/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

The First Time

Joy Fielding


The First Time

Joy Fielding

2000

After sixteen years of marriage, Mattie Hart discovers that her husband, Jake—a high-profile Chicago attorney—is involved in yet another lover affair. But a far greater crisis descends upon the Hart family after Jake leaves home: Mattie receives devastating news that will alter their lives. Wracked by gilt, Jake returns to the wife he has never really loved and the teenage daughter who wants nothing do do with him. Her, in these most unexpected of circumstanes through a poignant drama about love’s power to heal the deepest wounds. THE fiRST TIME is a dazzling illumination of a marriage at the crossroad, where a long estranged husband and wife discover, for the first time, what loave really means.

Contents

Acknowledgments

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

To Larry Mirkin

Acknowledgments

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the following people: Larry Mirkin, for his friendship and warmly critical eye; Dr. Keith Meloff, for giving of his valuable time and sharing his invaluable medical expertise; Beverley Slopen, for her unfailingly generous words and wise counsel; Owen Laster, for his never-ending enthusiasm and unflagging support; Linda Marrow, for her vision, insight, and grace; John Pearce, for never doubting me; and finally, to my husband, Warren, and my daughters, Shannon and Annie, to borrow a phrase from a fan from the Czech Republic—“Thank you—That you exist!”

ONE

She was thinking of ways to kill her husband.

Martha Hart, called Mattie by everyone but her mother, who regularly insisted Martha was a perfectly lovely name—“You don’t see Martha Stewart changing her name, do you?”—was swimming back and forth across the long, rectangular pool that occupied most of her spacious backyard. Mattie swam every morning from the beginning of May until mid-October, barring lightning or an early Chicago snowfall, fifty minutes, one hundred lengths of precisely executed breaststroke and front crawl, back and forth across the well-heated forty-foot expanse. Usually she was in the water by seven o’clock, so that she could be finished before Jake left for work and Kim for school, but today she’d overslept, or rather, hadn’t slept at all until just minutes before the alarm clock went off. Jake, of course, had experienced no such trouble sleeping and was out of bed and in the shower before she’d had time to open her eyes. “Feeling all right?” he’d asked her, already dressed and out the door in a handsome blur before she was able to formulate a response.

She could use a butcher knife, Mattie thought now, pushing at the water with clenched fists, slicing the imaginary foot-long blade through the air and into her husband’s heart with each rise and fall of her arms. She reached the end of the pool, using her feet to propel herself off the concrete, and made her way back to the other side, the motion reminding her that a well-timed push down a flight of stairs might be the easier way to dispatch Jake. Or she could poison him, add a sprinkling of arsenic, like freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to his favorite pasta, like the kind they had for dinner last night, before he supposedly went back to the office to work on today’s all-important closing argument for the jury, and she’d found the hotel receipt in his jacket pocket—the jacket he’d asked her to send to the cleaners—that announced his latest infidelity as boldly as a headline in a supermarket tabloid.

She could shoot him, she thought, squeezing the water as it passed through her fingers, as if squeezing the trigger of a gun, her eyes following the imaginary bullet as it splashed across the pool’s surface toward its unsuspecting target, as her errant husband rose to address the jury. She watched him button his dark blue jacket just seconds before the bullet ripped through it, his dark red blood slowly oozing into the neat diagonal lines of his blue-and-gold striped tie, the boyish little half-smile that emanated as much from his eyes as his lips freezing, fading, then disappearing altogether as he fell, facedown, to the hard floor of the stately old courtroom.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdict?

“Death to the infidel!” Mattie shouted, kicking at the water as if it were a pesky blanket twisted around her ankles, her feet feeling unexpectedly heavy, as if newly attached to large cement blocks. For a second, Mattie felt as if her legs were foreign objects, as if they belonged to someone else and had been grafted haphazardly onto her torso, serving no other purpose than to weigh her down. She tried to stand, but the bottoms of her feet couldn’t find the bottom of the pool, although the water level was only five feet high and she was almost eight inches taller. “Damn it,” Mattie muttered, losing the rhythm of her breathing and swallowing a mouthful of chlorine. She gasped loudly, throwing herself toward the side of the pool, her body doubling up and over the edge of the pool to rest against its border of smooth brown stone, as invisible hands continued to pull at her legs, trying to drag her back under. “Serves me right,” she muttered between painful coughing spasms. “Serves me right for having such evil thoughts.”

She wiped some errant spittle from her mouth, then burst into a fit of hysterical laughter, the laughter mingling with her coughing, one feeding off the other, the unpleasant sounds bouncing off the water, echoing loudly in her ears. Why am I laughing? she wondered, unable to stop.

“What’s going on?” The voice came from somewhere above her head. “Mom? Mom, are you okay?”

Mattie brought her hand up across her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun’s harsh rays, focused on her like a flashlight, and stared toward the large cedar deck that extended off the kitchen at the back of her red-brick, two-story home. Her daughter Kim was silhouetted against the autumn sky, the sun’s glare rendering the teenager’s normally outsize features curiously indistinct. It didn’t matter. Mattie knew the lines and contours of her only child’s face and figure as well as her own, maybe better: the huge blue eyes that were darker than her father’s, bigger than her mother’s; the long, straight nose she’d inherited from her dad; the bow-shaped mouth she’d gotten from her mom; the budding breasts that had skipped a generation, moving directly from Mattie’s mother to her child, and that were, even at the tender age of fifteen, already a force to be reckoned with. Kim was tall, like both her parents, and skinny, as her mother had been at her age, although her posture was much better than Mattie’s had been at fifteen, better, in fact, than it was now. Kim didn’t have to be reminded to push her shoulders back or hold her head up high, and as she leaned against the sturdy wood slats of the railing, swaying like a young sapling in a gentle breeze, Mattie marveled at her daughter’s easy confidence, wondering whether she’d played any part in its development at all.

“Are you all right?” Kim asked again, craning her long, elegant neck toward the pool. Her shoulder-length, naturally blond hair was pulled tightly back against her scalp and twisted into a neat little bun at the top of her head. Her Miss Grundy look, Mattie sometimes teased. “Is someone there with you?”

“I’m fine,” Mattie said, although her continued coughing rendered the words unintelligible, and she had to repeat them. “I’m fine,” she said again, then laughed out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Kim giggled, a slight, trepid sound seeking inclusion into whatever it was her mother found so amusing.

“My foot fell asleep,” Mattie told her, gradually lowering both feet to the bottom of the pool, relieved to find herself standing.

“While you were swimming?”

“Yeah. Funny, huh?”

Kim shrugged, a shrug that said, Not that funny, not laugh-out-loud funny, and leaned further forward, out of the shadow. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. I just swallowed a mouthful of water.” Mattie coughed again, as if for emphasis. She noticed that Kim was wearing her leather jacket, and for the first time that morning became aware of the late September chill.

“I’m going to school now,” Kim said, then didn’t move. “What are you up to today?”

“I have an appointment this afternoon with a client to look at some photographs.”

“What about this morning?”

“This morning?”

“Dad’s giving his summation to the jury this morning,” Kim stated.

Mattie nodded, not sure where this conversation was headed. She looked toward the large maple tree that loomed majestically over her neighbor’s backyard, at the deep red that was seeping into the green foliage, as if the leaves were slowly bleeding to death, and waited for her daughter to continue.

“I bet he’d really appreciate it if you were to go to the courthouse to cheer him on. You know, like you do when I’m in a school play. For support and stuff.”

And stuff, Mattie thought, but didn’t say, choosing to cough instead.

“Anyway, I’m going now.”

“Okay, sweetie. Have a good day.”

“You too. Give Dad a kiss for me for good luck.”

“Have a good day,” Mattie repeated, watching Kim disappear inside the house. Alone again, she closed her eyes, allowing her body to sink below the water’s smooth surface. Water immediately covered her mouth and filled her ears, silencing the white noise of nature, blocking out the casual sounds of morning. No longer were dogs barking in neighboring yards, birds singing in nearby trees, cars honking their impatience on the street. Everything was quiet, peaceful, and still. There were no more faithless husbands, no more inquiring teenage minds.

How does she do it? Mattie wondered. What kind of radar did the child possess? Mattie hadn’t said anything to Kim about her discovery of Jake’s most recent betrayal. Nor had she said anything to anyone else, not to any of her friends, not to her mother, not to Jake. She almost laughed. When was the last time she’d confided anything in her mother? And as for Jake, she wasn’t ready to confront him yet. She needed time to think things through, to gather her thoughts, as a squirrel stores away nuts for winter, to make sure she was well fortified for whatever course of action she chose to follow in the long, cold months ahead.

Mattie opened her eyes under the water, pushed her chin-length, dark blond hair away from her face. That’s right, girl, she told herself. It’s time to open your eyes. The time for hesitating’s through, she heard Jim Morrison wail from somewhere deep inside her head. Come on, baby, light my fire. Was that what she was waiting for—for someone to light a fire under her? How many hotel receipts did she have to find before she finally did something about it? It was time to take action. It was time to admit certain indisputable facts about her marriage. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, at this time I would like to submit this hotel receipt into evidence. “Damn you anyway, Jason Hart,” Mattie sputtered, gasping for air as her head broke through the surface of the water, her husband’s given name feeling strange and awkward in her mouth. She hadn’t called him anything but Jake since their first introduction sixteen years ago.

Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire.

“Mattie, I’d like you to meet Jake Hart,” her friend Lisa had said. “He’s that friend of Todd’s I was telling you about.”

“Jake,” Mattie repeated, liking the sound. “Is that short for Jackson?”

“Actually, it’s short for Jason, but nobody ever calls me that.”

“Nice to meet you, Jake.” Mattie glanced around the main room of the Loyola University library, half expecting one of the more studious-minded patrons to jump up and ssh them into silence.

“And what about ‘Mattie’? Short for Matilda?”

“Martha,” she admitted, sheepishly. How could her mother have saddled her with such an old-fashioned, unattractive name, more suited to one of her beloved dogs than her only daughter? “But please call me Mattie.”

“I’d like to … call you, that is.”

Mattie nodded, her eyes focused on the young man’s mouth, on the wide upper lip that protruded over the thinner one on the bottom. It was a very sensual mouth, she thought, already projecting ahead to what it would be like to kiss that mouth, to feel those lips brush lightly against her own. “I’m sorry,” she heard herself stammer. “What did you say?”

“I said that I understand you’re majoring in art history.”

Again she nodded, forcing her gaze to his blue eyes, roughly the same shade as her own, except that his lashes were longer, she noted, something that didn’t strike her as altogether fair. Was it fair that one man could have such long lashes and such a sensual mouth?

“And what exactly is it that art historians do?”

“Beats me,” Mattie heard herself say, her voice a touch too loud, so that this time someone did say “Ssh!”

“You feel like going somewhere for a cup of coffee?” He took her arm and led her out of the library without waiting for her reply, as if there were never any doubt what her reply would be. As there was no doubt later when he asked her if she wanted to go to the movies that night, and then later, when he invited her back to the apartment he shared with several of his law school classmates, and later still, when he invited her into his bed. And then it was too late. Within two short months of that first introduction, two months after she enthusiastically surrendered to the seductive fullness of his lashes and the unspoken gentleness of his overbite, she discovered she was pregnant, this on the very day he’d decided they were moving too fast, that they needed to slow down, cool down, call the whole thing off, at least temporarily. “I’m pregnant,” she offered numbly, unable to say more.

They talked about abortion; they talked about adoption; ultimately they stopped talking and got married. Or got married and stopped talking, Mattie thought now, emerging from the water into the brisk fall air and grabbing at the large magenta towel folded neatly on the white canvas deck chair, sprinkled liberally with fallen leaves. She used one end of the towel to dry the ends of her hair, wrapping the rest of it tightly around her body, like a straitjacket. Jake had never really wanted to get married, Mattie understood now—as she’d understood then, although they’d both pretended, at least in the beginning, that their marriage would have been inevitable. After a short break, he’d have realized how much he loved her and come back to her.

Except that he didn’t love her. Not then. Not now.

And truth be told, Mattie wasn’t sure that she’d ever really loved him.

That she’d been attracted to him was beyond question. That she’d been mesmerized by his good looks and effortless charm, of that there was never any doubt. But that she’d actually been in love with him, that she didn’t know. She hadn’t had time to find out. Everything had happened too fast. And then, suddenly, there was no time left.

Mattie secured the towel at her breast and ran up the dozen wooden steps toward her kitchen, pulling open the sliding glass door and stepping inside, dripping onto the large, dark blue ceramic tile floor. Normally, this room made her smile. It was all blues and sunny yellows, with stainless steel appliances and a round, stone-topped table, decorated with hand-painted pieces of fruit, and surrounded by four wicker-and-wrought-iron chairs. Mattie had been dreaming of such a kitchen since seeing a picture layout in Architectural Digest on the kitchens of Provence. She’d personally supervised the kitchen’s renovation the previous year, four years to the day after they’d moved into the three-bedroom house on Walnut Drive. Jake had been against the renovation, just as he’d been against moving to the suburbs, even if Evanston was only a fifteen-minute drive from downtown Chicago. He’d wanted to stay in their apartment on Lakeshore Drive, despite agreeing with all Mattie’s arguments that the suburbs were safer, the choice of schools better, the space unquestionably bigger. He claimed his opposition to the move was all about convenience, but Mattie knew it was really about permanence. There was something too settled about a house in the suburbs, especially for a man with one foot out the door. “It’ll be better for Kim,” Mattie argued, and Jake finally agreed. Anything for Kim. The reason he’d married her in the first place.

The first time he’d been unfaithful was just after their second wedding anniversary. She’d stumbled on the incriminating evidence while going through the pockets of his jeans before putting them in the wash, extricating several amorous little notes, the i’s dotted with tiny hearts. She’d ripped them up, flushed them down the toilet, but pieces of the pale lavender stationery had floated back stubbornly to the surface of the bowl, refusing to be dismissed so easily. An omen of what lay ahead, she thought now, though she’d missed the symbolism at the time. Throughout the almost sixteen years of their marriage, there’d been a succession of such notes, of unfamiliar phone numbers on scraps of paper left lying carelessly around, nameless voices lingering on the answering machine, the not-so-quiet whispers of friends, and now this, the latest, a receipt for a room at the Ritz-Carlton, dated several months ago, around the time she was suggesting the possibility of a second child, the receipt left in the pocket of a jacket he’d asked her to take to the cleaners.

Did he have to be so blatant? Was her discovery of his indiscretions necessary to validate his experience? Were his conquests somehow less real without her, even if she had thus far refused to acknowledge them? And was acknowledging his affairs precisely what he was trying to force her to do? Because he knew that if he forced her to acknowledge his infidelities, if he forced her to actually confront him, then that would mean the end of their marriage. Was that what he wanted?

Was that what she wanted?

Maybe she was as tired of this charade of a marriage as her reluctant husband. “Maybe,” she said out loud, staring at her reflection in the smoky glass door of the microwave oven. She wasn’t unattractive—tall, blond, blue-eyed, the stereotype of the all-American girl—and she was only thirty-six years old, hardly old enough to be put out to pasture. Men still found her desirable. “I could have an affair,” she whispered toward her gray, tear-streaked reflection.

Her image looked surprised, aghast, dismayed. You tried that once. Remember?

Mattie turned away, stared resolutely at the floor. “That was only that one time, and it was just to get even.”

So, get even again.

Mattie shook her head, drops of water from her wet hair forming little puddles at her feet. The affair, if you could properly call a one-night stand an affair, had taken place four years ago, just before they’d moved to Evanston. It had been fast, furious, and eminently forgettable, except that she hadn’t been able to forget it, not really, although she’d be hard pressed to recall the details of the man’s face, having done her best to avoid actually looking at him, even as he was pounding his way inside her. He was a lawyer, like her husband, although with a different firm and a different area of expertise. An entertainment lawyer, she recalled his volunteering, along with the information that he was married and the father of three. She’d been hired by his firm to buy art for their walls, and he was trying to explain what the firm had in mind before he leaned in closer, told her what he had in mind. Instead of being shocked, instead of being angry, as she’d been earlier in the day when she’d overheard her husband on the phone making dinner plans with his latest paramour, she’d arranged to meet him later in the week, so that on the same evening her husband was in bed with another woman, she was in bed with another man, wondering, with joyless irony, if their orgasms were simultaneous.

She never saw the man again, although he’d called several times, ostensibly to discuss the paintings she was selecting for the firm. Ultimately he stopped calling, and the firm hired another dealer whose taste in art was “more in keeping with the sort of thing we had in mind.” She never said anything about the affair to Jake, although surely that had been the point—where was the sweetness of revenge if the injured party remained unaware of the injury? But somehow she couldn’t bring herself to tell him, not because she didn’t want to hurt him, as she’d tried to convince herself at the time, but because she was afraid that if she told him, she would be handing him the excuse he needed to leave her.

And so she’d said nothing, and life continued as it always had. They carried on the pretense of a life together—talking pleasantly over the table at breakfast, going out for dinner with friends, making love several times a week, more when he was having an affair, fighting over anything and everything, except what they were really fighting about. You’re fucking other women! she screamed underneath her rants about wanting to renovate the kitchen. I don’t want to be here! he shouted beneath his protests that she was spending too much money, that she had to cut back. Sometimes their angry voices would wake up Kim, who’d come running into their bedroom, immediately taking her mother’s side, so that it was two against one, another joyless irony Mattie doubted was lost on Jake, who was only there because of his daughter.

Maybe Kim was right, Mattie thought now, glancing at the phone on the wall beside her. Maybe all that was needed was a little show of support, something to let her husband know that she appreciated how hard he worked, how hard he tried—had always tried—to do the right thing. She reached for the phone, hesitated, decided to call her friend Lisa instead. Lisa would know how to advise her. She always knew what to do. And besides, Lisa was a doctor. Didn’t doctors have an answer for everything? Mattie pressed in the first few numbers, then impatiently dropped the receiver back into its carriage. How could she disturb her friend in the middle of her undoubtedly busy day? Surely she could solve her own problems. Mattie quickly punched in the proper sequence of numbers, waited as Jake’s private line rang once, twice, three times. He knows it’s me, Mattie thought, trying to shake away the annoying tingle that had returned to tease the bottom of her right foot. He’s deciding whether or not to pick up.

“The joys of call display,” she sneered, picturing Jake sitting behind the heavy oak desk that occupied a full third of his less-than-spacious office on the forty-second floor of the John Hancock Building in downtown Chicago. The office, one of 320 similar offices making up the prestigious law firm of Richardson, Buckley and Lang, had floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue, and stylish Berber carpeting, but was too small by half to contain Jake’s growing practice, a practice that seemed to be skyrocketing daily, especially since the press had lately turned him into something of a local celebrity. It seemed her husband had a knack for choosing seemingly impossible cases, and winning. Still, Mattie doubted that even Jake’s considerable skill and formidable charm would be enough to win an acquittal for a young man who’d admitted to killing his mother in an act of undeniable premeditation, and then proudly boasted of the killing to his friends.

Was it possible Jake had already left for court? Mattie glanced at the two digital clocks on the other side of the room. The clock on the microwave oven said it was 8:32; the clock on the regular oven below it read 8:34.

She was about to hang up when the phone was answered between the fourth and fifth ring. “Mattie, what’s up?” Jake’s voice was strong, hurried, a voice that announced it had little time for small talk.

“Jake, hi,” Mattie began, her own voice delicate and tentative. “You were out the door so fast this morning, I didn’t get a chance to wish you good luck.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t wait for you to get up. I had to go-”

“No, that’s fine. I didn’t mean to imply—” Not on the phone ten seconds, and already she’d managed to make him uncomfortable. “I just wanted to wish you good luck. Not that you’ll need it. I’m sure you’ll be brilliant.”

“You can never have too much good luck,” Jake said.

Words to write on a fortune cookie, Mattie thought.

“Look, Mattie. I really have to get going. I appreciate your call—”

“I was thinking of coming to court this morning.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said quickly. Far too quickly. “I mean, it’s not really necessary.”

“I know what you mean,” she said, not bothering to disguise her disappointment. Obviously, there was a reason he didn’t want her in court. Mattie wondered what the reason looked like, then pushed the unwelcome thought aside. “Anyway, I just called to wish you good luck.” How many times had she said that already? Three? Four? Didn’t she know when it was time to say good-bye, time to exit gracefully, time to pack up her good wishes and her pride and move on?

“I’ll see you later.” Jake’s voice resonated with that fake, too-cheery tone that was too big for the thought being expressed. “Take care of yourself.”

“Jake—” Mattie began. But either he didn’t hear her or he pretended not to, and the only response Mattie got was the sound of the receiver being dropped into its carriage. What had she been about to say? That she knew all about his latest affair, that it was time for them to admit that neither was happy in this prolonged farce of a marriage, that it was time to call it a day? The party’s over, she heard faint voices sing as she hung up the phone.

Mattie moved slowly out of the kitchen into the large center hallway. But her right foot had fallen asleep again, and she had trouble securing her footing. She stumbled, hopping for several seconds on her left foot across the blue-and-gold needlepoint rug while her right heel sought in vain to find the floor. She realized she was falling, and even more frightening, that she could do nothing to stop it, ultimately giving in to the inevitable, and crashing down hard on her rear end. She sat for several seconds in stunned silence, temporarily overwhelmed by the indignity of it all. “Damn you, Jake,” she said finally, choking down unwanted tears. “Why couldn’t you have just loved me? Would it have been so hard?”

Maybe the security of knowing her husband loved her would have given her the courage to love him in return.

Mattie made no move to get up. Instead, she sat in the middle of the hallway, her wet bathing suit soaking into the fine French needlepoint of the large area rug, and laughed so hard she cried.

TWO

“Excuse me,” Mattie said, crawling across the stubborn knees of a heavyset woman, dressed in varying shades of blue, toward the vacant seat smack in the middle of the eighth and last row of the visitors’ block of courtroom 703. “Sorry. Excuse me,” she repeated to an elderly couple seated beside the woman in blue, and then again, “Sorry,” to the attractive young blonde she would be sitting beside for the better part of the morning. Was she the reason Jake didn’t want her in court this morning?

Mattie unbuttoned her camel-colored coat, shrugging it off her shoulders with as little movement as possible, feeling it bunch at her elbows, pinning her arms uncomfortably to her sides so that she was forced to wiggle around in her seat in a vain effort to dislodge it, disturbing not only the attractive blonde to her right but the equally attractive blonde she now noticed to her left. Was there no end to the number of attractive blondes in Chicago, and did they all have to be in her husband’s courtroom this morning? Maybe she was in the wrong room. Maybe instead of Cook County versus Douglas Bryant, she’d stumbled into some sort of attractive-young-blondes convention. Were they all sleeping with her husband?

Mattie’s eyes shot to the front of the room, locating her husband at the defense table, his head lowered in quiet conversation with his client, a coarse-looking boy of nineteen, who appeared distinctly uncomfortable in the brown suit and paisley tie he’d obviously been advised to wear, the expression on his face curiously blank, as if he, like Mattie, had wandered into the wrong room and wasn’t quite sure what he was doing here.

What was she doing here? Mattie wondered suddenly. Hadn’t her husband specifically told her not to come? Hadn’t Lisa advised the same thing when she gave in and called her? She should get up now and leave, just get up and slink away before he saw her. It had been a mistake to come here. What had she been thinking? That he’d be grateful for her support, as Kim had suggested? Was that why she was here? For support? Or had she come hoping to catch a glimpse of his latest mistress?

Mistress, Mattie thought, chewing the word over in her mouth, fighting the sudden urge to gag as she craned her neck across the rows of spectators, sighting two young brunettes giggling at the far end of the first row. Too young, Mattie decided. And too immature. Definitely not Jake’s type, although, truth be told, she wasn’t sure what her husband’s type actually was. Certainly not me, she thought, eyes flitting briefly across a head of brown curls occupying the aisle seat of the second row before moving on down the rows, stopping at the perfect profile of a raven-haired woman she recognized as one of the junior partners in her husband’s firm, a woman who had joined Richardson, Buckley and Lang at approximately the same time as Jake. Shannon something-or-other. Wasn’t her specialty estate planning, or something equally nondescript? What was she doing here?

As if aware she was under observation, Shannon whatever-her-name-was did a slow turn in Mattie’s direction, eyes stopping directly on Mattie, a slow smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She’s trying to figure out where she knows me from, Mattie understood, recognizing the look, smiling confidently back. Mattie Hart, her smile announced, wife of Jake, the man of the hour, the man we’re all here to see, the man you possibly saw last night in rather more intimate surroundings.

Shannon whatever-she-called-herself broke into a huge grin of recognition. Oh, that Mattie Hart, the grin said. “How are you?” she mouthed silently.

“Never better,” Mattie answered out loud, giving the sleeve bunched around her elbow another tug, hearing the lining rip. “You?”

