‘Fans of Jodi Picoult will devour this great thriller.’
‘An action packed thriller … Gudenkauf’s best book yet!’ Mary Kubica, bestselling author of The Good Girl
‘It’s totally gripping …’ Marie Claire
‘Brilliantly constructed, this will have you gripped until the last page …’ Closer
‘Deeply moving and lyrical … it will haunt you all summer’
5 stars ‘Gripping and moving’ Heat
‘Tension builds as family secrets tumble from the closet’
Woman & Home
‘Set to become a book group staple’ The Guardian
‘Deeply moving and exquisitely lyrical, this is
a powerhouse of a debut novel.’ Tess Gerritsen, No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author
‘Heart-pounding suspense and a compelling family drama come together to create a story you won’t be able to put down. You’ll stay up all night long reading. I did!’ Diane Chamberlain, bestselling author of The Midwife’s Confession
‘A great thriller. It will appeal to fans of Jodi Picoult.’
‘A real page-turner’ Woman’s Own
HEATHER GUDENKAUF is the critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden, One Breath Away and Little Mercies. Her debut novel, The Weight of Silence was picked for The TV Bookclub. She lives in Iowa with her family.
Read more about Heather and her novels at
For Marianne Merola—my agent, mentor and friend—there since the beginning of this amazing journey
LYDIA GAZED ABSENTMINDEDLY outside the kitchen window, the bright May sunshine glinting off the dew-glazed sweet-potato vine that cascaded from the window box just beyond the screen. It was barely seven thirty, and fifteen-year-old Jack and eleven-year-old Amy were already on the bus, making the forty-minute ride to school. Their last day before summer vacation began. She’d have to make a special supper to celebrate the occasion. Waffles topped with strawberries and freshly whipped cream, lemonade garnished with mint snipped from the windowsill herb garden.
Outside, Grey, their pewter-eyed silver Lab, began barking. A relaxed, friendly yapping. Lydia leaned in, scanning the yard for the source of Grey’s excitement. From her vantage point, the farmyard was deserted. John’s truck was still gone and wouldn’t return until after six. The bedsheets that she had forgotten on the clothesline overnight flapped languidly in the mild morning breeze. The gravel road that wound its way up to the main highway was empty, no telltale dust announcing the arrival of a visitor. Someone could have come by way of the old mud road, but few dared to, for fear their tires would become stuck in the mire brought along by the early-summer rain. Lydia cocked her ear toward the window; Grey’s barking was replaced by the impatient clucks from the henhouse, the Sussexes waiting for their breakfast. Lydia sighed. It had been a long, lonely winter and spring and she was finally beginning to feel better after weeks of nausea and dizziness and a fogginess she could not explain. She looked forward to the hot summer ahead, taking the kids to the swimming pool in town, going on picnics, spreading a blanket across the front lawn at dusk and staring up into the navy blue night pinpricked with stars.
She turned from the window, mentally ticking off the items she would need to make the waffles: heavy cream, last summer’s strawberries stored in the cellar freezer. In her periphery a shadow slid darkly behind the sheets fluttering on the clothesline. She paused. Slowly she turned back toward the window, trying to make sense of what she had just seen out of the corner of her eye. The linens swirled lazily with the rising breeze. Nothing there. A trick of light.
She moved toward the cellar with slow, determined strides and stopped in front of the closed door. Normally she avoided the dank, stale cellar and she reluctantly reached for the knob, briefly considering scrapping the dinner of waffles and frozen strawberries. There was leftover meat loaf and mashed potatoes in the refrigerator, a plate of brownies on the counter.
Lydia laughed shakily, slightly embarrassed with her skittishness. She had lived on this farm for fifteen years and had never been afraid. Lonely, yes, but never frightened. With a deep breath she twisted the knob, her fingers fumbling for the light switch. A rush of musty air filled her nose. Over the years she tried to remove the damp, fetid smell by placing bowls of vinegar on the floor, sprinkling baking soda and mothballs into the corners and strategically placing the box fan as far as the extension cord could stretch in order to blow fresh air down from the top of the stairs. Nothing worked. With the naked lightbulb above her head doing little to illuminate her way, Lydia carefully moved down the wooden steps, sliding her hand down the iron handrail. Shelves of small, neatly labeled jars of strawberry, rhubarb and raspberry jams, and quart-and gallon-size glass containers of sweet pickles and chutney preserves lined one wall. In the narrow space beneath the stairs was where they kept the twelve-cubic-foot Coldspot deep freezer. John had bought it for her on their seventh anniversary, and while not the most romantic of gifts, she had to admit it was helpful. Whenever she wanted a pound of ground hamburger or the Iowa chops that John liked, all she had to do was go down to the cellar and retrieve whatever she needed.
With effort she lifted the heavy freezer lid and was met with a blast of cold air. Quickly riffling past the wax-paper-wrapped pork loins and the plastic bags filled with blanched kernels of sweet corn, Lydia plunged her hand into the depths of the freezer in search of what she was looking for: a quart-size package of sliced and sugared strawberries from last summer.
The initial push was the slightest of shoves, a nudge, really. Tentative. Almost a caress. A bird, maybe. A wayward wren or sparrow flying down the chimney and into the house and in its frantic state fluttering its wings against her back. That had happened before, birds getting into the house. Jack and Amy would howl with glee at the bird swooping at their heads, desperate to find its way back out into the open air.
But a second blow followed immediately, striking her in the lower ribs. Her breath was knocked from her lungs and she scrambled to steady herself against the deep freeze.
With difficulty she twisted around, needing to see, needing to know who wanted to hurt her.
Oh, it’s you, was Lydia’s final thought before being struck in the temple, their eyes locking one last time.
THE CALL, LIKE many of its kind, had come in the early hours of the morning, waking Jack and Sarah from a dead sleep. Jack’s hand had snaked from beneath the covers, fumbling for the phone. He grunted a sleepy hello, listened for a moment, then sat up suddenly alert.
“Is it the girls?” Sarah asked as she turned on the bedside lamp. They had dropped the girls off at the University of Montana just a few weeks earlier and Sarah’s worst fear was receiving an early-morning call like this. Jack shook his head and Sarah breathed a sigh of relief.
“It’s Julia,” Jack said after hanging up, his voice thick with emotion. “She had a fall. I need to go home.”
Now, as their airplane ascended into the blue Montana sky, Sarah settled into her seat and gazed down at the expansive landscape below. The mountains, tipped with white, seemed to burst from the trees, while rivers meandered across the earth and deep lakes glittered in the midmorning September sun. Though she had grown up in Larkspur, she never tired of its beauty and she hated leaving, even for just a short time. She and Jack hadn’t strayed from Montana in years, saw no need to travel to exotic lands, to ocean coasts or dry deserts. All they needed they found in their home on Larkspur Lake.
She looked over at Jack, who was shifting in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position for his long legs. The crosshatched lines that rested at the corners of his eyes had become more pronounced overnight, and two deep grooves above the bridge of his nose extended to his forehead like a ladder of worry. She had seen this same look on his face when the first of their twin daughters, Elizabeth, was born and had waited a full sixty seconds, an eternity, to take her first breath. Saw the same expression when their other daughter, Emma, took a nasty tumble from her bike and came to them crying, her elbow dangling helplessly at her side. She knew that look. Jack was scared.
She wished there was something that she could say to ease his nerves, but Jack was a reserved man who kept his worries to himself. She reached for his hand and absentmindedly he fiddled with her wedding band, spinning it around and around her finger like a talisman. “When do you think we’ll get to Penny Gate?” Sarah asked.
Jack checked his watch and mentally calculated the distance to the small Iowa town where he grew up. “I’d say we’ll get there about seven if we go straight to the hospital. Uncle Hal said they stabilized Julia in the emergency room and now she’s in the ICU.”
“From what you’ve told me about your aunt, if anyone can pull through such a bad fall, it’s Julia. Thank God your sister found her so quickly.”
“Yeah, if Amy showed up at the house any later, I don’t know if she would still be alive.” Jack went silent then, as if lost in thought, focusing intently on the seat in front of him.
Sarah could hear the worry in his voice. What would they find when they arrived in Penny Gate? Would his aunt be awake and grateful to see him or would she succumb to her injuries and not survive the night? “We’ll be there soon,” Sarah assured him.
“You know, it’s been twenty years since I’ve been home. After the accident, I just couldn’t go back there. Hal and Julia took us in and treated us as their own, and I couldn’t even be bothered to visit in all these years.”
Jack rarely spoke of his life in Penny Gate, of the years before the accident that took the lives of both his parents. He kept those memories well hidden, the only part of himself that was off-limits to Sarah. All she really knew was that on a rainy spring night the year Jack turned fifteen, his mother and father climbed into their rusty old pickup truck and Jack never saw either of them again.
Jack had been her physical therapist, treating Sarah’s injured shoulder after her own car accident, and after twelve painful but productive rehab sessions he announced that he had done all he could for her, at least physical-therapy-wise, then promptly asked her out on a date.
She remembered the night Jack told her about the accident as if it was burned in her memory. They had been dating for about a month and spent the weekend kayaking on Deer Lake, three hours north of Minneapolis. It was a warm summer night; the sun was beginning to set, a large gilded orb melting into the lake’s horizon. They were in no rush to return to shore and laid their paddles across their laps and drifted languidly across the water.
Sarah, at the front of the kayak, gently waved away mosquitoes that hummed past her ear and asked Jack about the night his parents had died. She wasn’t sure why he chose that moment to answer; he had sidestepped her questions so many times before. Perhaps it was because in the rear of the kayak she couldn’t see his face. Perhaps it was the remote location; they hadn’t seen another boat in hours. The only sound was the gentle slap of water against the side of the kayak. Jack had breathed the details of the story in staccato, short-clipped phrases that seemed to punch the air from his chest: He was drinking again. I should have stopped her. Stopped him. The roads were wet.
Sarah wanted to turn and reach for Jack but forced herself to remain facing forward in the kayak, afraid that any movement would cause him to stop talking.
He flipped the truck. Upside down in a cornfield. Killed instantly.
Jack’s breath came out in jagged chuffs and Sarah could tell that he was crying. Slowly, carefully, as one might to a skittish animal, she reached behind her and found Jack’s hand.
A year later they were married, she quit her job as a reporter and they moved to Larkspur to begin a family. In the past twenty years Sarah had wanted to ask Jack so many questions. Not just about the accident and the years that followed, but about what his life was like before his parents died. Simple questions. Did he look more like his mother or his father? What books did she read to him before bedtime or did she call him by a pet name? Did his father teach him to bait a hook or skip rocks across a pond? But every time she broached the subject, Jack would find a way to avoid the conversation. He wouldn’t let her in.
Jack released Sarah’s hand and ran his fingers through his gray-flecked hair, a nervous gesture that she knew he would repeat a hundred times before they landed. “I shouldn’t have waited so long to come back,” he murmured.
Jack jiggled his leg up and down, striking the back of the seat with his knee. The man in front of him turned around and glowered with irritation. Jack didn’t notice.
“I’m sure they understand,” Sarah said, laying a hand on his leg to still it. But she wondered if Jack’s aunt and uncle truly understood how the boy they took into their home could stay away for nearly two decades.
“I should have called her back.” Jack’s voice caught and he cleared his throat. “It just slipped my mind and I knew she’d call again in a few days.” Jack’s aunt, without fail, called the house each Sunday evening to check in and catch up on the events of their week. But the previous Sunday they were out for a walk and had missed Julia’s call. She had left a message on their machine, but it was late when they returned home and Jack had forgotten to call back the following day.
When they came home and listened to the message, Sarah had thought she detected a shakiness in Julia’s voice, a tremor that made her think of Parkinson’s. At the time she had dismissed it, but now she wondered if she should have said something to Jack.
“Do you think that Julia sounded different the last few times she called?” Sarah asked, pulling her cardigan more tightly around herself to stave off the plane’s chilly temperature.
Jack narrowed his eyes as if mentally shuffling through recent conversations with his aunt. “I don’t think so. What do you mean?”
