Nightshadeby John Saul
Fifteen-year-old Matthew Moore seems to have a charmed life . . . until a mysterious fire forces his grandmother to move in with his family. The elderly woman insists on recreating the bedroom of Cynthia, her favored child who died tragically more than a decade ago. Soon Matt's life insidiously begins to change. At night he finds himself haunted by nightmares of… See more details below
Fifteen-year-old Matthew Moore seems to have a charmed life . . . until a mysterious fire forces his grandmother to move in with his family. The elderly woman insists on recreating the bedroom of Cynthia, her favored child who died tragically more than a decade ago. Soon Matt's life insidiously begins to change. At night he finds himself haunted by nightmares of unimaginable terror. In the morning the smell of Cynthia's perfume seems to linger in his room. While his grandmother drives a wedge between his once devoted parents, Matt transforms from a gregarious teenager to a hostile loner. Then a shocking tragedy shatters the family beyond repair--as a horrific shadow from the past takes on an implacable life of its own, clawing toward Matt with ferocious hunger. . . .
John Saul's New Nightmare
John Saul has been terrifying readers for more than two decades, and we keep coming back for more. It's easy to see why when you read his latest tour de force, Nightshade, a chillingly creepy tale that will have you looking over your shoulder every chance you get. Stunningly crafted, with a plot that has more twists than a bag full of pretzels, Nightshade promises to be Saul's most compelling novel yet. And given his backlist of grimly horrifying but riveting fare, that's no small accomplishment.
In a small New England town, Joan Hapgood is content with her life until the events of one fateful afternoon trigger a long string of tragedies that threaten both her future and her sanity. It starts when Joan's mother, Emily, who has been steadily deteriorating with the affects of Alzheimer's, accidentally starts a fire while trying to cook. To say Joan's relationship with her mother is strained would be a gross understatement. In Emily's eyes, Joan has always been a poor second to her sister, Cynthia, who was beautiful, devoted, and bright. Despite Cynthia's death many years before, Joan still lives in her big sister's shadow whenever Emily is around. Not only has Joan never been pretty enough, bright enough, or loving enough, she has a bastard son whose father remains unknown -- all unforgivable sins to Emily.
Against the wishes of her husband, Bill, and her son, Matt, Joan moves her mother into the Hapgood family home, where she and Bill have lived for ten years. Emily's insistence that Cynthia is not only still alive but present, combined with her viciously acerbic attitude toward Matt and Joan, strains Joan's marriage to the breaking point, forcing Bill to move out. Given that Bill is the only father Matt has ever known, the boy takes the separation hard, becoming understandably angry. When Bill ends up dead during a hunting trip -- possibly shot by Matt himself -- the town begins to wonder just how angry Matt has become.
The death of Bill Hapgood is followed by several mysterious disappearances, including that of Joan's mother, Emily. In each case, the bulk of the evidence points to young Matt, and soon the entire town is close to forming a lynch mob. Matt himself isn't sure what the truth is, for he keeps suffering odd fugue states and imagining that he sees, hears, and smells his dead aunt Cynthia. For Joan, the intense grief brought on by her husband's death must be set aside as she fights to prove her son's innocence. But no one suspects the real truth, which is so bizarre, so horrifyingly twisted, it will haunt those who survive forever.
For those who like their plot lines well crafted and convoluted, Nightshade is sure to please. From the unnerving first pages of the prologue to the final sentence on the last page, Saul tosses in enough red herrings and ambiguities to keep readers guessing. Horror fans won't be disappointed either; while the body count is a bit lighter than in some of Saul's other works, there is plenty of blood and gore to be had, and a ghost or two (or are they?) to liven things up. --Beth Amos
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Read an Excerpt
It was the kind of perfect fall afternoon that erased even the memory of the blanket of heat and humidity that summer’s end had laid over this part of New Hampshire. The first frost had struck a week ago: the leaves of the ancient maples and oaks that lined the streets of Granite Falls were just beginning their annual transformation, their edges barely hinting at the riot of color that would develop in another couple of weeks. As Joan Hapgood slid her Range Rover into the slot that seemed to have been left just for her only a few steps from the Rusted Rooster—whose original name had long ago given way to the condition of the sign that hung over its door—she considered the possibility of driving up to Quebec for the weekend. She’d heard of a terrific little inn with a view of the St. Lawrence, and just that much farther north the trees would already be in full regalia, their colors so brilliant as to be almost blinding. But as she glanced at her watch—exactly one minute before two, when she and Bill had agreed to meet for a late lunch—she was already beginning to catalog the reasons why they wouldn’t be able to take off for the weekend.