“Great,” came the instant reply.

“I’ve been meaning to call you,” Mattie heard herself announce, almost afraid of what she was going to say next. “I want to change my will.” She did? When had she decided that?

The smile vanished from Shannon whatever’s lips. “What?” she said.

So maybe her specialty isn’t estate planning, Mattie thought, lowering her gaze, signaling the end of the conversation, looking back several seconds later, relieved that Shannon whoever-she-was-and-was-she-sleeping-with-her-husband had returned her attention to the front of the courtroom.

You don’t want to be here, Mattie decided. You definitely don’t want to be here. Get up now. Get up and go before you make a complete fool of yourself. I want to change my will? Where had that come from?

“Let me help you with that,” the blonde to her left volunteered, tugging at Mattie’s stubborn coat sleeve before Mattie had time to object, smiling at Mattie the way Mattie smiled at her mother, the expression a little forced, containing more pity than goodwill.

“Thank you.” Mattie flashed the woman her most sincere smile, a smile that said, This is the way it’s done, but the young woman had already turned away, was staring toward the front of the stately old courtroom, holding her breath expectantly. Mattie straightened the folds of her gray wool skirt, fidgeted with the collar of her white cotton blouse. The blonde to her right, who was wearing a pink angora sweater and navy slacks, shot her a sideways glance that said, Don’t you ever sit still? which Mattie pretended not to notice. She should have worn something else, something less schoolmarmish, something less Miss Grundyish, she thought, smiling at the image of Kim that popped into her brain. Something softer, like a pink angora sweater, she thought, glancing enviously at the woman beside her. Although she’d never liked angora. It always made her sneeze. As if on cue, Mattie felt a sneeze building in the upper recesses of her nose, had barely time to fumble in her purse for a tissue, before burying her nose inside it, the force of her sneeze ricocheting through the room. Had Jake heard her? “Bless you,” both blondes said in unison, inching away from her side.

“Thank you,” Mattie said, stealing a glance in her husband’s direction, relieved to find him still deep in conversation with his client. “Sorry.” She sneezed again, apologized again.

A woman in the row in front of her swiveled around in her seat, soft brown eyes flecked with gold. “Are you all right?” Her voice was deep and vaguely raspy, older than the round face it emanated from, a face surrounded by a halo of frantic red curls. Nothing quite matched, Mattie thought absently, thanking the woman for her concern.

And then there was a slight stir as the county clerk asked everyone to rise, and the judge, an attractive black woman, whose curly dark hair was flecked with specks of gray, like ashes, assumed her seat at the head of the courtroom. It was only then that Mattie noticed the jury, seven men and five women, plus two men who served as alternates, most of the jurors hovering around middle age, although several looked scarcely out of their teens, and one man was likely closer to seventy. Of the fourteen, six were white, four were black, three were Hispanic, and one was Asian. Their faces reflected varying degrees of interest, earnestness, and fatigue. The trial had been going on for almost three weeks. Both sides had presented their cases. The jury had, no doubt, heard all it wanted to hear. Now what they wanted was to get back to their jobs, their families, the lives they’d put on hold. It was time to make a decision, then move on.

Me too, Mattie thought, leaning forward in her seat as the judge directed the prosecution to proceed. Time for me to make a decision and move on.

Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire.

One of the assistant state’s attorneys was instantly on his feet, doing up the button of his gray suit jacket, the way lawyers always did on TV, and walking toward the jury. He was a tall man, about forty, with a thin face and a long nose that hooked at its tip, rather like a candle dripping wax. There was a noticeable stir in the visitors’ block as everyone inched forward simultaneously, their silence heavy, like a dense fog, waiting for the lawyer’s voice to lead them toward the light. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the prosecutor began, making deliberate eye contact with each juror, then smiling. “Good morning.” The jury smiled back dutifully, one woman’s smile disappearing into an aborted yawn. “I want to thank you for your patience these last few weeks.” He paused briefly, swallowed, his large Adam’s apple bobbing into view above the pale blue collar of his shirt. “It’s my job to recount for you the simple facts of this case.”

Mattie coughed, a sudden, violent spasm that brought tears to her eyes.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” the blonde to her left asked, offering Mattie another tissue, while the blonde on Mattie’s right rolled her eyes in exasperation. It’s you, isn’t it? Mattie thought, wiping at her tears with the tissue. You’re the one sleeping with my husband.

“On the night of February twenty-fourth,” the prosecuting attorney continued, “Douglas Bryant returned home from an evening of drinking with his friends and was confronted by his mother, Constance Fisher. There was an argument, and Douglas Bryant stormed out of the house. He went back to the bar, had a few more drinks, then returned home at about two A.M., by which time his mother had gone to bed. He walked into the kitchen, took a long, sharp knife from one of the drawers, proceeded to his mother’s bedroom, and with deliberate calm plunged the knife into his mother’s stomach. One can only imagine the horror that Constance Fisher felt at realizing what was happening to her, and she made a valiant effort to ward off her son’s repeated blows. In all, Douglas Bryant stabbed his mother a total of fourteen times. One thrust punctured a lung, another went straight for her heart. As if this weren’t enough, Douglas Bryant then slashed his mother’s throat with such force he almost severed her head from her body. He then returned to the kitchen, where he used the knife to make himself a sandwich, took a shower, and went to bed. The next morning, he went to school and boasted of the killing to his fellow students, one of whom called the police.”

The assistant state’s attorney continued to go over the so-called simple facts of the case, reminding the jury of the witnesses who’d confirmed that Constance Fisher was afraid of her son, that the murder weapon was covered with Douglas Bryant’s fingerprints, that his clothing was covered with his mother’s blood, simple fact after simple fact, each item damning enough in itself, devastating when added together. What could Jake Hart possibly say that would mitigate the horror of what Mattie had just heard?

“It sounds pretty clear-cut,” she heard Jake agree, as if he were privy to her thoughts, as if he were speaking directly to her. Her eyes shot toward her husband as Jake rose to his feet, the jacket of his conservative blue suit already buttoned. She was gratified to note that he’d taken her advice and selected a white shirt instead of a blue one, although the deep burgundy tie he was wearing was unfamiliar to her. He smiled, a little Elvislike curling of his upper lip, and began addressing the jury in the soft, conversational, even intimate fashion that was his trademark. He makes you feel as if you’re the only person in the room, Mattie marveled, watching as each member of the jury unknowingly succumbed to his spell, leaning forward, giving him their undivided attention. The women to either side of Mattie fidgeted expectantly in their seats, their shapely rear ends nervously polishing the hard wooden bench beneath them.

Did he have to be so damned attractive? Mattie wondered, knowing Jake had always considered his looks as much a curse as a blessing, how hard he’d worked to play down his naturally handsome features in the fourteen years he’d been practicing law, the last eight with Richardson, Buckley and Lang. Jake knew that many of his colleagues groused that it had all come too easily for him: the good looks, the high marks, the instinct that told him which cases to take on and which to reject. But Mattie knew that Jake worked as hard as anyone at the firm, possibly harder, arriving at the office before eight each morning and rarely leaving before eight at night. Assuming he was actually in his office and not in a room at the Ritz-Carlton, Mattie thought, wincing as if she’d been struck.

“The way Mr. Doren presents it, everything in this case is either black or white,” Jake said, rubbing the side of his aquiline nose. “Constance Fisher was a dedicated mother and loyal friend, loved by all who knew her. Her son was a hothead who was failing at school and going out drinking every night. She was a saint; he was a holy terror. She lived in mortal fear; he was her mortal enemy. She dreamed of a better life for her son; he was every mother’s worst nightmare.” Jake paused and looked toward his client, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “It certainly sounds simple enough,” Jake continued, eyes returning to the jury, effortlessly catching them in his invisible net. “Except that things are rarely as simple as they sound. And we all know that.” Several of the jurors smiled their agreement. “Just as we know that when we mix black and white together, we get gray. And different shades of gray at that.”

Mattie watched her husband turn his back on the jury and walk over to where his client sat, confident that the eyes of each juror were on him. She watched him reach out and touch his client’s shoulder. “So, let’s take a few minutes and examine the varying shades of gray. Can we do that?” he asked, turning back to the jury, as if asking their permission. Mattie noticed one of the women jurors actually nodding her head in reply. “Firstly, let’s take a closer look at Constance Fisher, dedicated mother and loyal friend. Well, I don’t believe in blaming the victim,” Jake Hart said, and Mattie chuckled, knowing he was about to do just that. “I think that Constance Fisher was a dedicated mother and loyal friend.”

But? Mattie waited.

“But I also know she was a frustrated and bitter woman who verbally abused her son almost every day of his life, and often resorted to physical violence as well.” Jake paused, let the weight of his words sink in. “Now, I’m not trying to tell you that Douglas Bryant was an easy kid to mother. He wasn’t. He was many of the things that the prosecution claims, and those of us who have children,” he said, subtly aligning himself with the jurors, “understand just how frustrated his mother must have been, trying to deal with this kid who wouldn’t listen, who blamed her for his father walking out when he was a small boy, who was instrumental in the failure of her second marriage to Gene Fisher, who refused to show her the love and respect she felt she deserved. But stop for a minute,” Jake said, doing just that as the courtroom held its breath, waiting for him to continue.

How often had he rehearsed that moment? Mattie wondered, aware she was holding her breath, just like everyone else. How many seconds had he programmed that pause to last?

“Stop and consider the source of all that anger,” Jake continued after five full seconds had elapsed, instantly sucking his audience back in. “Little boys aren’t born bad. No little boy starts out hating his mother.”

Mattie brought her hand to her mouth. So this was why he’d taken this case, she realized. And why he would win.

It was personal.

A lawyer’s practice is almost always a reflection of his own personality, he’d once told her. By extension, did that make the courtroom the legal equivalent of the psychiatrist’s couch?

Mattie listened carefully as her husband recounted the horrors of the almost daily abuse Douglas Bryant had suffered at the hands of his mother—the washing his mouth out with soap when he was a child, the constant bad-mouthing, calling him stupid and worthless, the frequent beatings that resulted in oft-documented bruises and occasional broken bones—which resulted in Douglas Bryant’s lashing out uncontrollably when he could no longer cope with the abuse, a textbook case of “child abuse syndrome,” Jake intoned solemnly, referring to the earlier testimony of several expert psychiatrists.

Was that what it was like for you? Mattie asked her husband silently, doubting she would ever receive a satisfactory answer. When they’d first started dating, Jake had made several veiled references to his troubled childhood, something Mattie related to instantly, being the survivor of a difficult childhood herself. But the more they’d dated, the less Jake confided, and whenever she pressed him for details, he’d clam right up, disappear into a funk for days at a time, until she learned not to ask any questions about his family. We have so much in common, she thought now, as she’d thought often during the many strained silences of their years together—the crazy mothers, the absent fathers, the lack of any real familial warmth.

Instead of siblings, Mattie had shared her childhood with her mother’s many dogs, never less than six, sometimes as many as eleven, all doted upon and adored, so much easier to love than a troublesome child who looked just like the father who’d abandoned them. And while Jake hadn’t been an only child—he’d had an older brother who died in a boating accident, and a younger brother who had disappeared into a drug-filled haze several years before she came along—Mattie knew her husband’s adolescence had been as lonely and pain-filled as her own.

No—worse. Much worse.

Why wouldn’t you ever talk to me about it? she wondered now, inadvertently raising her hand as if wanting to ask the question out loud. The motion caught her husband’s eye, distracting him from his summation. Maybe I could have helped you, she offered silently, their eyes locking across the room. His handsome face registered surprise, confusion, anger, and fear, all in less than a fraction of a second, all invisible to everyone but her. I know you so well, she thought, feeling a strange tickle at the back of her throat. And yet, I don’t know you at all.

Certainly you don’t know me.

And then suddenly the tickle at the back of her throat exploded, and she was laughing out loud, laughing so loud that everyone was turning around to look at her, laughing so uncontrollably that the judge was banging with her gavel, just like they do on TV, Mattie thought, laughing louder still, watching a uniformed officer approach. She caught the look of abject horror on her husband’s face as she jumped to her feet and propelled herself out of the row, trailing her coat along the floor after her. Reaching the large marble-framed wooden door at the back of the courtroom, Mattie turned back, her eyes briefly connecting with the horrified eyes of the woman with curly red hair from the row in front of hers. I always wanted curls like that, Mattie found herself thinking as the officer quickly ushered her out the door. If he said anything to her, she couldn’t hear it over her laughter, which continued unabated down seven flights of stairs and across the main lobby, down the outside steps, and onto the street.

THREE

“Order. Order in the court.”

The judge was banging on her desk with her gavel, bouncing up and down in her high-backed leather chair, while the gallery before her buzzed nervously, like bees whose hive has been unexpectedly disturbed. Some of the spectators were whispering behind closed palms, others laughing openly. Several members of the jury talked animatedly among themselves. “What on earth …?” “What do you suppose …?” “What was that all about?”

Jake Hart stood in the center of the old courtroom, with its high ceiling, large side windows, and dark paneling, halfway between his client and the jury, too stunned to move, his shock rooting him firmly to the worn brown carpet beneath his black shoes, his fury spinning an invisible, protective cocoon around him, the noise and confusion of the courtroom swooping, like newly wakened bats, around his head. He felt like a grenade whose string had been pulled. If he took one step, if he so much as breathed, he would explode. It was important that he stay very still. He had to refocus, regroup, reclaim lost ground.

What the hell had happened?

It had been going so well, everything proceeding exactly according to plan. He’d worked for weeks on his summation—not only on the words he spoke, but on the way in which he spoke them, his inflection, the stress he placed on certain syllables, favoring this one over that, the pacing of his sentences, when to pause, when to continue. He’d memorized the words, perfected the cadence. It was going to be the speech of his life, the closing argument that would pull everything together, cap the highest-profile case of his career, a case the firm’s senior partners had expressed serious reservations about his taking on, a case they’d argued was hopeless, that didn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell. It was also the case that would almost certainly guarantee him a partnership should he win it, propel him to the top of his profession at the ripe old age of thirty-eight.

And he’d done it. All his hard work had paid off. He’d had the jury in the palm of his hand, hanging on his every phrase. Child abuse syndrome—what the hell was that before he’d raised it as a defense? “The parallels with wife abuse syndrome are unmistakable and undeniable,” he’d been about to continue. “Indeed, the abused child is more vulnerable than the abused wife because the child has even less control over the situation, even less ability to choose his environment, to pack up his bags and get the hell out.” The words had been at the tip of his tongue; he’d taken a breath, was preparing to release them, when someone had landed a sucker punch to his solar plexus and knocked the wind right out of him.

What had happened?

He’d seen something out of the corner of his eye, some vague movement, as if someone were trying to get his attention, and he’d looked over, and there she was, Mattie, his wife, whom he’d specifically asked not to come to court this morning, there she was, and she was laughing, and not just some silly little giggle but this hideous, full-throated guffaw, laughing at something, he didn’t know what, perhaps laughing at what he was saying, at the audacity of his argument, maybe just laughing her contempt, at the proceedings, at the process, at him, and then Judge Berg was banging her gavel and calling for order, and Mattie was clumsily tripping over the laps of the people beside her, dragging her coat along the floor after her as she was escorted from the room, all the while surrounded by this hysterical, insane cackle he could still hear popping in his ears, like wires that are short-circuiting.

Five more minutes. That was all the time he’d needed. Another five minutes and he would have been finished with his closing argument. It would have been time for the prosecution’s rebuttal. Then Mattie could have pulled any stunt her little heart desired. She could have jumped up and down like some deranged jack-in-the-box, taken off all her clothes, if she wanted to, and laughed her fool head off.

What was the matter with her?

Maybe she wasn’t feeling well, Jake thought, struggling to be charitable. She’d slept in this morning, which was unusual in itself, and then that strange phone call to his office, that little-girl voice on the telephone, raw with vulnerability, suggesting she might come to court. There was nothing vulnerable about the Mattie Hart Jake knew. She was as strong and as forceful as a gale wind. And as potentially destructive. Had she deliberately set out to sabotage him? Was that her motive for showing up in court this morning after he’d specifically asked her not to?

“This court will come to order,” Jake heard the judge proclaim loudly, although no order came.

“What’s happening?” the defendant asked, his eyes those of a trapped and frightened child.

I know those eyes, Jake thought, his own childhood reflected back at him. I know that fear.

He pushed the unwanted memory aside, tried to do the same with his wife. But Mattie stood before him like a slender block of stone, delicate to look at but stunningly difficult to dislodge. As she’d always been, from the moment they’d first met.

God, not that crap again, Jake thought, forcing one foot in front of the other, breaking free of his protective cocoon, now more like a coffin, to take his seat beside his client. He lifted the boy’s ice-cold hands inside his own.

“Your hands are so cold,” Douglas Bryant said.

“Sorry.” Jake almost laughed, except that there had been enough laughter in the court for one morning.

“We’ll take a half-hour recess,” the judge instructed, as all around Jake, the courtroom began emptying out, the people pulled as if by magnets toward the various exits. Jake felt Douglas Bryant’s hands slip through his fingers as he was led away. He watched the jury file out. What can I do to win you back? Jake wondered. What can I say that will obliterate the outrage my wife has perpetrated on this courtroom?

Did anyone realize she was his wife?

“Jake—”

The voice was familiar, soft, achingly feminine. He looked up. Oh God, he thought, feeling suddenly sick to his stomach. Why did she have to be here?

“Are you all right?”

He nodded, said nothing.

Shannon Graham reached out as if to touch him, stopped mere inches from his shoulder, her hand fluttering aimlessly in the air. “Is there anything I can do?” she asked.

He shook his head. He knew she was really asking what the hell had happened, but since he didn’t know the answer any better than she did, he said nothing.

“Is something wrong with Mattie?”

He shrugged.

“She said something strange to me this morning,” Shannon continued when Jake failed to respond. “Out of the blue, she said she wanted to change her will.”

“What?” Jake’s head snapped back, as if someone had yanked a fistful of his hair.

It was Shannon’s turn to shrug. “Anyway, if there’s anything I can do …” she offered again, her voice drifting away.

“You can keep this quiet,” Jake said, although he could feel Shannon Graham already rehearsing her speech to the other lawyers in the firm even as she walked away. There was something anticipatory, even eager, in her gait, as if she could barely wait to get where she was going. It didn’t matter. Mattie’s outburst would be old news before Shannon Graham left the building. The legal profession was the same as any other in that regard. It loved gossip. Exaggerated tales of his wife’s behavior were no doubt already sprinting through the hallowed halls of justice on their way across town, leaping from the rundown corner of California Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street where the courthouse was situated to the swank Miracle Mile of Michigan Avenue, home of Richardson, Buckley and Lang. “Did you hear about the stunt Mattie Hart pulled in court today?” “What’s the matter with Jake Hart’s wife?” “It was the damnedest thing. She just started laughing—right in the middle of his summation.”

Sometimes he wished she would just disappear.

Not that he wished Mattie any actual harm. It wasn’t that he wanted her dead, or anything like that. He just wanted her gone, out of his life, out of his head. For weeks he’d been thinking of ways to tell her it was over, that he’d fallen in love with someone else, that he was leaving her. He’d rehearsed the words as if preparing his closing argument for the jury, which was exactly what it was, he thought now, the summation of his marriage, with Mattie the jury, the judge, the Lord High Executioner.

“It’s nobody’s fault,” the speech always began, then faltered, because truth be told, it was somebody’s fault. It was his fault. Although it was her fault as well, a little voice now interjected. Her fault for getting pregnant in the first place, for insisting on having the baby, for pouncing on his reluctant offer of marriage, even though she knew it wasn’t what he wanted, that they weren’t right for one another, that it was a mistake, that he would always resent her.

“We’ve given it our best shot,” the speech continued. But he hadn’t given it his best shot, and they both knew it. Although Mattie wasn’t altogether blameless, the little voice insisted, louder now. In the beginning, she’d wrapped herself totally in the cloak of motherhood, nursing Kim at all hours of the day and night, shutting him out. And while it was true that he’d had no interest in changing diapers, and babies made him nervous, that didn’t mean he didn’t love his daughter, or that he liked being relegated to the role of casual observer in her life. He envied the easy rapport Kim shared with her mother, was envious of their bond. Kim was definitely her mother’s daughter. It was too late for her to be Daddy’s little girl.

And then last month Mattie had suddenly floated the idea of having another child, slipping it into the middle of a casual conversation, trying to disguise her enthusiasm as indifference, as if it were just another idea, something she hadn’t been thinking about night and day. And he’d known then that he couldn’t afford to wait much longer, or he would be trapped again. He had to tell Mattie he was leaving.

Except that he hadn’t told her. And now there was the distinct possibility that he’d waited too long, that she was already pregnant, that her confused and raging hormones were responsible for her strange behavior in court this morning. “Please, no,” he heard himself say out loud. “Anything but that.”

“Anything but what?”

He looked up at the sound of her voice, reached out his hand for her to take, felt a rush of excitement as her fingers laced themselves through his. What the hell? Who cared who saw them together? Besides, the courtroom was empty. It was easy to be brave.

“That was your wife, wasn’t it?” she asked, her voice full of late nights and too many cigarettes. She lowered herself into the defendant’s chair, leaning her head toward his so that her thick red curls brushed against his cheek, like a cat against a bare leg. Just last night he’d gathered those auburn curls inside the palm of his hand and squeezed them, mesmerized by their softness. And she’d looked up at him and smiled that wondrously wide smile that threatened to spill over the borders of her round face, her lips parting to reveal a bottom row of charmingly crooked teeth. What was it about her that he found so incredibly attractive?

Like the expensive silk blouse and faded denim jeans she’d artfully combined, everything about Honey Novak was mix and match. Her hair might be red and curly, but her eyebrows were defiantly black and straight. Her bosom was too big for her otherwise spindly frame, her legs too long for someone barely five foot two, and her nose slightly bent and off-angle, giving her a vaguely scattered look. She wasn’t a great beauty by anyone’s definition, and at thirty-four, hardly anyone’s idea of a younger woman. Objectively speaking, his wife was the more attractive of the two. And yet he’d always been intimidated by Mattie’s sunny, all-American good looks. They made him feel like a fraud.

“That was Mattie,” he agreed.

Honey said nothing, which was typical of Honey, who rarely spoke when she had nothing to say. They’d met several months ago at the health club in his building. He was on the treadmill, walking a brisk 4.5 miles per hour; she was jogging along beside him, the mileage on her machine registering an impressive 7.2. He made casual conversation; she replied with assorted smiles and grunts. After a few weeks he’d asked her out for coffee, and she said yes, despite the fact she knew he was married. It was just coffee, after all. The following week, coffee spilled into dinner, and the week after that, dinner served as merely an hors d’oeuvre to a passion-filled night at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. One of many, although the locale quickly shifted to her charmingly cluttered one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln Park.

He hadn’t meant to fall in love. Love was the last thing on his agenda. Didn’t he already have enough complications in his life? A one-night stand was one thing, a casual affair, as meaningless as it was brief; that was all he thought he’d signed on for. The same for her, Honey confided later. She was newly divorced, childless by choice, working as a freelance writer while trying to write a novel, and looking after two ornery cats recently abandoned by a neighboring tenant in her building. The last thing she needed, she’d told him one night, as she perched naked on his stomach in the casual chaos of her bedroom, the cats playing with their exposed toes, was to fall in love with a married man.

“Do you think she knows?” Honey asked finally. “About us?”

Jake shrugged, as he had shrugged earlier. Anything is possible, he thought, a notion that once suggested limitless freedom, but which he now found almost overwhelmingly claustrophobic.

“What are you going to do?” Honey asked.

“I can’t go home,” he told her, his voice flat, his eyes flashing rage. “I don’t think I could look at her.”

“She looked scared to death.”

“What?” What was Honey talking about?

“I saw the look on her face when she was leaving,” Honey explained. “She looked terrified.”

“She has good reason to be terrified.”

“This goes beyond reason.”

“That’s for sure.” Jake slapped his hands against his thighs, relished the sting. “Anyway, one thing at a time.” He patted the burgundy silk tie Honey had given him for good luck the night before.

“You had them,” Honey said, nodding toward the empty jury box. “You’ll get them back.”

Jake nodded, his mind already racing ahead to when court resumed. What would he say? Mattie had disrupted the most important trial of his career by laughing out loud in the middle of his summation, exposing him to ridicule, and his client to a possible mistrial. The jury, indeed everyone in the courtroom, would be waiting to see how he handled it. He couldn’t just ignore what had happened. He had to use it. Use it to his advantage.

