In the dream, Ellen was running shoeless down a sandy path between two lines of close-growing bushes. A muscle in her side cramped with every step. Awake, she pushed up onto her elbows, squinting down at a spot just below her ribs where she thought she might still feel a shadow of the pain. She was groggy and sour-mouthed, and she had to pee, but she didn’t think she was sick. Maybe it was hunger.
She slipped from the bed, trying to make as little noise as possible, wincing when she pressed the creaky floorboard near the bathroom. Dan slept on, though, his arms thrown wide above his head. It was the way a child might sleep if she felt safe. It was the way Sally had slept.
In the kitchen, Ellen stirred hot tap water into a bowl of instant oatmeal while she waited for toast. Oatmeal and toast were bland, weren’t they, like baked potatoes? Easy, pale things. The kind of things she gave the children after they’d had a stomach virus. She spread a stripe of butter across the toast and watched it seep down into the grainy holes. Then she threw it into the trash and carried the bowl to the table.
Outside, the street lights shut off and a pair of bats swooped in low over the crepe myrtle, then disappeared. A dog barked somewhere down the block, and a car slowed enough for the driver to pitch a rolled newspaper onto the small pile that was growing soggy at the edge of the yard. Ellen stirred the cooling cereal again and tasted it. No salt. Sally could always tell whether the salt had been put in before or after it was cooked.
Ellen ate a few bites of the oatmeal, put the spoon down, and waited for the twinge in her side to subside. When it didn’t, she scraped the rest of the gluey mess into the garbage with the toast, then turned and watched the slow motion slide of the bowl from her fingers into the sink. It hit the hard surface with a clean, sharp crack and split into four perfectly curved triangles.
When Dan came in, Ellen was holding the broken pieces of pottery. “I dropped the bowl.” She looked up as he was tucking his shirttail in. There were comb tracks in his damp, fair hair.
“Did you hurt yourself?” He took the shards from her and set them on the counter. “Are you cut?”
Ellen didn’t answer him, but held her hands out in front of her, turning them over. There was no blood, not even a scratch.
“Ellie, look.” He checked his watch, barely shifting his eyes. “Are you going to be okay? Can you get Theo off to school?”
She nodded, her jaw set against the quiver that might give her away. Dan angled his head to kiss her, but she looked down, picking at a spot on her T-shirt. He pressed his lips against her forehead and squeezed her shoulder, though she could feel him already beginning to pull away, turning his attention to the next thing.
“So, did you eat something?” He was rummaging around in the cabinet, lifting cans and setting them back down too hard.
Ellen could see the red lid of the coffee can sticking up just behind the peanut butter, but she kept quiet. She took in a deep breath, willing air into the space where the gnawing sensation had settled in. Maybe if she gave it a little more room it could calm down. She imagined it rodent-like, with long, honed teeth and thick claws, scrabbling around, looking for a place to nest.
He had found the coffee and was scooping it into the fluted paper filter of the coffee maker. He hit the start button and turned to the sink to rinse out the insulated mug he always used. It was tall and shiny green, the bottom narrowed to fit a car cup-holder. Ellen remembered walking the aisles of the Kmart with Sally and Theo the day before Dan’s fortieth birthday, trying to steer them toward something they could afford with their combined allowances. The mug had been out of their price range, but they were so excited, so sure it was the perfect gift. She had given them the extra money and waited by the check-out while they counted out their quarters and dimes and rumpled bills. In the car they refrained from their usual bickering and chattered about the cake Ellen had planned and the card they were going to make. How long had that been? Three years? Four?
“Okay, then.” Dan screwed the top onto the mug. “I’ll be at the office if you need me.” He stood in the doorway, pushing against the storm door with a foot while he balanced the coffee in one hand and a folder of papers in the other. “I won’t be late. I’ll call you.” The door closed behind him, but Ellen heard him call from the driveway. “Eat something.”
She waited until he was gone before lifting her pajama top to explore the tender spot again. The attempt at eating hadn’t helped, and might, in fact, have made it a little worse. Had there ever been a time when she was hungry, actually desiring the smell and taste of something rich or sweet or pungent? She couldn’t remember.