Sarah hesitated. “I’m not sure. Has Hal said anything about any health concerns?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t had any problems,” Jack admitted. He tilted his head back against the headrest and stared up at the plane’s ceiling. “I can’t believe they still live in that house,” he said, changing the subject. “It’s too big for two people. And those steps. They’re so steep. I tripped down them all the time when I was a kid. I just can’t believe that someone hasn’t had a bad fall before now. The place is a death trap.”
Jack crossed his arms in front of his chest and burrowed more deeply into his seat. “We used to go to this pond,” he said as she slid her hand through his arm and rested her head on his shoulder. The comforting scent of his shaving cream and the starch used to iron his shirt filled her nose. “Aunt Julia would pack these elaborate picnics. Strawberries that we’d spent hours picking and pickled herring on crackers, cheese with names we couldn’t pronounce and her homemade bread.” Jack’s voice sounded far away and Sarah hung on his words. “Then we’d all climb into the back of Uncle Hal’s truck and drive down the old mud road to the pond. We’d sit on the bank and fish for hours and would end up with just a few bluegills, a bass if we were lucky. Julia would make a big deal out of each one we caught, though, clapping her hands and jumping up and down.”
Sarah thought about the times they had taken Elizabeth and Emma fishing. The girls squealing over the wiggling worms that Jack used to bait their hooks. Their delight at Jack pretending to buckle beneath the weight of their catches.
“Sometimes I can still taste those strawberries.” Jack smiled sadly and Sarah squeezed his hand.
“It must be hard going back,” Sarah reflected. “Lots of memories.”
He nodded tentatively, a ghost of a smile playing on his lips. “Everything seemed so simple then. Easier somehow.” Jack turned to the window then and looked out at the far-reaching landscape below. The world was endless from this vantage point, full of infinite wonder and possibility, and Jack drifted off in thought as he took in the view.
“I remember on stormy summer nights,” he started, his voice tinged with sadness. “When the power would go out, my mom would scavenge through the cupboards and drawers looking for flashlights.” Sarah’s breath caught in her chest. Jack never spoke about his parents. Ever.
“Amy and I would grab the clean sheets from the clothesline just before the rain began to fall. Then we’d throw them over the furniture to make forts. We’d pretend the flashlights were our campfire and tell each other stories...”
Jack looked as if he was going to say more but instead he rubbed his hand across his mouth as if wiping away the thought. He turned back from the window and leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes.
Sarah wanted to press for more, but she knew this fleeting moment of reminiscence was over.
As the airplane carried them away from the life they had made together, she watched Jack doze. Behind his closed eyelids she knew that a thousand secret memories drifted. She wanted him to let her in, to know that he was safe. Safe with her. Maybe she couldn’t erase all the sadness and bitterness he was carrying. But she could be there for him and help him through the pain.
Despite the sad circumstances of their trip to Penny Gate, Sarah was looking forward to seeing the town Jack grew up in. She wanted to drive along the roads that he once traveled, to see the bedroom that he once slept in, to spend time with his family, whom she had only gotten to know over the years through phone calls and birthday cards. She thought it might bring her closer to him.
She let Jack rest until the pilot’s voice filled the airplane cabin, announcing their impending arrival in Chicago. The fasten-seat-belt light blinked on, and she lightly nudged Jack awake. Down below, the blue expanse of Lake Michigan was edged by miles of skyscrapers. Each drop in altitude was jarring, and Sarah’s stomach churned. She reached for Jack’s hand and closed her eyes, squeezing his fingers tightly until finally the wheels touched the runway.
They had only fifteen minutes to get to their gate in time to catch their connecting flight to the small airport near Penny Gate, and Sarah scurried to keep up with Jack’s long strides as they wove their way through crowds of travelers, her carry-on bag bumping along behind her.
When they arrived at their gate, they joined the line of passengers to board their connecting flight. Jack quickly called Hal for an update on Julia’s condition.
“She hasn’t woken up yet,” he reported grimly when he hung up the phone. “She’s back from X-ray and she has a skull fracture, a broken pelvis and both arms are fractured.”
Sarah handed her boarding pass to the gate agent. “That’s terrible. Does she need surgery?”
“I don’t know. Not yet, anyway. They’re watching her closely to make sure there isn’t any bleeding on her brain.”
They were the last of the fifty passengers to board the full flight. Because of their late booking Sarah’s seat was three rows behind Jack and across the aisle.
It was just a short thirty-minute flight to the small regional airport near Penny Gate, and as they got closer to their destination, Sarah watched from afar as Jack seemed to grow more and more restless. His foot tapped nervously and he kept checking his watch. Sarah knew that a million thoughts were banging around Jack’s head. He hadn’t seen his aunt and uncle in twenty years. How would they receive him? With open arms or cold reservation? Jack was returning to the town where he was born and raised but whose roads had taken his parents away from him. Anxiety seemed to radiate from his body and Sarah wanted to go to him, to reassure him that everything was going to be okay, and if it wasn’t she would be right there beside him.
Sarah peered out the window as they descended. Jack was right. He had told her that Iowa had a beauty all its own, and the landscape was a patchwork of verdant greens, golden yellows and rich browns.
When they landed, Jack waited for Sarah at the end of the jet bridge. “Are you okay?” Sarah asked with concern. His skin had taken on a sickly hue.
“Just a little airsick,” Jack explained as they went in search of a rental car.
The clear sky above them was quickly being replaced by a blanket of leaden clouds and a cold wind pressed at their backs, hurrying them along to the rental car. Jack loaded their bags in the trunk and then opened the passenger’s-side door for Sarah. She smiled at the small act of chivalry.
“The hospital is only about half an hour from here,” Jack explained as he drove out of the airport parking lot. Jack was silent as he wove his way through busy interstate traffic past an industrial area with tall sturdy buildings, smokestacks and train bridges. Gradually the landscaped shifted and factories were replaced with vast fields stretching majestically into the horizon. Farm buildings peppered the landscape: bullet-shaped silos that reached to the sky, barns painted a crisp white or deep crimson, some barely standing, weathered by years of rain, wind and snow. They passed half-harvested fields of alfalfa, striped gold and green, and acres of sun-bleached corn lying in wait for the following day’s harvest. Barbed wire pulled tautly across the wooden fence posts that lined the fields like jagged teeth.
It was nearing seven o’clock and the sun was setting behind the sharp line of the horizon, creating a golden halo across the distant fields. A light rain speckled the windshield and Sarah flipped on the car’s heater. Though the speed limit was fifty-five, Jack was barely going forty. She watched him covertly from the corner of her eye. His hands gripped the steering wheel, his eyes stared intently ahead. She wondered if he was trying to delay his arrival at the hospital, reluctant to see his aunt so badly injured, or if he simply dreaded returning to his hometown where he faced such painful loss.
The road followed the path of the Gray Fox River and curled through the countryside. Could this have been the highway his parents were driving on the night they died? Maybe one of the recently harvested cornfields was where their car had come to a final rest.
“You seem distracted,” she said. “Do you want me to drive?”
Jack glanced down at the speedometer and pressed down on the gas. “No, sorry, I’m fine. Thanks for coming with me. Are you going to get behind on your column?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” Sarah said, patting his knee. “I let the paper know I’d be away for a few days. I’ve got a bunch of responses just in case,” Sarah said of the advice column she had been writing for the past seven years. Sarah nodded toward the landscape. “Has it changed much?”
The ditches were lined with rosy thistle and spiky purple prairie clover. In the distance stood dozens of wind turbines, rows of towering structures that seemed to have sprouted incongruously from fields of alfalfa. Their blades were eerily still at the moment, waiting to capture the prairie wind as it swept by.
“Not a bit,” Jack observed.
The Sawyer County Hospital was just on the outskirts of Penny Gate, and as they pulled into the parking lot Sarah could see it was a small building constructed of dark brown brick that looked nearly black beneath the ashen sky. Jack eased the car into a parking spot and pulled up on the hand brake. Sarah waited for him to open his door, but he just sat there, looking ahead.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, hoping to calm his nerves. They sat quietly for a moment and Sarah wondered what was going through his mind. Was it fear? Sadness? Regret? Probably a combination, she decided, then broke the silence.
“You ready?” she asked.
Jack took a breath and held it awhile before letting it out with a deep sigh. “I think so,” he said as he popped open the door and stepped out from the car.
But Sarah wasn’t so sure she was ready herself.
SIDE BY SIDE, Sarah and Jack made their way across the hospital parking lot, sharp pellets of rain striking their skin. They stepped through the main entrance and were immediately assaulted with the uniquely antiseptic odor of health-care facilities. The hospital was clean but dated. Institutional-green walls were lined with faded Impressionist prints and the carpet was worn and thin. Jack inquired about Julia at the information desk and they were directed to the fifth floor.
Once upstairs Jack hesitated outside the room. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he said softly, rubbing his eyes. Sarah slid her hand into his and waited. She knew how difficult this was for him, that coming home would release a floodgate of memories and emotions that he had kept locked up inside himself for decades.
Finally, Jack knocked lightly, pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The room was dim. The lights were off; the shades were drawn. The redolence of death hung in the air, and it was stifling.
Sarah’s eyes locked on the tiny elderly woman lying in the hospital bed. Asleep or unconscious, it was difficult to know. Next to her, Sarah heard Jack inhale sharply. Beneath the oxygen mask, Julia’s skin was bruised and pale. What appeared to be bits of dried blood clung to her tightly curled white hair, a section shaved away and covered with a thick bandage. She was connected to an IV filled with clear liquid. Both of her arms and hands were casted and her right leg was held immobile in a brace from toe to pelvis. A sense of dread washed over Sarah and she rubbed her arms, trying to scrub away the chill.
“Jesus,” Jack murmured, tracing the tips of his fingers over his aunt’s right forearm. “All this from a fall?”
The room was drafty and the mechanical hum of the medical equipment filled the air. If it weren’t for the heart monitor that Julia was connected to, it would be difficult to know she was still breathing.
On the bedside table was a photograph of Julia and Hal from early in their marriage. Julia was young and hugely pregnant, wearing a smile of pure joy. Hal’s eyes were firmly fixed on Julia. They were obviously crazy about each other. Next to Julia’s bed was a set of rosary beads and a daily devotional. Someone had tucked a handmade pink-and-yellow postage-stamp quilt around her small, diminished frame. A powdery, rose-petal scent emanated from the old fabric but couldn’t quite mask the odor of iodine and illness that permeated the room. Sarah wondered who had placed these comforts from home so lovingly around the hospital room. Hal, she guessed.
“Jack?” came a voice from behind them. Startled, they both turned to find a small woman with dark, curly hair and large green eyes that shone with warmth. Sarah recognized her from Christmas photos exchanged each year and the photographs didn’t do her justice. Her heart-shaped face was unlined and pale, a stark contrast to her black curls. Her full lips curved into a disarming smile revealing a deep dimple in her left cheek. She was beautiful.
“Jack,” the woman said again, and Sarah sensed a tone of relief in her voice.
“Celia,” he said, and smiled, perhaps for the first time since they had arrived in Iowa. The woman stepped forward to wrap her arms around him and Sarah felt as if she had suddenly disappeared into the room’s white walls.
“It’s so good to see you. I can’t believe you’re really here,” she said into his ear.
Sarah had never met Celia, the woman married to Jack’s cousin, Dean. In fact, the last time Jack had gone home to Penny Gate was for Dean and Celia’s wedding. Sarah had stayed behind with the twins, who were under a year old at the time. It was a quick trip, just two nights and three days. Three days in Penny Gate is more than enough, Jack had said, but looking back, Sarah wondered if Jack was relieved that she opted to stay behind.
Sarah had looked forward to finally meeting Celia in person. They had talked briefly on the phone several times over the years, exchanged Christmas cards. But now she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the woman.
Jack pulled away from their embrace and took a step backward, holding Celia by the forearms to get a better look. “Of course I came.”
For the first time Celia seemed to notice Sarah. “Sarah?” she asked, and Jack nodded in affirmation.
“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you in person,” Celia said, drawing her into a tight hug that felt a little too familiar. “All the nice things Jack has said about you, I feel like I’ve known you forever.” Celia looked around the room. “Where are the girls? Did you bring them?”
“No, no,” Sarah said. “They couldn’t make it.” She was about to explain how the girls were tied up with school when Jack’s cousin, Dean, appeared in the doorway and diverted her attention. He was a tall, broad man who wore the weathered look of a tired farmer and a son worn down with worry.