To do that he had to wrap his anger at Mattie’s startling outburst into a neat little packet and tuck it away in a back drawer of his mind, to be opened later. This would be difficult, but not impossible. Jake had learned, almost from infancy, that his very survival depended on his ability to compartmentalize, and now someone else’s survival depended on it as well. Douglas Bryant’s fate, indeed his life, was in Jake’s hands, and Jake would save him because he understood him, because he had been privy to the same rage and frustration that had driven the boy to kill. There but for the grace of God go I, Jake thought, suddenly stiffening in his chair, dropping Honey’s hand, as the doors of the courtroom opened and people hurried to reclaim their seats.

“I love you, Jason Hart,” Honey told him.

Jake smiled. Honey was the only person in the world he allowed to call him Jason, the name his mother had given him, the name she’d screamed while beating him—Bad boy Jason! Bad boy Jason!—until the words blended together, merged as one in his mind. Badboyjason, badboyjason, badboyjason. Only on Honey’s lips did the words separate, become something other than a curse, something other than an all-inclusive definition. Only with Honey could Jason Hart leave the bad little boy behind and become the man he’d always wanted to be.

“You need a few minutes alone,” Honey stated simply, already on her feet. Mattie would have put a question mark at the end of the sentence, forcing him to make the decision, to feel guilty for shutting her out, for sending her away. But Honey always knew when to approach and when to withdraw.

“Don’t go far,” he told her, almost under his breath.

“Seventh row, center,” she told him.

Jake smiled, watching her sly wiggle—sly because she knew he was watching—as she made her way back to the visitors’ block. Seconds later the jury filed back into the room, and Douglas Bryant resumed his seat at the defense table.

“Seat’s still warm,” Douglas Bryant observed.

Jake smiled reassuringly, patting the defendant’s hand as the clerk called the court to order and the room instantly stilled. The judge returned to her seat, dark eyes wary, scanning the courtroom for potential trouble spots. “If there are any more outbursts,” she warned, “I’ll have this room cleared of spectators.”

Jake thought the warning unnecessary. Never had he heard a courtroom so still. They’re all waiting, he thought. Waiting to see how I handle things, waiting to hear what I have to say.

“Is the defense ready to continue with its closing argument?” Judge Berg asked.

Jake Hart rose to his feet. “Ready, Your Honor.”

Ready or not, Jake thought, taking a deep breath, looking toward the jury, taking another deep breath, then looking directly at the seat Mattie had occupied earlier. “You just heard a woman laugh,” he began, acknowledging the incident head-on, though not the woman’s identity. “We don’t know why she laughed. It’s not important, although it certainly was unsettling.” He chuckled softly, allowing the courtroom to chuckle along with him, to relieve some of the tension still remaining. “But the truth can be equally unsettling,” Jake continued, gently grabbing the jury by its collective throat, “and the truth in this case is that Douglas Bryant is on trial for his life.” He paused, training his deep blue eyes on each member of the jury, allowing angry tears to fill those eyes, knowing the jury would mistake his fury at Mattie for compassion toward the defendant. “Douglas Bryant is on trial for his life,” Jake repeated. “And that is no laughing matter.”

The jury sighed, like a lover responding to a well-placed caress. He’d done it, Jake thought, watching several of the women shed compassionate tears of their own. Mattie had inadvertently handed him the biggest win of his career. He’d get the not-guilty verdict, the great publicity, the offer of partnership.

And he owed it all to Mattie. As usual, he owed everything to his wife.

FOUR

Mattie stood on the outside steps of the Art Institute of Chicago, feeling the cold breeze whip across her face. “Harder,” she muttered under her breath, pushing her face forward as if daring the wind to strike her. Go on, knock me down. Send me flying. Humiliate me in front of all these well-heeled patrons of the arts. It’s no less than I deserve. Payback time for the way I humiliated my husband in court this morning. “Go on,” she whispered, still trying to make sense of what had happened. “Give it your best shot.”

“Mattie?”

Mattie spun around at the sound of her name, her mouth opening in an exaggerated smile as Roy Crawford, a man with the weathered face of a boxer and the lithe build of a dancer, approached, gray eyes twinkling beneath a full head of gray hair. He walked with his shoulders, Mattie observed, studying him as he strutted confidently toward her, right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder. Definitely cock of the walk, in his casual black trousers and cream-colored turtleneck, no coat, despite the increasing chill. Roy Crawford had made his first million before the age of thirty and had recently celebrated his fiftieth birthday by shedding wife number three and moving in with his youngest daughter’s closest friend.

“Roy,” she acknowledged, shaking his hand enthusiastically. “I’m so glad you were able to get away early.”

“I own the company,” he said easily. “I set the rules. That’s quite a grip you’ve got there.”

“I’m so sorry.” Mattie immediately released her stranglehold on his fingers.

“Nothing to be sorry about.”

Nothing to be sorry about, Mattie repeated silently, her mind spinning back to courtroom 703, the memory of what she’d done flashing before her as if caught in a strobe light, revealing images frozen in time and forever seared inside her brain. Nothing to be sorry about. Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Crawford. There’s everything to be sorry about. Starting with her ill-advised trip to court this morning, continuing with the scene she’d created, and not just any scene, the mother of all scenes, the scene from hell. Scenes from a marriage, Mattie thought sadly, knowing her husband would never forgive her, that her marriage was over, her sorry excuse for a marriage, her marriage that never really was, despite nearly sixteen years and the daughter it produced, the only thing in her life that she didn’t have to be sorry about.

“I’m really so sorry,” Mattie repeated, and promptly burst into tears.

“Mattie?” Roy Crawford’s gray eyes shifted warily from side to side, his lips pursing, relaxing, then pursing again as he reached for Mattie, gathered her now-shaking body into his arms. “What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

“I’m so sorry,” Mattie repeated again, unable to say anything else. What was happening to her? First the laughter in the courthouse, and now tears on the steps of Chicago’s famed Art Institute. Maybe it was environmental, some insidious form of lead poisoning. Maybe she was allergic to majestic old buildings. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to leave the comfort and security of Roy Crawford’s arms. It had been a long time since someone had held her with such overt tenderness. Even when she and Jake made love, and their lovemaking had remained surprisingly passionate throughout the years, it was this tenderness that was lacking. She realized now just how much she’d missed it. How much she’d missed. “I’m so sorry.”

Roy Crawford pulled back, though not away, his strong hands still resting on her upper arms, his wide fingers kneading the flesh beneath her coat. “What can I do?”

Poor guy, Mattie thought. He didn’t do anything, and yet he looks so guilty, as if he were used to making women cry and ready to assume full responsibility, regardless of his innocence. Mattie wondered for a moment whether this was the way all men felt, if they went through life afraid of the power of a woman’s tears. “Give me a minute. I’ll be fine.” Mattie offered Roy Crawford what she hoped was her most reassuring smile. But she felt her lips wobbling all over her chin and tasted salty tears burrowing between tightly clenched teeth, and Roy Crawford looked anything but reassured. In fact, he looked terrified.

Who could blame him? He thought he was meeting with his art dealer to view a photography exhibition, and what did he meet up with instead? Every man’s worst nightmare—a hysterical woman carrying on in a public place! No wonder Roy Crawford looked as if he wished the earth would open up and swallow him whole.

Still, the look of discomfort on Roy Crawford’s face was nothing in comparison to the look of sheer horror that had overtaken her husband’s entire being during her earlier outburst in court. What he must have thought! What he must be thinking now! He’d never forgive her, that much was certain. Her marriage was over, and it had ended not with accusations and recriminations but with laughter.

Mattie had fled the courthouse, hooting with laughter as she ran along California Avenue between Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Streets, not the best area in the city, she knew, noticing a drunk zigzagging across the street to avoid her. Even the winos want to get away from me, she’d thought, laughing louder, hearing footsteps and looking behind her, hoping to see Jake, instead seeing two black men with knitted wool caps pulled down around their ears, who looked the other way as they hurried past.

Her car, a white Intrepid in need of a wash, was parked at an expired meter two blocks from the courthouse. Mattie had fumbled in her purse for her keys, found them, dropped them to the sidewalk, retrieved them, dropped them again. Securing them tightly between her fingers, she’d tried repeatedly to open her car door. But the key kept turning over in her fingers, and the door remained stubbornly closed. “I must be having a stroke,” she’d announced to the row of decaying small buildings beside her. “That’s it. I’m having a stroke.”

More likely a nervous breakdown, Mattie decided. How else to explain this outrageous behavior? How else to explain her complete and utter lack of control?

The key suddenly slid into the car door. Mattie had taken a deep breath, then another, shaking her fingers, wriggling her toes inside her black suede pumps. Everything seemed to be working okay. And she’d stopped laughing, she noted gratefully, sliding behind the wheel and checking her reflection in the rearview mirror, using her car phone to call Roy Crawford, to ask if they could change the time of their meeting, possibly view the exhibition early, then discuss possible purchases afterward at lunch, her treat.

Some treat, Mattie thought now, wiping away the last of her tears, struggling for at least a semblance of control. Why hadn’t Jake followed her? Surely he had to have realized that something was wrong. Surely he had to know that her outburst hadn’t been designed to sabotage him. Although how could he know that when she wasn’t sure of it herself?

“Think you’re okay now?” Roy Crawford was asking, his eyes pleading for a simple yes.

“I’m fine,” Mattie told him, obligingly. “Thank you.”

“We could do this another time.”

“No, really, I’m fine.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” This time Roy Crawford’s eyes begged for a simple no.

“I don’t think so.” Mattie took a deep breath, watched Roy Crawford do the same. He has a very big head, she thought absently. “Shall we go inside?”

Minutes later, they were standing in front of a naked woman, artfully angled around an antiquated wash-stand so that only her buttocks and the curve of her left breast were exposed to the camera’s prying eye.

“Willy Ronis is a member of the famous triumvirate of French photographers,” Mattie was explaining in her best professional voice, trying to keep her mind in the present tense, her trained eye on the stunning display of black-and-white photographs that lined the walls of one of the institute’s more intimate downstairs rooms.

When we mix black and white together, she heard Jake interrupt, we get gray. And different shades of gray at that.

Go away, Jake, Mattie instructed silently. I’ll see you in court, she thought, and almost laughed, biting down hard on her bottom lip to ensure her silence. “The other two members of the group, of course, are Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau,” Mattie continued when she thought it was safe. “This particular picture, entitled Nu provencal, is probably Ronis’s most popular and widely exhibited photograph.”

So let’s take a few minutes and examine the varying shades of gray.

Let’s not, Mattie thought. “An interest in the nude female form is a distinguishing feature of Ronis’s work,” she said.

“Is there some reason you’re shouting?” Roy Crawford interrupted.

“Was I shouting?”

“Just a little. Nothing to get upset about,” he added quickly.

Mattie shook her head in an effort to rid herself of her husband’s voice once and for all. “Sorry.”

“Please don’t apologize,” Roy said, obviously frightened she was going to start crying again. Then he smiled, a big loopy grin that went perfectly with his big head, and Mattie understood in that instant why women of all ages found him so attractive. Part rogue, part little boy—a deadly combination.

“I’ve always wanted to go to France,” Mattie said, lowering her voice and concentrating on the photographs, trying to assure herself she was capable of normal, adult conversation, despite the fact she was undoubtedly in the middle of a total nervous collapse.

“You’ve never been?”

“Not yet.”

“I would have thought someone of your background and interests would have been to France long ago.”

“One day,” Mattie said, thinking of the many times she’d tried to sell Jake on the idea of a Paris vacation, and of his persistent refusals. Not enough time, he’d said, when what he really meant was too much time. Too much time to spend alone together. Not enough love. Mattie made a mental note to call her travel agent when she got home. She hadn’t gone to Paris for her honeymoon. Maybe she’d go there for her divorce. “Anyway,” she continued, the word stabbing at the air, startling them both, “this photograph is of Ronis’s wife in their summer cottage.”

“It’s very erotic,” Roy commented. “Don’t you think?”

“I think what makes it so sensual,” Mattie agreed, “is the almost tangible depiction of the atmosphere—you can actually feel the warmth of the sun coming in the open window, smell the air, feel the texture of the old stone floor. The nudity is part of the eroticism, but only part of it.”

“Makes you want to take off your clothes and jump right in the picture with her.”

“An interesting idea,” Mattie said, trying not to picture Roy Crawford naked, as she led her client toward another group of photographs—two men sleeping on a park bench, workers on strike relaxing on a Paris street, carpenters at work in the French countryside. “There’s an innocence to these early pictures,” Mattie said, the disquieting thought suddenly occurring to her that Roy Crawford might be flirting with her, “that’s missing from most of his later photographs. While his sympathy with the working class remains a hallmark of his work, there’s more tension in the pictures Ronis took after World War II. Like this one,” she said, directing Roy Crawford to a later photo entitled Christmas, wherein a man, a haunted expression on his solemn face, stood alone amid a crowd of people outside a Paris department store. “There isn’t the same connection between people,” Mattie explained, “and that distance often becomes the subject of the photograph. Did that make any sense?”

“There’s a distance between people,” Roy reiterated. “Makes sense to me.”

Mattie nodded. Me too, she thought, as they studied these later photographs for several minutes in silence. She felt Roy’s arm brush against the side of her own, waited for it to withdraw, was strangely pleased when it didn’t. Maybe not so much distance after all, she thought.

“I prefer these.”

Mattie felt Roy Crawford pulling away from her side, like a Band-Aid being slowly ripped from a still-fresh wound. He returned to the earlier nudes, gazing intently at the body of a young woman slouched provocatively on a chair, her head and neck just outside the camera’s range, one breast exposed, her pronounced triangle of pubic hair the focal point of the picture, her long bare legs stretching toward the camera. A man’s clothed leg appeared slyly in the left corner of the frame.

“The composition of this photograph is especially interesting,” Mattie began. “And, of course, the juxtaposition of the different textures—the wood, the stone—”

“The bare flesh.”

“The bare flesh,” Mattie repeated. Was he flirting with her?

“The simple things in life,” Roy Crawford said.

Things are rarely as simple as they sound, Mattie heard her husband say. And we all know that.

“Let’s have a look in here.” Mattie led Roy Crawford into a second set of rooms.

“What do we have here?”

“Danny Lyon,” Mattie told him, resuming her most professional voice. “Probably one of the most influential photographers in America today. As you can see, he’s a very different kind of photographer from Willy Ronis, although he does share Ronis’s interest in everyday people and current events. These are photographs he took of the burgeoning civil rights movement between 1962 and 1964, after he left our very own University of Chicago to hitchhike south and become the first staff photographer for SNCC, which you may remember stands for—”

“Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Yes, I remember it well. I was fourteen years old at the time. And you weren’t even a twinkle in your father’s eye.”

A twinkle he extinguished when he left, Mattie thought. “Actually, I was born in 1962,” she said. He had to be flirting with her.

“Which makes you—”

“About twice as old as your current girlfriend.” Mattie quickly motioned toward the first grouping of photographs, Roy Crawford’s easy laughter trailing after her. “So, what do you think? Anything catch your eye?”

“Many things,” Roy Crawford said, ignoring the photographs, looking directly at Mattie.

“Are you flirting with me?” Mattie asked with a directness that surprised both of them.

“I believe I am.” Roy Crawford smiled that big loopy grin.

“I’m a married woman.” Mattie tapped at the thin gold band on the appropriate finger of her left hand.

“Your point being?”

Mattie smiled, realized she was enjoying herself rather more than she should. “Roy,” she began, a pesky smile threatening to destroy the intended seriousness of her tone, “you’ve been my client now for how many years—five, six?”

“Longer than my last two marriages combined,” he agreed.

“And during those years, I’ve furnished your various homes and offices with art.”

“You’ve brought culture and good taste to my boorish existence,” Roy Crawford conceded gallantly.

“And in all that time, you’ve never hit on me.”

“I guess that’s right.”

“So, why now?”

Roy Crawford looked confused. His eyebrows, black as opposed to gray, bunched together at the top of his nose, creating one long bushy line.

“What’s different?” Mattie pressed.

“You’re different.”

“I’m different?”

“There’s something different about you,” Roy repeated.

“You think that just because I fell apart earlier, I might be easy prey?”

“I was hoping.”

Mattie found herself laughing out loud. It scared her, forced her to strangle the sound in her throat before she could hear it again. So now I’m afraid of my own laughter, Mattie thought, swallowing hard. “Maybe we’ve seen enough photographs for one day.”

“Time for lunch?”

Mattie twisted her wedding ring until the skin around it grew sore. It would be so easy, she thought, picturing Roy Crawford’s big head between her slim thighs. What was she worrying about? Her husband was cheating on her, wasn’t he? And her marriage was over, wasn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

“Would you mind terribly if we postponed our lunch till another day?” she heard herself ask, dropping her hands to her sides.

In response, Roy Crawford immediately lifted his hands into the air, as if one act were predicated on the other. “Your call,” he said easily.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Mattie told him minutes later, waving good-bye on the front steps.

“I’m counting on it,” he called after her.

That was really smart, Mattie thought, locating her car in the parking lot around the corner from the gallery, climbing inside. And professional. Very professional. Probably she’d never hear from Roy Crawford again, although even as the thought was crossing her mind, it was being replaced by something else, the sight of her naked body slouching provocatively on a chair, Roy Crawford’s shoe protruding slyly into the corner of her imagination. “God, you’re a sick person,” Mattie said, banishing the troubling image with a determined shake of her head.

Mattie gave her ticket to the parking lot attendant, who waved her away without any refund on her deposit. She pulled out of the lot, turned right at the first corner, left at the one after that, paying no real attention to where she was headed, wondering what to do with the rest of her day. A woman without a plan, she thought, trying to figure out what she’d say to Jake when he came home—if he came home. Maybe she should see a psychiatrist, she decided, someone who could help her deal with her frustrations, with all her pent-up hostility, before it was too late, although it was already too late, she realized. Her marriage was over. “My marriage is over,” she said simply.

Nothing is ever as simple as it sounds.

Mattie saw the traffic light several blocks ahead, registered the color red, and transferred her foot from the gas pedal to the brake. But it was as if the brake had suddenly disappeared. Frantically, Mattie began pounding her heel against the floor of the car, but she felt nothing. Her foot was asleep, she was kicking at air, and the car was going much too fast. There was no way she was going to be able to slow down, let alone stop, and there were people in the crosswalk, a man and two little children, for God’s sake, and she was going to hit them, she was going to drive her car into two innocent little children, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. She was crazy or she was having some sort of seizure, but either way, a man and two little kids would be dead if she didn’t do something about it soon. She had to do something.

In the next instant, Mattie twisted the wheel of the car sharply to the left, catapulting her into the lane of oncoming traffic and directly into the path of an approaching vehicle. The driver of the car, a black Mercedes, swerved to avoid a head-on collision. Mattie heard the squeal of tires, the crash of metal, the shattering of glass. There was a loud pop, like an explosion, as Mattie’s airbag burst open, smacking her in the chest like a giant fist, pinning her to her seat, pushing up against her face like an unwelcome suitor, robbing her of breathing space. Black and white colliding, she thought, clinging to consciousness, trying to remember what Jake had said in his summation about few things being black or white, only varying shades of gray. She tasted blood, saw the driver emerge from the other car, screaming and gesticulating wildly. She thought of Kim, beautiful sweet wonderful Kim, and wondered how her daughter would manage without her.

And then, mercifully, everything disappeared into varying shades of gray, and she saw nothing at all.

FIVE

Kim’s earliest memory was of her parents fighting.

She sat at the back of the classroom, blue ballpoint pen scribbling a series of connecting hearts across the cover of her English notebook, her head tilted toward the teacher at the green chalkboard at the front of the class, although Kim was barely aware of his presence, hadn’t heard a word he’d said all period. She shifted in her seat, looked toward the window that occupied one whole wall of the tenth-grade classroom. Not that there was anything outside to see. What was once a grassy courtyard had been paved over the previous year and filled with portables, three in all, ugly prefabricated gray structures with tiny little windows too high to look out or see in, in rooms that were either too hot or too cold. Kim closed her eyes, leaned back in her seat, wondering which it would be by the time her math class rolled around. What was she doing in this stupid school anyway? Hadn’t the whole point of moving to the suburbs been to get her out of overcrowded classrooms and into an environment more conducive to learning?

Wasn’t that what all the yelling had been about?

Not that her parents did that much actual yelling. No, their anger was quieter, trickier to get a handle on. It was the kind that lay coiled and sleepy, like snakes in a basket, until someone got careless and removed the protective lid, forgetting that the key word here was coiled, not sleepy, and that the anger was always there, ready and waiting, eager to strike. How many times had she woken up in the middle of the night, roused to consciousness by the sound of strained whispers hissing through tightly clenched teeth, and run into her parents’ bedroom to find her father pacing the floor and her mother in tears? “What’s the matter?” she would demand of her father. “Why is Mom crying? What did you do to make Mom cry?”

Kim remembered how frightened she’d been the first time she’d witnessed such a scene. She’d been, how old? Three, maybe four? She was having her afternoon nap, sleeping in her small blue brass bed, nose to nose with a large stuffed Big Bird, a slightly ratty Oscar the Grouch tucked tightly underneath her arm. Maybe she’d been dreaming, maybe not. But suddenly she was awake, and she was frightened, although she wasn’t sure why. It was then that she became aware of muffled noises from the other bedroom, Mommy and Daddy whispering, but not the way people usually whispered. These were really loud whispers, as cold and biting as a winter wind, whispers that made her cover Big Bird’s ears and hide him under the covers beside Oscar the Grouch when she went to investigate.

Kim slouched down in her seat, her right hand absently patting the tight little bun at the top of her head, checking to make sure there were no stray hairs at the base of her neck, that everything was rightly secured and in its proper place, the way she liked it. Miss Grundy, her mother sometimes teased, a laugh in her voice.

Kim liked it when her mother laughed. It made her feel secure. If her mother was laughing, it meant she was happy, and if she was happy, it meant everything was all right, her parents were going to stay together. She wasn’t about to become an unpleasant statistic and hopeless cliché, the child of a broken home, the product of a bitter divorce, like so many of her friends and classmates.

If her mother was laughing, then all was right with the world, Kim reassured herself, trying to block out the eerie sound of her mother’s laughter earlier in the day, a grating sound that was anything but happy—frantic as opposed to abandoned, closer to hysteria than genuine mirth, and like the angry whispers of Kim’s first childhood memory, too loud. Much, much too loud.

Was that it? Had her parents had another fight? Her father had gone out again last night after dinner, supposedly back to the office to prepare for today’s trial. But wasn’t one of the reasons they’d moved to the suburbs so that he’d have space for an office at home, one that came complete with computer, printer, and fax machine? Had it really been necessary for him to drive back into the city? Or was there another reason, a reason who was young and pretty and half his age, like the reason Andy Reese’s father found to walk out on his family? Or Pam Baker’s father, who was rumored to have more than one reason for abandoning his.

Or the reason Kim had seen her father kissing on a street corner, full on the lips in the middle of a sunny afternoon around the time they’d moved to Evanston, a reason who was plump and dark-haired and looked nothing like her mother at all.

Was that the reason she’d come down for breakfast this morning and found her mother standing alone in the middle of the backyard pool laughing like a lunatic?

Kim had never said anything to her mother about seeing her father with another woman. Instead she’d tried to convince herself that the woman was merely a friend, no, less than that, an acquaintance, maybe even a business acquaintance, perhaps a grateful client, although since when did one kiss clients, however grateful they may be, on the lips like that? Full on the mouth, she thought, the way Teddy Cranston had kissed her on Saturday night, his tongue gently teasing the tip of her own.

Kim brought her fingers to her lips, feeling them tingling still, as she relived the softness of Teddy’s touch, so unlike the kisses of other boys her age. Of course Teddy was a few years older than the other boys she’d dated. He was seventeen and a senior, heading off to college next fall, either Columbia or NYU, he told her confidently, depending on whether he decided to study medicine or the movies. But Saturday night, he’d seemed more interested in getting his hand inside her sweater than in getting into either medical or film school, and she’d been tempted, really tempted, to let him. All the other girls were doing it. That and more. Lots of girls her age had already gone all the way. She heard them giggling about it in the school washrooms as they hunched over the condom dispensaries. Guys hated condoms, she heard them complain, so most times they didn’t bother using them, especially after they’d done it a few times and knew the guy was all right. “You should try it, Kimbo,” one of the girls had teased, aiming a packet of condoms at her head.

“Yeah,” several of the other girls joined in, pelting her with condoms. “Try it. You’ll like it.”

Would she? Kim wondered, feeling Teddy’s invisible hand at her breast.

Her breasts, Kim thought with wonder, watching the swell of her no-longer-child’s bosom rise and fall with each breath. Last year at this time, her breasts were virtually nonexistent, and suddenly, about six months ago, there they were. No notice, no warning, no I think you’d better prepare yourself. Overnight she’d gone from an A to a C cup, and the world suddenly snapped to attention. Only with breast size, it seemed, was a C preferred to an A.