First, there was the opening day of hunting season, which she knew Bill wouldn’t miss. Her husband—along with nearly every one of his friends—regarded the opening day of hunting season with the same reverence most people reserved for religious holidays. But it had always been that way in Granite Falls: the hunting fervor had become so entrenched among the Granite Falls families that could trace their roots back to the seventeenth century that Joan (whose own roots went back only to her mother) suspected it was actually in their genes. But it wasn’t the kind of hunting that was fashionable in other places—in the small enclaves of old, if somewhat diminished, wealth farther south, where ducks and foxes were the favored prey.
In Granite Falls, it was deer.
“We’ve always hunted deer,” Bill Hapgood had explained. “It’s just the way it’s always been. We’re not pretentious people up here—it’s not like it is down in Connecticut and places like that. We hunt in the woods, we hunt on foot, and we eat what we shoot.”
But Joan knew that it wasn’t only the opening day of hunting season that stood in the way of their slipping away for the weekend.
There was Matt’s football game, too. He’d finally made the starting lineup last week, and Bill was—if possible—even more excited than she at the prospect of seeing Matt score for the Granite Falls team for the first time. That was one of the things she loved best about the man she’d married a decade ago—he’d always treated Matt as if her son was his own. And neither of them would miss the biggest game of Matt’s life.
But it was the next problem that was the worst, and not just for the coming weekend, but for every weekend—indeed, for every day—in the foreseeable future.
That was the problem of Joan Hapgood’s mother.
As thoughts of Emily Moore filled Joan’s mind, the exhilaration which the weather had brought her began to drain away, and as she stepped through the door of the Rusted Rooster, the closeness of its low-beamed ceilings and half-timbered walls only accentuated the depression that was settling over her.
“You all right?” her husband asked, half rising from his chair as Joan sank into the one the waitress held for her.
Joan smiled thinly as she automatically scanned the menu despite the already certain knowledge that she would have the Cobb salad. “I was just fantasizing about running away for the weekend,” she sighed, holding up a hand as if to hold back the flow of objections she could already see forming on her husband’s lips. “I did say I was fantasizing,” she reminded him. “Believe me, I haven’t forgotten about hunting season.”
“And Matt’s game,” Bill added. “And, of course, your mother.” It wasn’t only the careful delivery of his last words that betrayed his defensiveness, but his tone as well. Joan stared at the menu, steeling herself against the same automatic response that had risen like a wall around her husband. When she was certain she had herself under control, she looked up from the stiff white card whose contents hadn’t changed in two generations, took a deep breath, and nodded.
No point in trying to avoid the issue.
“And my mother,” she agreed. “And I know I’m going to have to do something about her. But I can’t just . . .” Her voice trailed off, but Bill finished the sentence with the words they both knew she’d been unable to utter.
“Throw her in the home?” he asked, his aristocratic brow rising in a sardonic arch. When she made no reply, he reached out and laid his hand over hers. “That is what she’s always saying, isn’t it?” He screwed his face into an imitation of Emily Moore’s angriest expression, which would have been comical if it had not been quite so accurate, and his normally gentle voice took on her mother’s furious rasp. “ ‘Don’t think I don’t know!’ ” he mimicked, shaking his finger in Joan’s face. “ ‘You’re going to throw me in the home! Well, I won’t let you. And when Cyn—’ ”
“Stop!” Joan cried, pulling her hand away and glancing around to see who might be listening.
“I wish she’d stop,” Bill replied, his features reverting to their usual composure, his voice to its familiar baritone. Then his lips tightened and he took a deep breath. “But we are going to have to decide what to do,” he went on. “She can’t go on living alone much longer.”
“Try telling her that,” Joan sighed. “It doesn’t matter what I say—”
“It doesn’t matter what anyone says,” Bill cut in. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying, Joan. She has Alzheimer’s. And even before she got Alzheimer’s, she wasn’t the easiest person to get along with.”