“Hey, Mom.” Theo had walked right up behind her before she heard him. Startled, she dropped her shirt and attempted a welcoming expression, but when she turned, he was taking the milk from the refrigerator, and her face felt stiff and false. She watched him reach easily for a cereal bowl on a high shelf. He was tall for twelve, and thin, with Ellen’s fair, sensitive skin and inky hair. Sally had had Dan’s coloring, blond with a perpetual tan, and those green eyes.
“Can I get anything for you?” Ellen asked, though he had already poured cereal and milk and was mashing it around with the back of a spoon. It was something he and Sally had always done, calling it ‘softing the crunch.' As he ate, she tried to recall when she had last cooked a hot breakfast for him—eggs or pancakes or his favorite French toast. Without speaking, he tipped the bowl and slurped the last of the sugary milk, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked up at her. He was probably expecting a reminder of good manners, but she barely had the energy to remain standing where she was, keeping the phony smile in place, never mind working up a show of parental annoyance. For an instant their eyes met, and he almost seemed to be stalling, waiting for her reprimand, wanting it even. Then he looked away, shoving his chair back abruptly, jamming a faded baseball cap onto his head. His hair was pushed down into a dark fringe, covering his ears, his eyebrows. He needed a haircut. He grabbed his backpack from the counter and started for the door. “Are you going with…with?” Ellen struggled for the name of Theo’s neighborhood buddy. They had been walking to school together since second grade, and she had known the child and his family since he was a toddler.
“Jackson,” Theo said. “You know, Jackson Butler, down the street, short kid, red hair. He’s only over here, like, all the time.” He made no attempt to keep the sarcasm from his voice. It was a tone that Sally had begun to employ a few years earlier, but it was totally unexpected in Theo. He had almost never tested the limits they set, never openly disobeying them or talking back. Once, when she was angry about something, Sally had taunted him, calling him a suck up mama’s boy. It was mean and childish, but even Ellen had wondered at the time if a child could be too compliant. Now her surprise and displeasure must have been clear because Theo suddenly stopped and turned to her, his face contorted.
“Jeeze, Mom, I’m sorry.” He looked as if he might cry. “I didn’t mean, you know, I didn’t…” He took a step toward her, and she met him and put her arms around him, resting her forehead against the bony shelf of his shoulder. As shaky as she was, she could feel the tremble in him, and she fought an almost overwhelming longing to comfort him, tell him that everything was really okay, that she was fine. She knew without saying them that the words would be as transparently false and useless as a nursery rhyme.
“You need to get going, don’t you?” She didn’t attempt a smile, but at least her voice didn’t break. She watched relief transform his face and hoped that the anxiety of the moment wouldn’t follow him through the day. “Make good...” she began her standard send-off, but he was out the door before she could add “choices.”
In the laundry room, she moved through the reach and bend of transferring clothes from the basket into the washer. There were only a few things: some towels, a couple of pairs of Dan’s socks, underwear, a pair of Theo’s shorts, and a few T-shirts. There had been a time in her life, before Dan began to take most of his clothes to the dry cleaners, when every day was a two-load washday, and when there had been more color—turquoise and pink and that garish purple that all the girls were wearing for a while.
The phone rang in the kitchen, but she stood motionless, listening for the click that meant the answering machine was picking up. The recorded message was two bars of James Taylor singing “You’ve Got a Friend”, followed by Sally and Theo telling the caller to “just call out your name and we’ll come running to get back to you.” Ellen had always disliked that sort of thing, children being encouraged to perform for captive adult audiences, but this one had been done without her knowledge, a Mother’s Day surprise. And she loved that Sally and Theo sometimes listened to the music she and Dan liked, old rock and roll, blues, instead of the angry, metallic noise most of their friends preferred.