Kim recalled the hoots and hollers of the boys the first time she wore her new white Gap T-shirt to school last spring, the envious looks of the girls, the not-so-veiled glances of her teachers. Overnight, everything changed. She was suddenly popular, the object of great conjecture and gossip. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion as to her new status—she was a slut; she was an ice queen; she was a cock tease—as if her breasts had swallowed her previous self whole, and were now totally responsible for her behavior. Surprisingly, Kim discovered, she was no longer required to have opinions. It was enough she had breasts. Indeed, her teachers seemed surprised she was capable of coherent thought at all.

Even her parents were affected by this sudden and unexpected development. Her mother looked at her with a combination of amazement and concern, while her father avoided looking at her altogether and, when he did, focused so hard on her face that Kim always felt he was about to fall over.

Her phone started ringing night and day. Girls who’d never given her the time of day suddenly wanted to be her friend. Guys who’d never spoken to her in class, nerds and jocks alike, were calling her after school to ask her out: Gerry McDougal, captain of the football team; Marty Peshkin, star debater; Teddy Cranston of the melting chocolate brown eyes.

Once again, Kim’s lips tingled with the remembrance of Teddy’s gentle touch. Once again she felt his hand brush against her breast, so softly, as if it were an accident, as if he hadn’t meant to do it. But of course he’d meant exactly that. Why else was he there?

“Don’t,” she’d said softly, and he’d pretended not to hear, so she said it again, louder this time, and this time he listened, although he tried again later, and she was forced to say it again. “Don’t,” she said, thinking of her mother. “Please don’t.”

“Don’t be in too big a rush,” her mother had cautioned during one of their earlier talks about sex. “You have so much time. And even with all the precautions in the world, accidents do happen.” A slight blush suddenly stained her cheek.

“Like me?” Kim asked, having figured out long ago that a baby weighing over nine pounds was unlikely to have been three months premature.

“The best accident that ever happened to me,” her mother said, not insulting her intelligence by denying the obvious, wrapping Kim in her arms, kissing her forehead.

“Would you and Daddy have gotten married anyway?” Kim pressed.

“Absolutely,” her mother said, giving her the answer Kim wanted to hear.

I don’t think so, Kim thought now. She wasn’t blind to the way her parents looked at one another, quick glances in unguarded moments that shouted their true feelings even louder than the angry whispers that emanated with increasing regularity from behind their closed bedroom door. No way her parents would be together had it not been for her unexpected interference. She had trapped them into marriage, into being together. But the trap was old and no longer strong enough to hold them. It was only a matter of time before one of them worked up the strength and the courage to break free. And then where would little Kimbo be?

One thing was certain: she would never allow her hormones to trap her into a loveless marriage. She would choose wisely and well. Although how much choice did she really have? Hadn’t both her grandmothers been abandoned by their husbands? Kim fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat. Were the women in her family fated to choose faithless men who would one day walk out on them? Maybe it was inevitable, possibly even genetic. Perhaps it was some sort of ancient family curse.

Kim shrugged, as if trying to physically rid herself of the unpleasant thought, the sudden movement knocking her notebook to the floor, attracting the teacher’s unwanted attention. Mr. Bill Loewi, whose broad nose was too big for the rest of his narrow face and whose overly ruddy complexion betrayed his fondness for booze, turned from the chalkboard on which he was writing and stared toward the back of the class. “Problem?” he asked, as Kim scrambled to pick up her notebook, knocking over her copy of Romeo and Juliet.

“No, sir,” Kim said quickly, reaching for the book.

Caroline Smith, who sat in the row beside her, and whose big mouth was inversely proportionate to the size of her brain, leaned sideways, reaching for the slender text at the same time as Kim. “Thinking about Teddy?” she asked. She slid the index finger of her right hand into the hole created by the index finger and thumb of her left and waggled it in and out suggestively.

“Get a life,” Kim said under her breath.

“Get laid,” came the instant retort.

“Something you want to share with the rest of the class?” Mr. Loewi asked.

Caroline Smith giggled. “No, sir.”

“No, sir,” Kim concurred, returning the book to her desk, and her eyes to the front of the room.

“Why don’t we read a few lines from the text,” Mr. Loewi suggested. “Page thirty-four. Romeo declaring his love for Juliet. Kim,” he said to Kim’s breasts, “why don’t you be Juliet.”

___________

Teddy was waiting for her after class, slouching beside her locker when she went to retrieve her lunch. “I thought we could eat outside,” he suggested, unfolding his lanky frame and stretching to his full height, an inch or two above six feet. He took Kim’s hand, leading her down the locker-lined hallway, pretending to ignore the looks and whispers of the other kids. He was used to the attention. It came with being athletic, rich, and “so gorgeous you could die,” according to the caption under his picture in the latest school yearbook. “It’s really nice out,” he was saying.

“Then leave it out,” Caroline Smith volunteered from somewhere beside them. Annie Turofsky and Jodi Bates laughed uproariously by Caroline’s side.

The Three Muskatits, Kim sneered. They dressed identically, in tight jeans and tighter scoop-necked sweaters, wore their long brown hair straight and parted to one side, and their noses had all been bobbed by the same plastic surgeon, although Caroline insisted her nose job was because of a deviated septum.

“You girls are a class act,” Teddy said.

“Try us—” Annie Turofsky began.

“You’ll like us,” Jodi finished.

“Not likely,” Teddy said under his breath, picking up the pace, ushering Kim toward the side door.

“Party on Saturday night,” Caroline called after them. “Sabrina Hollander’s house. Her parents are away for the weekend. Bring your own whatever.”

“A party full of stoned fifteen-year-old girls,” Teddy said, his voice dripping sarcasm, as he pushed open the heavy door to the outside world. “Can’t wait.”

“I’m a fifteen-year-old girl,” Kim reminded him, as a cold gust of wind slapped her in the face.

“You’re not like the others,” Teddy said.

“I’m not?”

“You’re more mature.”

A C cup, Kim thought, but didn’t say. She didn’t want to scare Teddy away by being too clever, too knowing, too mature.

“How about over there?” Teddy pointed toward the students’ parking lot.

“What’s over there?” Kim asked.

“My car.”

“Oh.” She dropped her lunchbag to the ground, listened as the can of Coke she’d packed that morning began to fizz, and wondered if it was about to explode. “I thought you wanted to eat outside.”

“It’s colder than I realized.” He scooped up her lunchbag from the pavement without any obvious concern and took hold of her elbow, leading her toward the dark green, late-model Chevrolet at the farthest corner of the lot.

Had he parked it there deliberately? Kim wondered, feeling her heartbeat quicken and her breathing become short, almost painful.

Teddy pointed a remote control unit toward the car, and it squealed like a frightened pig, signaling that the doors were now open. “Let’s get in the back,” he said casually. “There’s more room there.”

Kim crawled into the backseat of the car and immediately tore into her lunch bag for her sandwich. “Tuna,” she said awkwardly, holding it out for his inspection. “I made it myself.” She started unwrapping it, stopped when she felt his breath against her cheek. She turned toward him, their noses colliding gently. “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were so close—” she began, but his lips stopped her. She heard a low moan, pulled back sharply when she realized it came from her.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she said, facing directly ahead, as if she were at a drive-in movie, talking a mile a minute, the way she always did when she was nervous, when she wanted to regain control. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to kiss him. It was that she wanted to kiss him so badly, she could barely see straight. “I just think maybe we should eat. I’m in classes all afternoon, and then I promised my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Grandma Viv,” she explained, knowing that Teddy, whose hand was massaging the back of her neck, couldn’t have cared less about her Grandma Viv, “I told her that I’d come by after school. She had to have one of her dogs put to sleep yesterday. It was really sick and everything, and she said it was looking at her with those eyes, you know, those eyes that said it was time, but still, she’s really upset about it, so I said I’d drop by She’ll be okay in a few days, once one of her other dogs has its litter. Then she’ll have something to take her mind off Duke. That was the dog’s name. It was part collie, part cocker spaniel. Really smart. My grandmother says that mutts are much smarter than purebreds. Do you have a dog?”

“A yellow Lab,” Teddy said, a sly smile spreading from his lips to his eyes as he lifted the tunafish sandwich from Kim’s hand and returned it to its bag. “Purebred.”

Kim rolled her eyes, then closed them. “I’m sure it’s a really smart dog.”

“He’s as dumb as dirt.” Teddy ran his fingers across the top of Kim’s lips. “Your grandmother was right.”

“I don’t have a dog,” Kim said, eyes opening as the tips of Teddy’s fingers disappeared inside her mouth, making speaking all but impossible. “My mother hates dogs,” she persisted stubbornly, talking around them. “She says she’s allergic, but I don’t think she is. I just don’t think she likes them.”

“What about you?” Teddy was asking, his voice husky, as he leaned forward to kiss the side of Kim’s mouth. “What do you like?”

“What do I like?”

“Do you like this?” He began kissing the side of her neck.

Oh yes, Kim answered silently, holding her breath, aware of the growing tingle beneath her flesh.

“What about this?” His lips moved toward her eyes, brushing against the lashes of her closed lids. “Or this?” He covered her mouth with his own. She felt his tongue gently prying her lips apart, as one hand caressed the nape of her neck and the other hand began its slow slide across the front of her sweater. Could anything feel more delicious? she wondered, her entire body vibrating. Except that the vibrations weren’t internal; they were coming from somewhere outside her body.

“Oh, my God,” she said, her hand slapping the pocket of her jeans. “It’s my beeper.”

“Ignore it,” Teddy said, trying to coax her back into his arms.

“I can’t. I’m one of those compulsive personalities. I have to know who it is.” Kim extricated her beeper, pressed the button to see who was paging her, and watched the unfamiliar number flash across its face, followed by the numbers 911, indicating an emergency. “Something’s wrong,” she said. “I have to get to a phone.”

SIX

“Oh, my God, get me out of here. Get me out of here.”

“Try to stay calm, Mattie. It’s important for you to keep very still.”

“Get me out of here. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

“You’re breathing fine, Mattie. Just stay calm. I’m taking you out now.”

Mattie felt the narrow table on which she was lying start to move, propelling her, feet first, out of the monstrous MRI machine. She tried to suck in the surrounding air, but it was as if someone were standing on her chest in stiletto heels. The heels dug into her thin blue hospital gown, piercing her flesh, puncturing her lungs, making even shallow breathing painful, almost impossible.

“You can open your eyes now, Mattie.”

Mattie opened her eyes, felt them instantly fill with tears. “I’m sorry,” she told the female medical technician, who was small, dark, and alarmingly young. “I don’t think I can do this.”

“It’s pretty scary,” the technician agreed, gently patting Mattie’s bruised forearm. “But the doctor was pretty anxious for the results.”

“Has someone called my husband?”

“I believe he’s been notified, yes.”

“What about Lisa Katzman?” Mattie propped herself up on her elbows, inadvertently dislodging the pillows that had been placed on either side of her head. Pain, like thousands of tiny daggers, shot through her joints. There wasn’t a part of her that didn’t ache. Damn airbag almost killed me, Mattie thought, manipulating her sore jaw.

“Dr. Katzman will be waiting for you when we’re finished in here.” The technician, whose name tag identified her as Noreen Aliwallia, managed a small smile as she repositioned the pillows.

“How long will that be?”

“About forty-five minutes.”

“Forty-five minutes?!”

“I know it sounds like a long time—”

“It is a long time. You know what it feels like inside that thing? It feels like being buried alive.” Why am I giving her a hard time? Mattie wondered, longing for the sound of her friend Lisa’s reassuring voice, the voice of calm and reason that had soothed her since childhood.

“You were in a car accident,” Noreen Aliwallia reminded Mattie patiently. “You lost consciousness. You suffered a serious concussion. The MRI is to make sure there aren’t any hidden hematomas.”

Mattie nodded, trying to recall exactly what the initials MRI stood for. Something about magnetic imaging, whatever that meant. A fancy name for X rays. The neurologist had already explained it to her when she’d regained consciousness in the emergency room, but she was only barely paying attention, her mind trying to come to grips with exactly what had happened. Her head was pounding, her mouth tasted of dried blood, and she was having difficulty remembering the precise order of things. Everything hurt, although they told her that, miraculously, no bones were broken. Then suddenly she was being wheeled into the basement of whatever hospital she was in—they’d told her which one it was, but she couldn’t remember—and this young woman, this x-ray technician with the mellifluous name, Noreen Aliwallia, who looked like she was fresh out of high school, asked her to lie down on this really narrow table and put her head inside a coffinlike box.

The MRI machine resembled a large steel tunnel. It took up most of the small, windowless room, whose dingy white walls were void of adornment. At the entrance to the tunnel was a rectangular box with a circular hole. Mattie had been given a set of ear plugs—“It gets a little noisy in there,” she was told—and pillows were placed on both sides of her head to keep it still. A buzzer was placed in her hand, to use if she felt she was about to sneeze or cough or do anything that might disturb the operation of the machine. If she moved at any time during the procedure, Noreen explained, the X ray would be ruined, and they’d have to start over from the beginning. Close your eyes, Noreen had advised. Think pleasant thoughts.

The panic started almost as soon as Mattie’s head was fitted inside the box, and the top of the box was extended past her face to her chest, so that even with her eyes closed, it felt as if she were lying in her grave, as if she were suffocating. Then the table on which she was lying began its slow slide into the long narrow tunnel, and she felt like one of those Russian dolls, a doll within a doll within a doll, and she knew she had to get out of this damn machine that was worse than the accident, worse than the air bag, worse than anything she’d experienced in her entire life. She had to get out or she would die, and so she started screaming for the technician to help her, forgetting about the buzzer, forgetting about everything but her panic, until Noreen told her she could open her eyes, and she started to cry, because she hurt all over, and she was acting like a baby, and she’d never felt so alone in her entire life.

And now Noreen Aliwallia was asking her to push all that fear and loneliness aside and do it again, and Mattie was thinking, no, she’d rather risk internal bleeding in her brain and whatever else might be lurking there than go through that again. She’d always harbored a secret fear of suffocating, of being buried alive. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it.

“You’ll bring me out if I start to panic?” she heard herself ask. What was the matter with her? Was she crazy?

“Just press the buzzer. I’ll bring you right out.” Noreen’s surprisingly strong arms lowered Mattie’s shoulders back to the table. “Just try to relax. You might even fall asleep.”

Oh God, oh God, oh God, Mattie thought, eyes tightly closed, left hand gripping the buzzer against the pounding of her heart, as once again her head was placed inside the box, the top of which slid down over her face to her chest, plunging her into total darkness and abject despair. I can’t breathe, Mattie thought. I’m suffocating.

“So, how long have you known Dr. Katzman?” Noreen asked, obviously straining to distract Mattie.

“Since forever,” Mattie replied through tightly clenched teeth, picturing Dr. Lisa Katzman as a freckle-faced child. “She’s been my best friend since we were three years old.”

“That’s amazing,” Noreen said, her words trailing off as she abandoned Mattie’s side. “I’m going to start the machine now, Mattie. How are you doing?”

Not great, Mattie thought, as the table beneath her began to move, carrying her into the body of the machine. Stay calm. Stay calm. It’ll all be over soon. Forty-five minutes. That’s not so long. It’s very long. It’s almost an hour, for God’s sake. I can’t do this. I have to get out. I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating.

“The first series of X rays are going to start now,” Noreen said. “It’s going to sound a bit like horses’ hooves, and it’ll last about five minutes.”

“And then what?” Keep breathing, Mattie told herself. Stay calm. Think pleasant thoughts.

“And then there’ll be a break of a few minutes, and then some more X rays. Five in all. Are you ready?”

No, I’m not ready, Mattie screamed silently over the sound of horses approaching from the distance. This is interesting, Mattie found herself thinking, her panic temporarily diverted by the loud clip-clop, clip-clop, as behind tightly closed eyes, a team of black-and-white stallions raced toward her. Black and white, she mused. Things are rarely black or white, only varying shades of gray. Where had she heard that?

The accident, she thought, suddenly back in her car, watching helplessly as it swerved into oncoming traffic. Black and white colliding. Varying shades of gray. What had she been thinking?

“You okay, Mattie?”

Mattie grunted, trying to pretend the top of the box wasn’t inches from her nose. I have lots of space, she told herself. I’m lying on an empty, white, sandy beach in the Bahamas, and my eyes are closed, and the ocean is lapping at my toes. And a hundred horses are galloping toward me, she thought, about to bury me alive beneath the sand, as the noise of the second set of X rays began. Stay calm. Stay calm. The buzzer is in your hand. You can press it at any time. Think positive thoughts. Think calm. You’re on a beach in the Bahamas. No, it’s not working. You’re not on a beach in the Bahamas. You’re on a table in a hospital in the middle of Chicago. They’re taking pictures of the inside of your head. What will they say when they discover it’s empty?

I can’t breathe. I’m suffocating. I have to get out of here.

Think positive thoughts. Think about lying in your bed. No, that’s no good. When was the last time you felt safe and secure in bed? Not since I was a little girl, Mattie thought, immediately picturing herself as a sober-faced child, lying under her blue-and-white quilt, her father sitting by her head, his backside propped against the headboard as he read to her from one of her favorite bedtime stories. “That’s all for tonight, Mattie,” she heard him say, kissing her forehead, the soft prickle of his mustache grazing her tender skin.

“Will you sit with me until I fall asleep?” she’d ask, the same question every night.

And every night he’d answer, “You’re a big girl now, you don’t need me to sit with you,” even as he was settling in at the foot of her bed, even when her mother was calling him, even when she was standing right outside the door, one impatient hand folded over the other, and still he’d sit at the foot of her bed until she fell asleep, no matter how long it took.

“Third set coming up now,” Noreen announced.

How much time had elapsed? Mattie wondered, about to ask the question out loud when the sound of fresh horses stopped her. That, and another sound. The sound of banging, as if someone were hammering on the top of the tunnel. How was she supposed to fall asleep if they kept up that loud banging?

The noise reminded her of when she renovated the kitchen, the workmen tearing out the existing cabinets, replacing them with newer designs, Jake refusing to let her exchange their old electric range for the gas oven she preferred, complaining about the mess, about not being able to find anything, about not being able to think with that incessant racket.

Oh, God—Jake. This morning in the courtroom. His summation. Her laughter, so unexpected, so inappropriate. The look on Jake’s face. The judge pounding her gavel, the unpleasant sound foreshadowing the banging of the X ray machine. So loud. Did it have to be so loud? And that vibration in her ears, like a swarm of pesky bees, except this was worse because it felt as if the bees were inside her, that they were buzzing around frantically in her skull, desperate to find a way out.

“Is it almost over?” Mattie asked, as the horses retreated and the vibrations shuddered to a halt.

“Three down. Two to go. You’re doing great.”

Just a few more minutes, Mattie, she heard her father say. You’re doing great.

When can I see it? her child’s voice asked impatiently.

Right … now. Her father backed away from his makeshift easel in the middle of the unfinished basement, standing back proudly as she rushed to his side.

Mattie stared long and hard at the portrait her father had been working on for weeks, desperate to keep the disappointment out of her face. The picture didn’t look anything like her at all.

What do you think?

I think you should stick to selling insurance, her mother’s voice announced from out of nowhere. Mattie hadn’t even heard her come downstairs.

I think it’s beautiful, Mattie said, immediately coming to her father’s defense.

Whatever happened to that picture? Mattie wondered now. Had her father taken it with him when he abruptly quit his job and left town? She almost cried out, stopping herself in time, before she ruined the X rays and they had to start over from the beginning. That’s what I’d like to do with my life, she thought. Start over from the beginning. Do it right this time. Find a father who wouldn’t leave. Find a mother who preferred people to pets. Choose a husband who chose her over other women. Discover something about herself that someone else could love.

“Here we go. Number four.”

Almost over, Mattie told herself, as the increasingly invasive vibrations from the fourth series of X rays began. She felt as if she were holding her breath under water, as if her lungs were about to burst. She pictured herself hunched over the side of her backyard pool, waiting for her foot to stop tingling. What a strange day, she thought, recalling her spill on the carpet as her sleeping foot failed to find the floor. She’d started the day with thoughts of killing her husband and ended up almost killing herself. Not to mention that little courtroom episode in between.

Mattie wondered if Jake would be waiting for her when she was released, or if he’d already packed his bags and left. Like her father, who’d left for greener pastures. For parts unknown. For he’s a jolly good fellow. God help me. I have to get out of here, Mattie thought, before I completely lose my mind.

“Last one.”

Mattie took a deep breath, although her body remained rigid. Premature rigor mortis, she thought, perfectly suitable for being buried alive. She braced herself for the approach of the galloping herd, already anticipating the banging above and beside her head, dreading the coming vibrations. Was Jake here? she wondered. Had they been able to reach him? How had he reacted to the news of her accident? Did he care at all? Was he relieved, or disappointed, when he found out she was still alive?

The vibrations filled her mouth, invading her teeth, like a dentist’s drill. Soon the drill would shatter her teeth and assault her roots, boring a hole through her gums directly into her brain. Talk about hidden hematomas. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to get out. She had to get out now. She didn’t care if the ordeal was almost over, that the X rays would be ruined. She had to get out of this damn machine. Get out now.

“That’s it. We’re done,” Noreen Aliwallia announced, as Mattie felt her body being spit out of the machine and the lid of the coffin lifted from her head. Mattie sucked at the air with the eagerness and ferocity of a newborn baby at her mother’s breast. “You were great,” Noreen Aliwallia said.

___________

“So, tell me exactly what happened,” Lisa Katzman was saying, her voice deep and strong, in surprising contrast to her tiny, birdlike frame. Short brown hair hugged a narrow oval face dusted with freckles; her nose turned up sharply at its slender tip; her mouth curved down into a natural frown, so that only her eyes revealed when she was smiling. She sat perched at the side of Mattie’s hospital bed, wearing a white lab coat over black sweater and pants, the pants tucked inside ankle-length, black leather boots. She had on her best doctor’s face, but Mattie could see the worry staining her friend’s soft brown eyes.

“I wish I knew.” Mattie adjusted the meager pillow at her back, stared at the decorative floral print on the pale green wall behind Lisa’s head.

“You told the neurologist your foot fell asleep?”

“Yeah. It was the damnedest thing. I couldn’t feel the brake. I kept poking at where I knew it should be, but I couldn’t feel anything. It was creepy.”

“Has this happened before?”

“It happened earlier in the day. I couldn’t feel the floor, and I fell. Is Jake here?”

“He was. He had to get back to work.”

“How did he seem?”

“Jake? Fine. Concerned about you, of course.”

Of course, Mattie thought.

“So, this afternoon and this morning, those are the only times this sort of thing has happened?”

“Well, no. It’s happened before. You know how sometimes your foot falls asleep.” Mattie’s voice drifted to a stop. Why was Lisa asking her these questions? “What are you getting at?”

“How many times?” Lisa asked, ignoring Mattie’s question, lips twitching downward, eyes still smiling, trying to act as if these queries were strictly routine. “Once a week? Every day?”

“Maybe a few times a week.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“I don’t know. A couple of months, maybe.”

“Why didn’t you say anything about this before?”

“I didn’t think there was anything to worry about. I can’t call you over every little thing.”

Lisa gave her a look that said, Since when?

“I don’t understand the problem,” Mattie continued. “Doesn’t everybody’s foot fall asleep occasionally?”

“Was today the first time you fell?”

Mattie nodded vigorously. She was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation, had no interest in pursuing it further. Where was Lisa Katzman, her friend? Lisa Katzman, the doctor, was starting to get on her nerves. “Has anybody contacted Kim?”

“Jake called her. He’ll bring her by later to see you. He thinks she should stay at your mother’s until you come home.”

“My mother’s? Poor kid. She’ll never forgive me.”

“You won’t be here long enough for her to work up a serious hate. Jake told me that you laughed out loud in the middle of his address to the jury,” Lisa said, as if one thought naturally followed the other.

“He told you that? Oh God, was he very upset?”

“I thought you decided not to go to the courthouse.” The look on Lisa’s face said, Why do you ask my advice if you’re not going to take it?

I couldn’t help myself, Mattie answered with her eyes, the conversation continuing silently for several seconds, no need for words.

“Why did you laugh?” Lisa asked suddenly.

“I don’t know,” Mattie answered honestly. “It just kind of popped out.”

“Were you thinking of something funny?”

“Not that I remember.”

“You just started laughing?”

“Yes,” Mattie agreed. “Why? What has that got to do with anything?”

“Has that happened before?”

“Has what happened before?”

“Laughing for no reason. Or crying. Any reactions that are out of whack with the situation.”

“It’s happened a few times,” Mattie told her, thinking of her tears on the steps of the Art Institute, feeling adrift and wobbly, like a balloon that was slowly losing air.

“In the last couple of months?”

“Yes.”

“What about your hands? Any tingling sensation there?”

