The black night and pounding rain were doing little to improve Sarann's mood. She was rattled to the point of fear.
When had she last filled the tank?
It had to be over a month ago, and yet here she was, still rolling along on three-quarters full. Obviously she must have stopped recently at a gas stationbut when? Where? The effort to remember consumed her: she drove straight through a red light and got pulled over immediately by a cop.
Where had he come from? Sarann didn't know the answer to that one, either. Her hand was shaking as she handed him her license and registration through the partly rolled-down window.
"I'm sorry, Officer, really," she said, wincing under the lash of driving rain. "I was totally preoccupied. I never saw the light."
"Is that the reason," the cop muttered.
He beamed a small flashlight on her Massachusetts license and the now-damp registration. It was clear that he resented being forced out of the dry warmth of his car for the sole purpose of ticketing someone else's absent-minded stupidity. If Sarann had been rushing to an emergency room, maybe, or returning home from a wake ... but all she was doing was driving home on a tank of gas that seemed too full. It would be pointless to try to explain.
"It's my gas tank. I don't understand it; it never seems to go empty anymore," she said, powerless to stop the stream of her babble. "I can't remember when I last filled up. I'll have to, to, you know, start using American Express, start keeping records off you know, everything I doyou know? Start taking notes and things like that?"
The ponchoed officer gave her an appraising look, then went off with her documents back to his squad car, presumably to fetch his Breathalyzer.
Good grief Sarann, get a grip. The only thing worse than going crazy was announcing out loud that she was doing it.
She drummed her fingertips nervously on the leather-bound steering wheel of her Mercedes while she waited. The sound was louder than the pound of the rain, louder than the beat of her heart. The message in it was earsplittingly clear: shutup shutup shutup shutup!
The officer returned.
"You can go, Mrs. Bonniface," he said, handing her back her license. "Please drive carefully. The roads are slick. You could easily get in an accident on a wild night like this." He nodded a dismissal and then beat a retreat through the pouring rain.
It was an about-face. Apparently he had figured out who she was: the wife of one of the most well-regarded men in Farnham, certainly the most generous, a man beloved by all. Sarann had been married to Rodger Bonniface for nearly a year and she had known him for five years before that, but every day she learned a little more about the depth of affectionand influencethat he enjoyed around town.
Or maybe the officer was just being nice. Sarann slipped her license into a glove-soft wallet and tossed the registration on the passenger seat.
And then she reconsidered. Better to put it back where it belonged, in the glove compartment, right now, while she was thinking of it, before she forgot. The way her mother had once begun to forget. First the little things. Then the big.
Who are you? Who said you could be here? Get out right now, you, or I'll call the cops. Get out! Out!
Sarann could still hear her mother's voice, shrill and terrified; could still see her mother's eyes, round and green and blank with paranoia. The day that her mother hadn't recognized her had been the single most shocking of Sarann's life. For years now, and probably until the day she died, Sarann's mood would plunge whenever she herself forgot the most trivial thingthe name of a movie she'd just seen, or the outfit she'd worn to work on the preceding day.
Or the last time she'd topped off the tank.
Sarann pulled into the flow of traffic with ridiculous caution. The patrolman could well be watching her, after allunless, of course, she was just being paranoid.
Rain hammered the roof of her wagon and swept over the windshield in sheets as she continued on her way in a slow crawl home. Puddles of water pooling on the shoulder rose up in high arcs as she drove through them, anxious to show up before Rodger became worded.
Her husband had seen firsthand how forgetful she'd been lately and was doing his best to reassure her that her state of distraction was perfectly normal. His most recent try had been at breakfast.
"You're about to open your own shop, for Pete's sake," he had said as he cracked the fat end of an egg with a spoon. "There are a million things to do, contractors to oversee, more antiques to acquirewhat did you expect? Of course stuff is slipping past you. You can't remember every little thing."
"The store won't be ready to move into for weeks," she had pointed out. "I'm not all that busy yet."
There was a silencefar too long for Sarann to feel comfortable with it.
"Well, then," Rodger had said in a softer, more tentative voice, "maybe you should look somewhere else for the reason you're so distracted. Could the reason be Abby?"
The name was a hot coal on a raw nerve. "Abby? Why Abby?"
It was such a dumb question. The man wasn't deaf; obviously he had been hearing the recent arguments between her daughter and her.
