Caroline evans’s dream was not a nightmare, and as it began evaporating into the morning light, she tried to cling to it, wanting nothing more than to retreat into the warm, sweet bliss of sleep where the joy and rapture of the dream and the reality of her life were one and the same.
Even now she could feel Brad’s arms around her, feel his warm breath on her cheek, feel his gentle fingers caressing her skin. But none of the sensations were as sharp and perfect as they had been a few moments ago, and her moan—a moan that had begun in anticipation of ecstasy but which had already devolved into nothing more than an expression of pain and frustration—drove the last vestiges of the dream from her consciousness.
The arms that a moment ago had held her in comfort were suddenly a constricting tangle of sheets, and the heat of his breath on her cheek faded into nothing more than the weak warmth of a few rays of sunlight that had managed to penetrate the blinds covering the bedroom window.
Only the fingers touching her back were real, but they were not those of her husband leading her into a morning of slow lovemaking, but of her eleven-year-old son prodding her to get out of bed.
“It’s almost nine,” Ryan complained. “I’m gonna be late for practice!”
Caroline rolled over, the image of her husband rising in her memory as she gazed at her son.
The same soft brown eyes, the same unruly shock of brown hair, the same perfectly chiseled features, though Ryan’s had not yet quite emerged from the softness of boyhood into the perfectly defined angles and planes that had always madeeveryone—men and women alike—look twice whenever Brad entered a room.
Had the person who killed him looked twice? Had he looked even once? Had he even cared? Probably not—all he’d wanted was Brad’s wallet and watch, and he’d gone about it in the most efficient method possible, coming up behind Brad, slipping an arm around his neck, and then using his other hand to shove Brad’s head hard to the left, ripping vertebrae apart and crushing his spinal cord.
Maybe she shouldn’t have gone to the morgue that day, shouldn’t have looked at Brad’s body lying on the cold metal of the drawer, shouldn’t have let herself see death in his face.
Caroline shuddered at the memory, struggling to banish it. But she could never rid herself of that last image she had of her husband, an image that would remain seared in her memory until the day she died.
There were plenty of other people who could have identified him at the morgue. Any one of the partners in his law firm could have done it, or any of their friends. But she had insisted on going herself, certain that it was a mistake, that it hadn’t been Brad at all who’d been mugged in the park.
A terrible cold seized her as the memory of that evening last fall came over her. When Brad had gone out for his run around part of the lake and through the Ramble she’d worried that it was too dark. But he’d insisted that a good run might help him get over the jumpiness that had come over him the last couple of weeks. She’d been helping Laurie with her math homework and barely responded to Brad’s quick kiss before he’d headed out.
Hardly even nodded an acknowledgment of what turned out to be his last words: “Love you.”
The words kept echoing through her mind six hours later when she’d gazed numbly down at the face that was so utterly expressionless as to be almost unrecognizable. Love you . . . love you . . . love you . . . “I love you, too,” she’d whispered, her vision mercifully blurred by the tears in her eyes. But in the months that had passed since that night more than half a year ago, her tears had all but dried up. Sometimes they still came, sneaking up on her late at night when she was alone in bed, trying to fall asleep, trying to escape into the dream in which Brad was still alive, and neither the tears nor the anger were a part of her life.
Caroline wasn’t quite sure when the anger had begun to creep up on her.
Not at the funeral, where she’d sat with her arms holding her children close. Maybe at the burial, where she’d stood clutching their hands in the fading afternoon light as if they, too, might disappear into the grave that had swallowed up her husband.
That was when she’d first realized that Brad must have known he’d be alone in total darkness by the time he finished his run around the lake. And both of them knew how dangerous the park was after dark. Why had he gone? Why had he risked it? But she knew the answer to those questions, too. Even if he’d thought about it, he’d have finished his run. That was one of the things she loved about him, that he always finished whatever he started.
Books he didn’t like, but finished anyway.
Rocks that looked easy to climb, but turned out to be almost impossible to scale. Almost, but not quite.