He didn’t look like the same recklessly handsome man she had last seen twenty years ago when he was the best man at their wedding. He had gained well over fifty pounds and his thick dark hair had disappeared. His face was scoured and lined by hours spent out in the fields beneath the blazing Iowa sun.
“Jack,” Dean said, and the two men embraced with heavy claps on the back. “Thanks for coming.” Dean pulled away and swiped at his eyes with the back of one large hand. “I know it means a lot to Mom that you’re here. She thinks the world of you.”
“I’m so sorry about Julia,” Sarah said, and reached out her arms as he pulled her into a hug. “What are the doctors saying?”
Dean shoved his hands into his pockets. “She has a fractured skull and broken bones. Almost too many to count. But she’s a strong old bird.”
“What happened?” Jack asked, looking down at his aunt. Sarah knew that he was thinking the same thing she was: it was a miracle this elderly wisp of a woman was still alive.
“All we know is that she fell down the stairs sometime early yesterday evening. Amy was the one who found her and called 9-1-1.”
“How’s your dad doing?” Sarah asked. “I bet he’s just sick about it.”
“He’s doing okay. I don’t think he can believe this is happening. He’s down in the cafeteria with Amy, getting something to eat.”
“I’ve been trying to get ahold of Amy for weeks,” Jack said, “but she never answers her phone.”
Dean hesitated before speaking. “That was something I was hoping to talk to you about.”
“Why don’t we take a walk and get some air,” Celia said to Sarah, but Jack shook his head.
“I don’t mind if Sarah stays if you don’t,” Jack said. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s about Amy,” Dean explained. “Let’s go outside.”
They moved into the hallway and Jack looked expectantly at his cousin. “Is Amy okay? Did something happen?”
“We’re worried about her,” Celia said uncomfortably.
“I hate to spring this on you,” Dean said, scratching the back of his neck. “And I know this is the last thing you need to hear right now, but Amy’s been having a hard time lately.”
“Of course she’s having a hard time,” Jack said with confusion. “Julia’s like a mother to her.”
“It’s more than that,” Dean said. “She was acting strange before the fall, too.”
“Has she been drinking again?” Jack asked. Sarah thought of Jack’s dad and his drinking. Alcoholism ran in families, but Jack drank only socially, never allowing it to impair his thinking.
“I think so, maybe pain pills, too. She lost her job at the motel a few weeks ago.”
“She’s worked there for over two years. Do you know what happened?”
“She was showing up late, not showing up at all—that’s what I heard.”
Two nurses dressed in green scrubs brushed passed them and Sarah’s eyes followed them down the depressingly dim corridor. She noticed on the ceiling that a brown spot had bloomed against the white plaster and rainwater dripped rhythmically into a large bucket below. She imagined mold and mildew festering behind the walls.
“Amy walks around like a zombie half the time and she’s lost a lot of weight. I just don’t want you to be shocked when you see her.”
“How’s she paying her bills?” Jack asked. “Has she found another job yet?”
“I don’t think so, but she’s still living in that little rental house on Oleander, so she hasn’t been evicted yet. I’m guessing that my mom and dad have been giving her some money to get by.” Dean shifted his weight uncomfortably. “They’re on a fixed income themselves and don’t have a lot of extra cash to spare.”
“Hal and Julia shouldn’t have to pay Amy’s way,” Jack said quietly. “She’s a grown woman.”
“We just thought you’d want to know,” Celia said. “I’ve tried talking to her, but she hasn’t been answering my calls, either.”
Jack opened his mouth to speak when something down the hallway caught his eye.
“Jack?” Sarah asked, but his eyes were fixed on a point in the distance, down the hall. He didn’t answer and Sarah repeated his name, this time more loudly. “What is it?” she asked as she turned and followed his sharp gaze, but all she saw was a doctor standing at the nurse’s station taking notes on a chart.
“Nothing,” Jack replied, and shook his head. Sarah thought he seemed confused. “It’s nothing,” he repeated with finality, and turned his attention back to them. “So, you think Amy’s been abusing pain pills? Have you talked to her about it?”
“My mom has. I know she was worried about her and they argued about it a few days before the fall.”
“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll try and talk to her before we go back home.”
“Here comes Hal now,” Celia said.
An elderly man wearing work boots and a frayed tan barn jacket approached. Though he was nearly six feet tall and broad-shouldered, he was a smaller, softer version of Dean. His bald head was speckled with age spots and sun damage, and his weary, deeply lined face lit up when he saw them. “Jack,” he said warmly. Behind thick glasses, his eyes glistened with emotion and worry. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Uncle Hal,” Jack said, reaching for the older man. They clung to each other for a long time and Jack closed his eyes as he settled comfortably into their embrace. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
Hal pulled away, smiling through tears. He took Jack’s face in his hands. “You know when she wakes up she’s going to give you hell for taking so long to come back home.”
Dean snickered and suddenly the tone felt lighter. Easier. “He’s right, you know. I can hear her when she wakes up. ‘You mean all I had to do is fall down a flight of stairs to get that boy to come home?’” Dean’s voice rose an octave as he mimicked Julia’s voice.
“That sounds about right,” Jack said, giving a small laugh. “You remember Sarah, don’t you?”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Hal said as he embraced her. “Thanks for coming.”
Sarah watched as her husband fell into the comfortable banter of a family catching up after so many years of lost time. She was surprised by how easy it was, not even a hint of the devastation that had befallen them all that time ago. Jack and Hal interacted like a father and son, and Sarah could see the mutual love and respect in their eyes. She was so enrapt by this unseen side of Jack that she almost didn’t notice the small frail woman who had seemed to arrive from out of nowhere.
“Amy,” Celia said, “look who’s here.”
Amy’s brown eyes were flat and expressionless, and Sarah thought she looked even thinner than the last time she had seen her. Her pale skin was pulled tightly against her bones and seemed paper-thin. Almost translucent. Her hair was bleached a nearly colorless blond and was pulled back into a lank ponytail. Sarah could understand why Dean and Celia were so concerned about her. She looked sickly.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” Amy said almost accusingly. She hesitated and then wrapped her reedlike arms around her brother. At first taken aback, Jack returned the embrace.
The last time they had seen Amy was four years earlier. She had called out of the blue all the way from Spokane, Washington. From what Sarah could gather, Amy had traveled there with a man and it ended badly. Jack made the drive to collect her and six hours later Amy arrived in Larkspur, haggard, bruised and hungover.
Sarah never quite understood the dynamic between Amy and Jack. She knew Amy had had a hard life and didn’t think she ever quite forgave Jack for going away to college and leaving her behind in Penny Gate. He didn’t talk to or see his sister very often, but when he did it was usually in conjunction with some major catastrophe, usually of Amy’s own making: a job lost unfairly, a poisonous relationship with a man, a brush with the law. After the phone calls Jack would hang up drained and distracted.
Jack murmured in Amy’s ear, too quietly for Sarah to hear, but she could tell by the way Amy’s demeanor seemed to soften that Jack had said something to ease her. She nodded and wiped her eyes, leaving behind black streaks of mascara beneath her eyes.
Sarah was suddenly overwhelmed at the sight of Jack comforting Amy. Blinking back tears, she could almost picture them as children, Jack the protective older brother, always looking after his fragile little sister. “Amy, it’s so good to see you,” Sarah said, taking a hesitant step toward her sister-in-law. “It’s been way too long.”
“Hi,” Amy said hoarsely, surprising Sarah by giving her a hug. The odor of cigarette smoke clung to Amy’s clothes and Sarah could feel the sharp point of each rib. Sarah carefully returned the embrace, afraid of squeezing too tightly against Amy’s thin frame. “Thanks for coming.”
“Of course.” Sarah reached into her purse and pulled out a small package of tissues and offered them to Amy.
“Amy, did you get something to eat?” Celia asked.
Amy nodded and Celia gave her a pointed look.
“I did,” Amy said with annoyance. “You can even ask Hal.”
“She did eat,” Hal confirmed. “Not much, but then neither did I.”
“You need to take care of yourself,” Celia pressed. “Why don’t you stay at our house tonight? Get a good night’s sleep.”
“No, I think I’ll stay here tonight,” Amy replied, hitching her thumb toward the hospital room. “I’m going to check on Julia.” She hugged Jack again. “You don’t know how glad I am that you’re here.” She wrapped her arms around her midsection as if warding off the cold and moved past them down the hallway toward Julia’s room.
“She’s taking this really hard,” Hal said, looking fondly after his niece. “But she’s been great. She’s been glued to Julia’s side almost the entire time.”
“Amy loves Julia more than anyone else in the world,” Jack said.
“Is she the one who decorated Julia’s room with all the photos and things from home?” Sarah asked.
“No, Celia did that,” Hal responded, rubbing his hand absentmindedly across his head.
“That’s really nice,” Sarah said. “When Julia wakes up she’ll have some comforts of home nearby.” She was not only beautiful, Sarah observed, but Celia was thoughtful, too. It was obvious she made it a priority to take care of everyone in the Quinlan family.
To confirm Sarah’s observation, Celia started gathering up empty coffee cups and stray napkins. “Hal,” she said, “didn’t you have your hat earlier?”
Hal’s hands went to his bare head. “I think I left it down in the cafeteria.”
“I’ll go get it,” Jack offered. “I could use a cup of coffee, anyway.”
“I’ll go with you,” Sarah said, not wanting to be left alone. Jack’s family was nice enough, but she hardly knew them, and she was eager to avoid the grim scene inside the dark hospital room. The drawn shades, the stuffy air, the pneumatic hum of the oxygen machine. It was practically suffocating.
Sarah and Jack made their way to the elevators. “Amy doesn’t look good,” Jack commented. “I’m worried about her.”
“She’s the one who found Julia after she fell, right? That must have been very traumatic.”
“Yeah, but there’s something else.” Jack pressed the elevator’s down button, and then again and again, as if the elevator couldn’t come quickly enough. He searched for the right words. “Something in her eyes,” he added.
“You should talk to her,” Sarah said. She caught a flurry of movement out of the corner of her eye. A doctor was hurrying down the corridor, her long white coat flowing behind her. Sarah’s first thought was Julia had taken a turn for the worse and held her breath until the doctor turned in the opposite direction of Julia’s room.
The elevator door finally opened and they stepped inside. The doors closed and Sarah leaned against Jack.
“I don’t know. I probably should, but I’m sure it won’t make a difference.”
The old elevator creaked and groaned and was excruciatingly slow in its descent, stopping at each floor, though no one was there to get in. Sarah figured whoever was waiting gave up and used the stairs instead.
“I think she’d listen to you, Jack. She seemed so glad to see you.”
Sarah’s thoughts suddenly went back to their earlier conversation about Amy. She recalled how Jack had become distracted by something he had seen down the hallway.
“What did you see earlier?” Sarah asked. “When we were in the hallway talking to Dean and Celia?”
Jack pushed the first-floor button again as if it could speed up their descent. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he said, feigning ignorance.
“Come on, Jack, tell me,” Sarah pressed.
“It was nothing,” Jack insisted. The elevator finally arrived at their floor and the doors opened to an empty, quiet hallway. It was cold and eerie, and Sarah couldn’t help but wonder if they kept the morgue down here, as well. Jack turned right, following the sign directing them to the cafeteria, and Sarah quickened her pace to keep up with him.
“Jack, you looked like you’d seen a ghost.”
Jack stopped abruptly. “Cut it out, Sarah. I didn’t see anything,” he said, but Sarah looked at him expectantly. “Okay. Fine. For a second I thought I saw my dad.”
“Your dad?” she questioned in confusion. He was the last person she expected Jack to mention. “That’s impossible.”
“I don’t know. It’s not like I got a clear look at whoever it was.”
“I know it’s not easy being back here. I’m sure it’s bringing up a lot of old memories.”
They entered the cafeteria, where the dim recessed lighting and a low ceiling made the room feel downright dismal. The smell of overboiled broccoli and strongly brewed coffee filled Sarah’s nose. The room was empty except for a woman in a white apron and a hairnet perched behind a cash register, flicking through a magazine, and a man sitting alone at a table, staring out a rain-spattered window into the black night, his food untouched in front of him.