“No.” She paused. “Well, sometimes I have trouble with my keys.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“They don’t always want to fit in the lock.”

Lisa looked alarmed, tried to disguise it by coughing into her hand. “Any problems swallowing?”

“No.”

“Is there anything you’re not telling me?”

“Like what?” Mattie asked. “You know I tell you everything.” She paused, brushed some imaginary hairs away from her forehead. She’d told Lisa all about Jake’s latest affair. “You think this could be stress related?”

“Could be.” Lisa leaned over, took Mattie’s hands in her own, tried to push her lips into a smile. “Let’s wait till we get the results of the MRI.”

“And then what?”

Lisa straightened her shoulders, assumed her most professional demeanor. “Let’s take this thing one day at a time, shall we?” But the smile in her eyes was gone, and only the frown remained.

SEVEN

Two days later Jake picked Mattie up at the hospital. She looked lost inside the jeans and sweatshirt she’d asked him to bring from home—so thin, so bruised, so delicate in her movements he worried she might collapse before he got her to the car. He realized that he was uncomfortable seeing her this way, not because he felt her pain—part of him was still so angry with her that he was glad she was in pain—but because such frailty was a form of dependence, and he didn’t want Mattie to be dependent. Not on him. Not anymore.

Jake flinched at the selfishness of his thoughts, waiting as the orderly assisted Mattie out of the wheelchair that hospital policy dictated be taken to the lobby. Mattie smiled, a tentative and token gesture that only emphasized her obvious discomfort, and shuffled slowly toward him, pale purple blotches staining her cheeks, large yellow circles rimming her eyes, like old-fashioned monocles. Jake knew that he should be the one helping her, the one whispering words of reassurance in her ear, but all he could manage was a tired smile of his own and a few careless words about her looking pretty good for a woman whose car had collapsed around her like an accordion.

Jake dutifully took Mattie’s elbow, adjusting his gait to hers as he slowly led her out the front door of the hospital. Immediately, Mattie raised a trembling hand to her eyes, shielding them from the harsh light of the midday sun. “Wait here,” Jake told her at the top of the outside steps. “I’ll get the car.”

“I can come with you,” she offered, her voice weak.

“No. It’ll be faster this way. I’ll just be half a second. The car’s right there.” He pointed vaguely toward the parking lot. “I’ll be right back.”

He walked quickly to the lot, his head lowered against the cool autumn winds, and located his dark green BMW, climbing inside, money already in hand to pay the attendant. By the time he got back, two minutes at most, Mattie had made her way down the stairs and was waiting for him by the side of the road. She was asserting her independence, letting him know she could take care of herself. Good, he thought. That’s exactly what we want.

Why was it that he had an abundance of compassion for a killer like Douglas Bryant and, curiously, none at all for his wife? Couldn’t he get past his anger at her bizarre behavior and show some genuine concern for her welfare? She was obviously as puzzled by what had happened as he was, although they hadn’t actually discussed it. Besides, what was the point in talking about it now? It was over and done with.

As their marriage would be by the end of the day.

He’d already taken most of his clothes over to Honey’s, transferred his toiletries to the bathroom downstairs. Kim was still staying with Mattie’s mother. By the time she returned home tomorrow, he’d be all but gone. Of course he’d wait a few days before actually leaving, until Mattie was stronger, until he was comfortable she could function on her own. He’d talk to Kim later, explain the reasons he was leaving, try to convince her of the merits of his case. Jake laughed, pulling the car to the curb in front of Mattie, running around to open her door. Kim would be much harder to win over than any jury. She was every inch her mother’s daughter. He doubted he stood a chance.

“Watch your head,” he advised, guiding Mattie inside the car.

“I’m fine,” she told him.

She was fine, Jake repeated with relief. There were no broken bones, no crippling injuries, no bruises that wouldn’t be gone by the end of next month. The MRI had showed no internal bleeding, no tumors, no abnormalities of any kind. “There’s nothing in my head at all,” Mattie had laughed over the telephone, with obvious relief, the sound of her laughter a bitter reminder of the scene she had caused.

“Tired?” he asked her now, pulling into the street and heading toward Lakeshore Drive.

“A little.”

“Maybe you’ll sleep for a while when we get home.”

“Maybe.”

They said nothing further until they reached Sheraton Road in Evanston. How had he let himself get roped into living all the way out here? Jake wondered, eyes drifting from the stately mansions on his left to the cold waters of Lake Michigan on his right. Absently, he checked his watch, was surprised to see it was almost two o’clock. He wondered what Honey was doing, whether she was wondering the same thing about him.

“Do you think she knows?” Honey had asked him again the other night. “About me,” she added, unnecessarily, when he failed to respond. “Do you think that’s why she did it? Out of spite?”

He shook his head. Who knew why women did anything?

“She’s very pretty.”

“I guess,” he said.

“What happens when she gets out of the hospital?” Honey asked, lying beside him in bed.

“What happens now?” Mattie was asking, sitting beside him in the front seat of the car.

“What?” Jake found himself gripping the wheel so tightly his fingers cramped. Mattie was truly a mind reader. She could just reach into his brain whenever she felt like it and pull out whatever stray thoughts were lurking about. He’d have to be more careful. Even his thoughts weren’t safe.

“Are you going back to the office after you drop me off?”

“No,” he said. “I hadn’t planned to.”

“That’s nice,” she told him simply. No, “Oh please, don’t stay home on my account.” No, “It’s really not necessary.” No false sentiments. No words she thought he wanted to hear.

She would not make this easy for him.

“Congratulations again,” Mattie offered quietly, staring into her lap. She’d called his office from the hospital shortly after the verdict was announced. A mere twenty-seven hours after the jury had retired to deliberate, Douglas Bryant was a free man, and Jake Hart was a star. “I heard the good news,” she’d ventured weakly. “I wanted to congratulate you.” He’d brushed her good wishes aside, was about to do the same now. “I’m so sorry—” she began.

“Don’t,” he interrupted.

“—for the scene I caused.”

“It’s over.”

“I don’t know what came over me.”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“Lisa thinks there might be a medical explanation.”

“A medical explanation?” Jake felt the bile rise in his throat, coating his voice in derision. How dare Mattie try to find a medical excuse for her appalling behavior? “That’s a good one.”

“You’re still angry,” Mattie said, stating the obvious.

“No. I’m not. Forget it.”

“I think we should talk about it.”

“What’s to talk about?” he asked, the large BMW beginning to feel like a small cell. Did she always have to start things in places where he couldn’t just get up and walk out? Was that why she often waited until they were in the car to have these discussions? Because then he couldn’t leave?

“You have to know that I would never deliberately embarrass you like that.”

“Do I?” he asked, feeling himself being sucked in, despite his best intentions. “Why did you come to court, Mattie?”

“Why did you ask me not to?” she countered.

“Objection,” he said. “Irrelevant and argumentative.”

“Sorry,” Mattie apologized quickly. “I wasn’t trying to upset you.”

You don’t have to try, Jake thought, but didn’t say, deciding that the best course was to say nothing at all until after they were home. He reached over and turned up the volume on the radio, catching Mattie wince out of the corner of his eye. A medical reason for embarrassing him in court, he marveled. He wasn’t getting out a moment too soon.

___________

It wasn’t until after her nap that she noticed his clothes were gone.

He heard her wandering around above his head, opening and closing closet doors, pulling open dresser drawers. He pictured the puzzled expression tugging at her even features, making creases in her brow, distorting the gentle curve of her lips. “Jake?” he heard her call, her footsteps on the stairs.

He was sitting on the smaller of two burgundy leather sofas in what was originally a den but was now his office, facing an elegant marble-framed fireplace that was flanked on either side by built-in bookshelves, the books neatly arranged in alphabetical order, one side for fiction, the other for biographies and legal texts. Various college diplomas hung on the wood-paneled walls; a floral needlepoint rug, in shades of blue and rose, lay across the hardwood floor. His desk, a special-order, hand-carved oak table, home to the latest in computer technology, sat at the far end of the room, in front of a wall of windows, overlooking the wide, tree-lined street. All in all, a room that was both practical and pleasing to the eye, a room in which to work or relax. Mattie had done a nice job with it. He should have used it more, he thought, fighting off unwanted twinges of guilt.

Not guilty! he wanted to jump up and shout. I am not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty.

“What’s going on, Jake?” Mattie asked from the doorway.

Reluctantly, he turned his head toward her, an involuntary shudder disturbing his otherwise placid demeanor, a demeanor he’d been practicing since Mattie lay down several hours ago for her nap. Did she have to look so damn vulnerable? he wondered, staring past the swelling beneath her eyes. Sleep had darkened her bruises, deepened the scratches on her face and neck. Now was probably the wrong time to do this. Maybe he should wait until she was fully recovered, at least until the bruises disappeared.

Except by then another month would be gone, another month of feeling guilty and alone and trapped and resentful, and by then something else would have come up. Something else to keep him here. And he couldn’t risk that. If he stayed, he would suffocate. If he didn’t leave, and leave now, he would die. It was as simple as that.

In a way, Mattie’s strange outburst in court had been a blessing in disguise. It had given him the courage at long last to do what needed to be done. He shouldn’t feel guilty. He was only giving voice to what both of them had been thinking for years.

Jake stood up and motioned Mattie toward the sofas, but she shook her head, no, choosing to stand. Stubborn as ever, Jake thought. And tough. Tougher than he was. She’d be just fine.

“Where are all your things?” she asked.

Jake sank back into his seat, heard the squish of leather as he tried to find a comfortable position. Maybe Mattie didn’t need to sit down, but he sure did. “I think it’s best if I move out,” he heard himself say.

The color drained from her face, further accentuating the blotches of conflicting hues that stained her skin, so that she looked like a portrait by one of those German expressionist painters she was so crazy about. “If this is about what happened in court—”

“This isn’t about what happened in court.”

“I’ve apologized—”

“This isn’t about that.”

“What is it about?” she asked, lips barely moving, voice flat.

“It’s not about blame. It’s nobody’s fault,” he said, trying to find his place in the script he’d been rehearsing for weeks.

“What is it about?” she repeated.

Jake watched Mattie’s body fold into the wall, as if she were using it for support. Was she going to faint? “Don’t you think you should sit down?”

“I don’t want to sit down,” Mattie said, spitting each word into the space between them. “I can’t believe you’re doing this now.”

“I’m not leaving right away. Not for a few days,” he backtracked, as she tossed his words aside with a wave of her hand, a shake of her head.

“I just got home from the hospital, for God’s sake. I was in a car accident, in case you’ve forgotten. It hurts me to breathe.”

It hurts me to breathe too, Jake wanted to shout. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?”

“I wish things were different.”

“That’s obvious,” Mattie said, a scoff in her voice, her bruised hand pulling the hair at the top of her head with such vehemence Jake thought she might rip it right out of her scalp. “So, let me see if I’ve got this straight,” she began, not giving him the chance to interject. “You’re leaving me, but it has nothing to do with the scene I created in court, that was probably just a catalyst. It’s nobody’s fault, this isn’t about blame. Right? And you’re sorry you had to tell me as soon as I got home from the hospital, you know the timing sucks, but there’s never going to be a good time for this sort of thing. How am I doing so far? Oh, yes, we haven’t been happy in years, we only got married in the first place because of Kim, we’ve given it our best shot, fifteen years is nothing to sneeze at. We should feel proud, not sad. Right? This is going to work out great for both of us. In fact, you’re probably doing me a favor.” She paused, arched one eyebrow. “What do you say? Think I’m onto something?”

Jake released a deep whoosh of air from his lungs, said nothing. He’d been a fool to think he might emerge from this discussion unscathed. Mattie would have her pound of flesh. By the time he walked out the front door, he’d be as battered and bruised as she was.

Mattie walked to the fireplace, leaned against it, her back to him. “Are you moving in with your little friend?”

Jake felt his body turn to ice. “What?”

“I think you heard me.”

He looked toward the window, not sure how to respond. What was happening? Even Mattie’s outburst had been somewhat expected. But not this. This wasn’t part of the script. What should he tell her? How much should he tell her? How much did she really want to know? How much did she already know? “I’m not sure I understand,” he said, stalling.

Mattie spun around, eyes on fire, ready for battle. “Oh, please,” she said. “Don’t insult my intelligence. You think I don’t know about your latest girlfriend?”

How could she know? Jake thought, wondering how he could have come to this confrontation so unprepared. Didn’t a good attorney always do his homework? Didn’t he come to the table with all the pertinent facts at hand, so that there would be no unpleasant surprises? Still, how could Mattie know? Was she just posturing? Should he continue to feign ignorance? Call her bluff? “How did you find out?” he asked, opting for full disclosure.

“The same way I always find out.” She shook her head, a gesture rife with disgust. “For such a smart lawyer, you can be awfully stupid.”

Jake felt his back stiffen. “I was hoping we wouldn’t make this personal,” he said.

“Not personal? You’re leaving me for another woman, and you don’t think it’s personal?”

“I was hoping we wouldn’t get into name calling. That we could still be friends,” he offered weakly.

“You want to be friends?”

“If that’s possible.”

“When have we ever been friends?” she asked, her voice incredulous.

He looked toward the floor, fixating on the arcs and swirls in the dark wood grain. “Doesn’t that tell you anything?”

“No. What should it tell me?”

“Mattie,” Jake began, then stopped. What was he going to say? She was right. They’d never been friends. Why on earth would they start now? “How long have you known?”

“About this one? Not long.” She shrugged, winced, walked to the window, stared out at the street. “By the way, how was your room at the Ritz-Carlton? It’s always been one of my favorite hotels.”

“You had me followed?”

Mattie laughed, a harsh, angry sound that scratched at the air like a cat’s claws, leaving almost visible scars. “Irrelevant and argumentative,” she snapped, using his earlier words as a weapon against him.

“What were you planning to do about it?”

“I hadn’t made up my mind.”

There was a long pause during which neither spoke. So she knew all about his affair. Jake wondered if Mattie had spotted Honey in court, if that had prompted her outburst. Was she really as vindictive as that? Or had her laughter been as spontaneous as Mattie claimed, as upsetting to her as it had been to him? He didn’t know, Jake realized, wincing with invisible pain of his own. He didn’t know his wife of fifteen years very well at all.

“Maybe your subconscious made it up for you,” Jake said simply.

“Maybe,” she agreed quietly, turning slowly toward him, silhouetted against the fading light of day. Even in this light, Jake could see that the anger had left her eyes. Its sudden departure had softened her stance, released the tight arch of her shoulders. She looked smaller, more achingly vulnerable than at any time he could remember. “So, it’s over,” was all she said.

Jake wasn’t sure what had prompted the abrupt change in Mattie’s attitude, whether she realized he was right, or that there was nothing to be gained by arguing, or that she simply didn’t have the strength for further protestations. Maybe she was as grateful as he was that everything was finally out in the open, so that they could get on with their lives. She was still young. She was undeniably lovely, even covered in bruises. He turned away, dismayed by the unexpected stirring in his loins. What was wrong with him, for God’s sake? Wasn’t this precisely what had gotten them into this mess in the first place?

“I think you should go now,” Mattie said.

“What?” Jake was confused by this sudden turn of events, his mind twisting and turning like a sailboat caught in an unexpected eddy. Hadn’t he already told her he would stay a few days, until she was feeling stronger? Hadn’t he shown her that, despite everything, he was still prepared to be responsible, caring, magnanimous? How could she be so dismissive?

“There’s no reason for you to stay,” Mattie told him matter-of-factly. “I’ll be fine.”

“Why don’t I stay until tomorrow—” he began.

“I’d rather you didn’t. Really, there’s no need.”

Jake sat absolutely still for several moments before pushing himself off the sofa, only to find himself standing motionless in the center of the room, not sure what was expected of him at this point, whether he should stick with his game plan, insist that he stay, whether he should wave and walk out the door, whether he should give Mattie a final kiss good-bye.

“Good-bye, Jake,” Mattie told him evenly, once again reaching inside his head, making the decision for him. “You’re doing the right thing,” she said, catching him by surprise. “Maybe not for the right reason. But it is the right thing.”

Jake smiled, torn between the conflicting urges to take her in his arms or jump up and down for joy. It was over, he was free, and aside from a few tense moments, it had been relatively painless, even easy. Of course, this was just the beginning. They hadn’t started talking about money, about dividing their assets. Who knew what would happen once the lawyers got involved?

Lawyers, he thought, leaving the room and crossing the large central foyer to the front door. Definitely a breed apart.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, as Mattie, only steps behind him, jumped ahead of him to open the door, as if he were a guest in her home, and an unwelcome guest at that. Even before he reached his car, Jake heard the front door close behind him.

EIGHT

“What do you mean, you just let him walk out of here? Are you crazy?”

“I’m fine, Lisa. There was no reason for him to stay.”

“No reason for him to stay?” Lisa pushed a stray wave of hair away from her forehead. Mattie understood that the gesture was born of frustration more with Mattie than with her hair, which always looked perfect. “How about the fact that you were in a serious car accident, that you suffered a concussion, that you just got home from the hospital today?”

“I can manage.”

“You can manage,” Lisa repeated numbly, getting up from her seat at the kitchen table to pour herself another cup of coffee. She’d driven to Evanston to check on Mattie as soon as her office hours were through, and she was still wearing her white doctor’s robe over her navy sweater and pants. Mattie had made a fresh pot of coffee, unfrozen some banana-cranberry muffins, and calmly announced to her horrified friend that she and Jake had decided to separate. “What if you fall?” Lisa was asking, a not unreasonable question considering that Mattie had already experienced one near-tumble since Jake’s departure, although she’d said nothing about it to Lisa.

“I’ll get up,” Mattie said.

“Don’t be glib.”

“Don’t be worried.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

Mattie felt the unexpected rebuke as sharply as a slap on the wrist. It stung, brought angry tears to her eyes. Lisa Katzman might look like a tiny little sparrow, Mattie thought, but she had the talons of an eagle. “Great bedside manner, doctor. Is that how you talk to all your patients?”

Lisa folded bony arms across her flat chest, pushed one thin lip inside the other, took a long, deep breath. “I’m talking to you as a friend.”

“Are you sure?”

Lisa Katzman returned to the table without her coffee. She sat down, took Mattie’s hands in her own. “Okay, I admit my concern is more than personal.”

“That’s what I don’t understand,” Mattie said, not sure whether she really wanted to get into all this, especially now. “The neurologist said the MRI was clear. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“The MRI was clear,” Lisa agreed.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” Mattie repeated, waiting for the accompanying echo from her friend.

“There’s another test I’d like you to take.”

“What? Why?”

“Just to tie up some loose ends.”

“What loose ends? What kind of test?”

“It’s called an electromyogram.”

“What’s that?”

“An electromyogram tests the electrical activity of muscles,” Lisa began, “and, unfortunately, to do that, they have to insert needle electrodes directly into the muscles, which can be a bit unpleasant.”

“A bit unpleasant?”

“There’s a crackling sound when the needles are inserted into the muscles, sort of like popcorn popping,” Lisa explained. “It can be somewhat disconcerting.”

“Oh, really? You think?” Mattie asked, not even trying to disguise her sarcasm.

“I think you can handle it,” Lisa told her.

“I think I’ll pass.”

“I think you should think about it.”

Mattie rubbed the bridge at the top of her nose, trying to keep the headache that was building behind her eyes at bay. She was liking this conversation even less than the earlier one with Jake. Increasingly, she was wishing she was back on the outside steps of the Art Institute with Roy Crawford and his big lecherous head. “What’s going on here, Lisa? What horrible disease do you think I have?”

“I don’t know that you have anything,” Lisa said, her voice even, giving nothing away. “I’m just being extra cautious because you’re my friend.”

“You’re just being cautious,” Mattie repeated.

“I want to eliminate some possible muscular disorders. Let me try to get something set up for next week, okay?”

Mattie felt a giant wave of fatigue wash across her body. She didn’t want to argue. Not with her husband. Not with her best friend. She just wanted to crawl into bed and get this horrible day over with. “How long does this test take?”

“About an hour. Sometimes longer.”

“How much longer?” Mattie asked.

“It can take two, occasionally even three hours.”

“Two or three hours?! You want me to sit there and let some sadist stick needle electrodes into my muscles for two or three hours?”

“It usually only takes an hour,” Lisa said again, trying to sound reassuring, failing miserably.

“This is some sort of sick joke, right?”

“It’s no joke, Mattie. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t feel it was important.”

“I’ll think about it,” Mattie said, after a long pause in which she purposefully thought of nothing at all.

“Promise?”

“I’m not a child, Lisa. I said I’d think about it. That’s exactly what I’ll do.”

“I’ve upset you,” Lisa said softly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to do that.”

Mattie nodded, feeling as helpless as she had in the seconds prior to her accident, as if she were still trapped inside the speeding car and unable to find the brakes. There was no way to stop; there was no slowing down. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, she was going to crash and burn.

Light my fire. Light my fire. Light my fire.

“Do you want me to talk to Jake?” Lisa was asking.

“I definitely don’t want you to talk to Jake,” Mattie said sharply, fresh anger propelling her words. “Why would you talk to Jake?”

“Just to keep him in the loop.”

“He opted out of the loop, remember?”

“The bastard,” Lisa snarled.

“No,” Mattie protested, then, “Well, yes.” She laughed, was grateful when Lisa laughed with her. If Lisa was laughing, then things weren’t as bad as her manner suggested. There was nothing seriously wrong with her. She wouldn’t have to have this horribly invasive test where they stuck needles directly into her muscles and the muscles made crackling noises, like popcorn popping, and even if she did, the test would show nothing, just like the MRI.

“I have an idea,” Lisa announced. “What do you say I sleep over here tonight?”

“What? That’s a lousy idea.”

“Come on. Fred can manage the boys for one night. It’ll be like the pajama parties we had when we were teenagers. We can order pizza, watch TV, do each other’s hair. It’ll be great.”

Mattie smiled at her friend’s generosity. “I’m fine, Lisa. Really. I don’t need you to spend the night. But thanks. I appreciate the offer.”

“I just don’t like the idea of you being alone on your first night back from the hospital, that’s all.”

“What if I want to be alone?”

“Do you?”

Mattie gave the question a moment’s serious thought. “Yes,” she said, finally, her entire body groaning with fatigue. “Yes, I really do.”

___________

The house had never felt so large, so empty, so quiet.

After Lisa’s departure, Mattie walked from room to room as if in a trance, stroking the pale yellow walls, admiring the decor as if seeing everything for the first time. Over here, we have the dining room, big enough to seat twelve people comfortably for dinner, something every newly single woman desperately needs. And over here, the spacious living room, complete with oversize sofa in soft beige Ultrasuede, perfect for the hardworking man of the house, except, of course, that the man of the house was no longer in the house.

Where are you, Jake Hart? Mattie wondered, knowing the answer, knowing he was with her, his new love, in her apartment, or maybe even in a romantic room at the Ritz-Carlton, that they were celebrating his newfound freedom by making love and drinking champagne and having a high old time, while Mattie got to wander aimlessly around a big empty house in the suburbs, worrying about some stupid test that was going to make her muscles go pop.

Mattie circled the large center hallway once, then again, this time making the circle smaller, and then again smaller still. Narrowing my horizons, she thought, tripping over her feet, wondering whether she’d get to stay in the house or whether her horizons would shrink to the size of a small, two-bedroom apartment.

Rotating her tingling foot, she hopped toward the stairs, located just to the right of Jake’s office, and lowered herself onto the bottom step, massaging her foot until the tingling stopped. “Bad circulation, that’s all it is. Runs in the family.” Did it? She stared toward the kitchen, wondering what to do next. “I can do anything I want,” she announced to the empty house. I can buy myself a new gas oven. I can watch TV till three in the morning. I can talk on the phone all night. I can read the newspaper and leave it lying all over the white broadloom in the master bedroom, now that the master is no longer in residence. “I can even watch TV while reading the newspaper and talking on the phone,” she continued out loud, laughing. “And nobody can stop me. Nobody can shake his head in disapproval. Nobody can judge me and find me wanting.”

Wanting, Mattie repeated silently. What exactly did she want?

What did she want to do with her life, now that Jake was no longer a part of it?

She’d known of his plans the second she opened the bedroom closet and found most of his clothes gone. Still, she dismissed the evidence of her own eyes, as she’d been dismissing such evidence for years, her mind scrambling for other explanations—he’d sent everything to the cleaners; he’d decided to splurge on a whole new wardrobe; he’d moved his things into the guest bedroom to give her more space while she recuperated. The list of improbable excuses had followed her down the stairs and into Jake’s office, where he sat waiting for her. “What’s going on, Jake?” she’d asked from the doorway. “Where are all your things?”

“I think it’s best if I move out,” he’d told her. Plain. Simple. Right to the point.