“Well, why couldn’t you have quit just once?” she’d whispered as she peered out into the darkness of that evening four days after he’d died. “Why couldn’t you just once have said, ‘This is really stupid,’ and turned around and come home?” But he hadn’t, and she knew that even if the thought had occurred to him, he still would have finished what he set out to do. That was when anger had first begun to temper her grief, and though the anger brought guilt along with it, she also knew that it was the anger rather than the grief that had let her keep functioning during those first terrible weeks after her life had been torn apart. Now, more than half a year later, the anger was finally beginning to give way to something else, something she couldn’t yet quite identify. The first shock of Brad’s death was over. The turmoil of emotions—the first numbness brought on by the shock of his death, followed by the grief, then the anger—was finally starting to settle down. As each day had crept inexorably by, she had slowly begun to deal with the new reality of her life. She was by herself now, with two children to raise, and no matter how much she might sometimes wish she could just disappear into the same grave in which Brad now lay, she also knew she loved her children every bit as much as she had loved their father.
No matter how she felt, their lives would go on, and so would hers. So she’d gone back to work at the antique shop, and done her best to help her children begin healing from wounds the loss of their father had caused. There had been just enough money in their savings account to keep them afloat for a few months, but last week she had withdrawn the last of it, and next week the rent was due. Her financial resources had sunk even lower than those of her emotions.
“Mom?” she heard Laurie calling from the kitchen. “Is there any more maple syrup?”
Sitting up and untangling herself from the sheets—and the turmoil of her own emotions as well—Caroline shooed her son out of the room. “Go tell your sister to look on the second shelf in the pantry. There should be one more bottle. And you’re not going to be late for baseball practice. I promise.”
As Ryan skittered out of the room, already yelling to his sister, Caroline got out of bed, opened the blinds, and looked out at the day. As the smell of Laurie’s waffles filled her nostrils and the brilliant light of a spring Saturday flooded the room, Caroline shook off the vestiges of the previous night’s dream.
“We’re going to be all right,” she told herself.
She only wished she felt as certain as the words sounded.
caroline could feel the tension as soon as she walked into the kitchen. Ryan was at the kitchen table, a deep scowl furrowing his brow as he glowered at his sister. Laurie, still three months shy of her thirteenth birthday, hadn’t yet outgrown her delight in stirring up her younger brother, and this morning she was employing a tactic that never failed: she was simply acting as if she didn’t know he was mad at her. Now she offered her mother a transparently bright smile that Caroline knew was intended to win her alliance in whatever quarrel had developed during the ten minutes since Ryan had left her bedroom. Shaking her head at the syrup-drenched waffle Laurie put at her place, she poured a cup of coffee, sat down, glanced at Ryan, then fixed her gaze on Laurie. “Okay, what did you do to him?” she asked.
Laurie’s smile weakened slightly, but she did her best not to let it fail altogether. “Nothing!” she insisted, shrugging with exaggerated innocence. “I don’t know why he’s mad!”
Ryan’s scowl deepened. “She says we’re going to the zoo. But you said I could play baseball this morning. Dad and I always played baseball on Saturday, and this afternoon I’m supposed to meet some of the guys from school for soccer—”
“Why do you have to play baseball and soccer?” Laurie broke in. “Why can’t you do something different? Why can’t you do something Mom and I want to do?”
“I don’t have to!” Ryan flared. “If Dad were—”
This time it was Caroline who interrupted the boy. “But he’s not here.” Though her voice caught, she managed to control the tears that suddenly blurred her eyes. Saturdays—especially perfect Saturdays like this one—had always been their favorite day. Before the children were born, when they’d still lived in the little apartment up near Columbia University, she and Brad had wandered endlessly, exploring the city, searching for the perfect neighborhood in which to raise their children. Just before Laurie was born, they’d found the apartment where she and the kids still lived, just a block from the park, on a street that, though not as quiet as some of those on the other side of the park, wasn’t nearly as noisy as some of the West Side blocks. After Ryan was born, their Saturdays had begun focusing on the park, where they’d quickly met other young couples raising families in the city. Since Brad had died, Caroline had done her best to keep up the family activities, but everything, of course, had changed. Though last fall Brad had begun letting Ryan go to the park by himself to play baseball or soccer after school, Caroline could no longer bear the thought of either of her children being alone there. Ryan hadn’t liked the new restriction, but he’d gone along with it, as long as she took him on Saturdays. But Laurie, having forgotten that up until last summer she’d enjoyed baseball as much as her brother, was now at the age where she wanted as little to do with her brother as possible. So Saturdays had become a tug-o’-war between her two children, with Caroline put in the position of being unable to satisfy either of them. Still, she had to try. “How about if we compromise?” she suggested. “We’ll watch Ryan play ball this morning, and walk over to the zoo this afternoon. And after we see the zoo, maybe Ryan can still get to soccer with his friends.”