Sarah’s eyes searched the room and landed on a table in the far corner. “There,” she said, pointing. They walked past the cashier, who didn’t look up from her magazine, and made their way toward the back of the cafeteria.
“God, he still wears this old thing.” Jack smiled as he bent over and picked up the hat from the worn green linoleum. “I think Amy got this for Hal for Christmas, like, twenty-five years ago.”
“It must mean a lot to him,” Sarah said.
Jack grew quiet.
“Hey.” Sarah nudged him gently. “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“I just can’t shake the feeling that I saw my dad,” Jack said. “You must think I’m nuts.”
“Of course not,” Sarah replied, trying to comfort him, though she couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy. “Last month I thought I saw my grandpa at the grocery store and he died when I was seven.”
“Yeah, but I bet you’d be happy to get the chance to see your grandpa again. I can’t say I feel the same way about my dad. I won’t ever be able to forgive him.”
“Never?” Sarah asked. “You’ll never be able to forgive him?”
“Would you be able to forgive your dad if he killed your mother?” Jack asked pointedly as he motioned to leave the cafeteria. Sarah followed as Jack bypassed the elevator and pushed open a heavy metal door that led to the stairs. The stairwell was windowless and weakly lit by dusty fluorescent bulbs. Cobwebs swung precariously in the corners where drab cement block walls met the ceiling and Sarah quickened her pace.
“I don’t know,” Sarah answered honestly. “I’d like to think I’d be forgiving, especially if it was an accident.”
Their footsteps reverberated on the metal stairs as they wound their way upward. Sarah almost preferred the rickety old elevator to the confines of this dingy, damp stairwell. She felt relief when Jack pushed open the door to the fifth floor. They were both slightly winded from the climb.
“You must be a better person than I am,” Jack said somewhat breathlessly, and Sarah decided it was best to end the conversation there.
When they returned to the waiting area, Hal was sitting by himself, staring up blankly at a television set affixed to the wall.
“Found your hat,” Jack said, handing it to his uncle. Hal set it on his bald head and adjusted it into place.
“No coffee?” Hal asked, noting their empty hands, and Sarah realized they were so distracted they had completely forgotten to get the coffee. She instantly longed for the rush of caffeine.
“Coffee looked like sludge,” Jack replied, and Sarah wondered why he didn’t just tell Hal the truth. “Where is everyone?”
“Amy’s still with Julia, and Dean and Celia went to see if they could find out what time the doctor is doing rounds tomorrow.”
“I’ll go see if Amy needs a break,” Jack said. He gave Sarah a peck on the cheek and she smiled warmly as he turned and exited the waiting area, leaving her alone with Hal.
Sarah sat down in one of the stiff-backed chairs next to Hal. Purple rings of exhaustion circled Hal’s eyes and were magnified by the thick lenses of his glasses.
“I shouldn’t have left her home alone,” he said, sliding his thumb and forefinger beneath his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “Her balance hasn’t been very good lately. She’s been stumbling a lot.”
Sarah thought again about the phone message that Julia had left on their machine and the tremble in her voice.
From across the corridor Sarah watched as Jack entered Julia’s room. Moments later, Amy emerged handling a pack of cigarettes as she moved toward the elevator.
“I wish she’d give those things up,” Hal said.
“It must have been terrible for Amy to find Julia after her fall.”
“She found Julia at the bottom of the steps and called an ambulance right away. Then called me.”
“That probably saved her life.”
“I think so, but a social worker came to talk to me this afternoon. Have you ever heard of that? I mean, after an accident?”
“A social worker?” Sarah repeated. “Why?”
“She was asking all these questions about Julia’s accident. I wasn’t even at the house when she fell. I was in town. She asked if there were any problems in the family, any reason Julia wouldn’t feel safe.”
“They probably have to ask those kinds of questions when there’s an accident in the home,” Sarah said, though she wasn’t quite so sure and didn’t want to let on to Hal that it worried her. “What did you say?”
“I told her what I just told you. That she’s been stumbling a lot lately. I mean, hell, so have I. We’re getting older.
“The social worker said someone reported that the fall might not have been an accident, after all. Why would someone say such an awful thing?” he asked incredulously, rubbing the sharp gray stubble on his chin, his blue eyes clouded with worry.
“What did Dean and Amy say? Did the social worker talk to them, too?”
“Just to me, I think. I haven’t told anyone. I didn’t want to bother them with it.” He shifted in his seat, pulled out a white, linen handkerchief from his pocket and smoothed it with his blunt fingers. “Do you think we should be concerned?”
“I think you should tell them. Tell Jack. They can help you talk to the social worker,” Sarah advised, and Hal said that he would.
“It really helps having family here,” he said, and crossed one leg over his knee, his heavy brown work boot weathered with age and toil. “I know Jack doesn’t like coming back here.”
“He wanted to come. We wanted to be here for you and Julia.” Sarah reached out and patted Hal’s knee and he covered Sarah’s hand with his own.
“Well, I can’t tell you how much it helps,” he said, and cleared his throat. For a moment Sarah wondered if she should seize the opportunity to ask Hal about Jack, about the ghost of his father he thought he saw earlier. But instead she allowed silence to fall between them.
* * *
For the next hour Sarah sat in the waiting room while Jack’s family took turns sitting with Julia. Hal was the last and after what felt like aeons he finally emerged from the room, haggard and weary.
“I think we’re all tired,” Dean said, pushing himself up from his seat with difficulty. “Maybe we should all go home and get some rest. The nurses will call if there’s any change.”
“What if she wakes up?” Hal asked, twisting his hat in his hands. “She’ll be scared if she wakes up and no one is here.”
“Everyone can stay at our house,” Dean said. “We’re close enough to the hospital that we can get here quickly if she wakes up. Jack, you and Sarah are welcome to stay with us. We’ve got the room.”
Jack rubbed the shadow of bristle that had grown on his chin. “I don’t think that’s the best idea, Dean.”
“No shit,” Amy muttered from her seat.
“Be quiet, Amy,” Dean said, tossing a magazine onto the coffee table. It slid across the surface and fluttered to the floor.
“Fuck you, Dean,” Amy snapped.
“Whoa, settle down,” Celia interjected.
“Amy,” Jack pleaded. “Please don’t.”
“Really, Jack?” Amy’s tone softened, the anger replaced with hurt. “You think that coming back here after twenty years is going to make everything okay?”
“None of this is good for Julia and that’s who we need to be worrying about,” Jack said. “Hal, why don’t you stay at Dean and Celia’s tonight? Sarah and I will get a hotel room.”
“What’s the matter, Jack?” Amy asked archly. “You don’t want to spend a night in the house of horrors?”
“Amy, just shut the hell up.” Dean’s face flushed with anger.
“What do you mean, house of horrors?” Sarah asked before she could stop herself. Up until then she had uncomfortably watched the tense exchange in silence. She didn’t really know Jack’s family, didn’t understand their dynamics, and it was clear that it was better for her to stay out of it.
“Never mind,” Jack said sharply, and Hal lowered his face into his hands.
“Please don’t fight. Not here.”
“You’re right,” Jack said. “You should get some sleep. We can take you back to your house.”
“Stay with me,” Hal insisted. “It’s silly for you to stay in a hotel. I want to sleep in my own bed, but I can’t stand the thought of going home to an empty house. Please stay.”
“Sure, Hal,” Jack said soothingly. “We’ll stay at your house.” To Dean he said, “Thanks for the offer, but it would be strange staying in the old house.”
Why would it be strange? Sarah wondered. And what did Amy mean by “house of horrors”? It brought to Sarah’s mind an image of chain saws and rubber knives, a silly Halloween gag. And yet the words lingered in her thoughts. Was Amy just being dramatic, like Jack said she always was, or was there more to it than that? And why had Jack brushed her off when she asked about it?
She wanted to believe that he’d meant nothing by it, that he was merely trying to keep his family from combusting. But she had a sinking feeling that there was more to it than that. Jack was keeping something from her.
THE AUTOMATIC DOORS that led out to the parking lot slid open with an airy hum. A steady rain was falling and the lights that edged the parking lot illuminated the wet pavement, giving it a glossy, slick sheen. Fat raindrops sent ripples through standing puddles and the temperature had dropped ten degrees since they arrived in Penny Gate.
As Sarah and Jack walked through the quiet parking lot toward their rental car, Sarah wrapped her coat tightly around herself, chilled to the bone, the icy rain drenching her hair. Confusion and questions bounced around in her mind like a Ping-Pong ball. Sarah waited until they were out of Hal’s earshot before speaking.
“Jack, what did Amy mean by ‘house of horrors’?”
Jack slid his hands into his pockets and Sarah tried to keep up, the slap of their footfalls echoing throughout the nearly deserted parking lot. “I really don’t want to talk about this right now.”
She tried to keep any accusation from her voice, any irritation. She wanted to give Jack the benefit of the doubt, but she could hear the reproach in her voice. Jack sped up as if trying to avoid her.
“Jack, wait,” she said, snagging his sleeve to try to get him to slow down, and he shook her away.
By the time they reached the car, both of them were soaked, their hair flattened, raindrops dripping from their noses. Jack unlocked the doors and they climbed in. He placed the key in the ignition, and Sarah reached over and put her hand over his. “Jack, talk to me. Please.”
Jack pulled his hand away and sat back in his seat. “There isn’t anything to say. You know Amy. She’s exhausted, Aunt Julia is hurt and Amy’s scared. Everything becomes one big drama and she lashes out.”
Jack turned the key and the car rumbled to life. Sarah knew she only had Jack to herself for just a moment longer.
“I’m not trying to fight with you,” Sarah said quietly, trembling as much from Jack’s loud indignation as from the cold. “I’m just trying to understand.”
“I know.” Jack lowered his voice. “Hal’s waiting. Can we just talk about this later?” he asked, but before she could respond, Jack had backed up the car and pulled out of the spot. Their conversation would have to wait.
He drove the car to the front of the hospital entrance where Hal was waiting for them.
“You remember how to get to the house?” Hal asked.
“Of course,” Jack answered. “How could I forget?”
As they pulled away from the hospital and back onto the highway, darkness enveloped them. They drove in silence, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Sarah’s mind drifted to Julia, the image of her limp body hooked up to all those tubes and wires. She couldn’t imagine what Hal was going through, what it was like to be so close to losing a spouse. Could she live without Jack if she had to? She shook off the thought.
They drove past an expansive field, and Jack pointed into the dark. “I worked in that field for eight summers,” Jack recalled.
“I remember,” Hal said with a nostalgic laugh. “I had to drag you out of bed each morning.”
“That was hard work,” Jack said. He held up one hand, putting it on display. “I think I still have calluses.”
Sarah sat back and looked out the window. The countryside seemed to have gone to sleep. Farmhouses were dark and still, and hulking equipment lay dormant in the fields. No other cars were on the road, and the rain continued to beat steadily on the roof of the car. The rhythmic swish of the windshield wipers was hypnotic and Sarah found her eyes growing heavy.
Jack slowed the car and carefully turned onto a gravel road. The rain had washed away much of the loose rock and the car bumped and bucked through the deep gouges in the road. Sarah grabbed the dashboard to steady herself. Walls of corn rose ten feet above the ground, surrounding them on both sides, a narrow tunnel nearly obscuring the sky. Sarah peered into the dark shadows between the stalks, wondering what might be lurking in the night.
Finally the tight passage opened up into a wide expanse, revealing the sharp-angled silhouette of a farmhouse, the sloped curves of a barn crowned with a weather vane and two dome-shaped grain bins. The house was still and dark. There was no warm glow from a porch light, no lamp burning from behind a pulled shade to welcome them home. Jack parked in the driveway and sat for a moment, hands on the wheel, staring at the house with an unreadable expression. Sarah knew he was shutting down.
“Do you remember where we keep the key?” Hal asked, breaking the silence.
“Of course,” Jack forced a smile as he popped the trunk. “I used it many times when I had to sneak inside in the middle of the night.”
Sarah was reluctant to leave the warmth of the car, but she stepped out into the chilly night while Jack retrieved their luggage from the trunk. She shut the car door, the interior light was extinguished and they were once again plunged into blackness. Sarah immediately recognized the loamy scent of black earth and livestock in the air. The porch swing creaked on its chains and soft warbling wafted up from a nearby chicken coop.