Rodger had shrugged offhandedly as he scooped the oozy egg with a monogrammed spoon into a porcelain bowl. "She's growing up, your little girl; it's bound to be hard for you to let go. That's natural, Sarann," he had said, looking up with a quick, sympathetic smile. "You've raised her yourself. You two have always been a team. You've doneyou're doinga great job. But Abby's twelve now, and feeling her way."
Sarann had responded with a vehemence that surprised even her. "She's not just feeling her way, Rodger; she's roaring like a freight train toward a washed-out bridge!"
"It's only a phase, Sarann," he had reassured her, and then he had come around to her side of the table and had wrapped his arms around her in a show of support. "She's at an age when knowing about her father is important to her. You can't really blame Abby," he had said. "If you're going to blame anyone, blame the teacher who dreamed up the family-tree project. Personally, I've never been a fan of assignments like that; they can be unnerving for certain parents. Family skeletons aren't always six feet under, after all."
He had kissed Sarann's cheek in sympathy and added, "It's hard on a kid when a parent dies before the child is old enough to remember him. Sooner or later Abby will have picked your brain all she can, and then she'll stop. Trust me. It's only a phase."
Instead of being grateful to him, Sarann had shouted, "Don't tell me what phase Abby's in, Rodger; I'm her mother!"
And then she'd wrenched free of him, grabbed her purse and jacket, and left him standing flabbergasted on the quarry-tiled floor of their two-hundred-year-old kitchen.
That was this morning, and although Sarann had called her husband at the Academy later in the day and apologized, she was still feeling guilty. He had been trying to help. She had behaved like a shit.
She glanced at the low-lit clock on the dashboard: seven fifteen. So much for the chicken with citrus sauce. The fixings for Rodger's favorite dinner were sitting uncooked in two brown bags behind her.
She drove down dark and winding River Street, then pulled onto the graveled drive of the wine-red, gambrel-roofed house, known all around as Tidewater, that Rodger had lived in all of his life. Lights were on both upstairs and down, pouring their soft glow through multipaned windows onto fat-budded rhododenrons and leafing summersweet that lined the stone foundation.
Sarann glanced up at her daughter's bedroom. She's at that damned computer again, she realized with a sinking heart. Her daughter's obsession with the Internet had become a source of constant bickering between them. Sarann wanted to allow Abby enough access to be stimulating but not too much to be addictive. It was a tricky balancing act.
The light was on in Rodger's study downstairs. He was either slogging through a pile of papers or he was on the phone, managing some crisis or other. Sarann didn't envy her husband his position as headmaster of Faxton Academy. It entailed a ridiculous amount of stress and pressure, more so because he was grandson to the academy's founder: he couldn't walk away if the going got tough, or accept a better offer at another boarding school.
Probably the only thing more stressful than managing kids with Attention Deficit Disorder was managing privileged kids with ADD: Rodger was always meeting with their high-powered parents, who were themselves impatient, demanding, and used to getting their way. After working in the headmaster's office for several years, Sarann had seen first-hand how well Rodger was able to keep his cool. Still, the stress factor at the exclusive academyeither despite its small size or because of itwas sky-high,
Poor Rodger. She wasn't making his life any easier.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," she said to her husband at the door, handing the grocery bags into his outstretched arms. "I stopped to check on the shop. The contractor was still there and he had a lot of questions. I would have called"
"But you left your cell phone on the kitchen counter," Rodger said with a wry smile on his handsome face. He set the bags carefully on a marble-topped table that sat in the hall, then pushed his reading glasses over the top of his receding hair and arched his back, easing out the fatigue.
"I was worried about you," he admitted as she hung up her rain-spattered jacket. "I think you ought to have a second cell phone, this one just for the car."
"Oh, one is enoughreally," Sarann said. I won't forget it again. I won't.
Wanting to move past the painful issue of her breakfast tantrum, she hugged her husband and said, "You're right, I think; it is Abby." On tiptoe, she gave him a kiss on his cheek. "She's driving me crup a wall lately, and I'm taking it out on you. I'm sorry."
Rodger kissed the top of her rain-dampened hair affectionately and said, "Nothing to be sorry for. I never should have put in my two cents."
"But I want you to put in your two cents! We're both her parents now, you as well as meI. And think of all the kids that have passed through your doors. Who knows more about children than you do?"