The last of Laurie’s smile faded away. “The zoo in the park? I hate that place. The cages are awful, and all the animals look like they’d be better off dead!” Too late, Laurie heard her own words and saw the flash of pain in her mother’s eyes. “I—I’m sorry—” she began, but Caroline quickly shook her head.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re not even wrong. But for us all to go up to the Bronx . . .” Her voice trailed off as she silently calculated how much it would cost: including the subway, nearly thirty dollars, even if they spent nothing on snacks or even just Cokes.
Thirty dollars that a year ago would have been nothing.
Thirty dollars that now she simply didn’t have.
Not with the rent unpaid, and all the credit cards maxed out.
Laurie read her mother’s expression perfectly. “I have some money,” she said. “I’ve got more than a hundred dollars in my baby-sitting account. Why can’t I take us?”
“Because you’re going to need that money for college,” Caroline replied. “And just because things are a little tight for me right now, we’re not going to raid your baby-sitting account.”
“I’ve got some money in my piggy bank,” Ryan offered, his scowl giving way to a worried frown. “We could use that.”
The phone rescued Caroline from having to figure out a way to reject Ryan’s offer without hurting his feelings, but as soon as she heard Claire Robinson’s voice, she suspected that whatever plans she and the kids might have had for the day were about to be ruined. Her employer was using the extra cheerful tone that Caroline and the two other people who worked at Antiques By Claire had learned to recognize as the precursor to words that were going to be nowhere near as pleasant as the voice that uttered them.
“Caroline, darling?” she trilled, and Caroline could picture her sitting behind her Louis XIV desk, a cigarette between the first two fingers of her right hand as she cradled the phone on her left shoulder, flipping through the pages of an auction catalog even as she spoke. “I have the most enormous favor to ask you. And I know it’s a terrible imposition, but I simply don’t know where else to turn!”
Caroline translated the words in her mind: Kevin and Elise either hadn’t answered their phones, or had been un-swayed by Claire’s entreaties. But neither Kevin nor Elise needed their jobs as badly as did Caroline. Kevin had his partner, Mark, and Elise had her alimony payments. “What is it, Claire?”
“I know you always spend Saturdays with the children, and I know I have simply no right at all to ask, but is there any chance you could sit in the shop for a few hours? I hope it won’t be more than two, and I can’t imagine it will be more than four or five.”
“I promised Ryan we’d go to the park this morning, and then—”
“Then it will be perfect! There’s a Queen Anne demilune table going down at Sotheby’s this afternoon that I simply can’t let go to anyone else. It’s an exact match for the one in Estelle Hollinan’s foyer, and Estelle will kill us all if I don’t get it for her. So if you’ll just be here at one, I’ll duck out for no more than an hour or two.”
Seeing the disappointment in both her children’s eyes as they began to suspect that they might not be going anywhere at all—park or zoo—Caroline made one last attempt at escaping from Claire. “Can’t you call Kevin or Elise? The children and I always—”
The mask of cheeriness in Claire’s voice fell away. “No, Caro- line, I can’t. Kevin and Mark went to Provincetown, and Elise has commitments.”
As if I don’t, Caroline thought silently.
“And, frankly, I’d think you’d welcome the chance to make a few dollars. Your sales haven’t been as good as they might be.”
Though the threat wasn’t made directly, Caroline could feel it as keenly as if it were a knife pressed against her throat. “Of course I can help out, Claire,” she said, trying to make her defeat sound as much like a gracious gesture as she could. “I’ll be there at one.”
