The sharp blare of a horn jolted Jana McFarlane from her chaotic thoughts. She peered up through the windshield of her little white Ford Escape at the traffic light swinging in the wind overhead. Green for some time, judging by the chorus of honks that swelled behind her on South Michigan Avenue.
"Okay, okay, give me a break." Muttering under her breath, she glanced both ways and eased through the crowded Chicago intersection. She stole a glance in the rearview mirror, checking on Ellie in the car seat. Her daughter's thumb was in her mouth, eyelids drooping, head listing to one side.
Great. If Ellie fell asleep this late in the day, she'd be up wanting to play at 4:00 a.m. again. Weren't kids supposed to sleep through the night by the time they turned three? She sighed. So much for that hot-bath-and-early-to-bed-with-a-book fantasy she'd entertained all day.
She merged onto I-55 as the clock on the minivan's dashboard flipped to triple fives. She was late. Again. They were supposed to meet with the investors in Mark's restaurant in an hour. He would be furious. Well, he'd just have to get over it. It wasn't as though he was winning any husband-of-the-year awards lately, either. And hey, this was Wednesday night. Whatever happened to the Wednesday family nights Mark had designated? Ever since he'd opened the restaurant last Septemberalmost a year now their life had been one big, not always fun, roller-coaster ride. It only promised to get worse and her fear that her mind was slipping, that something was off-kilter, made the ride that much scarier.
The news she'd learned at lunch today hadn't helped her mood any. Her thoughts returned to her encounter with Sandra Brenner at Buca di Beppo. Jana and a coworker from the museum had gone out for a late lunch. She'd been surprised to run into Mom's old friend on the way out of the restaurant. She hadn't seen Sandra in almost four years. At Mom's funeral. She swallowed hard. It still seemed impossible that her mother was really gone.
But what Sandra had mentioned so casually as they chatted on the sidewalk outside the restaurant shook Jana to her marrow. All afternoon, she'd tried to fabricate a way that Sandra could be mistaken. But the more she thought, the more it all added up too neatly. Why hadn't she seen the truth all along? In her mind, she'd confronted her father fifty different ways. Would Dad defend himself when she told him what Sandra had revealed?
An aching sadness simmered inside her, and with every mile, the grief and disappointment boiled until it resembled something closer to rage. She clenched her jaw and pounded the steering wheel with the heel of her hand.
She had tried to embrace her father's new wife. Even though Jana and her brothers had thought things moved a little too quickly with Dad and Julia, they'd all agreed he deserved some happiness after everything he'd been through. It wasn't as though Mom were coming back.
She bit the inside of her cheek. Why hadn't she seen it before? Dad's friendship with Julia had begun while Mom was still alive. Sandra implied they'd had
an affair. Jana could scarcely make herself think the words, much less believe them.
The emotions of those excruciating months before her mother died pressed in on her. And the more she remembered, the more doubt crept in and found footing amid the painful memories. She remembered her brothers commenting about how much happier Dad seemed after admitting Mom to Parkside. Brant and Kyle assumed it was because the burden of Mom's care had been taken from Dad's shoulders. At the time, it confirmed for them that Dad had done the right thing.
Jana's focus sharpened. Dad's happiness hadn't been caused by the relief of his burden at all. It had been Julia. He'd been seeing someone else! No wonder he'd wanted Mom put away.
How could he? Fury boiled up inside her. Shethey allhad put John Brighton on a pedestal for his long-suffering devotion to Mom. And he'd smugly perched there, letting them think he deserved the adoration they'd showered on him. Her stomach churned and heat flushed her face, as if the shame were her own.
Julia was no innocent in all this, either. She'd had to know about Mom. Know that Dad was still married. Jana shook her head. Had everything she'd ever believed about marriage been a sham? If Dad hadn't been able to remain faithful to Mom, where was there any hope?
Somewhere a horn blared and Jana tried to focus on the congested highway. The Jeep in front of her merged left and Jana sped up, glad for a little space. But when the car behind her swerved into her blind spot, she saw the reason for the lane changes. A construction barricade loomed mere yards in front of her. Her brain registered the speedometer inching past sixty. She slammed on the brakes.
The squeal of tires echoed a shriek from the backseat. Something smashed hard against the back of her seat, then tumbled beside her between the bucket seats. Ellie!