“Ellen, it’s Lottie.” As if identification were necessary. Charlotte called at the same time every morning, wherever she was—home, her car, her office. Ellen could hear the echoing background babble that meant it was probably coming from the high domed main hall of the county courthouse. “I’ve just got a minute, but I wanted to check in. I’ll try to come by at lunch, or for sure on my way home this afternoon.” More fuzzy murmuring and someone shouting something. A door slamming. “I love you, Ellie. Bye.” Ellen stared down into the washer at the small collection of clothes and tried to bring her skittering attention back to what it was that she was supposed to be doing with them.
Charlotte and Ellen had met in their obstetricians’ waiting room thirteen years earlier, when Ellen was pregnant with Theo and Charlotte was in for a check-up following a miscarriage. Seated on either side of a low table strewn with out-of-date magazines, they had reached for the same one and apologized simultaneously, which made them both laugh. They began to chat then, in an easy, casual way, about the relentless hot weather and about their doctors, until Sally, two years old and fearless, spied a pack of chocolate peppermints in Charlotte’s open purse. With a quick, sly glance at Ellen, she went for it, tipping the whole bag and all its contents out onto the floor. Ellen, large and clumsy, attempted to hoist herself out of her chair but Charlotte stopped her.
“Don’t worry about it. She didn’t hurt anything.” She dropped easily to Sally’s side where the toddler sat, squeezing the crumpled roll of candies to her chest. “Is it okay if she has one? They’re soft.” Charlotte held out her hand, and Sally ducked her head and squeezed harder. By the time the chocolates were rescued and Sally was sucking away at one, the nurse was calling Ellen’s name.
Ellen rose awkwardly and started for the door, but Sally sat where she was, flirting shamelessly, batting her eyes and giving Charlotte one of her melting smiles. “Sally, come on, honey.” Ellen was hot and uncomfortable, and as she leaned to take Sally by the arm, the child stood and trailed small, chocolaty fingers across the knee of Charlotte’s white linen trousers.
“Oh,God!” Ellen cried. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” She watched in horror as Charlotte surveyed the smear. Sally, suddenly shy, backed away from the damage and buried her face in her mother’s denim skirt. “I am just so sorry,” Ellen repeated. “I’ll pay to have them cleaned. Do you think they can be cleaned?”
“If they can’t, they aren’t worth having. Besides, I started it by offering them to her. A stranger with candy, I guess.” She shrugged, then smiled and offered her hand. “I’m Charlotte Bowers. Lottie.”
Forty-five minutes later, Ellen trudged out of the doctor’s office and down the hall, a drowsing Sally slumped against her shoulder, plump little legs straddling her swollen belly. She dreaded the thought of the sweltering parking lot and the blistering seats of her car. As she pushed against the heavy exit door with her hip, Charlotte came up behind her.
“Let me get that.” Outside, they each exhaled loudly as the damp heat replaced the air-conditioned comfort of the building. “Which one is yours?” Charlotte pointed toward a pair of station wagons.
“The old, dirty Volvo,” Ellen grimaced. Charlotte probably drove a spotless Jaguar.
Charlotte plucked the keys from where they dangled at the end of Ellen’s finger and had the back door of the wagon open by the time Ellen had shifted Sally and was ready to settle her into the car seat.
Ellen slipped the harness over Sally’s head and snapped it into place, Sally’s eyelids fluttering only once. Ellen grunted as she straightened and pressed her hands into the small of her back. “Thanks a lot. I feel like a mama hippo in this heat.”
“Listen.” Charlotte nodded once, as if she had made a decision. “Do you guys have a pool?”
“A swimming pool? Hardly. We’ve barely been in the house two years. We’re still planting grass.”
“Well, we do. Have a pool, that is.” She handed Ellen the Volvo keys and began to feel around in her purse for her own. “I’m not going back to work today. Why don’t you bring Sally over in a while? She can splash around in the kiddy part and we can sit on the side and splash ourselves. I’ll make some lemonade for her and a couple wine spritzers for us.”
Ellen pointed to her middle. “I’d better stick to the lemonade for now.”
“Damn. I knew that.”