The trouble was that Emily Moore no longer remembered that she forgot things.
At first, when she’d just started to get sick, it hadn’t been too bad: she’d known her memory was slipping, but for a while it was only a matter of a few minor annoyances. Not being able to find her keys, or forgetting exactly why she’d stopped in at Martha Thatcher’s Needle Shoppe—things like that. She’d solved the first problem easily enough by hanging her door key on a chain around her neck, and since practically everyone in Granite Falls—or at least everyone she knew—was perfectly well aware that she had “Old-Timer’s Disease” (that’s what her friends called it), she was pretty well taken care of. Martha Thatcher would take some extra time helping Emily remember exactly why she’d come into the Needle Shoppe, and Ned Kindler would even have one of his bag boys walk her home from the market and help her put her groceries away.
After a few years, though, she’d stopped walking the few blocks into the village, letting Joan do the shopping for her. Joan only lived a little more than a mile from the edge of town, and it wasn’t as if she had much else to do. She didn’t work, not like Emily had. Emily Moore had kept going to her job as a cashier at the drugstore right up until the day the Rite Aid people had taken over and let her go. She’d even looked for another job, but by then the sickness had been starting, and she just couldn’t do it. After that, she’d had to let Joan and Bill take care of her.
But she hadn’t liked it—she hadn’t liked it at all. Not that her daughter Joan did a very good job helping out, either. Even though she tried, Joan had never been able to clean her house quite the way Emily liked it, and as for the shopping—well! Most of the time she didn’t bring Emily half the things she wanted, and there were always other things that Emily was absolutely certain she hadn’t asked for. Well, at least Joan didn’t try to make her pay for all those things anymore. Emily had set her straight on that right away. “Don’t you look at me like I’m crazy!” she’d told Joan the first time she’d found all the wrong things in the grocery bag. “And don’t think I’m going to pay for all this, either!” She’d brushed aside the list Joan had shown her, too. All it did was prove that Joan had learned how to copy her handwriting, which at least explained why there was money missing from her checking account every month. Joan had lied about it, of course, but that hadn’t surprised Emily at all.
After that, she’d started hiding money in her house, where Joan wouldn’t be able to find it. Then Joan had tried to trick her by offering to hire someone to “help” her. Emily had known right away what that was about—Joan just wanted to get someone into her house to hunt for her money! But Emily hadn’t fallen for it. It wasn’t long after that that she’d seen people—people that looked sort of familiar, but to whom Emily couldn’t quite put any names—walking by her house, spying on her. After one of them waved to her—just like he knew her!—Emily had started keeping the curtains closed.
Then they’d started coming to her door, talking to her like she was supposed to know who they were. She’d shut the door in their faces, and after a while, when she stopped answering the door at all, they stopped coming. But she knew they were still watching her, so she stopped going out of the house.
She liked that much better, because she no longer had to worry about anything. And she wasn’t alone either, not really.
She still had her memories, and after a while it wasn’t like they were memories at all. Sometimes, when she was fixing supper she’d make enough for two, and set out a place for Cynthia, too. She had a dim memory of Joan telling her that Cynthia wasn’t coming home, but Emily had known that wasn’t true—it was just another of the ways Joan was always trying to trick her. Besides, Joan had always been jealous of her sister, ever since she was a little girl. So Emily simply ignored what Joan said, certain that Cynthia had just gone away for a little while, and would be back any day now.
So she stayed in her house, and after a while one day seemed just like another, and one week blended into the next, and the months and the seasons and the years all ran together.
And Emily waited for Cynthia to come home.
Today, though, something was different.
Something didn’t quite feel right.
But what was it?
She peered dimly at the frying pan that was sizzling on the front burner, in which a quarter of an inch of oil was already bubbling. She tried to remember what she’d been intending to do with the skillet and the hot oil. Make breakfast?
She wasn’t sure. In fact, she wasn’t really certain what time it was. But it was light out, and she was hungry, so it must be morning.
Then, from the front of the house, she thought she heard a sound.
She must finally have come home!