He answered quietly, "Just about any real father."
He hadn't had children of his own during his first marriage, but it was still hard for Sarann to believe he felt so humbled by the fact. "Ohh, you know that's not true," she said, reassuring him They had been trying to have children for nine months now, which wasn't very long; it would only be a matter of time.
She ran her fingertips across his cheek, already stubbly with the day's growth. She preferred him this wayslightly rumpled, without his tie, a man instead of a headmaster. He seemed more approachable. It made it easier for her to accept the astonishing fact that she was his wife now, and not merely the assistant to his secretary.
Sarann had a sudden, vivid flashback to the night of his proposal. She had been working late, determined not to drop the ball while she filled in for his ailing secretary. Rodger had offered to take Sarann to a late supper, but she had declined because Abby was alone at home and waiting for her.
Despite having worked at the academy for four years, Sarann had been uneasy about spurning her employer's friendly offer. But far from taking it personally, Rodger had shrugged and said, "If we were married, Abby wouldn't be alone and on her own right now."
Sarann had no answer to that except ... yes. After a whirlwind engagement, they were married in a beautiful, tasteful ceremony. She was grateful to Rodger for her new life.
She shook herself free of the memory. "You must be starved," she said, taking up one of the grocery bags.
Rodger picked up the other and followed her into the kitchen. "Actually, I figured Abby might be hungry, so I heated up the stew from last night for us." "Oh, good."
"But she didn't come down. She said she would later."
"What? Rodger! You have to put your foot down with her. She can't just"
"Yes, she can, Sarann," he said, shrugging. "I won't go ordering her around," he added as he took out a bag of oranges. "She has to come of her own free will."
"Baloney She'll come to dinner when she's called, period. Damn it, I wish you'd take my side just once whenever"
She was doing it again, picking a fight again. She reined herself in and changed the subject altogether. In a more offhand tone she said, "Any good mail?" and picked up the stack on the counter.
Rodger, in a mild snit of his own now, said, "I've taken all of my mail out; the rest is yours. Well, I've got work to do." He left her to put away the groceries herself.
Sighing, Sarann began flipping through the hefty pile, surprised again at how a marriage to someone of stature could instantly quadruple her mail. The day's haul included Art and Antiques, Colonial Homes, a dozen upscale catalogues, appeals from three or four charities, an equal number of VISA applications, an invitation to a lecture on historic architecture, another one to dinnerand a bill that she'd just paid, returned for lack of postage.
She stared at the envelope, to which she clearly remembered attaching a peel-away stamp. It would take a fireman's hose to get one of those things off.
I did stamp this envelope. I did.
Sarann felt a familiar rush of heat to her cheeks. She laid the envelope carefully back on the pile and, just as deliberately, finished emptying the second bag of groceries. After that she turned a low fire under the pot of stew still on the stove, and whispered in a shaking voice to no one in particular, "She will come when she is called."
Abigail Johnson Bonniface sat hunched like an elf owl in front of her computer, searching through cyberspace for only God knew what.
Standing in the doorway of her daughter's room, Sarann had to make an effort to control her rising irritation as she said, "It was rude not to come down after your father heated up supper especially for you."
"Oh, please," Abby said without turning around. "Speaking of rude, don't you ever knock anymore?"
Sarann gritted her teeth and said, "Fair enough. I'll knock from now on. But it would be a lot easier to be nice to you if you were nice to others."
"When am I not nice?"
"Right now. By not looking at me when you speak to me."
She saw her daughter's shoulders rise and then fall on an aggrieved exhale.
Bracing herself on the arms of her swivel chair, Abby spun it slowly around to face her mother. Intelligence and anger flashed from heavily lashed blue eyes.
"Tell me who my father is."
Here we go again. "I've told you, Abby. Many, many times. A man named Nick McElwyn."
"Then why was our name Johnson instead of McElwyn until you got married last year? Why were you using your maiden name all my life?"
"I've told you that, too: lots of women had begun to keep their own names by the time you were born."
"Then why did you all of a sudden decide to take the name Bonniface when you got married this time?"
"Because your stepfather isn't like your birth father. Rodger wanted us to share his name."
"So my real father was ashamed of us, is that what you're trying to say?"
Surprised to find herself in new, dark territory, Sarann said carefully, "Your father just ... never insisted the way Rodger did. And I'm a different person now than I was then."