“It’s fine. And the pool sounds like heaven. Let me give you a call when she wakes up.” While Sally napped, she could start putting supper together.
They exchanged phone numbers and addresses, discovering that they lived only a few miles apart. Ellen drove out of the lot behind Charlotte, noticing the cluster of stickers lined up along the bumper of her late-model sedan: Support Your Public Library, I Brake for Llamas, and Another Lawyer for Choice. Sally sighed in her sleep and Ellen glanced at her in the rear view mirror. There was a tiny smear of chocolate at the corner of her mouth, and another, a single dark spot, in the almost-white wisp curled damply at her temple. She was a mess, Ellen smiled at her daughter, but they had a lovely invitation and Ellen had met someone she might like getting to know. She was a charming mess.
And so the friendship had begun. It was, Ellen later realized, what she had heard described as “recognizing someone from your tribe,” the kind of immediate connection that she hadn’t made with anyone since she and Dan moved to Maryville three years before, the year after they were married. Ellen enjoyed the occasional outing with Dan’s co-workers and their families, and later, the mothers of Sally’s nursery school playmates. Still, there had been that vague flatness, the absence of—for lack of a more adult term—a best girlfriend. It was only after the emptiness was filled by Charlotte’s easy companionship that Ellen recognized the loneliness for what it had been. Charlotte quickly took on the role of unofficial godmother to Sally and, later, to Theo, and Ellen willingly acted as sounding board for Charlotte’s problems at work and, increasingly, in her troubled marriage. In the dozen years that followed, Ellen saw Charlotte through three more miscarriages and an acrimonious divorce. And when Ellen’s widowed father was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease and needed long-term care, it was Charlotte who went with her to visit every available facility, walking the dreary halls, asking the necessary questions and navigating the bureaucratic mine fields to see him admitted to the place where he spent his remaining months.
And it was Charlotte, helping to put together a meal in Ellen’s kitchen, who took the call in late July—a cloudless, mid-summer Saturday. Sally had left with a friend for an afternoon of shopping at the mall. Mattie was sixteen, a grade ahead of Sally, a new driver but careful, responsible. They made an odd pair—the soft-spoken, studious Mattie, and Sally, as outgoing as a politician and always up for an adventure—but they enjoyed each other’s company and never seemed to run out of things to talk about.
“Buckle up.” Ellen stood in the driveway cautioning them as they were leaving. “And don’t spend all your money on junk.” Sally stuck out her tongue. “And no more piercings. Three in each ear is enough,” Ellen called after them as the car inched into the street. Sally leaned out and gave a crisp salute and an “Aye-aye, Captain,” that sent both girls into a fit of giggles.
Standing at the butcher’s block, Charlotte chopped vegetables while Ellen mixed up a marinade. Their monthly supper club – a loosely organized group, mostly couples – was meeting at Dan and Ellen’s that night. Charlotte and her husband, Stan, had been part of the circle before the divorce, and Charlotte had stayed on, sometimes bringing a date, usually coming alone. When the phone rang, Ellen was up to her elbows in raw chicken. “Can you get that?”
“I’ll get it,” said Charlotte at the same time. They both laughed. Charlotte put down the large knife she was holding, laying it across the gleaming pile of sliced red and yellow peppers, carrot disks, and glistening purple onion rings. Ellen thought of a pirate’s sword perched atop a treasure, a priceless store of jewels. It was an image that would stay with her for years.
“Marshall residence,” Charlotte said. “No, this is a friend. She’s busy right now. Can I take…”
There was no single word, no noise, that caused Ellen to look up. It was more the absence of sound, the abrupt cessation of any audible hint of what the next moment held. Charlotte stood rigid, listening to the caller. Ellen felt a hot flush wash from her hairline down over her throat, her chest and belly, the fronts of her legs, then, unreasonably, she began to shiver.
On the drive to the hospital, a Joni Mitchell song on the radio played out its odd rhythms, and a stray tube of lipstick rolled past Ellen’s feet as they made each turn. A trio of young girls stood on the corner by the community pool, their damp hair plastered against their necks and shoulders, jostling each other and laughing as they waited for the light to change.