Jack jogged ahead and rooted around the wrought-iron light affixed to the porch. “See, told you I didn’t forget,” he said, raising the key.
Jack nudged the door open with his shoulder and ushered Sarah and Hal inside. The entryway was dark and smelled of lemon wood polish. Hal flipped a switch illuminating the room in a soft light. “Jesus, it looks exactly the same,” Jack marveled. “You didn’t change a thing.” He dropped their bags by the steps.
A lumpy, misshapen brown-and-black plaid sofa lined one wall; above it hung a Norman Rockwell print depicting a haggard farmer holding a bird in his hands. On another wall was a crucifix with palm leaves tucked behind it. An oblong coffee table, covered with a lace cloth, held a neat stack of Farm Journal magazines and a white dish filled with butterscotch candy. An oversize gold armchair sat facing a console television set, the only relatively new piece of furniture in the room. “Same sofa, same lamps, same pictures.”
Hal leaned heavily against the walnut post at the bottom of the steps. Suddenly he seemed miles away.
“Hal, is everything okay?” Jack asked.
“It’s nothing,” Hal said, clutching his hat against his chest. “It’s just that...” His voice trailed off as he glanced down at the floor, and Sarah realized that this was the spot where Julia had landed after her fall down the steps. It must be haunting, she thought, to stand in the same place where something so tragic had happened. Would Hal ever be able to walk through this room without picturing his critically injured wife splayed on the floor? She couldn’t help but wonder then who cleaned up Julia’s blood after the fall. She imagined Hal on hands and knees, dipping an old rag in a bucket of soapy water and wiping away the sticky, congealed blood. Sarah shivered at the morbid thought.
“I think I’ll go on to bed if you don’t mind,” Hal said, his face heavy with exhaustion. “Help yourself to anything you need. You know where your old room is.”
“I remember,” Jack said, embracing his uncle tightly.
“Get some rest,” Sarah said. She rubbed his arm sympathetically. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
Sarah watched as Hal slowly and carefully made his way up the steps, then she turned to Jack. His attention was focused on a wall covered with framed photographs, and she watched his expression transform as his eyes traveled from picture to picture.
“Oh, wow,” he murmured, and Sarah joined him in front of the wall. “Me and Dean. I was about fourteen here.” The photo showed a young Jack, tan and lean, his eyes fixed on a spot just beyond the photographer, an easy smile on his face, a smile that seemed to share a secret with whomever he was looking at. Dean, also slim and bronzed by the sun, was grinning widely into the camera and had his arm thrown carelessly around Jack’s neck.
“What were you doing?” Sarah asked. She had never seen a picture of Jack that young. He said it was taken the summer before his parents died. No wonder he looked so happy, so carefree.
“We were walking beans for my dad. God, I hated that job, but we earned good money. Six hours of bending over and weeding acres of soybeans.” Jack grimaced at the memory.
“You look like you’re having fun,” Sarah said.
“Dean made it fun. He was always screwing around, throwing clumps of dirt, picking up snakes. He’d sneak wine coolers into our water bottles and we’d be half-hammered by the time we were finished for the day. It’s a miracle that we got any work done.”
Jack examined the wall and pointed to another photo. “There’s Amy. When she was ten, I think. She was such a cute kid.” Sarah could see what he meant. The girl in the photo had eyes that sparkled brightly and a disarming smile, nothing like the pale, withered woman she had seen earlier that evening. “She was a good sport, too. She never ratted on Dean and me when we got ourselves into trouble. She could keep a secret.”
“She seems so different now,” Sarah observed. “How did she go from that sweet little girl to being so angry and guarded? Was it your parents’ accident?”
“Amy was a lot younger than I was when they died.” Jack ran his finger along the top of the picture frame, wiping away a thin layer of dust. She felt Jack bristle beside her. “Of course it changed her. It changed both of us.”
Sarah knew she was broaching dangerous territory and returned her gaze to the wall. “Who’s that?” she asked, nodding toward a small black-and-white photo of a young man in a military uniform. He looked somberly at the camera but his eyes snapped with mischief.
Jack shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned in to get a better look. “It’s my dad.”
“Wow,” Sarah said. Jack and his father looked so much alike it was uncanny. If not for the navy uniform and a tear-shaped birthmark on his father’s cheek, she would have thought the man in the picture was Jack. “You look so much like him.”
Jack opened his mouth as if he was going to argue the point but didn’t speak.
“Is there a picture of your mom here?” Sarah asked, scanning the wall in hopes of finally catching a glimpse of her.
“I don’t see one,” Jack said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “Do you think it’s too late to call the girls?”
Sarah looked at her watch and shrugged. “They usually stay up late. I’m sure it’s fine,” she said, and Jack sat on the couch and began dialing.
While Jack spoke with the girls, Sarah joined him on the couch. She took off her shoes and rubbed her feet, the exhaustion of the day finally hitting her. Jack engaged in his comfortable father-daughter banter, and for the first time that day he seemed relaxed.
Jack handed Sarah the phone and returned to the wall of photos. As she spoke with her daughters, she watched as Jack scanned the pictures with a smile she could only interpret as nostalgic. The memories weren’t all bad, she thought; he’d had a lot of good times here, as well.
She listened as Emma recounted her day, keeping her eyes fixed on Jack. His gaze moved high and low across the wall until suddenly something caught his attention in the far corner of the wall. From the couch she couldn’t see what he was looking at, but clearly it hit a nerve. He leaned into the wall more closely and she noticed the expression on his face grow serious. He looked over at Sarah and realized she was looking at him and quickly turned his attention to their luggage.
“You ready to go upstairs?” he asked after she ended the call and hung up. “I’m exhausted.”
Sarah looked at the grandfather clock standing in the corner. It was only nine o’clock. “You’re not hungry? You haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
“No, but help yourself to whatever you can find in the cupboards.” Jack embraced Sarah and kissed her on the lips. “Thanks again for being here. I know things got a little tense earlier at the hospital.”
Sarah leaned into his arms, the heat from his body warming her cold limbs. “It was tense,” she echoed. “And that whole argument in the waiting room between Dean and Amy. Dean got so upset when Amy mentioned the house of horrors. Did something happen in Dean and Celia’s house?”
“I told you Amy was just stirring up trouble. It’s nothing,” Jack said shortly, pulling away from her. He took a suitcase in each hand and started toward the stairs.
“It’s not nothing,” Sarah pressed, and grabbed the handle of the suitcase to keep Jack from fleeing. “Just tell me why?” Sarah didn’t know what she expected Jack to say. Would he tell her some creepy urban legend about the house? Maybe a terrible crime was committed there a hundred years ago, but would that be enough to keep him from staying at the house? She didn’t know Jack to be skittish about anything.
Jack looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. “Dean and Celia live in the house that Amy and I grew up in before our parents died.” He tugged the suitcase away from Sarah. “Is that enough of an explanation for you? Can I please go to bed now?”
This was sometimes how it was with Jack. She knew that his wall was up and the conversation was over, and she watched in stunned silence as he hefted the suitcases and lugged them up the steps with difficulty.
She was exhausted, too. Her eyes were gritty with lack of sleep and her mind was spinning from the extreme emotions of the day. Why did Dean and Celia live on the farm where Amy and Jack grew up? And why was it such a big deal? More importantly, why couldn’t he talk to her about it? And there was still the niggling question as to why Amy called it the house of horrors?
She went to the photographs and studied the wall where Jack had been fixated earlier. There was a picture of children splashing in a small wading pool, an old sepia photo of a stern-looking couple in wedding garb and a picture of two women smiling happily into the camera. Sarah stood on tiptoe to get a better look. One of the women was clearly Jack’s aunt Julia, thirty years younger. Could the other woman be his mother? She scrutinized the woman’s face, searching for any hint of resemblance to Jack or Amy. Maybe in the shape of their eyes, the tilt of their heads. It was difficult to tell.
Obviously, she wasn’t going to be able to ask Jack about the photo. At least not tonight. There was no way that she’d be able to sleep anytime soon. She looked around the room. She didn’t want to turn on the television and disturb Hal or Jack, and she had forgotten to pack a book to read. She realized it had been over a day since she’d last checked her work email, so she grabbed her laptop and made her way to the kitchen.
Sarah’s job as an advice columnist for the Midwest Messenger, a prominent newspaper in Montana, was an opportunity that had come to her unexpectedly seven years ago when a former colleague and the paper’s editor, Gabe Downing, contacted her out of the blue. Sarah had once been a hard-news reporter, the kind that traveled all over the world to places like Bangkok and Eastern Turkey, covering major international news stories. But she’d made the difficult decision to leave after the girls were born, and she adapted to her new life as a stay-at-home mother.
When the offer to write for the Messenger’s popular Dear Astrid advice column arose, it felt like a step down. She’d once covered wars and political upheavals, and now she’d be telling people how to confront a difficult neighbor or ask a girl on a date. But by then the girls were much more independent and, with college tuition looming, Sarah decided to swallow her pride and take the job. She’d be helping people, she convinced herself. And now, seven years later, here she was.
Only a handful of people knew Astrid’s true identity: Sarah’s editor, Gabe; Jack, of course; and her mother and sister. Not even Emma and Elizabeth knew. Not that it was some big secret, but it never came up. They knew their mother wrote for a newspaper but were too immersed in their own lives to pay much attention.
Sarah preferred the anonymity. Most of the letters were from regular everyday people looking for an unbiased opinion, a fresh perspective. They were often amusing, sometimes sad. Heartfelt. But some of the letters were odd. Downright disturbing. Dark, needy letters describing base desires either contemplated or completed. Some were overtly violent. So graphic that she’d have to alert the police in whatever city the letter was postmarked from.
As Sarah set up the laptop on the kitchen table, she sensed Julia’s presence. Small touches that reminded Sarah of her own mother. A vase filled with cut flowers on the table, small ceramic birds resting on the windowsill, a half-eaten chocolate cake beneath a glass cover. The kitchen was dated but clean. The linoleum floor was swept and scrubbed, and the faint scent of cinnamon and anise hung in the air, as if ingrained in the fabric of the yellow gingham curtains hanging over the window. The only thing that seemed out of place was the stack of dirty dishes soaking in the sink. Julia must have fallen before she had the chance to wash them.
A ceramic container with hand-painted roosters rested on a brown laminate countertop, and Sarah imagined Jack as a teenager, reaching into the canister for freshly baked cookies, still warm from Julia’s oven, doing his homework at the kitchen table. Sarah lifted the lid of the canister and, sure enough, it was brimming with peanut-butter cookies. Sarah’s stomach growled, and she helped herself to a cookie.
Sarah turned on the computer and waited for the system to boot up. She pulled up her email and began going through letters. There was one from a man struggling with the decision of whether to place his aging father in a nursing home and one from a teenage girl fed up with her parents’ incessant arguing. It was funny, she thought, how she managed to come up with just the right words to help complete strangers, but when it came to her own husband, sometimes nothing she said seemed to come out right.
She finished up the last of the new letters and shut her laptop when Hal shuffled into the kitchen, barefoot and bleary-eyed.
Sarah stood. “Is everything okay?” she asked. “Did the hospital call?”
“No, everything’s fine.” Hal waved his hand dismissively and Sarah lowered herself back into her chair as he sat down next to her. “I couldn’t sleep so I decided to get up. You can’t sleep, either?”
“Just catching up on a little work.” Sarah nodded toward her laptop. “Jack was showing me the pictures in the living room earlier. It was nice seeing him as a kid. I’d love a copy of the one of him with Dean.”
Hal smiled. “I know exactly which one you’re talking about. Jack, Dean and Celia would walk beans all day and then come back to the house with sunburns. Celia’s hands would be full of blisters.” Hal shook his head. “I don’t know how many times I told her to wear gloves.”
“Celia worked on the farm with Jack and Dean?” Sarah asked. Celia didn’t seem like the farmhand sort.
“She held her own. Lasted two summers longer than Dean did.”
“I would have thought Dean working on the farm was just a given,” Sarah said.
Hal laughed. “Well, now he does. I knew he’d come back to it. It’s in our blood. But at the time, Dean thought farmwork was beneath him. He worked at some restaurant in Cedar City. The rest of the time he was with that girlfriend of his. What was her name?” Hal looked up at the ceiling as if he’d find the answer there. “Kelly? Cassie? I don’t remember.”