The frying pan immediately forgotten, Emily pushed through the swinging door that led to the little dining room that was furnished only with a worn oak table so small that even if you crowded it, you couldn’t get more than six people around it. Not that anyone ever sat around it anymore, and it was certainly big enough for herself and Cynthia.
Emily hurried through the dining room into the little foyer, and eagerly opened the door, certain Cynthia would be on the porch, ready to accept her mother’s hug.
But the porch was empty except for the pile of newspapers that Emily never bothered to bring into the house anymore. Frowning, she looked out into the street, but all she saw was a man in a blue uniform, carrying a leather bag. As he raised his hand to wave at her, Emily quickly shut the door.
Another one of Joan’s spies.
Then she knew!
Cynthia had her own key! She’d come in by herself and gone up to her room!
In the kitchen, the oil in the frying pan bubbled, then began turning black as curls of smoke rose from its surface.
* * *
Emily started toward the stairs, but paused as she sensed something vaguely amiss. Something in the air? But even as her nostrils caught the first faint fumes drifting in from the kitchen, her old eyes fell on the threadbare brocade chair that stood just inside the archway leading into the parlor. Now how had that happened? Hadn’t it just come back from the upholsterers, covered with the bright, colorful material Cynthia had picked out the day before she’d gone on her trip? She’d have to speak to the upholsterer about the shoddy material they’d used!
But that could wait. Cynthia finally coming home was far more important than any chair!
The original reason she’d paused at the foot of the stairs having vanished from her mind as completely as if it had never been there at all, Emily hurried up the stairs and into the front bedroom. “Cynthia?” she called. “Oh, it’s so good to finally have you . . .”
Emily’s voice faded into silence as she realized the room was empty.
Her clouded eyes searched the room. “Cynthia?” she whispered. “Cynthia, when are you coming home?”
The oil in the frying pan burst into flames just as the breeze outside caught one of the lace curtains that hung on each side of Emily Moore’s kitchen window. The breeze fanned the flames higher, the fire licking at the flimsy material as a beast might taste its prey before leaping to consume it. . . .
Emily moved into the room on the second floor, her eyes falling on the photograph of her older daughter that hung on the wall exactly where she and Cynthia had placed it when they’d picked it up from the photographer the week after Cynthia’s eighteenth birthday.
The beautiful gown Cynthia wore in the portrait still hung in Cynthia’s closet, along with all her other clothes.
The book she’d forgotten to take with her on her trip still lay open, facedown on her nightstand.
Everything was exactly as she had left it—
How long ago?
Surely no longer than that.
And she’d be home any day now! Of that, Emily was absolutely certain.
She moved slowly around the room, touching the objects on Cynthia’s vanity table, all the perfume and lipstick and eye shadow and mascara that Cynthia loved so much.
Every one of them was in its place, waiting for Cynthia.
She opened one of the drawers of Cynthia’s bureau, her trembling fingers caressing the soft cashmere of the sweater that lay within, her eyes oblivious to the depredations of the moths and the yellowing of the fraying fabric.
She closed the drawer and let her eyes sweep over the room one last time.
All was as it should be, exactly as Cynthia had left it.
Emily left the room then and headed toward the sewing room, but as she passed the top of the stairs, an acrid odor filled her nostrils.
She frowned, trying to remember if she’d lit the fire that morning.
She couldn’t remember.
If fact, she wasn’t quite sure she’d even been downstairs that morning.
Clutching the banister, she started down the steep flight.
The odor grew stronger as she came to the foot of the stairs, but when she peered into the parlor, the fireplace was dark.
But she was certain she smelled smoke!
Why would there be smoke in the kitchen? She’d just come downstairs, hadn’t she?
She moved toward the kitchen, pushed open the door that separated it from the dining room. She saw it: flames boiling up from a skillet someone had left on the stove. More flames consuming the curtains around the window and charring the wood of the cupboards.
Hurrying across to the stove, Emily picked up the frying pan and started toward the sink, but the skillet slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor. The burning oil quickly spread across the linoleum, and an instant later the floor was covered with a sheet of fire.
Emily stared at the flames in frozen horror for a moment, then turned and fled from the kitchen. “Cynthia!” she called out. “The house is on fire! Hurry!”
Moving as quickly as her old legs would carry her, Emily made her way to the front door, pulled it open, and lurched out onto the front porch.