In the emergency room parking lot, Dan’s car sat with one tire up on the curb, the driver’s door flung wide. A police cruiser was parked at right angles to an ambulance, its engine running. All the vehicles were empty, but a thin black man, dressed in the green scrubs of a hospital orderly, leaned against the wall adjacent to the entrance. He stared at the ground, his arms at his sides, a lit cigarette between two fingers. As the hospital doors slid open, the smoke found Ellen, tickling the back of her throat.
A short, thick-bodied woman, wearing the stiff collar of a chaplain, stood like a sentry in front of the entrance to the trauma room. Dan faced the woman as she spoke to him in a low, measured voice. When Charlotte put a hand on his arm, he turned so abruptly Ellen thought for a second that he would hit her. Then his eyes found Ellen’s, and all the visible strength left him, his spine rounding, his shoulders dropping, his face slack and hollow. The sound he made as he gripped her was, to Ellen, the response to her own uncertainty – inarticulate, but telling her everything.
Later, and for a long time, Ellen could only think of the words, “we did all we could,” with a fierce stab of resentment. “We did all we could,” as if it were entirely about them, their blamelessness, the doctors, the nurses and paramedics, those sound and breathing people, who would finish their shifts and go home to their sound and breathing children.
Oddly, Ellen felt no such hostility toward the police officer who came to the house that first evening. When the doorbell rang she steeled herself, fearing that it was yet another group of teenagers, stunned and defenseless, come to congregate in Sally’s room, to hold each other, keening, until they were exhausted. More likely it was a neighbor, casserole or cake in hand, who would stay only long enough to express sympathy and ask what might be done to help. Charlotte dealt with most of the visitors and the non-stop phone calls, but it was Ellen herself who opened the door to the policeman. He was in uniform, hat under his arm, feet set wide, the military stance of attention. The stern effect was softened by his face, the features neat and regular, the skin clear and rosy as a boy’s. He was so young. He looked barely old enough to be driving. Almost as young as Mattie. As Sally.
“Mrs. Marshall?” He looked, not directly at Ellen, but a little over her shoulder.
“I’m Ellen. Marshall.” She sounded tentative, as if she were unsure of her identity.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m Officer Barnes,” he said. “Justin Barnes. I was the responding officer at the, when the call…” He took an audible breath and began again. "I’m sorry to bother you, Mrs. Marshall, at a time like this.”
“Can I help you?” Dan came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m Dan Marshall.” He motioned the man in from the porch and shut the door.
The chandelier in the foyer seemed, suddenly, too bright, almost theatrical, washing out the color in clothes, faces. Ellen glanced up at Dan and saw that he was squinting.
“Let’s go in here,” he said, and pointed toward the small room they had jokingly named the library because there was no TV there and it was quiet. It was lit with only table lamps, and in their soft glow Ellen felt the tight muscles around her eyes relax. The police officer walked ahead of them, but stood until Ellen and Dan were seated, their bodies canted toward each other at one end of the cushiony sofa. Then he pulled a slim black notebook from his back pocket and perched stiffly on the edge of the only straight-backed chair in the room.
“I don’t know what…” Dan began, then stopped and made a gesture, a clumsy wave that might have meant for the other man to speak.
“Why don’t I just start by telling you what we’ve learned, the basic facts of what happened. And if you’ve got any questions, you just stop me.” Justin Barnes flipped the notebook open. “Is that okay?”
The details were straightforward. Mattie and Sally were nearing the mall on the wide, six-lane boulevard, when Sally recognized a group of boys in the parking lot across the street. Just as Mattie pulled up to the red light and signaled a left turn, Sally opened her door and jumped out, yelling to Mattie to go on and park. As Mattie moved ahead, Sally ran behind the car, waving and calling to the boys, and walked directly into the path of an oncoming truck.