“He wasn’t dating Celia back then?”
“No, Jack was,” Hal replied, and raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t know that? I swear, after Jack came to live with us, Celia spent more time at our house than her own.”
Sarah’s stomach flipped. How could Jack have never told her that he dated Celia? She searched her memory and was certain he’d never mentioned even a high school girlfriend, let alone that his former girlfriend was now married to his cousin. Of course she had asked him about former girlfriends, but he had shrugged it off. There was no one special until I met you, he’d say, and she believed him. She had no reason not to.
Hal seemed to sense her disquiet and quickly changed the subject. “I know that Julia has a box of pictures of Jack when he was a baby. I’ll dig them out and you can take some back with you.”
“Thanks,” Sarah said, her mind still on Jack and Celia. How long had they dated? Why had they parted ways? Was it a bad breakup, and who had broken up with whom? Why hadn’t Jack told her? Sarah caught Hal looking at her with concern and she tried to shake the thoughts from her head.
“All you Quinlan men look alike,” Sarah observed, returning to the photographs. “You and Jack’s dad have the same eyes. It’s uncanny.”
Hal picked up the saltshaker from the center of the table and held it in his thick fingers. “It’s funny. People always said that John and I looked like brothers, even though there was no relation. But you’re right. Jack’s the spitting image of his dad.”
Sarah was confused. “You and Jack’s dad weren’t brothers? But Jack’s last name is Quinlan and so is yours...”
“John was my brother-in-law. He was Julia’s brother, not mine. After Jack and Amy came to live with us, they took our last name. Their family name is Tierney,” he said, and again Sarah was stunned. Why would Jack go to the trouble of changing his name? And Amy, too? She could understand it if Jack and Amy were very young, but Jack was fifteen years old when his parents died. Nearly an adult. Did he really hate his father so much? She tried to put herself in his place. What if her father had been drinking and caused an accident that resulted in her parents’ deaths? Would she change her last name and pretend they never existed? And would she keep it a secret from her husband? She didn’t think so. In fact, no matter how painful, she would want to share this part of herself with her husband.
In a matter of minutes, it felt as if her whole life had been upended. Between the revelation about Jack and Celia, and now this lie about his last name, Sarah wondered what else Jack might be keeping. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
“I wouldn’t worry, Sarah,” Hal said, sensing her concern, and suddenly Sarah felt guilty. Hal’s wife was in the hospital with critical injuries and he was the one comforting her. “Jack has always kept things pretty close to the vest. He’s always found it really hard to talk about his mom and dad.”
“I know, but I guess I just don’t understand why he wouldn’t tell me something like that.”
“Be patient with him. It was a painful time,” Hal said, and patted her hand. Sarah noticed his nails were thick with cracks streaked with black from years of working the land. “I think I’m going to try and get some sleep, and so should you. You’ve had a long day.”
“I’ll go up in a few minutes,” Sarah promised. “And, Hal, doctors can do so much these days. Jack says that Julia is one of the strongest women he’s ever known. If anyone can get through this she will.”
Hal gave her a halfhearted smile as if he wanted to believe her. “Good night,” he said wearily, getting to his feet and squeezing her shoulder as he moved past her and left the kitchen.
Sarah glanced at the clock on the wall. Twelve thirty. Her eyes burned from fatigue and her shoulders ached. She should go up to bed, be with her husband. But her mind was buzzing with questions and she knew that sleep wasn’t going to come anytime soon. Why hadn’t he ever told her that he’d changed his name? Sarah felt as if she had unearthed a relic from Jack’s past, a broken shard of who he once was. It’s just a name, she reminded herself. It doesn’t mean anything. But it wasn’t so much about the name. It was the fact that he had lied to her about it.
And why hadn’t he ever told her that he and Celia had dated? Did he think she would judge him? Did he think she would be jealous of Celia, a woman he hadn’t seen in twenty years? And why had he been dodging her questions all day?
Through the window a sliver of moon appeared and a thin light spilled into the kitchen. The thrum of rain on the roof ceased and the only sounds were the creaks and groans of an old house at night. The unfamiliar settling and sighing of a house she did not know. Sarah suddenly felt cold and exposed, and despite her irritation with Jack she didn’t want to be alone. The questions could wait until morning.
She picked up her laptop, moved to the living room and paused at the wall filled with family pictures, her eyes landing once again on the photo of Jack’s father in his military uniform and then on the picture of the two women. Though Jack looked so much like his father, upon a second look Sarah was sure that the woman in the photo with Julia was Jack’s mother.
She crept up the steep stairs and tentatively opened a door to make sure that it was the correct room and was relieved to see their suitcases lined up against one wall. Too tired to change into her pajamas, she peeled off her pants and climbed into bed next to Jack. He didn’t even stir.
Coming here Sarah realized just how little she knew about her husband’s life before they met. She didn’t know the name of his first-grade teacher, what his birthday parties were like, if he went to church. She hadn’t even known his real last name.
In the dark, she shivered beneath the blankets and listened to the slow, even breaths of her husband, felt the rise and fall of his chest. Sarah thought back to when Jack had asked her to marry him. How thoroughly certain she was that they belonged together, that every minute of her life, every experience, had led her to him. She thought they were soul mates, fated for each other. Now, she couldn’t help but question their life together. Had it all been based on lies?
Hurt prickled behind her eyes and she pressed her face into Jack’s slumbering form. Who are you really? she wanted to ask him. He knew the best and the worst of her, and she thought she knew the same about him.
BEFORE SHE EVEN opened her eyes, Sarah felt warm sunshine on her face. The sheets still had the crispness of laundry hung on a line, and for a moment she basked in the tranquillity of morning, allowing herself to forget for a moment the chaos and uncertainty of the day before.
She wanted to talk to Jack privately before they left for the hospital, about what she had learned from Hal last night, about why he had lied to her for all these years and about why he now seemed to be evading her. She lifted her head and turned to the side, but the space next to her was empty.
Stiff jointed and achy, she climbed out of bed and looked around the bedroom that Jack slept in as a teenager. She was hoping to find some clues, some insights into his childhood, into the life he led before he met her. There were no athletic trophies on the bookshelf and no bulletin board plastered with photos and mementos. She picked up a few random books from the bookshelf and riffled through the pages. There were no carnation corsages pressed between the pages, no concert stubs or baseball tickets. Of course, it had been over twenty-five years since Jack had lived here. Julia and Hal had most likely redecorated years ago and used this as a room for guests.
A small oak desk sat in the corner of the room and she pulled out the drawers, each empty except for a few stray paper clips and ballpoint pens. Instead of clothing, the tall dresser held neatly folded tablecloths and bed linens. She opened the closet door to find it empty except for two heavy winter coats hanging from the metal bar and a shoe box with Jack’s name on it on the top shelf. Jack pushed open the door. “How’d you sleep?” he asked.
Startled, she closed the closet door and turned to face him. “Okay,” she answered. But she hadn’t slept well at all. For what felt like hours she had lain next to him in the dark, tossing and turning, her mind racing with questions, restless about how to confront Jack. Where would she even start, and how would Jack react?
She searched for the words, knowing she had to be careful or Jack would shut her down in an instant. “Last night, Hal told me your real last name is Tierney,” she blurted, unable to mask the accusation in her voice. “Is that true?”
Jack looked at her blankly. “You knew that,” he said. “I told you that after we started dating.”
Sarah shook her head. She would remember if Jack had told her. “No, you didn’t.”
“Of course I did. You must have forgotten.”
“Jack,” she said more firmly, and he sighed in frustration.
“You already know this, Sarah. After Amy and I went to live with Hal and Julia, we had our name legally changed to Quinlan. I was fifteen, Amy was eleven. Hal and Julia became our legal guardians and they were all the family we had left in the world. It just seemed easier.”
Maybe she was overreacting about the name change, but that still didn’t explain why he had kept it from her.
“Hal also told me that you and Celia dated in high school. Why didn’t you tell me these things? Why the secrecy?”
“Sarah, there are no secrets!” Jack exclaimed, his face reddening. “Celia and I hung out when we were young. Hell, I hung out with a lot of people. It’s a small town.” Jack grabbed his watch from the dresser. “I really can’t deal with this right now. Why can’t you just drop it?”
“I’m not trying to fight with you,” Sarah said quietly. “I’m just trying to understand.”
Jack sat down on the bed and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t want to fight, either. I’m sorry if I didn’t tell you. I really thought I had. And me and Celia, it was nothing, just kid stuff.” He reached for her hand and she reluctantly took it. His skin felt warm, reassuring. “Hal’s downstairs waiting to go to the hospital. Are you ready?”
They drove to the hospital separately, with Hal and Jack in the truck and Sarah following behind, alone, in the rental car. The rain-washed fields glittered with moisture and puffy white clouds moved leisurely across the blue sky. It was a beautiful morning, but still Sarah felt uneasy, off balance. The highway was lined with wooden telephone poles that reminded Sarah of crucifixes where sharp-eyed hawks and hook-beaked shrikes perched in wait.
Jack was confident he had told her about changing his last name, but she racked her memory. No, she would have remembered if he told her, she was sure of it. As for Celia, what had Hal said? That they were inseparable? That certainly sounded like more than just hanging out. She was so engrossed in her thoughts she lost sight of Hal’s truck and pressed on the accelerator in hopes of catching up.
When Sarah finally pulled into the parking lot, she could see Jack and Hal already entering the hospital. She knew that Hal was anxious to check on Julia and she felt childish for being disappointed that they hadn’t waited for her.
Sarah waited for the excruciatingly slow elevator and when she stepped out onto the fifth-floor landing Jack and Hal were nowhere to be seen. Sarah caught sight of Celia, hands full, heading down the hall toward Julia’s room, and Sarah hurried to catch up with her.
“Good morning,” Sarah said breathlessly as she pushed Julia’s door open for Celia.
“Good morning,” Celia said, looking well rested and refreshed. Sarah saw Celia with new eyes now that she knew she and Jack were once an item. She was beautiful. Slim and fit. Her black curls were pulled back from her face and she was perfectly put together in sharply creased khakis and a neatly pressed blouse. Sarah looked down and was dismayed to see that her long-sleeve T-shirt and jeans were hopelessly rumpled from being stored in her suitcase.
Celia came bearing fresh-cut purple asters from her garden. “The last of the season,” she said as she set the vase on Julia’s windowsill. Amy was curled up in a chair next to Julia’s bed, looking even more diminished than the day before. She stiffened as Celia leaned over Julia’s bed and adjusted her pillow.
“How was Julia’s night?” Sarah asked. The room was eerily quiet, and she sensed a palpable tension between Celia and Amy. She hoped Jack and Hal would arrive soon.
Amy rubbed her eyes with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “She hasn’t woken up yet, but the nurse said her vitals are stable.”
“That’s good news,” Celia said. “Now maybe you can go home and get some rest.”
“I’m fine,” Amy said shortly. She stood and stretched. “Where are Hal and Jack?”
“They peeked in on Julia for a few minutes and then the doctor wanted to go over a few of Julia’s tests with them,” Celia explained. “When’s the last time you’ve eaten? Why don’t you go down to the cafeteria and get something?”
“Jesus, Celia, I said I’m fine,” Amy answered, crossing her arms in front of her just as a high-pitched beeping erupted from Julia’s heart monitor.
“What’s happening?” Amy asked fearfully as all eyes swung toward Julia. Julia’s body went rigid, her face contorting into a tight grimace. The heavy hospital bed rocked with her spasms and Julia’s eyes opened and rolled back into her head so that only the whites showed.
“Go get someone,” Sarah yelled, frantically reaching for the nurse’s call button. Celia hurried from the room in search of help.
“Do something!” Amy beseeched, her eyes wide and panicked.
Moments later, Celia raced into the room with two nurses. Jack, Hal and Dean were close behind. “What’s happening?” Hal shouted in horror as Julia convulsed in the bed. Jack reached for Sarah’s hand and squeezed it tightly.
“She’s having a seizure,” one of the nurses said as they expertly rolled Julia onto her side. She produced a syringe and injected it directly into Julia’s IV. Her body shuddered violently.