From the other side of the fence that separated her yard from the one next door, an elderly man—whom Emily was certain she’d never seen before—looked at her worriedly.
“Emily?” asked Ralph Gunderson, who had lived next door to Emily for nearly thirty years. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Fire,” Emily managed to say, looking back at her house. “Someone set my house on fire!”
As Ralph Gunderson’s gaze followed Emily’s the first tongues of flame flicked out the kitchen window. Feeding voraciously on the wind, the fire began climbing the dried wooden siding of Emily’s old frame house.
Matt Moore crouched at the scrimmage line, his eyes looking straight through the boy opposite him, knowing his refusal even to acknowledge his opponent’s presence was already undermining Eric Holmes’s confidence. It was a trick he’d been using on Eric since they’d first started playing football in fourth grade, and even eight years later Eric hadn’t figured out exactly what it was that made Matt’s movements so hard to predict. Matt’s body tensed as he listened to the quarterback call the signal to the center, and the second the ball was snapped, he sprang into action, feinting to the left then reversing to the right so quickly and smoothly that Eric, already rattled by Matt’s patented blank stare, had thrown himself off balance and was unable to throw a block that might knock Matt off stride. Matt streaked downfield toward the goal line, faked right and went left, then spun around as he crossed into the end zone and reached up, his hands closing on the ball, which seemed to have been placed there by some kind of magic.
Except there was no magic involved.
Rather, it was nothing more than Pete Arneson playing his role with the same precision that Matt had performed his own maneuvers. Though neither Pete nor Matt had so much as glanced at each other during the play, the quarterback had trusted Matt to be at the right position at the right moment.
A moment, both of them knew, that was absolutely predetermined by the silent counting they had perfected over the years they’d been playing together. They’d started counting together in seventh grade, practicing out loud until they found the fastest pace they could both comfortably maintain. Then they began working in silence. Whenever they were together—hiking, or going to a movie, or just hanging out—sooner or later one of them would say “Go!” and both of them would begin silently counting in their heads. After a few seconds one of them would say “Stop!” and they’d compare where they were. By the time they got to high school, the two were never more than a couple of digits off at the stop signal, and the system had given them an edge. They’d simply decide where Matt would be when they hit a certain number, and Pete would throw the ball to that spot, no matter where Matt was when he cocked his throwing arm. By last summer their coordination was so good that the coach had put Matt in the starting lineup despite the fact that his lithe frame carried at least thirty pounds less than any of his teammates.
“I don’t get it,” Eric Holmes groused to Matt afterward.“He wasn’t even looking at you! Everyone thought he was going to pass to Brett Haynes. And you weren’t paying any attention at all—you didn’t even look until you turned around to grab the ball!”
“Never count us out,” Matt said, cryptically repeating the only phrase he and Pete ever used when anyone asked how they managed to communicate without looking at each other. So far, no one had figured it out, not even their coach.
Eric’s eyes rolled as he heard the answer for the billionth time, but he knew better than to try to worm the secret out of either one of his friends. Even though Pete told him practically everything else, he’d always ducked the question of how he knew exactly when to throw the ball. As for Matt, there’d always been things Matt wouldn’t talk about—secrets Matt kept from him and Pete.
Eric eventually decided there wasn’t any secret to Pete and Matt’s precision at all—that they probably didn’t know how they did it themselves. Besides, all that mattered was that if they kept it up, there was no way anyone was going to beat Granite Falls on the football field this year. As Matt joined his team’s huddle, half a dozen boys gathered around Eric. “Well?” someone asked.
Eric shrugged. “How the hell should I know?”
“Maybe we should just always take Matt out,” Mark Ryerson suggested, flexing his huge tackle’s body to let Eric know he was prepared to do exactly what he’d suggested. “There’s always been something weird about that guy.”
Eric eyed Ryerson balefully. “You break one of his legs and there goes our shot at the championship.”
“I didn’t mean really hurt him,” Mark said quickly. “I meant like—just keep him covered, you know?”
“If that’s what you meant, why didn’t you say it? Just make sure that’s all you do,” Eric replied. Though he was playing opposite Matt and Pete today, Pete was still his best friend. And even if he didn’t care that much about Matt, there was still no way he would let Mark Ryerson mess up their shot at the school’s first winning season in more years than Eric could remember. He saw a flicker of anger in Ryerson’s eyes, but before the other boy lost control of his temper, their attention was diverted by the wailing of a siren, which was quickly coming closer.