Like a cat who smells fear, Abby pressed on with the hunt. "Why don't we have more pictures of my birth father? Only one tiny photograph of some people sitting around a couch. And it's overexposed. It sucks."
"Oh, Abby. I've explained it to you so many times. There was a fire in the apartment we lived in, and my shoebox of photos was burned."
The fire had been a grease fire, and Abby had slept peacefully in her crib through the whole thing, but never mind; at least there'd been a fire. As for a so-called photo collection, there'd never been one of those. There'd only been the one snapshot, which Sarann had kept tucked in her wallet for years. The only reason she had shown it to Abby at all was because it was so overexposed.
Sarann locked gazes with her bright, calculating offspring and felt suddenly vulnerable. And more than a little frightened. She added in a tiptoe voice, "Doesn't it matter to you at all that we have a thousand pictures of you and me together?"
Sensing weakness, Abby lashed out. "You don't know who my father is, do you. You don't have a clue."
"Abby!" The swipe of her paw was so swift, so deep, that for a minute Sarann had to think whether she should know or not. But yes, she did know. Nick McElwyn, an up-and-coming attorney, had been run over as he dashed across the street against the light, in the rain, at twilight. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy, and he was dead. That was Sarann's story, and by God, she was sticking to it. She took a step backward and began to turn, ready to run.
Too late. Abby pounced.
"You're lying! You've been lying to me, like, all my life. You never married my father. How could you, if you don't even know who he is?"
Sarann was forced to defend the indefensible. She turned back to her daughter and tried to look bored. Impatient. Indignant. She failed in all three and fell back on the tired old refrain "`I've told you' Your father is Nick McElwyn."
"Then why can't I find him anywhere? I wrote to city hall in Norfield, and they don't have any death record for a Nick McElwyn."
"You wrote to them!"
"E-mailed," Abby said with a lift of her chin. "They e-mailed back that they don't have a record of death. So you lied. And by the way, I haven't tracked down a record of marriage, either."
"I can't believe you went behind my back," said Sarann, stunned. She closed the door behind her in an effort to muffle the coming brawl.
"Admit it, Mom! I'm a one-night stand."
"No. I told you."
"Oh, you told me!" Abby said. Her voice was high, loud, and clear. "You haven't told me anything. Where did he die? What street corner? What kind of car ran him down? What hospital did they take him to? What cemetery is he buried inand don't try telling me you scattered his ashes at sea. I'm not a little girl anymore."
She was a little girl, going on forty. There was such betrayal, such fury, such disillusionment in her eyes that Sarann had to look away. Where was the darling girl who'd always adored her?
Sarann stared blankly at a red paisley pillow, bought for the shop, that she had recently decided would be perfect for the overstuffed chair of her daughter's room. During that brief space of time, her resolve faltered. "When you're older," she said, "you'll understand."
That's all it took.
"I knew it!" cried Abby, jumping up in shrill, panicky triumph. "I am a one-night stand!"
Exactly that. In the single most collossal indiscretion of her life, Sarann had managed to get high, get laid, and get pregnant, all in the space of a single torrid encounter with a stranger. She carried a list of excuses for her reckless behavior that was as long as her arm. She was eighteen, inexperienced, a casualty of booby-trapped brownies. He was not much older, damnably good-looking, damnably charming, damnably carefree. They were a volatile mix, and they had exploded. And Sarann had been forging through life with a limp ever since.
Her resolve returned; it was a habit by now, not easily abandoned. "You are not a one-night stand, Abby."
"I'll never believe you! Never! And I'll never forgive you for having me!" Abby sprinted to the bed, threw herself across it, and burst into tears.
It was bitterly ironic: Sarann had friends who were trying for years to get pregnant, presumably so that they could raise children like Abby who would one day make their lives misery. Sarann, no slouch, had managed to get the job done in a few short hours.
How could she possibly be a good example to a daughter who knew the truth behind her conception? "I would never hurt you, Abby," Sarann said, sitting on the side of the bed. "Never. I'd sooner cut off my arm. Please believe me."
Abby lifted her head in a teary-eyed look of contempt. Without a word, she got herself back under control, sat down in her computer chair, and swiveled it around to face the screen again.
Her mother was dismissed.
Excerpted from TIDEWATER by Antoinette Stockenberg. Copyright © 2001 by Antoinette Stockenberg. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.