects of guilt, regret, anxiety, shame. To share the burden with someone else. To at least glimpse the possibility of redemption. It’s only human nature.
Remember the time you spilled orange juice on my keyboard and I didn’t know why it wasn’t working and you told me what you’d done, even though you could have gotten away with it? You said you couldn’t stop thinking about it. You said you felt so bad, you
to tell me, even if you got in trouble. That’s where I am. People confess when their need for relief overrides their instinct for self-preservation. I don’t claim to be any different.
Still, I’m not sure I’d be writing this if I didn’t also believe that, on some level, you already know the truth about the accident. You were there, after all. I have to think someday it’s all going to come clear to you, and when it does, you’ll know not only why I did what I did, but also that I wasn’t honest with you about it. You don’t deserve to be lied to. I don’t want that between us, not on top of everything else. I don’t want to make the same mistakes with you that I made with your mom.
Things didn’t have to turn out the way they did. The accident was no more a matter of destiny than anything else you can rightfully call an accident, just mistakes and poor judgment. With a different choice here or there—and I’m talking the small ones you wouldn’t otherwise give a second thought to—I could have gotten us safely home from school like I did every other day. Sara would have done her homework at the kitchen table while I prepped dinner, then we might have gone for a bike ride over to Ivy Hill
Park, or played catch in the backyard, or worked on a jigsaw puzzle. She’d have kept me company in the basement while I folded laundry, or read a book on the rug in my office while I returned calls and checked email. At 6:38 sharp, we’d have gotten back into the station wagon to go meet Liz’s train, then the three of us would have sat down to stir fry or spaghetti and meatballs and talked about the positions Liz was trying to fill at the bank, or whose parents we wanted to spend Thanksgiving with. Mostly, though, we’d have talked about Sara—which one of her friends she wanted the next play date with, what she wanted to be for Halloween, whether she was going to keep growing her hair or get it chopped off. Putting her to bed, Liz and I might even have paused to remark on how lucky we were, as we were inclined to do, but at no point would we have considered the possibility that we’d dodged a bullet that day, that we’d come
to our lives veering permanently off course. That’s the kind of thing you see only in hindsight.
This was late October, just over two years ago, when Sara was in first grade. I had a small accounting business I ran out of the house—tax work, mostly—and I’d knocked off early to be the parent helper in Sara’s classroom. Up until the drive home from Montclair, it was a good afternoon. The kids were writing their own historically accurate
Thanksgiving play, with deer meat instead of turkey and no black clothes or funny buckles. I got to help with the script (“Do not be confused, sir, we are Pilgrims, not Puritans!”) and painting the backdrop. At the end of the day, there was a birthday party outside. The weather was warm for fall—kids shedding hoodies, kicking up leaves, the sun almost white against a deep blue sky—and though it was Thursday, I remember it feeling like Friday. The birthday girl had brought a box of chocolate cupcakes the size of softballs. Sara offered me a bite of hers, very polite in front of her teacher, and looked relieved when I said no thanks.
I was teasing her about that on the drive home, asking if she’d saved me any, when I had to stop short for a light on Thomas Boulevard. I didn’t know there was a police car behind us until it almost rear-ended us. In the mirror, I could see the officer back there cursing me. I shook my head. What are you going to do, I thought, write me a ticket for
running the light?
What he ended up doing was backing up and going around us, as if the law didn’t apply to him—no flashing lights, no siren, no nothing. He ran the light because he could, because who was going to stop him? As he passed us, he shot me a look. The look was what did it. Imagine my finger tapping the first in a line of dominos. I opened the window, stuck out my arm, and flipped him off.
* * *
I admit, I’m not the most laid-back driver, especially with Sara in the backseat. Even now, I still think about a close call we had in Cleveland not long before she was born. I’d just passed my CPA exam, and Liz had taken me out to celebrate. On the way home after dinner, a few blocks from our apartment, the light turned green and she started into the intersection. Next thing I knew, the trees and cars and buildings were going sideways. A delivery truck had run the light and spun us into a pole. It felt like we’d been hit by a tornado. The front end of the car was practically gone. A few more feet into the intersection, and it would have been the driver’s-side door. Liz was hysterical—“Oh my God! Oh my God!”—hyperventilating and holding her stomach, saying she should have seen the guy coming. She was seven months pregnant.