As the boys huddled around Matt Moore and Pete Arneson turned toward the blaring sound, a fire truck—immediately followed by a second one—came around the corner off Manchester Road onto Prospect Street, raced by the practice field, then braked hard and turned onto Burlington Avenue.
No more than a house or two from the corner, a curl of smoke was rising up into the afternoon sky. The sirens died away, and for a second an almost eerie silence fell over the football field. Then a girl’s voice called out.
The boys on the field watched as Kelly Conroe—dressed in her gym clothes for song-leading practice—ran across the field from the gym. “It’s your grandmother’s house!” Kelly gasped as she came up to Matt. “We could see it from where we were practicing!”
For a moment Matt didn’t seem to comprehend what Kelly was saying, but then, as the smoke from Burlington Avenue billowed up, he came to life. Grabbing Kelly’s hand, he started running, Pete Arneson and Eric Holmes right behind him.
“Let go of me!” Emily Moore demanded, struggling to pull her arm free from the fireman’s grip. “It’s my house! Don’t you understand? It’s mine!”
“I know it’s yours, Mrs. Moore,” Sean McCallum replied. He cast an eye around the quickly gathering crowd in search of the old woman’s daughter. “But I can’t let go of you unless you promise you won’t try to go in!”
Emily’s eyes flashed dangerously. “I can go in if I want to! It’s my house!”
“No, you can’t, Mrs. Moore,” McCallum said doggedly. “Not until the fire’s out and we know it’s safe.”
“I have to go in,” the old woman insisted. “I have to—”
Before she could finish, Matt Moore appeared, panting and sweating from his dash from the practice field. “Gram? Gram, what happened? Are you okay?”
“Mrs. Moore is your grandmother?” Sean McCallum asked. When Matt nodded, he eased Emily toward the teenager, finally releasing his grip on her arm. “She’s trying to go into the house. Make sure she doesn’t.”
Before Matt could reply, the fireman was gone, disappearing around the corner of the house toward the kitchen.
“What happened, Gram?” Matt asked again.
Emily’s eyes were still fixed on the house, and when she took an unsteady step toward it, Matt reached out to steady her. She recoiled from his touch and turned her angry gaze on him.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried. “Don’t—” Her words died on her lips, and her eyes seemed to lose some of their anger. “I know you,” she finally said. “You’re—You’re—”
“Matt,” he prompted, dropping his voice so no one would hear him having to remind her who he was.
“Joan’s brat!” Emily hissed the two words, and now it was Matt who recoiled.
“I’m your grandson, Gram,” he said. Just as Sean McCallum had done a few moments ago, Matt scanned the crowd in search of help in dealing with the old woman. “You know me, Gram,” he went on. “It’s Matt! You’ve known me all my life!”
“It was you, wasn’t it?” Emily suddenly demanded, her eyes narrowing to suspicious slits as she peered into Matt’s face.
“M-Me?” Matt stammered.
Emily took a halting step forward, jabbing at his chest with her bony forefinger. “You did it! Don’t lie to me! It was you!”
Matt could see Pete Arneson and Eric Holmes standing behind his grandmother. Both of them were grinning, and while Pete grotesquely rolled his eyes, Eric mockingly twirled a finger around his ear.
“If you two jerks don’t want to help, why don’t you just go away?” Kelly Conroe said to them as she moved close to Matt and his grandmother. “You might be a little confused, too, if it was your house that was burning.” As their grins faded, she turned to Emily Moore. “It’s going to be all right, Mrs. Moore,” she said, gently taking Emily’s hand in her own. “We’re going to take care of you.”
The old woman peered into Kelly’s soft blue eyes. “Cynthia?” she said, her voice barely a whisper.
“It’s Kelly,” Matt replied. “You know her, Gram—Kelly Conroe.”
But Emily didn’t seem to hear him. Her eyes remained fixed on Kelly, and now she was holding both of the girl’s hands, her fingers digging deep into Kelly’s flesh. Her lips worked for a moment, then she found the words. “She did it, didn’t she?”