And then the unnecessary embellishments—it was nobody’s fault; it wasn’t about blame; he was sorry; he hoped they could still be friends.

Mattie reached for the wooden banister and hoisted herself into a standing position, gingerly placing one foot in front of the other as she made her way up the stairs to her bedroom. Maybe she’d redecorate the house again, she thought, reaching the large upstairs hall that mirrored the one directly below. Paint the walls a deep orange, Jake’s least favorite color. Replace all the masculine leathers with more feminine floral chintz. Throw out the neat white shutters on the windows and bring in yards and yards of frilly lace, even though she hated chintz and lace. That wasn’t the point. The point was that Jake hated them, and the house was now hers to do with as she pleased. No one could tell her what to do or how to do it. Certainly not Jake. No second opinions required. She didn’t have to consult or compromise.

At least not yet. Not until Jake came back at her with his list of demands. She’d see where all this lovely talk of friendship went when they started trying to hammer out a settlement. She thought of her friend Terry, of the hell her ex-husband put her through, refusing to leave the house until she agreed to forfeit her right to a share of his pension, nickel-and-diming her to death, forever late in his child support payments. Would it be that way for her once Jake’s guilty conscience eased?

Mattie made a decent living as an art dealer, was used to paying her own way, had even managed to put some money aside. She’d always hoped to use that money so that she and Jake could take a belated honeymoon trip to Paris, but it didn’t look like she’d be honeymooning anytime soon. How far would that money take her? she wondered now. How long would it last? Money had never been an issue in her marriage to Jake. Would all that change when he was made a partner? Would he want to keep everything for his new woman, his new life?

Mattie marched into her bedroom and flipped on the TV, listening as the sound of rapid gunfire filled the air, obliterating such unpleasant thoughts. She looked toward her king-size bed, the powder blue duvet still twisted and disheveled from her earlier nap, as if there were still someone lying beneath it. “I can sleep on whatever side of the bed I want,” she said, deliberately bouncing down on Jake’s side, cognizant of his smell clinging stubbornly to his pillow, tossing the pillow to the floor, then stepping on it as she climbed out of bed. “I can close the damn window.” Over fifteen years of freezing to death every night because Jake insisted on sleeping with the window open. She marched to the window and slammed it down with authority.

Mattie located the television’s remote control unit on the overstuffed blue corduroy chair at the side of the bed. “All mine,” she cackled, pressing her thumb to the appropriate button, watching as channel after channel flipped into view, disappearing before anything had time to register on her brain. She dropped the remote and headed for the bathroom, pulling off her jeans and baggy sweatshirt, confronting herself in the wall of mirrors surrounding the white porcelain sink. The first thing I’m going to do, she decided, is get rid of all these mirrors.

She stripped off her bra and panties, stared with dismay at her bruised and naked body. “Oh, yes, they’ll be lined up around the block.” She began pouring water for a bath. “I’m going to use up all the hot water,” she announced loudly, the sound of her voice bouncing off the almond-colored marble tiles covering the walls, echoing loudly in her ears. I’m going to use up all the hot water and then I’m going to check myself into a loony bin, she thought, the by-now familiar tingling returning to the bottom of her right foot.

Mattie limped toward the toilet, lowered the seat, sat down, massaged her foot. But this time the tingling didn’t stop, even after several minutes, and she was forced to crawl across the cold floor to turn off the water pouring into the tub before it overflowed. She caught sight of herself, down on her hands and knees, in a small sliver of mirror not hidden by steam, and turned away, feeling suddenly queasy. “Bad circulation, that’s all it is,” she said, lowering herself carefully into the hot water, watching her skin flush red. Red and purple and yellow and brown, Mattie thought, counting the colors, her body a canvas. She closed her eyes, rested her head against the back of the tub, the water lapping at the scratches on her chin, the way she remembered her mother’s dogs licking at her mother’s face.

It was strange in the house without Jake.

Not that she wasn’t used to his absence. Jake worked impossible hours, was never really here even when he was sitting right beside her. Occasionally he’d gone away on business, and she’d spent the night alone in their bed. But this was different. This time, he wasn’t coming back.

When he’d first announced he was leaving, Mattie felt as if she’d been punched in the stomach by an invisible fist. It had taken all her strength, all her resolve, not to cave forward or cry out. Why? Wasn’t it a relief to finally have everything out in the open, not to spend every day waiting for the ax to fall? Yes, she’d be lonely. But the last fifteen years had taught her that there was nothing lonelier than an unhappy marriage.

The phone rang.

Mattie debated whether or not to answer it, finally giving in, grabbing a towel, and limping toward the phone, located on Jake’s side of the bed. Maybe it was Lisa, calling again to check on how she was doing. Or Kim. Or Jake, she thought, lifting the phone to her ear. “Hello?”

“Martha?” The word hacked at the air, like a knife-wielding assailant.

Mattie sank down onto the bed, wounded before the conversation had even begun. “Mother,” she said, afraid to say more.

“I won’t take up much of your time,” her mother began. Mattie quickly translated this to mean that her mother didn’t want to spend long on the phone. “I’m just calling to see how you’re doing.”

“I’m doing fine, thank you,” Mattie said over the sound of dogs barking in the background. “And you?”

“Well, you know, getting older is no picnic.”

You’re barely sixty, Mattie thought, but didn’t say. What was the point?

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to the hospital to see you. You know how I am about hospitals.”

“No apologies necessary.”

“Jake says you’re still pretty banged up.”

“When did you talk to Jake?” Mattie asked.

“He came by to take Kim out for dinner.”

“He did?”

“About an hour ago.”

“Did he say anything else?”

“Like what?”

“How’s Kim?” Mattie asked, changing the subject.

“She’s a lovely girl,” her mother said, with the kind of emotion she usually reserved for her dogs. “She was a big help to me when Lucy was having her litter.”

Mattie almost laughed. Of course there’d be a connection, she thought, rotating her right foot, the stubborn tingle refusing to go away. “Listen, Mom, you caught me in the tub. I’m standing here, dripping wet.”

“Well, then, you’d better go.” Mattie heard the relief in her mother’s voice. “I just called to see how you were.”

I was fine, Mattie thought. “I’ll be fine,” was what she said. “Good-bye, Mother. Thanks for calling.”

“Good-bye, Martha.”

Mattie hung up the phone and transferred all her weight to her errant right foot, sighing with relief at the feel of the carpet beneath her toes. “I’ll be fine,” she repeated, returning to the bathroom, climbing back into the tub, the water not as hot or soothing as before. “I’ll be fine.”

NINE

Are you all right?” Kim cleared her throat in a vain effort to stop her voice from quavering. Why was she asking that? Wasn’t the answer obvious? Never before had she seen her mother so obviously not all right. Her skin was almost transparent beneath its palette of fading bruises. Her normally vibrant blue eyes were coated with a dull glaze of fear and pain. The ghost of former tears had left wiggly streaks through the makeup she’d so carefully applied only hours earlier. Her hands were shaking, her steps small and unsure. Kim had never seen her mother looking so helpless. It took all her strength to keep from bursting into tears. “Mom, are you okay?”

Say yes, say yes, say yes.

“Your mother needs to rest for a few minutes,” Kim heard someone say. Only then did she notice the burly-looking woman at her mother’s elbow. Did she have to look so healthy? Kim wondered angrily, interpreting the woman’s shiny olive skin and flashing dark eyes as something of a rebuke, as if, by being in such obvious good health, she was somehow robbing her mother of hers.

“Who are you?” Kim asked.

“Rosie Mendoza,” the woman answered, tapping the hospital identity tag hanging around her neck and leading Mattie to a chair, one of approximately a dozen that lined the wall of the fourth-floor hospital corridor. “Dr. Vance’s assistant.”

“Is my mother okay?”

“I’m fine, sweetie,” Mattie whispered, although she didn’t sound fine. She sounded weak and scared and in a great deal of pain. “I just need to sit down for a few minutes.”

“She needs to go home and crawl into bed,” Rosie Mendoza advised.

“But then she’ll be fine, right?” Kim lowered herself into the seat next to Mattie’s, clutching her mother’s hand.

“The doctor should have the test results in a day or two,” Rosie Mendoza said. “He’ll get in touch with Dr. Katzman as soon as he has anything.”

“Thank you,” Mattie said, eyes on the short brown boots peeking out from underneath her brown slacks, her body motionless.

“Did it hurt?” Kim asked her mother after Rosie Mendoza’s departure.

Say no, say no, say no.

“Yes,” Mattie answered. “It hurt like hell.”

“Where did they put the needles?”

Don’t tell me.

Mattie pointed gingerly to her shoulders and thighs, opened her hands, palms up. Only then did Kim notice the fresh Band-Aid stretched across the inside of her mother’s left hand. “How many?”

“Too many.”

“Does it still hurt?”

Say no, say no, say no.

“Not too much,” Mattie said, although Kim could see she was lying.

Why was she asking her mother these questions when she didn’t want to know the answers? Wasn’t it enough to know that her mother had spent the last hour and a half undergoing some unpleasant and, her mother had assured her, completely unnecessary test, designed to show the pattern of nerve activity in her body, a test she’d only agreed to in order to get Lisa Katzman off her back? Kim felt a surge of anger charge through her body. Why had her mother’s closest friend put her through something so awful if it was so unnecessary?

“Do you want a cup of coffee or something?” Kim asked her mother, refusing to consider the possibility that Lisa might have a different opinion of the merits of the test.

Mattie shook her head no. “I’ll just sit here for a few minutes. Then we can go.”

“How are we going to get home?” Kim asked suddenly. Her mother had insisted on driving into the city, despite Lisa’s admonition that she should let someone else do the driving, that she might feel too weak and unsettled after the test, especially since she was still recovering from her accident. But Mattie had stubbornly refused to burden any of her friends, and she wouldn’t let Kim call Grandma Viv, claiming Kim’s grandmother was useless in any kind of emergency, at least those involving human beings. As for Jake, Mattie wouldn’t even consider asking him, and Kim had agreed with her mother. They didn’t need Jake. What did they want with a man who’d made it clear he’d rather be with another woman? Mattie didn’t need her soon-to-be ex-husband’s help any more than Kim needed her soon-to-be former father.

“I’ll always be here for you,” he’d tried to tell her that awful night exactly one week ago, when he’d picked her up at her grandmother’s small house in the once run-down, now trendy area of the city known as Old Town. “I’m still your father. Nothing’s ever going to change that.”

“You’re changing it,” Kim protested.

“I’m moving out of the house,” Jake argued. “Not out of your life.”

“Out of sight,” Kim said coldly, “out of mind.”

“You understand that this has nothing to do with you.”

“It has everything to do with me,” Kim countered, deliberately misinterpreting his words.

“Sometimes things happen.”

“Oh, really? Things happen? All by themselves? They just happen?” Kim was aware she was raising her voice. She relished the sound of its outrage, the way it made the man sitting across from her in the small Italian restaurant squirm. “You’re trying to tell me this is something beyond your control?”

“I’m trying to tell you that I love you, that I’ll always be here for you.”

“Except you’ll be somewhere else.”

“I’ll be living somewhere else.”

“So you’ll be there for me,” Kim said, proud of her own cleverness. It made her feel powerful, kept her heart from sliding right out of her chest and crashing to the hard tile floor, shattering into thousands of tiny pieces.

“I love you, Kim,” her father said again.

“Now I’m just like everybody else,” Kim said in return.

And so when Lisa called to tell Mattie she’d been able to book the electromyogram for Thursday of the following week, Kim immediately volunteered to accompany her mother to the hospital, even though it meant missing an afternoon of school. Surprisingly, her mother agreed. “We girls have to stick together,” Kim told her, climbing into bed beside her mother later that night, as she’d been doing every night since Jake left, her arm draping protectively across Mattie’s hip, as she slowed her breathing to match her mother’s, their bodies rising and falling in unison, breathing as one.

“Are you going to be able to drive home?” Kim asked her mother now.

“Give me a few more minutes,” Mattie said.

But twenty minutes later, Mattie was still staring at her feet, afraid, or unable, to move. Her complexion remained a ghostly white beneath the mustard yellow and soiled lavender of her bruises. Her hands still trembled. “You better call your father,” Mattie said, fresh tears falling the length of her cheeks.

“We can take a cab,” Kim protested.

“Call your father,” Mattie insisted.

“But—”

“Don’t argue. Please. Call him.”

Reluctantly, Kim did as she was told. Locating a pay phone beside a busy bank of elevators at the end of the long corridor, she punched in the numbers of her father’s private line, hoping he was in court, with clients, otherwise unavailable. “I don’t understand why we just can’t take a taxi,” she muttered under her breath, watching an elderly man in a stained blue hospital gown wander toward her, dragging his IV unit alongside him. Now she understood why her grandmother had such an aversion to hospitals. They were harsh, harmful places, full of wounded bodies and lost souls. Even people who were healthy when they walked in, like her mother, limped out in pain, frail echoes of their former selves. Kim felt vaguely nauseated, wondered whether she’d picked up some deadly virus just sitting outside the doctor’s office. How many hands had fingered those same old magazines? How many germs had she been exposed to during the interminable minutes she’d waited for her mother? Kim rubbed her hands against her jeans, as if trying to rid herself of any stray bacteria. She felt dizzy and flushed, as if she might faint.

“Jake Hart,” her father suddenly announced, his voice a bucket of ice water tossed at her face.

Kim snapped to attention, her shoulders stiffening, her knees buckling. She pushed a strand of imaginary hair away from her forehead, stared at the newly stilled bank of elevator doors. What was she supposed to say? Hi, Daddy? Hello, Father? Hi there, Jake? “It’s Kim,” she said finally, as the old man trailing his IV did an abrupt about-face and began retracing his steps along the corridor. Kim noticed flashes of bare white buttocks between the halves of his pale blue hospital gown. What horrible tests had they put him through? Kim wondered.

“Kim, sweetheart—”

“I’m at Michael Reese County General with Mom,” Kim said without further preamble.

“Has something happened?”

Kim buried her chin into the cowl neck of her dusty rose sweater, her lips folding one inside the other, an impatient sigh escaping, hurrying toward her heart. “We need your help,” she said.

___________

Forty minutes later, Jake met his wife and daughter inside the front entrance of the downtown hospital. “I’m sorry I took so long getting here,” he apologized, as Kim glared her displeasure. “I got corraled in the hall on my way out of the office.”

“You’re a busy man,” Kim sneered.

“Thanks for coming,” Mattie told him.

“Is the car in the lot?”

Mattie handed him the keys to the rental car. Her Intrepid, all but totaled in the accident, was a write-off. “It’s a white Oldsmobile.”

“I’ll find it. Are you okay?”

“She’s fine,” Kim said, snaking her arm through her mother’s.

“How are you, sweetheart?” Jake asked his daughter, reaching out as if to stroke her hair.

“Great,” Kim replied stiffly, leaning out of his reach, relishing the hurt look in her father’s eyes. “Could you get the car? Mom needs to be in bed.”

“I’ll be right back.”

Minutes later Kim’s father pulled the white Oldsmobile up to the curb, jumping out to help Mattie into the front seat, relegating Kim to the back.

Kim made an exaggerated show of trying to get comfortable, bouncing around in the backseat, deliberately careless with the chunky heels of her black leather boots, scraping them against the back of her father’s seat repeatedly, as she crossed, then uncrossed, her legs. Who designed these cars anyway? Did they think that all backseat passengers were under ten years of age? Didn’t they know that grown-ups needed more leg room? That they might want to sit without their knees circling their chins? She’d spent a lot of time in the backseats of cars lately, Kim realized, thinking back to last Saturday night, hearing Teddy’s whispered pleas warm against her ear. Come on, Kim. You know you want to.

“You all right back there, sweetheart?” her father asked, scaring Teddy away.

Who the hell do you think you are? Kim demanded silently, angry eyes burrowing deep holes in the back of her father’s head. The white knight riding in on his white horse to save the day? Is that how you see yourself? Well, I’ve got news for you, Jake Hart, famous attorney-at-law and general all-around shit. This isn’t a white horse. It’s a white Oldsmobile. And we don’t need your help. In fact, we don’t need you at all. We’ve been getting along very nicely without you. Actually, we’ve hardly even noticed you’re gone.

“I’m sorry we had to bother you,” she heard her mother say, her voice stronger than before, though lacking its usual resonance. Why wasn’t she angrier? Why did she have to be so damn polite?

“You should have called me earlier,” Jake said. “There was no need for you to drive into the city.”

“Mom isn’t an invalid,” Kim said.

“No, but she was in a major car accident less than ten days ago, and she’s still not fully recovered.”

“You sound like Lisa.”

“It’s common sense.”

“I’m fine,” Mattie said.

“She’s fine,” Kim echoed. How dare he say anything to criticize her mother! What Mattie did, what they did, was no longer any of his concern. He had no right to criticize or pass judgment. He’d forfeited that right the day he walked out. Kim stretched her hand toward the front seat, resting it on her mother’s shoulder. She should never have called him. She should have called her grandmother or Lisa or another of her mother’s many friends. Anyone but Jake. They didn’t need Jake.

The fact was that her father had never been a huge part of her day-to-day life. Ever since Kim could remember, her father was someone who waved to her each morning on his way to work, and who kissed her good night if he was home in time to tuck her in. Her mother was the one who accompanied her to school, took her to the doctor and the dentist, drove her to her lessons in piano and ballet, attended each and every parent-teacher meeting, school play, after-school sporting event, stayed home with her when she was sick. It wasn’t that her father didn’t care. It was just that he had too many other places to be. Other places he’d rather be.

As Kim grew into her teens, she saw even less of him, their busy schedules at constant odds. Since moving to Evanston, she’d hardly seen her father at all. And now Jake Hart was more like a ghost than a man, haunting the halls he no longer inhabited, his presence defined, possibly even enhanced, by his absence.

At first, Kim worried that her mother might fall apart. But her mother, despite her injuries, had been coping with Jake’s defection surprisingly well. All Mattie’s worries were reserved for Kim. “It looks much worse than it is,” she’d quickly assured Kim, who’d almost fainted at the sight of her mother’s beautiful face covered in ugly bruises. And then later, “How are you, sweetie? Do you want to talk about it?” She’d even tried sticking up for Jake. “Don’t be too hard on him, sweetie. He’s your father, and he loves you.”

Bullshit, Kim thought. Her father didn’t love her. He’d never wanted her.

She didn’t want him now.

After that, they rarely mentioned him. Her mother’s bruises changed colors as effortlessly as the outside leaves, growing fainter every day. The scratches healed. The stiffness left her joints. She went about the business of everyday life, renting a car, shopping for groceries, even contacting several clients, making appointments for the coming weeks. Aside from the occasional problem with her foot falling asleep, her mother was doing just fine.

They both were.

They didn’t need him.

“How are you doing back there, Kim?” her father asked, giving the question a second try. She saw him looking at her through the rearview mirror, his eyes reflecting both concern and hope.

Kim grunted, said nothing. If her mother wanted to be civil and agreeable regarding their separation, that was her business. It didn’t mean Kim had to. Somebody had to play the jilted wife.

“Looks like I’m going to be offered a partnership in the near future,” Jake said. “That’s what took me so long getting here. People kept stopping me in the halls to congratulate me.”

“That’s wonderful,” Kim heard Mattie say. “You’ve worked very hard. You deserve it.”

You deserve to rot in hell, Kim thought.

“How are you going to get back to the city?” Mattie asked, as Jake turned the car onto Walnut Drive.

“I’ve arranged for someone to pick me up in about half an hour.”

“Your girlfriend?” Kim’s voice was sharp, slashing at the air like a razor. “And don’t look at Mom that way,” she said, almost before he had the chance. “She didn’t say anything.”

“We need to talk, Kimmy,” her father began.

“Don’t call me Kimmy. I hate Kimmy.” He’d called her Kimmy when she was a little girl, she remembered, faint memories flooding back, filling her eyes with unexpected tears.

“Please, Kim,” he said. “I think it’s important.”

“Who cares what you think?”

“What’s going on?” her mother asked, and for an instant Kim thought she was speaking to her, that her mother was angry, that she was taking his side against hers.

And then she saw the police car parked outside their house and the two uniformed officers standing outside her front door. What was happening?

“It’s probably about the accident,” Jake said.

“I’ve already talked to the police,” her mother said as Jake pulled the car into the driveway and stepped out of the car.

“Problems?” he asked.

Kim helped her mother out of the front seat, her eyes on the young man and woman in neat blue uniforms. The man, who identified himself as Officer Peter Slezak, was about five foot eleven, had arms the size of tree trunks, and wore his hair so short, it was difficult to tell what color it was. The woman, whom Officer Slezak introduced as his partner, Officer Judy Taggart, was about five foot seven, and approximately the same width as one of Officer Slezak’s thighs. She wore her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and there was a large pimple on her chin she’d tried to conceal with makeup. Kim absently felt her chin for any pimples of her own.

“Is this your house?” Officer Slezak asked.

“Yes,” Jake answered.

No, Kim almost screamed. It’s not your house.

“Is there a problem?” Mattie stepped forward, took charge.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” Officer Taggart stared openly at the bruises on Mattie’s face.

“Is this about the accident?” Jake asked.

“It wasn’t exactly an accident,” Officer Slezak said.

“I’m sorry?” Mattie said, her way of saying, Excuse me, as if apologizing in advance.

“Maybe you should tell us what this is about,” Jake said, resuming control.

“We’re looking for Kim Hart.”

“Kim?” Her mother gasped.

Kim stepped forward, a dull ache building in the pit of her stomach. “I’m Kim Hart.”

“We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“About?” Jake interrupted.

“Why don’t we go inside?” Mattie suggested, walking up the steps to the front door. Kim noticed that her mother was having trouble with the key and gently lifted it from her hand, easily fitting it into the lock and pushing open the door.

Seconds later they were grouped around the kitchen table, the officers having declined Mattie’s offer of coffee.

“What can you tell us about the party at Sabrina Hollander’s house last Saturday night?” Officer Slezak began, staring directly at Kim’s chest as Officer Taggart produced a notebook and pen from the back pocket of her well-pressed trousers.

“There was a party.” Kim shrugged, aware of her heart pumping wildly beneath her breasts, wondering whether that was what Officer Slezak was staring at.

“Were you there?”

“Maybe for an hour.”

“What time was that?”

“Around nine.”

“So you left the Hollander house at about ten?”

“Not even that,” Kim said.

“What was happening at the party?”

“Not much.” People were dancing, drinking beer, passing around the occasional joint. Teddy had convinced her to try a few tokes before they adjourned to the backseat of his car. Had somebody reported seeing her do drugs? Was that why the police were here? To arrest her?

“What are you getting at, officers?” Jake Hart asked.

“Sabrina Hollander threw a little party while her parents were out of town. Two hundred kids showed up.”

“Two hundred kids,” Kim repeated breathlessly, deciding that she must have fallen asleep in the car, and that this whole episode was part of an unpleasant dream.

“Someone decided it would be fun to trash the house,” Officer Slezak continued. “They slashed paintings, ripped up the carpets, defecated on the furniture, punched holes in the walls. Altogether there was almost a hundred thousand dollars worth of damage.”

“Oh, my God,” Mattie said, covering her bruised lips with her bandaged hand.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Kim said, feeling numb.

“You didn’t see anything while you were there, hear anybody talking?”

“No. Nothing.”

“But people were drinking, doing drugs,” Officer Taggart stated, as if this were a fact not open to dispute.

“People were drinking beer,” Kim qualified, her voice weak, her eyes drifting toward the backyard pool, wishing she could disappear without a trace beneath its smooth blue surface.

“And you said you left the party at ten o’clock?”

“She’s already answered that,” Jake interjected. A better lawyer than a father, Kim thought, reluctant gratitude mixing with her resentment.

“But you did know about the incident,” Officer Slezak said.

“I heard some of the kids talking about it at school,” Kim conceded, trying to ignore the look of surprise that fell across her mother’s face like a shroud.

“What did they say?”

“Just that they heard things got out of hand. The place got wrecked.”

“Did they say who was responsible?”

“Apparently some kids crashed the party. Nobody knew them.”

“You’re sure?”

“She’s answered the question.” Jake’s voice resonated quiet authority. “I should explain that, in addition to being Kim’s father, I’m also an attorney.”

Not to mention an adulterer, Kim added silently.

“I thought I recognized you,” Officer Slezak said, his voice flat, decidedly unimpressed. “You’re the guy who let that kid who murdered his mother get off scot-free.”

Way to go, Dad, Kim thought. I’ll be lucky if they don’t hang me.

Minutes later Officer Slezak slapped his giant haunches, signaling the meeting’s end. Officer Taggart quickly folded up her notebook and returned it to her back pocket. Kim walked them to the front door, closed it after them, leaned her forehead against its hard oak grain.

“Is there anything you’re not telling us?” her father asked, coming up behind her.