“What is that? What did you do?” Amy cried.
“Lorazepam,” a nurse said, her voice caught in the frenzy of the beeping machines and Julia’s moans. “To stop the seizure.”
“Why is she making that noise?” Hal asked helplessly. “Is she in pain?”
“It isn’t working,” Amy yelled, pushing her way to Julia’s bedside. She bumped the vase of flowers and it cartwheeled and shattered as it struck the floor. Shards of glass flew everywhere and a puddle of water formed on the floor next to Sarah’s feet.
Sarah sidled back into a corner, trying to stay out of the way as Jack tried to pull Amy from Julia’s bedside where she was grasping for Julia and getting in the way of the nurses. “Let them do their work,” he urged.
“It’s not working. The medicine isn’t helping,” Amy cried. “Please make it stop,” she begged as Julia continued to writhe in her bed, a foul odor rising from the sheets. Amy clapped a hand over her nose and mouth.
The seconds ticked by like hours. The nurse grabbed another syringe and injected it into the IV. How long could this last? Sarah wondered.
Slowly, Julia’s body relaxed, her face smoothed and her hands uncurled, but the heart machine continued to beep rapidly.
“What’s wrong?” Amy asked the nurses who were standing over Julia, watching her carefully. “Why is it still making that sound? Don’t just stand there, do something!”
“She has a do-not-resuscitate order,” Dean said under his breath, so softly that Sarah was sure she was the only one who heard him.
“Do something,” Amy pressed, her voice rising as she spiraled into hysteria. She clutched onto the nurse’s sleeve violently, begging her not to let her aunt die.
“She’s DNR,” Dean repeated, this time more loudly.
“What does that mean?” Amy cried as she leaned into Jack, tears streaming down her face. “Why aren’t they helping her? Make them help her.”
“They can’t. She doesn’t want any heroic measures keeping her alive,” Dean explained.
The heart monitor blipped frenetically and Amy pressed her hands to her ears as if trying to block out the sound. Gradually, Julia’s chest stopped moving and the beeps stretched into one continuous, mournful cry.
“No!” Amy cried as she pulled away from Jack and lunged toward the bed. “Please don’t leave me,” she begged, pressing her lips against Julia’s warm cheek. Amy lowered her head and her brokenhearted keening became entangled with the mechanical scream of the heart monitor until they became one. A nurse reached over and turned off the machine. The only sound in the room was Amy’s weeping.
Hal approached his wife’s side on unsteady legs and reached for her hand. A dry sob came from deep within his chest; he leaned over the bedside rail and murmured into Julia’s ear.
Sarah watched as Hal went slack with helplessness. She went to his side and reached for his hand. His fingers were ice-cold.
Dean tried to stifle a cry and Celia buried herself in his chest. Hal slowly lowered himself into a chair, his face a map of disbelief.
A nurse carefully removed the oxygen mask from Julia’s face and began to unhook the monitors from her chest. “Stop,” Amy yelled, clawing at the nurse’s arm again, trying to pull her away from the machines. Her eyes were filled with fury.
“Amy!” Celia exclaimed in horror as the nurse, wide-eyed, tried to shake her off. Celia grabbed Amy’s hands and she released the nurse, whose arm was lined with angry red scratches that bloomed with blood.
Sarah watched in disbelief as Amy squirmed from Celia’s grasp and shoved past them, out of the room.
“Are you okay?” Celia asked.
“I’m fine,” the nurse said, clearly shaken, blotting her bloody arm with a tissue.
“Shouldn’t someone go after her?” Sarah asked, heart pounding.
“No, just let her go,” Jack said. “Let her cool off.”
“Jesus Christ, she’s fucking crazy,” Dean hissed, his voice tense with anger.
“Please!” Hal interjected. “For God’s sake, have some respect for your mother.” Everyone froze and a mix of shame and grief washed over them. Hal’s head fell heavy in his hands and the room filled with the soft sobs of a man who just lost his wife. “Fifty years,” he said mournfully. “We were married fifty years.” He looked up from his hands, his eyes wet and bloodshot. “Fifty years and she had to leave me this way?”
The nurse watched from the doorway as Jack’s family seemed to collapse under the weight of their own grief. “I’ll have to ask you to step out for a few minutes, Mr. Quinlan,” she said kindly. “We’ll take care of your wife and get the room cleaned up, then you can come back in and take as much time as you need.”
The room looked like a war zone. The floor was slick with water and flower petals. Shards of glass from the broken vase crunched beneath their feet. Hal remained by Julia’s side until Dean gently took his arm and guided him from the room. Sarah bent down and picked up the handmade quilt that had fallen to the floor. She folded it neatly and draped it over the back of a chair.
Jack paused at Julia’s bedside and looked down at the woman who had welcomed him into her home after his parents had died. He whispered into her ear and lightly brushed her cheek with his fingers.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the nurse said. “We have to ask you all to step out, please.”
Sarah held her hand out to Jack. Together they stepped into the hallway and Sarah pulled him into her arms. “It’s going to be okay,” she murmured. She felt Jack’s heart thrumming against his chest.
Jack released Sarah and went to his uncle. “She loved you,” Hal said, taking Jack’s hands in his own. “You and Amy, just like you were her own. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know,” Jack replied, his voice hoarse with emotion. “She always believed in me. No matter what.”
Sarah embraced Hal. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”
“I know who to call,” Celia interjected in a way that struck Sarah as oddly aggressive.
“What about Amy?” Sarah asked. “Do you think someone should go check on her?”
“I think it’s probably best to just let her be for a while,” Celia answered. “Let her catch her breath.”
Sarah wrapped her arms around Jack’s waist, and he rested his chin on top of her head. “Did you know Julia had a do-not-resuscitate order?” she asked.
“No. And Amy must have not known, either. I’ve never seen her act like that before.”
“I should call the girls, let them know what’s going on.”
“No, not yet.”
“I could make arrangements to have them fly here?” Sarah offered.
“No,” Jack said quickly.
Sarah pulled back and looked up at him. “But...”
“Sarah,” he said in exasperation. “I said no.”
Sarah didn’t understand Jack’s reluctance to bring the girls to Penny Gate. They should be here with them. That’s what families did; they were there to support one another when times were difficult.
The tension between them was broken by the sound of determined footsteps. They shifted their gaze down the long corridor, where a woman in a long white doctor’s coat and a man who appeared to be a security guard were approaching with quick, long strides.
“This can’t be good,” Jack said in a low voice. “Can you find Amy?”
Sarah hesitated, glancing at Jack with uncertainty.
“Sarah, please just go!”
She started down the hallway, hurt by Jack’s harsh tone. When she reached the end of the hallway, she turned to see the doctor and security guard confront Jack in the doorway of Julia’s room. He held up his hands in placation, as if trying to calm them.
The nurses must have alerted security about Amy’s outburst and they were coming to...what? Escort Amy from the building? Detain her until the police came to arrest her? Sarah quickened her pace, though she wasn’t sure what she would say to Amy if she found her. Should she tell her to run, to get out of there as quickly as possible? Or should she try to convince her to come back upstairs to talk things through?
Once again she bypassed the elevator and raced down the stairs and through the lobby. The automatic doors slid open and Sarah saw Amy shivering on a bench just outside the hospital entrance. A brisk wind had swept the clear skies away and replaced them with dark clouds heavy with rain. Amy had stopped crying and was blankly staring upward, a cigarette pressed to her lips. She had one arm wrapped protectively around her waist, the same way that Jack always did.
“Amy.” Sarah cautiously approached her sister-in-law. “I’m so sorry about Julia. Are you okay?”
“I can’t believe she’s gone.” Amy swiped at her nose with the back of one hand. “I can’t believe she’s really dead.” She pressed the heels of her hands against her bloodshot eyes. “I really freaked out up there. Did I hurt that nurse?”
“Just a few scratches.” Sarah sat down on the bench. “She’s fine. But everyone’s worried about you.”
“I bet Dean went ape shit.” She gave a short bark of laughter and then started to cry again.
Sarah wasn’t sure what to say. She barely knew Amy, but what she did know was that she was volatile and unpredictable. But this was Jack’s sister and she also knew that Amy loved her aunt and was grieving terribly. Sarah slid closer to her and put an arm around Amy’s thin shoulders. “Do you want to come back inside?” she asked once Amy’s cries subsided. “I bet if you apologize to the nurse, she’ll forget the whole thing.”
“I can’t go back in there,” Amy said, taking a shaky drag on her cigarette. “Not now, anyway.” She gave the cigarette a tap and watched the long ash fall to the concrete below. In her other hand she held what looked to be a round silver charm. The kind you might find on a bracelet or on a necklace.
Amy caught Sarah looking and held it out for her to see. Engraved on one side was a cross and on the other was the word faith. “It was lying next to Aunt Julia when I found her. I was going to hold on to it until she woke up and then give it back to her.” She shook her head. “I don’t think I can face them.” She looked up toward Julia’s room. “It’s all my fault.”
“What do you mean it’s your fault?” Sarah asked.
Amy didn’t answer. She dropped the cigarette to the ground and squeezed the charm tightly in her palm. “Amy,” Sarah prodded. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe if I had gotten there fifteen minutes earlier...”
“You can’t think that way about it. You’ll drive yourself crazy,” Sarah said. “Just think about what could have happened if you hadn’t shown up when you did.”
Amy shrugged, unconvinced. “When are you leaving town?”
“We’ll stay for the funeral, of course, but will probably need to go home soon after.”
Amy nodded and lit another cigarette. “That’s probably a good idea. People who stay around here too long either die or go crazy. Jack had the right idea. He left Penny Gate as soon as he could and didn’t look back. If my mom would have just left...” Amy trailed off.
“You can’t blame the accident on your mom’s decision to stay in Penny Gate,” Sarah said. “There’s no way to know what would have been different.”
“‘The accident’?” Amy gave a skeptical snort. “Is that what Jack is calling it these days?” She stood, took a deep pull on the cigarette and blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “You need to talk to your husband,” Amy said as she started to walk away. “You know Jack. Always full of secrets.”
Sarah’s stomach clenched. What else hadn’t Jack told her? She watched as Amy walked away, her gaunt frame hunched against the sharp wind. She considered chasing after her but to what end?
Maybe she had been overreacting about Jack’s name, and even about Celia. But Jack was definitely keeping something from her. Something important.
THE ACCIDENT? Is that what Jack’s calling it these days?
Amy’s cryptic comment tumbled in Sarah’s mind. Tears pricked at her eyes as she ticked off the half-truths and lies that Jack had told her. She was tired of all the secrecy, the avoidance. Yes, Jack was reserved, private. But she had thought they had both known the important parts of each other’s lives.
She pulled out her phone and entered Jack Tierney into the search engine. Three hundred and eighty-one thousand results.
She plugged in two more words, Penny Gate, and it narrowed the search. Sarah clicked on the first link, a newspaper article headlined Penny Gate Woman Found Bludgeoned. Her eyes skittered down the page. The body of Lydia Tierney, thirty-six, was discovered yesterday afternoon in her rural Penny Gate home. Before Sarah could read any further, Jack approached.
“Sarah?” he asked, and she nearly dropped her phone. “What are you doing?”
Heart thumping, she quickly slid her phone into her purse. “I was talking to Amy. She just left,” she said. Jack’s eyes were red-rimmed and seemed to hold immeasurable sadness.
Jack sat down next to her, his leg pressing against hers. “They posted a security guard outside Julia’s room and made us leave,” he said. “They said that an autopsy has been ordered.”
“Why?” Sarah asked in confusion. “I thought it was an accident.”
“They wouldn’t tell us much of anything.” Jack rubbed his forehead in frustration. “Just that Julia’s injuries weren’t entirely consistent with an accidental fall down the stairs.”
“What does that mean? Like someone pushed her down the steps?” Sarah asked. “Who would do that?”
“I don’t know.” Jack closed his eyes and brought his hands to his face, forming a tent with his fingers. “It has to be some kind of mistake.”
“A home invasion?” Sarah wondered out loud.
“That’s the only thing I can think of that makes any sense. But then why wasn’t there any mess? Why was nothing taken?”
What was it that Amy had told Sarah earlier? It’s all my fault. Amy had dismissed it, but now Sarah wondered what she meant. Did Amy know more than she was letting on?