She hung up the phone, but her hand lingered on the receiver. What else? she thought.
What else can go wrong?
It was as if the thought itself had cued the phone to ring, and she jerked her fingers away from the receiver as if they’d been burned. The phone rang a second time, then a third, but Caroline simply stood there, staring mutely at it. I don’t care who you are, she thought. I don’t care what you want. I can’t deal with it. I just can’t deal with any more. But even as the thoughts formed in her mind, she rejected them. I’ll get through, she decided. Whatever it is, I’ll deal with it. Steeling herself, she picked up the receiver once again. “Hello?”
She instantly relaxed as she recognized Andrea Costanza’s voice at the other end. Caroline had known Andrea since they’d met at Hunter College almost fifteen years before, and even though Andrea hadn’t approved when Caroline had dropped out to marry Brad Evans, they’d stayed friends, and become even closer in the last five years, after Andrea had taken an apartment only two blocks from her own. “Thank God,” she breathed now. “You have no idea how much I need to hear a friendly voice.”
“Well, how about three friendly voices, for lunch on Tuesday?”
“I just got a call from Bev. She and Rochelle are worried about you.”
Beverly Amondson and Rochelle Newman were the other two women Caroline considered her best friends—or at least she had until recently, when it seemed like she hardly heard from them anymore. “They’re scared,” Andrea had explained a month ago. “You’re single now. That makes you a threat.” She’d laughed at the look of shock on Caroline’s face. “Oh, grow up, Caroline! Why do you think I was never invited when Rochelle threw one of her cozy little dinner parties? They were couple deals, and I’m not part of a couple. Now you aren’t either. End of invitations.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense! Why would I be a threat?”
“All single women are a threat to all married women,” Andrea pronounced. “You were the only exception—you never worried about me at all. And don’t get me wrong. I love Bev and Rochelle. But haven’t you noticed they never invite single women to anything if their husbands are there? I’m fine for lunch and girl talk, but that’s it. And now you’re part of that group. You watch.”
Andrea, it turned out, had been right: Within a few weeks after Brad died, the invitations from the Amondsons and the Newmans had begun to taper off.
“Well, you can tell them I’m alive, if not exactly kicking,” Caroline said now, and immediately wished she’d managed to sound a little more cheerful, no matter how she felt.
“Then this should make you feel better. Bev says we should all meet at Cipriani’s.”
Caroline burst out laughing. “Harry Cipriani’s?” she repeated. “In the Sherry Netherland? You must be crazy—you could never afford it, and I sure can’t anymore!”
“Ah, but Bev and Rochelle can,” Andrea replied. “And they might live in their own little world of money, but they know we don’t. They’re footing the bill!”
“So I’m not only off the dinner list, but now I’m on the charity list?” Caroline asked, regretting the words the instant she uttered them. “Oh, God, Andrea. I’m sorry—I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“Who cares? It’s true—at Cipriani’s, we’re both charity cases. So what do you say? You sure sound like you could use a good lunch, and by ‘good’ I mean ‘expensive.’ Get away from your problems and let your hair down for a couple of hours.”
Caroline hesitated, but not for long; suddenly the idea of sitting in the sumptuous room with her three best friends was irresistible. “I’ll be there,” she promised. “Hey, I’m taking the kids to the park this morning. Want to meet us there?”
“God, how I wish I could,” Andrea sighed. “But I’ve got three kids in shelters that need foster homes, and four families to do background checks on before I can even think about matching the kids to the families.”
“Why do I suspect the city isn’t paying you to work on weekends?” Caroline asked.
Andrea uttered a darkly hollow chuckle. “Because you’re a reasonably intelligent human being. But the kids still need homes, so hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work I go. And if I don’t get to it, I’m not going to get done until dinner. See you Tuesday.”
As she hung up the phone and turned back to Laurie and Ryan, Caroline felt a little better, cheered by the prospect of seeing her old friends again on Tuesday. Unless, of course, the lunch turned into nothing more than a bitter taste of what life would be like if Brad hadn’t gone running in the park that night.
Copyright 2002 by John Saul