“In a few months I’ll have my driver’s license, and we won’t have to call you anymore,” Kim said defiantly, pushing past him and disappearing up the stairs. Minutes later she watched from her bedroom window as her father walked down the front path to the street. He looked up, as if he knew she was sitting there, and waved.

She didn’t wave back.

TEN

The following Monday, Mattie was on the phone with Roy Crawford when the call-waiting signal sounded. “Can you hold just a minute, Roy? I’m sorry. I won’t be a second.” Mattie wondered why she hadn’t chosen to ignore the signal, as she often did when talking to important clients. She already had voice mail to take messages. What did she need with call-waiting? Except that Kim had been so adamant about keeping it, and these days, most of the calls were for Kim. Maybe it was time for her daughter to get her own line, although it seemed an unnecessary expense in light of Jake’s departure. And sooner or later she was going to have to start giving serious thought to her financial situation. “Hello,” Mattie said into the phone, amazed at the number of irrelevant thoughts she could crowd into the space of a second.

“Mattie, it’s Lisa.”

Mattie stared vacantly toward the sliding glass door of her kitchen, noting the sun shining incongruously through heavy gray skies. She didn’t want to talk to Lisa. Lisa was only going to tell her more things she didn’t want to hear. “Lisa, can I call you back in a few minutes? I’m on the other line.”

“This can’t wait.”

Mattie felt her entire body go numb. “Why don’t I like the sound of that?”

“I need to see you in my office.”

“I’m not having any more tests.”

“No more tests. Look, I’ve already called Jake. He’s picking you up in half an hour.”

“What?” Mattie shrieked. “What do you mean, you called Jake? You can’t do that.”

“I already did.”

“You had no right. Look, this is ridiculous. Hold on a minute.” Mattie pressed the hold button, returned to her earlier conversation with Roy Crawford, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps. “Roy, can I call you right back?”

“Why don’t I just pick you up for lunch at around twelve o’clock?”

“Fine,” Mattie said, immediately returning to the other line, barking into Lisa’s ear. “What do you mean, you called Jake? I didn’t give you permission to discuss my case with him.”

“I haven’t discussed anything with him.”

“Then why is he picking me up in half an hour?”

“Because I told him it was important.”

“If it’s so important, why don’t I just drive over to your office right now?”

“Because I don’t think you should be driving.”

“I’m perfectly capable of driving,” Mattie argued, trying to gain some control over the conversation, over the events unfolding, over her life.

“Mattie,” Lisa said, a slight catch in her voice, “Dr. Vance just called me with your test results.”

Mattie held her breath. “And?” The word tumbled from her lips before she could stop it.

There was a long pause before Lisa continued. “It’s a little complicated. I’d rather discuss everything with you in person.”

“Why did you call Jake?”

“He’s your husband, Mattie. He should know what’s going on.”

“We’re separated.”

“He should be here.”

“But he isn’t, is he?” Mattie buried her head in the still-bandaged palm of her hand, hearing the unpleasant echo of her muscle going pop.

“Look,” Lisa said, regaining control of her voice and adopting the same tone Mattie often took with Kim when trying to convince her daughter to do something she didn’t want to do. “Let Jake be your chauffeur. Nothing more. If you don’t want him in on the discussion, you can decide that when you get here. But at least this way, somebody will be here to drive you home. Please, Mattie. Do this for me.”

“Jake’s a busy man,” Mattie said, her thoughts translated into words. “He just can’t take off first thing on a Monday morning. What did you say to him, Lisa?”

“Just that I thought it was very important for him to be here.”

“A matter of life and death?” Mattie heard herself say.

Lisa said nothing.

“Am I dying?” Mattie asked.

“It’s complicated,” Lisa said after a pause that lasted several seconds too long, and for the first time Mattie heard tears in the measured cadences of Lisa’s voice. “Please, Mattie. Let Jake pick you up. We’ll talk when you get here.”

Mattie nodded, hanging up the phone without another word, trying to keep her growing panic at bay. Complicated, she thought. Why did things always have to be so damn complicated? She checked her watch against the two clocks in the kitchen, discovering it was five minutes faster than the later of the two. “Which means I have even less time than I thought,” she said, fighting back tears, grateful that Kim was at school and not here to have to deal with this. Kim already had too much on her plate, Mattie thought, leaving the kitchen, wandering up the stairs in a daze. She reached her room, pulled back the blue duvet, and crawled into the freshly made bed fully clothed.

She was still lying there thirty minutes later, the duvet pulled tightly up around her chin, when she heard the doorbell ring, followed quickly by the sound of a key turning in the lock and someone opening the door.

“Mattie?” Jake called from the front hall. “Mattie, it’s Jake. Are you ready? We should get going.”

Mattie pushed herself off the pillow, fluffed out the dark blond hair that was flattened against her left cheek, tucked her green silk blouse into her black pants, and took a long, deep breath. She’d have to ask Jake to return his key, she thought. “I’ll be right down,” she said.

Five minutes later, sitting on the side of the bed and listening as Jake’s footsteps bounded up the stairs, she realized she hadn’t moved.

___________

“You have something called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” Lisa was explaining, her voice breaking, as Mattie sat rigid next to Jake in one of Lisa’s small examining rooms.

“Sounds serious,” Mattie said, refusing to look at her friend, staring at the eye chart behind her head.

“It is,” Lisa whispered.

“Why haven’t I ever heard of it?” Mattie demanded, as if this made some sort of difference, as if, by knowing something about it, she could have prevented getting it.

“You probably know it by its more common name, Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

“Oh, God,” Mattie gasped. Beside her, she felt Jake slump in his chair.

“Are you all right? Do you want a glass of water?”

Mattie shook her head. What she wanted was to get out of here. What she wanted was to be asleep in her bed. What she wanted was her life back. “What does that mean, exactly? I mean, I know Lou Gehrig was a famous baseball player. I know he died of some horrible disease. And now you’re saying, what? That I have this same disease? How do you know?”

“Dr. Vance faxed me the results of the electromyogram first thing this morning. They’re quite conclusive.” Lisa offered Mattie the pale manila folder containing the results. Jake took the folder from Lisa’s shaking hands when Mattie failed to do so. “He asked me if I wanted to be the one to tell you—”

Don’t tell me, Mattie thought. “Tell me,” she said over the loud ringing in her ears.

“The test showed extensive denervation—”

“Speak English,” Mattie snapped.

“There’s irreversible damage to the motor neurons in the spinal cord and brain stem.”

“Meaning?”

“The nerve cells are dying,” Lisa explained softly.

“The nerve cells are dying,” Mattie repeated, trying to make sense of the words. “The nerve cells are dying. What does that mean? Does that mean I’m dying?”

There was absolute silence. No one moved. No one breathed.

“Yes,” Lisa said finally, her voice barely audible. “Oh, God, Mattie. I’m so sorry.” Tears filled her eyes, threatening to spill down her cheeks.

“So, wait,” Mattie said, jumping to her feet, pacing back and forth in the small space between the examining table and the door. “I don’t understand. If I have this amyotrophic whatever-the-hell-it-is, how come it didn’t show up on the MRI? The MRI said everything was fine,” she reminded them.

“The MRI tests for other things.”

“It tests for multiple sclerosis,” Mattie argued. “It showed I didn’t have that, and it’s a sclerosis.”

“ALS is different,” Lisa explained patiently, pronouncing each letter individually.

“ALS?” Mattie demanded.

“It’s short for—”

“I know what it’s short for,” Mattie snapped. “I’m not an idiot. My brain cells aren’t dead yet.”

“Mattie—” Jake said, then stopped.

“The disease won’t affect your mental faculties,” Lisa said.

“No?” Mattie stopped pacing. “So, what exactly will it affect?”

“Maybe you should sit down.”

“Maybe I don’t want to sit down, Lisa. Maybe I just want you to tell me what’s going to happen to me, so I can get out of here and get on with the rest of my life.” Mattie almost laughed. The rest of her life, she thought. That was a good one. “How long do I have?”

“We can’t know exactly. It’s unusual for ALS to strike someone your age—”

“How long, Lisa?” Mattie insisted.

“A year.” The threatened tears began tumbling down her cheeks. “Maybe two,” she added quickly. “Possibly even three.”

“Oh, God.” Mattie felt her knees buckle, her body disappearing under her, so that her head felt like a giant lead balloon spiraling through a stormy sky, about to crash into the ground below. Both Lisa and Jake jumped from their seats, caught Mattie before she hit the floor.

“Take deep breaths,” Lisa urged, as worried hands secured Mattie in her chair. Mattie heard the sound of water running, felt the pressure of a glass at her lips. “Sip it slowly,” Lisa instructed, as Mattie tasted cold water on the tip of her tongue, mingling with the warm salt of her tears. “Are you okay?” Lisa asked after several seconds.

“No,” Mattie said softly. “I’m dying. Haven’t you heard?”

“I’m so sorry,” Lisa cried, holding tightly onto Mattie’s hands.

Mattie noticed that Jake was leaning against the door, looking as if someone had kicked the air out of him. What’s your problem? Mattie wanted to ask. Upset because you can’t work your magic here? Upset because you can’t save me from the death sentence a higher court just handed down? “A year,” Mattie repeated.

“Maybe two or three,” Lisa said hopefully.

“And what happens to me during that year or two or three?”

“It’s impossible to predict the exact course of the disease,” Lisa said. “It affects different people in different ways, and even on an individual basis, there’s no symmetrical evolution.”

“Please, Lisa. I don’t have a lot of time.” Mattie smiled, and Lisa laughed sadly, despite herself.

“Okay,” Lisa said. “Okay. You want it straight? Here it is.” She paused, swallowed, took one deep breath, then another. “ALS is a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition that leaves its victims mentally acute but increasingly unable to control their own bodies,” she recited, as if by rote, accompanied by a steady stream of tears. “As it progresses, you’ll lose the ability to walk. You’ve already begun feeling the tingling in your legs. You’ve started falling. It will only get worse. Eventually, you won’t be able to walk at all. You’ll be in a wheelchair.” She took another deep breath, as if she were dragging on a cigarette. “You told me you sometimes have trouble fitting keys into locks. That’s an early symptom of ALS. Eventually your hands will be rendered useless. Your body will start contorting in on itself, even as your mind stays sharp and focused.”

“I’ll be a prisoner of my own body,” Mattie acknowledged quietly.

Lisa nodded, making no move to wipe away her tears. “Your speech will become slurred, difficult. You’ll have trouble swallowing. At some point, you’ll probably require a feeding tube.”

“How will I die?”

“Mattie, please—”

“Tell me, Lisa. How will I die?”

“You’ll start gagging, choking. In the end you’ll suffocate.”

“Oh, God.” Mattie recalled her panic inside the MRI. Forty-five minutes of feeling as if she were being buried alive. And now she was expected to endure up to three years of the same sensation. No, it couldn’t be. She felt perfectly fine. She couldn’t be dying. There had to be some sort of mistake. “I want a second opinion.”

“Of course.”

“But no more tests. I was fine till I started having all these tests.”

“No more tests,” Lisa agreed, swiping the tears from her eyes. “I’ll talk to Dr. Vance. Get his recommendations.”

“Because this has to be some sort of mistake,” Mattie continued. “Just because my foot sometimes falls asleep and I have trouble with my keys—”

“Mattie’s outburst in the courtroom—” Jake began, stopped by Mattie’s angry glare.

“It’s part of what’s happening,” Lisa told him. “No one really understands why, except that sudden unexplained outbursts, laughing and crying for no apparent reason, are another hallmark of the disease in some cases.”

“I really don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Mattie said, jumping to her feet.

“Dr. Vance wants you to start taking a drug called Riluzole,” Lisa said quickly. “It’s a neuroprotective drug that prevents the premature death of cells. You take one pill a day, and there are no side effects. It’s expensive, but well worth it.”

“And what exactly is the point of taking this drug?” Mattie asked, feeling her earlier anger return. Hadn’t she already told Lisa that she wanted a second opinion? Why were they discussing medication as if any new opinions were foregone conclusions?

“It offers a few extra months.”

“Months being unable to move, months of choking, months of being mentally acute while my body caves in around me? Thank you very much, Lisa, but I don’t think so.”

“The Riluzole slows the progress of the disease.”

“In other words, it postpones the inevitable.”

“Science is discovering new ways of treatment all the time,” Lisa began.

Mattie cut her off. “Oh, please, Lisa, not the ‘wonders of medical science, miracles can happen’ speech. It doesn’t become you.”

“Please, Mattie,” Lisa said, scribbling out a prescription and offering it to Mattie, who refused it.

“I said I wanted a second opinion.”

Jake took the prescription from Lisa’s hand, tucked it in the pocket of his pinstriped gray suit. Next to his receipt for a room at the Ritz-Carlton, Mattie thought bitterly.

“What are you giving that to him for?” Mattie demanded of Lisa.

“I just thought we should have it,” Jake offered weakly.

We? Who’s this we?

“Mattie—”

“No. You have no rights here. You gave up those rights, remember? I just brought you along as my chauffeur.”

“Mattie—”

“No. This is none of your business. I am none of your business.”

“You’re the mother of my child,” Jake said simply.

Oh, God, Kim, Mattie thought, grabbing her stomach, doubling over as if she’d been struck. How would she tell Kim? That she wouldn’t be around to see her graduate from high school. That she wouldn’t be there to see her off to college. That she wouldn’t be able to dance at her wedding, or hold her first grandchild in her arms. That she was going to slowly choke to death in front of her daughter’s beautiful, terrified eyes.

“The mother of your child,” Mattie repeated. Of course. That’s all she’d ever been to him. The mother of his child. She was pathetic, she thought, straightening up, pushing her shoulders back and her chin out. “I want to go home now,” she said, glancing at her watch, noting it was closing in on eleven-thirty. “I have a date.”

“What?!”

The look on Jake’s face was almost worth the anguish of the morning, Mattie thought. “Can I have sex?” she asked Lisa suddenly.

“What?!” Jake said again.

“Can I?” Mattie repeated, ignoring her husband, focusing on her friend.

“As long as it’s comfortable,” Lisa said.

“Good,” Mattie said. “Because I want to have sex.”

“Mattie—” Jake started, then stopped, his hands dropping lifelessly to his sides.

“Not with you,” Mattie told her husband. “Isn’t that a relief? Your services are no longer required in that department. You bailed just in time. Now nobody can accuse you of being a no-good, miserable son-of-a-bitch for walking out on your wife when you found out she was dying. Your timing is as impeccable as ever.”

“So what do we do now?” he asked helplessly.

“It’s very simple,” Mattie said. “You live. I die. Now, do you think you could drive me home? I really do have a date.”

Jake said nothing. He reached over, opened the door to the small room, sucked in a deep breath of air.

“I’ll call you as soon as I make the arrangements,” Lisa said.

“No rush,” Mattie told her, and walked from the room.

ELEVEN

They didn’t speak at all on the drive back from Lisa’s office, Mattie too numb, too angry, Jake too numbed by her anger, to say anything. Instead they listened to the radio, louder than Jake usually played it, louder than Mattie normally liked it, but today, just the right volume. The rock music blasted its way into the BMW the way water fills a car sinking into a river, seeping in from every available opening, quickly filling all empty space, drowning everything in its path. The noise of the music blocked their ears and closed their mouths, although Mattie had no idea what the singers were shouting about. That was okay, she thought, focusing her attention on the road ahead. She didn’t have to know what they were shouting about. It was enough they were shouting.

Jake drove slowly south along the Edens Expressway from Old Orchard Road, where Lisa’s office was situated, his hands strangling the wheel as if he were afraid that, should he loosen his grip, he would lose control altogether. Mattie saw the tense white skin pulling at his knuckles, distorting the raised and ragged boundaries of the scar that covered three of those knuckles, the result of a childhood accident he’d always refused to discuss. Was he tense because of the shocking news Mattie had just received, or because he was driving her to a possible tryst with another man? Did he really care about either?

Mattie had called home from the car to check her messages and learned that Roy was running an hour behind schedule. He’d suggested meeting at a steak-house called Black Ram, located on Oakton Road in nearby Des Plaines. No problem, Mattie thought, except for Jake, who insisted on driving her.

“You can let me out over there,” Mattie said suddenly, pointing toward the Old Orchard Shopping Center, just off the expressway on Golf Road.

Jake immediately flipped off the radio, the resulting silence as deafening as the shrieking it replaced. “Why there?”

“I have over an hour to kill.” Mattie almost laughed at her choice of words. “I might as well walk around the mall.”

“How will you get to the restaurant?”

Mattie thought that if he’d only worried about her as much before he walked out, they might still be together. “Jake, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” he insisted, confusion lining his face like a series of unfriendly new wrinkles.

“Well, I still have about a year left, so you don’t have to worry about me.”

“For God’s sake, Mattie, that’s not the point.”

“No. The point is that I’m a big girl. And I’m not your responsibility anymore. I don’t think I need your permission to go to the mall.”

Jake sighed his frustration, shook his head, turned the car onto Golf Road, signaling at the entrance to the large upscale shopping center. “Why don’t we go somewhere for a cup of coffee?” he suggested, obviously deciding to try a different approach.

“I’m having lunch in an hour,” she reminded him.

“We need to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“Mattie,” Jake began, pulling into the first available parking spot, between a red Dodge and a silver Toyota, shutting off the engine. “You’ve just had a terrible shock. We both have.”

“I said I don’t want to talk about it,” Mattie insisted. “As far as I’m concerned, the whole thing is a huge mistake. End of discussion.”

“We need to figure out what we’re going to do, how we’re going to tell Kim, what steps we should be taking-”

“How come when you don’t want to talk about something, then we don’t talk about it, but when I say the discussion is over, that doesn’t matter?” Mattie demanded angrily.

“I just want to help you,” Jake said, his voice cracking, threatening to break.

Mattie turned away, not wanting to acknowledge Jake’s pain. If she acknowledged it, she’d have to feel it, and she couldn’t afford to do that. “Lighten up, Jake,” Mattie said, opening the car door. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s all a big mistake. I’m perfectly fine.”

Jake leaned back against the dark leather headrest, his eyes drifting toward the tinted sunroof above his head. “Can I call you later?”

“What will your girlfriend say about that?” Mattie stepped out of the car, not waiting for a reply.

“Mattie—”

“How’d you get that scar on the back of your knuckles?” she asked, surprising them both, then waited, leaning on the car door, watching the remaining color drain from Jake’s worried face, and the blue of his eyes go from murky to opaque. Spotlight on you now, Jake, she thought, knowing how uncomfortable he was discussing his past. Would he plead memory loss, grow sullen and evasive? Or would he make something up, tell her anything to get her off his back?

Jake absently massaged the spot in question. “When I was about four years old, my mother held a hot iron over my hand,” he said quietly.

“My God.” Mattie’s eyes immediately filled with tears. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

He shrugged. “What was the point?”

“The point was, I was your wife.”

“And what could you have done?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I could have helped.”

“That’s all I want now, Mattie,” Jake said, managing to shift the focus of the conversation back to her, to get himself out of the spotlight’s harsh glare. “To help in any way I can.”

Mattie straightened up, looked toward the mall, then back at Jake. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Her voice was cold, constricted. “Drive carefully,” she said, shutting the car door and walking away without a backward glance.

___________

Half an hour later Mattie walked into a small travel agency called Gulliver’s Travel, located at the far west end of the Old Orchard Shopping Center, and dropped the two large shopping bags she was carrying in front of the first available desk. “I’d like to book a ticket to Paris,” she said, sitting down before she was invited and smiling at the plump, middle-aged woman, whose nameplate identified her as Vicki Reynolds. Mattie quickly surmised that Vicki Reynolds was one of those people who made a habit of looking busier than she actually was, her hands constantly aflutter, her face pinched in mock concentration. Right now she was making a great show of entering information into her computer.

“If you’ll just give me a second,” Vicki Reynolds said, not looking up.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” Mattie told her, then laughed.

The travel agent glanced toward the two desks behind her, but both agents were busy with customers. “I’ll be right with you.”

Mattie sat back in her seat, grateful for the opportunity to sit down. She’d been running around like a lunatic since leaving Jake’s car, racing from store to store, looking at this, trying on that, ultimately emerging with three new sweaters, including one in pink angora, two pairs of black pants, because you could never have too many pairs of black pants, a pair of Robert Clergerie shoes in forest green suede that the salesman assured her would go with anything, and a stunning new Calvin Klein jacket in bloodred leather. The jacket cost a small fortune, but the saleswoman claimed it was a classic and would never go out of style. She’d have it forever, the woman told her. “Forever,” Mattie repeated, admiring herself in the full-length mirror. She’d worry about paying for it later.

She should also start thinking of buying a new car, she decided. She couldn’t drive around in a rented Oldsmobile indefinitely. Sooner or later she’d have to buy a car of her own, so it might as well be sooner, although she’d never shopped for a car by herself. This would be a whole new experience for her, which was good, Mattie decided. It was time to experience new things. Maybe she’d buy herself a sports car, one of those spiffy little foreign jobs in bright tomato red. Or maybe something homemade, like a Corvette. She’d always wanted a Corvette. It was Jake who’d discouraged her, pointing out how impractical it was for her to have a two-seater car, especially if she had to chauffeur Kim and her friends around the suburbs. But Jake was no longer part of her decision-making process, and most of Kim’s friends drove cars of their own. So, if ever there was a time for a shiny red sports car, this was it, finances be damned. Tomorrow morning she’d put on her pink angora sweater, her black pants, her green suede shoes, her Calvin Klein leather jacket, and go out shopping for a shiny new Corvette. Maybe she’d ask Roy Crawford to tag along.

“Now, what is it I can do for you?” Vicki Reynolds asked, finally looking up from her computer and greeting Mattie with an alarmingly line-free face, her skin so taut and stretched she looked as if she’d confronted a hurricane head-on.

“I’d like a first-class ticket to Paris,” Mattie said, trying not to stare.

“Sounds good,” the agent told her, hands fluttering, lips pulling back stiffly into something approximating a smile. “When would you like to go?”

Mattie ran through a number of options in her head. It was already October, and she didn’t want her first time in Paris to be in winter, when the predominant color of the landscape would be gray. Summer was too crowded, full of students and tourists, and besides, what would she do with Kim? Much as she loved her daughter, Paris was a city she associated with romance, not teenage girls. She wanted her first time there to be carefree and romantic. Maybe she’d even talk Roy Crawford into joining her. “April,” Mattie announced decisively. “April in Paris. What could be more perfect?”

“April in Paris it is,” Vicki Reynolds agreed, her smile a straight line that twitched only slightly at the corners of her mouth, as Mattie leaned back in her chair and grinned from ear to ear.

___________

“So, why do women do such terrible things to their faces?” Roy Crawford asked over his second glass of expensive red Burgundy.

They were sitting in an intimate corner of the small restaurant, its decor typical of most steakhouses, wood-paneled, masculine, dark even in the middle of the day, and they were eating fat, juicy steaks and baked potatoes heaped with sour cream, an indulgence Mattie hadn’t permitted herself in years.

“Why do women do such things?!” Mattie’s voice was incredulous. “How can you, of all people, ask a question like that?”

“What do you mean, Me, of all people?” Roy Crawford patted his full head of gray hair, smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle out of his pale blue silk tie.

“Because you keep trading in your wives for younger and younger models. You’re living with a teenybopper, for God’s sake.”

“That has less to do with the way she looks and more with her general attitude toward life. You look very beautiful, I might add,” he continued in the same breath.

“Thank you, but—”

“If you hadn’t told me about the accident, I’d never have guessed.”

“Thank you,” Mattie said again, not sure why she was thanking Roy Crawford for being so unobservant. “But you can’t seriously be trying to tell me that looks have nothing to do with why men go for younger women.”

“I didn’t say looks had nothing to do with it. I said looks were less important than attitude.”

“So, if a middle-aged woman with great attitude walked in here beside a sullen young blonde with great tits, you’d choose age over beauty?”

“I’d choose neither, since I’m already lunching with one of the most attractive women in Chicago.”

Mattie smiled, despite herself. “I suggest that the reason women, like the travel agent I was telling you about, feel the need to go under the knife is that they think they have no choice. They have to compete with women half their age for an ever-decreasing market of available men.”

“Maybe they’re not competing with other women,” Roy Crawford said. “Maybe it’s not men they’re doing it for.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe they’re competing with themselves, with the image of who they used to be. Maybe they just don’t want to get old.”

“There are worse things than growing old,” Mattie said.

“Name one.” Roy laughed, took a huge bite out of his steak.

“Dying young,” Mattie said, laying down her fork, her appetite rapidly evaporating. She shook her head, tucked her hair behind her ear.

“Live hard, die young, leave a beautiful corpse,” Roy Crawford recited. “Isn’t that how the saying goes?”

“Is that how you want to die?”