“Hal is a mess,” Jack added. “I don’t know how he’s going to get through this.” He reached for Sarah’s hand. His skin was cold and damp, and Sarah’s first instinct was to pull away, but he held tight. “He can’t face going back to the house right now, so we’re all going to go back to Dean and Celia’s. Do you mind heading there with Celia now? I need to stay here to help with some of the arrangements.”
“Whatever you need,” she murmured. She knew she had to be there for Jack and his family, but all Sarah really wanted to do was get back to the newspaper article she had discovered.
“I have to talk to Amy. Do you have any idea where she went?”
“She didn’t tell me.”
Celia emerged from the hospital. Her face was blotchy and her eyes swollen from crying.
“Cel,” Jack began, “Sarah will go back to the house with you. We’ll be right behind.”
Cel. Such a familiar use of her name. Sarah wondered if that was what Jack called her when they were teenagers.
Celia nodded. “Thank you,” she said, blinking back tears. “I really don’t want to be alone right now.”
“Of course. Whatever I can do to help.”
“I’ll call you later,” Jack said, and kissed Sarah on the cheek. His lips were cold and dry.
Sarah and Celia made their way to the hospital parking lot. “I can’t believe she’s gone,” Celia said, her voice breaking with emotion. “One minute she’s just lying there and the next she’s having a seizure.” Celia shivered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Sarah stepped over a large puddle as she climbed into the passenger’s side of Celia’s truck. “Jack said that the doctor didn’t think Julia’s fall was an accident. How could she know that?”
“I don’t think anyone could know without an autopsy.” Celia started the car and then looked over her shoulder as she backed out of the parking spot. “It’s got to be a mistake.”
Celia offered a steady stream of commentary as she drove. “Our house is about a twenty-five-minute drive from here and Hal’s is just fifteen minutes farther. The funny thing is, you can walk through the cornfield right outside our door and end up in Hal’s yard in about the same amount of time. The town’s a little farther. I can’t believe you’ve never been here before.” She looked over at Sarah. “I’m prattling on and on. I think if I don’t keep talking I’ll start crying again and not be able to stop.”
“That’s okay,” Sarah said. “I was the same way when my dad died. If I kept moving, kept talking, I was okay. The minute things were quiet I fell apart.”
“I’m glad that Jack got here in time to see Julia before she died. I think he would have really regretted it, if he hadn’t. He’s always had such a soft heart.”
Sarah tried to ignore the flash of jealousy that sizzled in her chest. It was a long time ago, she told herself. Celia didn’t know him, the man he turned out to be. But then again, Sarah realized with a stab of regret, she wasn’t sure if she knew him as well as she thought she did, either.
“Hal said you and Jack dated when you were younger,” Sarah said, trying to keep her voice light. Conversational.
“Well, yeah.” Celia flashed a hint of a smile. “But that was ages ago. We went to school together. Jack and I were in the same class. Dean graduated four years before us. I got to know Dean through Jack. Didn’t Jack tell you that he and I dated through most of high school?”
“Well, yes,” Sarah fumbled. “Sorry, I didn’t make the connection.”
“That’s Jack for you, a man of few words.” Celia shook her head. “After Jack left for college I mooned around after him, hung around Julia and Hal’s house like a little lost puppy.” She gave a halfhearted laugh at the memory. “One evening, Julia had me over for dinner and Dean had just moved back to the farm. I hadn’t seen him in a few years and it was like the sun came out. A couple of years later we got married, and the rest is history.”
Celia turned onto a narrow two-lane highway that ribboned through the countryside, speeding past gold-and-green patchworks of cornstalks and soybeans, punctuated by an occasional farmhouse. Cattle gnawed languidly on grass, their tails flicking at unseen insects, their soft eyes barely glancing as they passed. It was beautiful, Sarah had to admit.
Once again, the sky had cleared and Sarah knew what Jack meant when he said the weather in Iowa changed on a dime. The air was clean and crisp like freshly starched laundry and the sky was a brilliant shade of blue that reminded Sarah of a time when the girls were four and Elizabeth described the sky as “so blue it hurts.” A blue so big and beautiful that it causes your heart to ache.
The thought made her miss her daughters more than she thought was possible.
Celia parked the truck and Sarah took in the view of the farmhouse and outbuildings that made up the Quinlan farm. Patches of the house were scraped clean of the paint that had once covered it, and the roof was badly in need of new shingles. The front porch was in disrepair, the steps leaning dangerously to the left. The barn and machine shed weren’t in much better shape. Long stalks of grass and weeds grew wildly, scorched and dry like hay from the hot Iowa sun. The property clearly hadn’t been well maintained over the years. The place looked like it was right out of a scary movie, and it made Sarah think about Amy’s “house of horrors” comment and the article she found earlier about the death of Jack’s mother. What other dark secrets was this house keeping?
“The outside isn’t all that much to look at, but the inside is great. Dean hopes to start working on the exterior next spring.”
Sarah smiled but didn’t respond. She wondered what Jack would think about the deterioration of his childhood home.
“Come. I’ll show you around,” Celia said as they stepped from the Bronco. “I know I need to start making phone calls, but I can’t bear to tell people the news about Julia yet. I feel like if I can put off telling them I can almost make myself believe she really hasn’t died.” Celia closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “But first things first,” she said, clapping her hands together. “I’ll get you a pair of boots. What are you, a size seven?”
“Eight, but really these are fine,” Sarah insisted.
“Oh, no. They don’t call them shit-kickers for nothing. Believe me, you’ll want to put on a pair of boots.” Celia walked off toward the house and Sarah surveyed the farmyard. A soft wind spun the blades of a tall galvanized-metal windmill that sat among the swaying switchgrass. There were three outbuildings: a midsize A-frame barn, a large prairie barn with a low-hanging, sloped roof, and a small shed.
The farmyard was overgrown and weedy in some spots, and brown and bald in others. Poking up from the weeds were riots of color just beginning to brown at the edges: purple and white aster, rose-colored sedum and cheery goldenrod. Tired browned remnants of once-spritely hollyhock slumped among the glossy green leaves of the bushes nestled against the foundation of the largest barn. The door to a small shed was open, revealing a cluttered array of farm tools and cracked clay pots. Well away from the barn was a pile of partially charred remains of what appeared to be an odd pyre of dried leaves, barn board and broken furniture.
Everything felt too still, too quiet. It was unsettling and Sarah raised her face to meet the warmth of the sun while blackflies buzzed around her face.
Celia came back carrying a pair of green rubber boots and handed them to Sarah. They walked the final fifty yards to the midsize barn, and Celia wrenched open the door. “This is where we keep our meager little zoo.” They stepped into the dimly lit barn. The musty smell of hay filled her nose and bits of dust and straw danced in the streams of light that seeped through the narrow windows. Rusty farm equipment that clearly hadn’t been used in years leaned against the rough wooden walls. “We have lots of old stuff that was here before we moved in. As for the house, we’ve tried to restore as much as we could. The floors are original and some of the furniture has been in Julia’s family for generations. I have boxes of Jack’s mom’s embroidery work from over the years. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them. I tried to give them to Amy, but she doesn’t want any. I thought about packing some things away for Jack, but he doesn’t seem very interested, either.”
“You’ve talked to him about it?” Sarah asked with surprise.
“Sure, over the years. I don’t want to push it, but I wanted him to know that he’s welcome to much of what’s in the house. After Lydia died, Julia packed everything away. Most of it’s down in the basement.”
Three small goats clambered over to them, their large, protruding black eyes wide with curiosity. Sarah knelt down into the soft straw and rubbed their coarse black-and-white coats. “Can I ask you a question?” Sarah asked tentatively.
“Sure, go ahead,” Celia said, gently nudging one of the goats away.
“I found a news article that said that a woman was bludgeoned to death in the house that Jack grew up in.” Sarah tipped her head in the direction of the house.
Celia froze for a moment, then bent down to pick up a large tabby cat that was circling her ankles. “You didn’t know?” she asked.
She shook her head.
“Don’t you think you should talk to Jack about this?” The cat purred loudly, a content rumble, as Celia stroked her back.
That was the problem, wasn’t it? Sarah thought. Everyone was telling her to talk to her husband about the strange, mysterious things that none of them could speak of. But Jack wasn’t talking, either.
Sarah stood and brushed straw from the front of her pants. An old, long-dormant need was growing inside her. She hadn’t felt this way since she was a young journalist on the trail of an intriguing news story. The need to uncover the facts that more often than not became an obsession to know the truth. This was different, though. The stakes were much higher in this case. This was her husband’s life. Her life.
“I know you’re right,” Sarah said. “But losing Julia has been such a shock for him. I don’t want to probe and make him relive the past. Not now.”
Celia bit her lip as if trying to decide what to do. Finally she nodded. “I’ll tell you what I can.” Celia paused again. “For the record, I’m uncomfortable talking to you about Jack’s parents, but I understand why you need to know. I just can’t believe he never told you about this before.” Another jolt of jealousy coursed through Sarah. Celia knew things about her husband that Sarah probably never would. “What is it you’d like to know?” Celia asked.
Sarah knew that Jack would be arriving at the house at any moment and she needed to gather as much information from Celia as quickly as she could.
“How did Jack’s mom die?” she asked, inwardly wincing at the bluntness of her words.
“She was murdered,” Celia said uncomfortably.
“Bludgeoned to death?” Sarah asked, thinking of the newspaper headline.
Celia nodded. “Jack was the one who discovered her body,” she said. “It was horrible.”
“Who did it?” Sarah asked, her heart pounding.
“At the beginning, no one knew. At first everyone thought it might have been a stranger, someone looking for a house to rob and accidently came upon Lydia.” The cat squirmed, Celia released her and she landed soundlessly on the barn floor. “Jack’s dad disappeared before anyone could even question him. No sign of him anywhere. There was a statewide manhunt—his picture was all over the news. But he never surfaced.” Celia shook her head at the memory. “It was bad enough that Jack came home and found his mom bludgeoned to death, but then to learn that it was his father who did it...” Celia shuddered.
No wonder Amy called this place a house of horrors. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She didn’t know if she should cry for Jack or be angry with him for keeping this from her. A million more questions flittered through her mind.
“Sarah.” Celia’s voice floated in front of her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she murmured.
“I know this is a shock to you.” Celia watched her carefully.
“They never caught him?” Sarah asked numbly. “Jack’s dad?”
“No.” Celia shook her head. “It’s like he disappeared off the face of the earth. You know, there was a time when Jack couldn’t say enough nice things about his dad. At school, it was always my dad said this or my dad did this. The house was built board by board by his great-grandfather. When we were kids I told him how I wanted to move away from here, go to college, see the world. He said he never wanted to leave—everything he could ever want was right here.
“That all changed after the murder. Jack spent the next three years trying to figure out how to get out of Penny Gate.” She smiled wistfully. “Kind of funny, isn’t it?”
“What?” Sarah couldn’t find anything humorous in what she had learned about Jack in the past twenty-four hours.
“Growing up, all Jack wanted to do was stay in Penny Gate, live in this house, farm this land. I thought we were going to get married, have a house filled with kids. Instead, he left, met you and now he only comes back for weddings and funerals.”
Get married? Sarah thought. Jack had never even mentioned they had dated, let alone were serious enough for marriage. An ember of doubt ignited in Sarah’s chest.
“I guess everything works out the way it’s supposed to. Not the death of his mom, of course,” she quickly clarified. “But there was a time I would have given anything to be Mrs. Jack Tierney. Now I can’t imagine having a different life and I’m sure Jack feels the same way. After all he’s been through, though, I’m shocked he ended up getting married and having a family. He must really trust you.”
Sarah murmured her agreement but knew it wasn’t true. Jack clearly hadn’t trusted her at all.
“Where?” Sarah asked. “Where did it happen?” Did she die on the floor in front of the stone fireplace? Did Jack find her lifeless body on the kitchen floor or upstairs in her bedroom? She imagined Lydia’s corpse in the barn, surrounded by the shrill squeal of goats. She suddenly had the urge to run from the dim barn.
“Sarah, I...” Celia said with uncertainty.
“Where?” Sarah pushed. “Please tell me.”
“In the basement,” Celia said.
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