“How is Mattie?” Ellen realized that, until that moment, she hadn’t even thought of the other girl. Dan, head down, scrubbing at his face with his open palms, looked up and around, as if Mattie might be hiding somewhere in the room.
“She’s pretty shaken up, but fine, I mean, considering,” the officer said. “Her parents came and took her home.” He turned a page in the notebook. “They’re with her.”
“I should call them.” As soon as she said this, Ellen recognized the impossibility of it. “I just…”
“He was speeding.” Dan broke in.
“I beg your pardon, sir?” The young man looked up.
“The guy driving the truck. He was speeding.” His voice was even, as if he were stating an indisputable fact, asserting an unarguable point.
“No, sir.” The policeman shook his head slowly. “He wasn’t speeding. There will be a more thorough inquiry, of course, but according to witnesses at the scene, he was actually going below the designated speed for the area.”
Ellen listened to the account, understood the individual words as they were spoken, but the phrases made no sense in the context of her world. “According to witnesses” and “designated speed” were not expressions in a language used by normal people. It was the language of newspapers or television programs. It had no place in their lives.
“Then he was reckless. He wasn’t looking.” Dan said. “He just fucking wasn’t looking. You tell me he was paying attention to what he was doing!” He still spoke softly, but he raised a hand and was pointing his index finger at the officer’s chest.
Justin Barnes’ pink cheeks darkened. “I’m sorry Mr. Marshall, Mrs. Marshall. I know this is hard.” The notebook slid from his knee and hit the floor, causing them all to flinch. He picked up the book and smoothed a crumpled corner. “We can finish this another time. There are just a few more things, but we can do it later.”
Ellen put a hand on Dan’s arm, but he shook it off.
“No, I want you to tell me that he was paying attention. You tell me he wasn’t looking off at something, or changing the radio station or talking on his cell phone. Tell me that. You tell me.” He slowed his words, dropping them individually into the quiet like hard, flat pebbles. “That, that, I don’t know, that whatever his name is, was paying attention to what he was doing when he plowed that truck of his into my little girl and killed her. Just tell me.”
“Rojas,” Justin Barnes said. “Manuel Rojas. And it wasn’t actually the impact…” He glanced down at his notes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, “that caused the head injury, sir. She,” another glance at the book, “Sally, ran into the side of the truck and fell backwards against the median.”
“Yeah, so, Senor Rojas.” Dan’s voice had a mean, sarcastic edge that Ellen had never heard before. “I don’t care what the report says. He wasn’t doing what he should have been doing.”
“Mom.” Theo was in the doorway. He spoke to Ellen, but his eyes were fixed wide on Dan. “There’s a lady here with some, you know, some stuff.”
“It’s okay, honey,” Ellen said. “I’m coming.” She followed Justin Barnes out into the hall. Charlotte was talking to a woman with whom Ellen had never really had a conversation. She knew her only well enough to wave in passing, dropping the kids at school, or standing in line at the bank. The woman held a plastic-covered tray of sandwich meats, two large bottles of soda bulging from the bag hanging from her arm.
“Mr. Barnes,” Ellen said, “Officer.” But the young man had moved deftly around her and out onto the front steps, out of sight of the visitor. She gave Charlotte and the woman a weak smile and followed him.
“Mrs. Marshall, I don’t think we need to do anything else right now.” He lifted his cap and pulled it on, tilting the brim down as if to shade his eyes. “I’ll be getting back to you in a few days, and if you have any questions before then…” He stepped from the porch and walked out past the reach of the yellow light. “I’m sorry as hell about this, ma’am,” he said without turning to face her. “I’ve got a little sister. She’s thirteen, and I don’t know what I’d do.”
“Thank you.” Ellen spoke the words into the shadowy yard, not sure if he heard her, but unable to call out again. Next door someone yelled, a car alarm blared once, a dog barked. They were the ordinary sounds, as familiar to Ellen as her own voice, and yet, in that solitary moment, she sensed the falling away of all that was predictable and balanced in her life. All that she had counted on as real and constant. There would be, she understood, a terrible new reality, a dreadful constant. There would be a new normal.