The Escape lurched, bucking forward as her foot slipped off the brake. She tried to move her right arm, but it wouldn't obey her brain's command. Gripping the steering wheel with her left hand, she watched her knuckles pale from pink to white.
She stomped the air wildly, searching for the brake pedal. She finally connected with a force that caused the vehicle to tilt, then come to an abrupt halt inches from a low wall of cement.
Everything went silent except for the whoosh whoosh of cars zipping by on the freeway to her left. The Escape rocked and swayed in the wake of passing traffic.
Jana tried again to move her arm. Pain shot down her forearm. She looked down and gasped. Ellie's car seat was upside down, wedged between the front seats of the vehicle, pinning Jana's arm to the back of the seat.
Raising up in the seat, she stood on the brakes with her full weight and yanked her arm free. She cried out in pain as the molded plastic scraped her skin. The gearshift went easily into Park and she scrambled to her knees in the seat to gain some leverage on the car seat.
"Ellie!" She screamed her daughter's name again. "Please God
" She breathed the words in and out like air.
She wrestled the carrier into an upright position and propped it on the passenger seat. Ellie faced forward, her face chalky, her blue-gray eyes round, staring straight ahead. For one awful instant, Jana thought her little girl was dead.
But then Ellie sucked in a frayed breath and belted out the most beautiful scream Jana thought she would ever hear.
She turned off the ignition and quickly unsnapped the carrier's seat belt. As she did so, she turned to stare at the rear seat belt in the Escape. It rested flat against the side panel of the vehicle.
Her breath caught as she realized what she'd done. She had buckled her daughter into the car seat at the day care center, but she'd completely forgotten to fasten the car's seat belt around the carrier. She shuddered and her hands started to tremble. That stupid mistake could have been fatal!
As quickly as she'd had to stop, it was a miracle Ellie hadn't been ejected from the car. Only the back of the seat had prevented her from hitting the windshield.
Numb, Jana lifted the screaming three-year-old and inspected her from head to toe. No blood.
Gingerly, she palpated her daughter's limbs through the little hooded sweater and denim overalls, searching for broken bones or other signs of injury. What if Ellie had internal injuries? Her wails sounded like a typical terrible-twos tantrum. But what if she was wrong? She'd heard horror stories about children who died of unseen injuries minutes after seemingly surviving an accident.
Jana hugged her child close and Ellie's sobs subsided as her thumb went into her mouth. The air in the car grew sultry and stale. After several minutes, Jana eased Ellie back into the car seat.
Ellie didn't resist, but popped her thumb out of her mouth long enough to look into Jana's eyes. "Mommy?"
Jana brushed the fine auburn curls from her daughter's high forehead. "It's okay, baby. We
we had a little bump in the car. Here
lift up your arms. Let Mommy check you out." Ellie cooperated in silence while Jana stripped off the little undershirt and training pants. Not surprisingly, they were soaked. Probably would have been even without such a scare. Potty training hadn't been going very well lately.
She reached behind the seat and rummaged in the diaper bag until she found a spare undershirt and a disposable diaper. Ellie was still in diapers at night, but this one was left over from her infancy and was at least two sizes too small.
"Ouchy, Mommy!" Ellie bucked and squirmed, trying to escape the car seat. "Ouchy!"
Jana struggled to loosen the diaper's tape fasteners. "Stop it, Ellie. Hold still!" She slapped the pudgy bare thigh, then rocked back, appalled at what she'd just done. She'd nearly killed Ellie and now she was spanking her? What was wrong with her?
Forcing her voice down an octave, she willed a soothing tone to her voice. "I know, sweetie. I'm sorry. You're getting too big. We'll get some new clothes when we get home."
"I want Daddy!" Ellie's wails crescendoed.
"Ellie! Stop it. Shut up!" Without warning, the awful, out-of-control feeling that had dogged Jana the last few months came over her again. It fell heavy on her, like a scratchy wool blanket in deep summer. A terrifying thought gripped her. Was this what it had been like for Mom when the Alzheimer's first started eating away at her brain?
Jana clapped her hands over her ears. "Ellie! I said stop it!"
She hadn't meant to scream, but the words came out shrill and earsplitting.
Ellie stopped crying, and stared wide-eyed, as though seeing a stranger.
A laugh bubbled up Jana's throat, but before it could escape, a sob took her voice hostage. What finally came from her throat was the haunting cackle of a lunatic. She saw herself as if she were watching from someplace outside her body.