Emily’s rheumy eyes shifted to the burning house. “She did it,” she muttered so softly that Kelly and Matt couldn’t be certain she was speaking to them. “It was her. I know it was her.”
Seeing his mother and stepfather coming across the lawn, Matt breathed a silent sigh of relief.
“Mother?” Joan Hapgood cried, her voice reflecting the relief she felt as she spotted Emily. “Mother, what happened? Are you all right?”
The sound of her daughter’s voice brought Emily out of the reverie into which she’d fallen, and she wheeled around to face Joan. “Now look what you’ve done!” she said.
Dear God, Joan silently begged, knowing from years of experience what was coming. Please don’t let her do this. Not right here. Not right now. But even as she offered the silent prayer, she knew there was no hope of it being answered, for Emily was already shaking an accusing finger in her face.
Emily’s voice rose querulously. “How many times have I told you?” she demanded. “How many times have I told you not to leave the skillet on the stove?”
Joan’s heart skipped a beat as she realized what must have happened. How close had her mother come to burning herself up entirely? And what had she been doing cooking at three-thirty in the afternoon in the first place? But she knew better than to try to argue. Better just to try to calm the old woman down. She glanced at the house, where the smoke had given way to steam and the fire appeared to be under control. “It’s all right, Mother,” she said. “Whatever happened, it’s almost over with. Everything’s going to be all right.”
But Emily Moore wasn’t about to be appeased. “You did it on purpose!” she accused. “Don’t think I don’t know . . . don’t think you can fool me—”
Joan looked beseechingly at her husband, and Bill moved closer, laying a placating hand on his mother-in-law’s shoulder. “It’s going to be fine, Emily,” he assured her. “They almost have the fire out, and it doesn’t look like it got past the kitchen.”
Emily brushed Bill’s hand away as if it were a mosquito buzzing around her. “You don’t care! None of you care!” Her gaze shifted back to Joan. “You’re protecting her! That’s all you’re doing! Just protecting her!” Her voice was rising again, and Joan was acutely aware that the crowd of Emily’s neighbors had fallen silent to listen.
“Nobody’s trying to protect anybody,” Joan tried to assure her. “Whatever happened, it was just an accident.”
Emily adamantly shook her head. “It wasn’t an accident! You did it on purpose!”
Again Joan cast her husband a pleading look. “Help me get her into the car.” With Matt trailing behind, Bill and Joan led Emily Moore to Joan’s Range Rover. “I’m going to take you home, Mother. You’ll stay with us until we decide what to do.” They were at the car now, but suddenly Emily balked.
“No! I have to stay here—I have to be here when Cynthia comes home!”
As Emily made a move to turn away from the Range Rover, Joan’s hands closed gently but firmly on the old woman’s thin shoulders, and when she spoke, her voice showed none of the frustration she was feeling: even when the house was burning down, her mother was still obsessed with Cynthia. “Cynthia’s not coming home, Mother,” she said softly. “You know she’s not.”
Joan’s words struck Emily like a physical blow. She staggered for a moment, seemed about to topple over, and both Matt and Bill reached out to support her. But then she rallied, and her eyes glowed with anger again.
“Don’t ever say that!” she commanded. “Don’t you dare ever say that!” But finally, exhausted as much by the confrontation with her daughter as by the fire that had preceded it, Emily allowed herself to be helped into the backseat of the Range Rover. As they drove away, though, she turned to look back at her house once more. The kitchen window was broken, the white siding blackened with smoke. “What will she do?” she asked, her voice breaking. “What will Cynthia do when she comes and I’m not there?”
Finally, Joan’s own self-control gave way, and she turned around to face Emily. “Cynthia won’t do anything at all, Mother,” she said. “She’s dead, remember? Cynthia’s been dead for years!” Regretting her words almost as soon as she spoke them, Joan turned back, and for several long moments silence hung in the car. As Bill Hapgood turned through a pair of wrought-iron gates and started up the winding driveway toward the house that sat in the midst of the three hundred acres that had been his family’s home for five generations, Emily seemed totally unaware of where she was. But as the house finally came into view, she suddenly spoke.
“She’s not dead,” she said. “Not Cynthia. Not my perfect Cynthia.”
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