She was going crazy. Losing her mind. Just like her mother. She stopped short, grappling to gain control of her emotions. Deep breaths. She should take Ellie to a hospital. Have her checked to make sure she was truly okay.
No. If she did that, she would have to admit her irresponsible mistake. The nurses might even report her to Child Protective Services. And who could blame them. She could have killed her little girl! She dropped her head in her hands as a new thought struck her. How would she ever explain this to Mark? What kind of a mother was she anyway?
Cars whizzed past on the freeway and Jana huddled against the window, hiding her face from her daughter, putting as much space between her and Ellie as the confines of the vehicle would allow.
She could not let anything happen to Ellie. She might be on the edge of insanity, but she would keep her precious little girl safe if it was the last thing she ever did in this life.
In the periphery of her vision, the traffic blurred into an abstract streak of color. Jana concentrated on breathing, breathing, breathing, while her mind expended its last fragments of sanity on a plan.
Julia Brighton rolled over in bed and squinted at the hazy light seeping beneath the curtains. The tops of the trees wore the first purplish hint of autumn and even through the closed windows, she could hear the birds twittering outside.
Stretching, she pulled in a deep breath and caught the heavenly aroma of fresh-brewed French roast.
She heard John rattling around in the kitchen, opening and closing cupboard doors in quick succession, but she resisted the urge to crawl out of bed and help him find whatever it was he was looking for. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. If she were patient, her sweet husband would soon appear in the doorway with a breakfast tray.
She fluffed her pillow and propped herself on one elbow. Even after two and a half years of marriage, John had kept this Saturday-breakfast-in-bed ritual with all the devotion of a newlywed.
As if on cue, he appeared in the doorway, bearing a loaded tray and the grin that still kicked her pulse up a notch.
"Good morning, sunshine." He set the tray on the dresser and went to draw back the curtains.
Julia rubbed her eyes against the light, then scooted upright in the bed and leaned back against the headboard waiting for him to place the tray across her lap. "You are a wonderful man. Do you know that?"
"Well, I try." He kissed the tip of her nose, then shook out a paper napkin and tucked it into the neckline of her nightgown.
"We must be out of strawberry jam. I hope you can live with orange marmalade."
"I wouldn't dare complain," she said over a bite of still-warm bagel. "And hey, why are you so dressed up?" Instead of his usual weekend uniform of sweatpants and T-shirt, John wore crisp Dockers and a polo.
He grimaced, as if aware he was in trouble. "I have to run by the office for a little while this morning
sit in on a short coaches' meeting."
"John," she moaned, "you promised
" The man hadn't taken a real day off from his job as superintendent of schools since their honeymoon. And even then, he'd called back to the district office at every port of call where he could get a cell phone signal. The weekends were supposed to belong to her. To them.
"Half an hour." He held up a hand in defense. "Not a minute longer. We just have to iron out the game schedules."
She rolled her eyes. "More coffee?"
She grinned up at him, shaking her head. "Don't think you can appease me with a mere cup of coffee. Let's see" she scratched her temple "I think an evening at the ballet might make amends."
She laughed and waved him off. "Go to your stupid meeting." He leaned to kiss her. "I'll tell them to cut it short or they're all coming to the ballet with me."
"Hey, do me a favor and stop by the cleaners on your way home, would you? I want that silk blouse for church tomorrow."
He started from the room, but the telephone on the nightstand stopped him. "It's probably Alexander. I'll take it in the den."
The phone rang again and Julia leaned to check the caller ID display. "No, it's Jana."
John gave her a pleading look. "Would you take it, babe?" He tapped his watch, whispering as if his daughter could hear him on the other end of the line. "I really need to run. Tell her I'll call her back when I get home."
She nodded and reached for the phone, blowing him a kiss with her other hand. "Half an hour," she mouthed.
He snapped a sharp salute and headed down the hall.
She waited until the kitchen door slammed before clicking the phone on. "Hello?"
"Julia?" The deep voice belonged to Jana's husband.
Mark. Hi. I was expecting Jana. How are you?"
"Is Jana there?"
Was she supposed to"
"Can you put John on, please?"
She heard the muffled grind of the garage door closing at the other end of the house. "He just left for a meeting. Mark? Is everything okay?"
"No." His voice broke. "It's Jana."
Her pulse thrummed. "What is it? What's happened?"