“Me? Die? No way. I’m going to live forever.”

“Is that why you keep going after younger and younger women? As a way of staving off death?”

Roy Crawford stared across the small table, his fingers brushing invisible crumbs from the surface of the white linen tablecloth. “You’re starting to sound a little like my ex-wives,” he whispered.

“Why do men cheat on their wives?” Mattie asked, suddenly shifting gears.

Roy Crawford sat back in his chair, took a deep breath. “Is this some sort of test?” he asked.

“Test?”

“Do I get a prize if I come up with the right answer?”

“Do you know the right answer?”

“I have an answer for everything.”

“That’s why I asked you.”

Roy Crawford took another sip of his wine, hunched his upper torso over the table. “Do you have a tape recorder hidden under that pretty silk blouse?”

“You want to search me?” Mattie asked, deliberately provocative.

“Now that’s an interesting thought.”

“First you have to answer the question.”

“I forgot it,” Roy said sheepishly, and they both laughed.

“Why do men cheat on their wives?”

Roy Crawford shrugged, laughed, looked the other way. “You know the old joke, Why does a dog lick its privates?”

“No,” Mattie said, wondering at the connection.

“Because he can,” Roy answered, and laughed again.

“You’re saying that men cheat on their wives because they can? That’s it?”

“Men are basically simple creatures,” Roy said.

“Is that why you’re here with me now?” Mattie asked.

“I’m here because you invited me to lunch to discuss buying some new art for my apartment,” he reminded her.

“The one you share with Miss Teenage America.”

“She’s very mature,” Roy said, with a sly twinkle.

Mattie smiled. “I’m sure she gives great attitude.”

Roy Crawford threw his head back and laughed out loud, revealing a mouthful of perfect teeth. “That she does.”

“Then, I repeat, what are you doing here with me?”

“Maybe the question would be better phrased, What are you doing here with me?”

“My husband’s having an affair with another woman,” Mattie said simply.

Roy Crawford nodded, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place behind his eyes. “And you’re looking to return the favor?”

“That’s part of it.”

“And the other part?”

Mattie looked aimlessly around the darkened room, trying not to see her friend Lisa lurking behind the faces of the other women diners, struggling not to hear her ominous message in the hushed tones of the women’s voices. “Maybe there is no other part,” she said.

Again Roy Crawford laughed. “Well, thank you for your honesty, at least.”

“You’re angry,” Mattie said.

“On the contrary. I’m flattered. I mean, I guess I would have been more flattered had you spoken of how handsome I am, how irresistible you find me, but revenge is good. I’ll settle for revenge. When did you have in mind?”

Mattie searched his eyes for signs he might be mocking her, found none. “My afternoon is looking pretty free,” she said.

“Then what say we get this show on the road.” Roy grabbed his napkin from his lap, dropped it over what remained of his steak, and signaled the waiter for the check. “Where should we go?”

Mattie was slightly taken aback by the speed at which things were progressing. This is what you wanted, she reminded herself, recalling the new satin underwear she’d purchased on her way out of the mall. “We might as well go to my place,” she offered, knowing that Kim was planning to attend an after-school football game and wouldn’t be home till dinner.

“Not a great idea,” Roy said. “Outraged husbands have a way of turning up when you least expect them.”

“There’s no chance of that,” Mattie said.

“He’s out of town?”

“He’s out, period,” Mattie explained. “He moved out a couple of weeks ago.”

“You’re separated?” Roy Crawford looked stunned, as if he’d just crashed into a brick wall.

“Is that a problem?”

“It’s a complication,” Roy acknowledged, straining for a smile.

“A complication? I would have thought it was just the opposite.”

“How can I put this?” Roy Crawford shook his massive head. “I quit school at sixteen, never even graduated. But I’ve done very well in life—why? Two reasons. One, I follow the opportunities, and two, I keep things as simple as possible. Now, if you were still living with your husband, then our getting together would be one of those great opportunities, a simple matter of two grown-ups getting together for a little fun. The only thing you’d expect from me is a good time. Opportunity without obligation.” He paused, waved away the waiter, who’d approached with the bill. “The fact that you’re no longer with your husband complicates things. It means your expectation level has changed.”

“I don’t expect anything from you,” Mattie protested.

“You don’t right now. But you will. Trust me, I speak from experience.” He paused, looked around the room, then leaned in closer, as if about to impart some deep, dark secret. “At the very least, you’ll expect a relationship. You deserve a relationship. But I don’t want any more relationships. I don’t want to have to remember your birthday or go with you to pick out a new car.”

Mattie gasped.

“I’ve insulted you. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“No,” Mattie said, her head spinning from the combined speed of his rejection and the accuracy of his prediction. “You haven’t insulted me. You’re absolutely right.”

“I am?” Roy laughed. “I think you’re the first woman who ever said that to me.”

“I give pretty good attitude myself,” Mattie said. A woman with short, wavy hair passed by their table, and for an instant, Mattie thought maybe Lisa had followed her here, was about to shout her diagnosis for all to hear and assess. “I guess it wouldn’t make any difference if I told you I might not be around that much longer.”

“You’re moving?”

Mattie shrugged, smiled sadly. “Thinking about it.”

“Well, don’t move too far away.” Once again, Roy signaled the waiter for the bill. “My walls would be lost without you.”

Live hard, die young, Mattie was thinking as Roy Crawford handed his credit card to the waiter. Leave a beautiful corpse.

TWELVE

“You never tell me I look beautiful.”

Jake groaned, flipped onto his back, then onto his left side, pulling the scratchy pink wool blanket up over his ears, trying to block out the sound of his mother’s voice.

“How come you never tell me I look beautiful?”

“I tell you all the time. You don’t listen,” Jake’s father said, his voice gruff, disinterested.

Jake heard the distant rustling of the newspaper in his father’s hands. He groaned louder, in a vain effort not to hear what he knew was coming. He’d heard it before, had no desire to hear it again.

“Why don’t we go out somewhere? Let’s go dancing,” his mother pressed, dancing into the forefront of Jake’s dream, filling it with her blond hair and dark eyes, her wide floral skirt sweeping all other images aside. He saw her swaying suggestively in front of his father, who sat resolutely reading his newspaper and refusing to acknowledge her presence. “Did you hear me? I said, let’s go dancing.”

“You’ve been drinking.”

“I haven’t been drinking.”

“I can smell the liquor on your breath from here.”

His mother’s pout filled the giant screen of Jake’s unconscious mind. “You don’t want to go dancing, fine. How about a movie? We haven’t been to a movie in months.”

“I don’t want to go to a movie. Call up one of your girlfriends, if you want to go to a movie.”

“I don’t have any girlfriends,” Eva Hart snapped. “You’re the one with the girlfriends.”

Jake flipped back onto his back, unconsciously humming his displeasure. Time to wake up, a voice inside his head was whispering. Whimpering. You don’t want to hear this.

“Lower your voice,” his father warned. “You’ll wake the boys.”

“I bet you don’t tell your girlfriends to lower their voices. When they’re screaming for more, you don’t tell them to lower their voices.”

“For God’s sake, Eva—”

“For God’s sake, Warren,” she mocked. Jake saw his mother’s face contort with rage.

Warren Hart said nothing, returned his attention to the newspaper in his hands, bringing it up in front of his face, effectively banishing his wife from his sight. No, Jake thought. That’s the worst thing you can do. You can’t ignore her. She won’t just go away. His mother was like a tropical storm, her fury gradually building and gaining strength, sweeping away everything in her path, unmindful of whom she hurt, totally consumed by her need to wreak havoc, to destroy. She was a force of nature, and she could not be ignored. Didn’t his father know that? Hadn’t he learned it by now?

“You think I don’t know about your little friends?” Eva Hart demanded. “You think I don’t know where you go at night when you say you’re going back to the office? You think I don’t know everything about you, you miserable son of a bitch?”

Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.

Eva Hart punched her hand through the middle of her husband’s newspaper.

The memory lifted Jake’s left hand into the air, brought it crashing to the bed with a thud.

His father jumped from his chair by the living room fireplace, tossing what remained of the newspaper to the beige broadloom at his feet. The small room seemed to shrink with his expanding rage. “You’re crazy,” he screamed, pacing back and forth behind the brown velvet sofa. “You’re a crazy woman.”

“You’re the one who’s crazy.” His mother lunged forward, lost her balance, almost knocked over a lamp.

“I’m crazy for staying with a crazy woman.”

“Then why don’t you leave, you miserable bastard?”

“Maybe I will. Maybe that’s just what I’ll do.” Jake watched his father grab his jacket from the hall closet and head for the front door.

You can’t leave. You can’t leave us alone with her. Please, come back. You can’t leave.

“Don’t think I don’t know where you’re going! Don’t think I don’t know you’re just using this as an excuse! Where the hell do you think you’re going? You can’t walk out. Goddamn you. You can’t leave me here alone!”

Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.

“No!” Jake heard his mother scream, her fists pounding on the back of the door that slammed shut in her face, her anguished cries racing from the living room and down the hall of the tidy bungalow, pushing open the closed door to Jake’s bedroom, the room into which his brothers had run at the first sound of trouble, the three of them piling up a mountain of books and toys against the door, the makeshift barricade useless against the force of their mother’s growing hysteria.

Jake watched from behind closed lids as the three young brothers, ages three, five, and seven, huddled together in the safe space he had created at the back of his closet, his older brother Luke staring vacantly ahead, his younger brother Nicholas shivering with fear in his arms. “It’ll be all right,” Jake whispered. “We have water and a first-aid kit” He indicated the items he’d stashed away in the event of just such an emergency. “We’ll be fine as long as we stay quiet.”

“Where the hell are you, you miserable kids?” Eva Hart shouted. “Have you deserted me too?”

“No,” Jake moaned, tossing back and forth in the queen-size bed. The child Jake put his fingers to his lips. “Ssh,” he cautioned.

“How can you all desert me?” his mother cried out in the darkness of the tiny room. “Is there nobody in this miserable house who loves me?”

Jake’s lungs felt the pressure of three children holding their breath. He groaned in pain, flipped onto his right side.

“I can’t live this way anymore,” Eva Hart cried. “Do you hear me? I can’t live like this anymore. Nobody loves me. Nobody cares what happens to me. You don’t care whether I live or die.”

Nicholas started to cry. Jake lay a gentle hand across his mouth, kissed the top of his Buster Brown haircut.

“So, that’s where you are,” their mother said, her feet heavy on the brown carpet as she approached the closet door. Luke jumped up, grabbed the handle of the already locked closet door, held it tight as the knob twisted in his hands. “Damn you,” their mother yelled, kicking the door before giving up. “It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” They heard a crash. My model plane, Jake thought, the one he’d spent hours painstakingly putting together. He bit his lip, refusing to cry. “You know where I’m going now? You know what I’m going to do?” Their mother waited. “You don’t have to answer me. I know you’re listening. So, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do, because nobody loves me, and nobody cares if I live or die. I’m going into the kitchen, and I’m going to turn on the gas, and in the morning, when your father comes home from sleeping with his girlfriend, he’ll find us all dead in our beds.”

“No,” Nicholas sobbed into Jake’s arms.

“No,” Jake said, pushing the blanket off his shoulders, kicking it away from his toes.

“I’m doing you a favor,” their mother said, tripping over the books and toys she’d knocked over, falling down, picking herself back up, hurling a shoe at the locked closet door. “You won’t even know what’s happening. You’ll die peacefully in your sleep,” she muttered, stumbling from the room, a maniacal laugh trailing after her.

“No!” the child Jake cried, clinging tightly to his brothers.

“No!” Jake shouted now, his arms flailing out in all directions, slamming against his pillow, smacking into the space beside him. He heard a gasp, felt flesh and bone beneath his open palm, opened his eyes to the sound of Honey’s terror-filled cries.

“My God, Jason, what’s happening?”

It took several seconds for the child to grow back into the man, for the man’s eyes to focus, for his brain to register where he was. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, his forehead wet with perspiration, the sweat dripping into his eyes, mingling with his tears. “God, Honey, I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you?”

Honey wiggled her nose with her fingers. “I don’t think it’s broken,” she said, reaching out to caress his bare arm. “What was it—that dream again?”

Jake lowered his head into his hands, his whole body clammy and cold. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”

“You have a lot on your mind.” Honey reached over and turned on the light by the side of the bed. Immediately, the distant browns of his childhood were replaced by the warm peach of his present surroundings. Honey tossed the red curls away from her face, smiled helplessly as they bounced right back. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

He shook his head, his hair wet against his forehead. “I don’t remember half of it.” A lie. He remembered every shrug, every shiver, every word. Even now, with his eyes wide open, he could see himself, a child of five, crawling out of his secret hiding place to open the window next to his bed, managing to pry it open only a few inches, but enough, he assured his brothers repeatedly, as they sat huddled together throughout the balance of the night, to make sure they were safe. The gas couldn’t harm them now. “I guess I’m still not used to sleeping with the window closed,” Jake offered sheepishly.

“You think the window has something to do with your nightmares?” Honey looked understandably confused.

Jake shrugged, shook his head, waved away her concern with a toss of his hand. He was a grown man, for God’s sake. His mother had been dead for years. Surely he could learn to sleep with the window closed.

“I’m really sorry, Jason. It’s the cats. Once somebody opened the window just a few inches and Kanga got out. It was days before I got him back.”

As if on cue, both cats jumped on the bed. Kanga was an eight-year-old orange tabby; Roo was four years old and jet-black. Both were male, and neither had taken to the idea of sharing their space with a Johnny-come-lately, two-legged rival for their mistress’s affection. Jake returned their dislike. He’d never been much of a cat person, preferring dogs, although Mattie had always refused to have a dog. Mattie, he thought, pushing Kanga off his leg and climbing out of bed, slipping a navy bathrobe over his naked body. Why was he thinking of her now?

He watched Honey disappear into the bathroom, her bare buttocks jiggling provocatively atop skinny legs, her hair a chaotic red mop. Seconds later, she emerged from the bathroom wearing a white terrycloth robe, her hair gathered into an elastic band and piled atop her head in a conscious effort to impose order, although already several tendrils had come loose and were running down the back of her neck. “Why don’t I make us some coffee?” Honey suggested, glancing at the clock on the end table beside the bed. “It’s almost time to get up anyway.”

“Sounds good.”

“How about some bacon and eggs?” she offered.

“Coffee’ll be just fine.”

“Coffee it is.”

You see, Jake thought. There was the big difference between Honey and Mattie right there. Mattie would have insisted on the bacon and eggs. “Are you sure?” she would have asked. “You should eat something, Jake. You know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” And eventually, he would have given in, eaten the bacon and eggs he didn’t really want, and felt stuffed and logy the rest of the morning. Honey took him at his word. No second-guessing for her. No trying to figure out what he really meant. He said coffee was all he wanted, then coffee was all he was going to get.

Honey wrapped her arms around him, kissed him full on the mouth. He tasted the toothpaste on her breath, smelled the scent of lilacs on her skin. “Maybe bacon and eggs would be nice,” he said.

She smiled. “Nervous about today?”

“Maybe a little.” He had an important meeting with a potential new client, a businessman of considerable wealth and influence who was charged with raping several women more than twenty years ago, something he adamantly denied. It promised to be the sort of high-profile, juicy case Jake loved. But he wasn’t nervous about meeting the client. He was nervous about his meeting with Mattie, scheduled for later in the day.

Almost two weeks had passed since Lisa’s devastating diagnosis. During that time, Mattie had sought a second, and then a third opinion. The doctors—one the chief neurologist at Northwest General, the other a neurologist at a private clinic in Lake Forest—were in complete agreement. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s disease. A rapidly progressing neuro-muscular disease that attacked the motor neurons that carry messages to the muscles, resulting in weakness and wasting in arms, legs, mouth, throat, and elsewhere, eventually culminating in complete paralysis, while the mind remained alert and lucid.

And how had Mattie reacted to each fresh opinion? She’d gone out and bought a new Corvette, for God’s sake, when it was dangerous for her to be driving at all. She’d rung up almost twenty thousand dollars worth of merchandise on her credit card. She’d booked a trip to Paris in the spring. What’s more, she was still refusing to take her medication, despite the fact Jake had filled the prescription for her himself. What was the point in taking medication, she insisted, when she felt perfectly fine? The numbness in her feet had disappeared; her hands were operating splendidly, and she was having no trouble swallowing, talking, or breathing, thank you very much. The doctors were mistaken. If she had ALS, she was obviously in remission.

She was obviously in denial, Jake understood, wondering how he would have reacted to similar news. Mattie was a young, beautiful woman on the verge of a whole new life, and suddenly, boom! Weakness, paralysis, death. No wonder she refused to believe it. And maybe, just maybe, she was right, and everyone else was wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. Mattie was strong; she was stubborn; she was indestructible. She’d outlive them all.

“What are you thinking about?” Honey asked, although Jake could tell by her eyes that she already knew. “She’ll be all right, Jason.”

“She won’t be all right,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Honey qualified. “I didn’t mean to sound glib. I just meant she’ll come to terms with what’s happening. She’ll start taking her medication. You’ll see. You don’t have to worry so much. Mattie knows you’ll make sure she gets the best medical help available, that you’ll be there for Kim. There’s nothing else you can do.” She kissed the side of his lips, entwined her fingers with his. “Come on. Let’s get you something to eat. This is an important day for you.”

“I’ll be right there,” Jake said. “I just want to shower, brush my teeth—”

“Okay. Holler when you’re ready.”

His eyes followed Honey out of the bedroom. Even beneath the bulk of her terrycloth robe, he could make out the dips and curves of her wonderful ass. He should have made love to her last night, Jake thought, instead of pleading exhaustion, allowing his worries about Mattie to drain him of energy. He’d make it up to Honey tonight. Or maybe even this morning.

He glanced at the mess he’d made of the bed, the blanket on the floor, the twisted pink-flowered sheets, the down-filled pillows pounded into near oblivion. Actually, the bed matched the rest of the impossibly cluttered room. Honey was one of those people who had trouble throwing anything away. She was a collector—of old magazines, of vintage costume jewelry, of unusual pens, of anything and everything that caught her curious eye. As a result, every square inch of apartment space was occupied by something. Loose coins and delicate chiffon scarves littered the top of her antique pine dresser; newspapers sat stacked on a small wooden chair, peeking out from underneath the array of silk blouses she rarely bothered to hang in her closet, a closet already overflowing with the more formal dresses and suits she never wore. Antique dolls, in dainty white lace, huddled together beneath the window, next to the colorful stuffed animal collection of her childhood. Baskets were everywhere. Small wonder there was barely room for any of his belongings. Already, they’d discussed finding a bigger place.

This couldn’t be easy for Honey, Jake knew, entering the bathroom and tossing his robe over the two cats scratching at his toes. They protested loudly and darted from the tiny room as he stepped into the shower and turned on the tap full blast. Instantly a violent spray of hot water hit him in the face, stinging his flesh, like hundreds of malevolent insects. Bad boy, Jason, the water hissed.

Badboyjason. Badboyjason. Badboyjason.

Honey hadn’t asked for any of this, Jake thought, positioning his head directly under the shower’s wide nozzle, the steaming torrent of water washing away the sound of his mother’s voice as the water tumbled off the top of his head and cascaded down his forehead into his eyes. Honey had fallen in love with an unhappily married man. She might have hoped he’d leave his wife. She might have hoped they’d eventually set up house together. He doubted she’d envisioned his moving in with her quite this quickly. He doubted she was prepared to deal with the fallout of his wife’s lingering illness and premature death, that she was ready to be a mother to an angry and bewildered teenage girl.

The last several weeks had been a wild roller-coaster ride for all of them. They were still reeling, off balance, afraid for their lives. Except that he and Honey would escape with their lives. Mattie wouldn’t be so lucky.

He’d been doing a lot of research in the weeks since Lisa Katzman had summoned them to her office. Not all patients succumbed as quickly as Lisa first suggested. Some lived as long as five years, and a full 20 percent of people with ALS reached a stage of the disease where, for no discernible reason, their condition plateaued. People like Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist, who’d lived more than twenty-five years with the disease and functioned well enough to dump the wife who’d stood by him through most of those years, abandoning her for another woman.

Men, Jake thought, turning off the water with a sharp snap of his wrist. We really are cads.

He stepped out of the shower, dried himself with one of Honey’s rose-colored towels, wondered whether he’d ever get used to so much pink. Was it possible Mattie would live for another twenty-five years, slowly wasting away, a prisoner of her own body? Would she want to?

“Jason?” Honey called from the other room. He pictured her standing in the middle of the small galley kitchen amid her collection of antique pitchers and pink Depression glassware. “You almost ready?”

“Two minutes,” he called back, using the edge of his towel to wipe the steam from the mirror over the sink, seeing his image in the glass blurred and distorted, appearing only to disappear again in the fine mist. How could he just abandon her? he thought, as Mattie’s face superimposed itself across his own. She’d shared his life for almost sixteen years. How could he leave her when she only had a year or two left?

Or three. Or five.

How could he leave her to waste away into nothing?

You’ve already wasted over fifteen years of your own life.

How could he leave her to die alone?

We all die alone. Think of your brother. Think of Luke.

How could he leave her helpless, to choke on her own fear?

I’ve been slowly strangling to death all my life.

So, what’s another year, maybe two?

Or three. Or five.

How could he go back when he didn’t love her, when he’d finally worked up the courage to leave her?

You don’t have to love her. You just have to be there for her.

What kind of man would walk out on her now? What kind of man would that make him?

Bad boy, Jason. Bad boy, Jason. Bad boy, Jason.

Badboyjason, badboyjason, badboyjason.

Mattie had trapped him sixteen years ago, and she was trapping him again today. It didn’t matter that she was dying, that she had no control over the situation, that she didn’t want this any more than he did. The end result was the same. He was trapped. He was being buried alive along with her.

“Shit, goddamn, son of a bitch, shit!” he shouted, pounding his hand against the mirror, leaving a clear impression of his fist in the dull glaze.

“Jason, are you okay?” Honey stood in the doorway to the steam-filled room.

She seemed very far away, Jake thought, afraid that if he looked away, she would disappear altogether. How long would she wait? he wondered. “Honey—”

“Uh-oh. I don’t think I like the sound of that.”

Jake reached over, took her hands, walked her back into the bedroom, sat with her on the side of the bed. “We have to talk,” he said.

THIRTEEN

“I don’t want to talk,” Mattie protested loudly, storming from the kitchen in an angry huff. “I already told you that. I thought I made myself very clear.”

“We don’t have a choice here, Mattie,” Jake said, following her into the living room. “We can’t just ignore what’s happening.”

“Nothing’s happening.” Mattie began circling the large room like a dog chasing its tail, extending her long arms, keeping her husband a comfortable distance away. She was wearing jeans, an old red sweater, a pair of ratty plaid slippers. He was in his lawyer’s uniform—conservative gray flannel suit, pale blue shirt, darker blue tie. Not an even match, Mattie decided, thinking she should have at least worn proper shoes. Except that she’d been having trouble with her shoes the last several days. She kept catching the toes against the floor, tripping over her feet. Slippers were easier.

She looked toward the windows that took up most of the living room’s south wall, thinking of the recently drained pool lying outside beneath its protective winter cover, an ugly plastic thing that resembled a giant green garbage bag. Mattie always suffered from a kind of swimmer’s withdrawal in those first few weeks after the pool was closed. This year was worse than most. Maybe next year she’d have the pool enclosed. It would be expensive, she knew, but worth every penny. That way she could swim every day all year long. Jake might balk, but what the hell. Let him balk.

Mattie was also considering reupholstering the two chairs in front of the window, replacing the gold-and-rose cotton stripes with something softer, maybe velvet, although she’d keep the beige-and-gold patterned wing chair and the floral needlepoint rug. Jake could have the baby grand piano that stood in the southwest corner of the room, unused and ignored since Kim gave up her lessons several years earlier. But she’d fight him tooth and nail for the small bronze Trova statuette that sat beside the piano, the two Diane Arbus photographs on the wall behind it, the Ken Davis painting at right angles to it, and the Rothenberg lithograph that occupied most of the opposite wall above the sofa.

Wasn’t that why Jake was here? To divvy up the spoils?

That was what she’d assumed when he called yesterday, said he’d be over at around two this afternoon, that there were some issues they needed to discuss. But then he’d arrived on her doorstep, her doorstep, with a sad smile on his face, the kind of smile that made her want to kick his perfect teeth in, and a hangdog expression on his face that announced the seriousness of his intentions even before he opened his mouth, and she knew this discussion wasn’t going to be about moving forward with their divorce, or deciding who got what. It was going to be a rehash of the last several weeks, more of the same subtle bullying that might work well with juries but didn’t impress her one bit, the trying-to-get-her-to-see-it-his-way gentle pleading, the attempts to force her to face a truth she refused to acknowledge or accept.

In the last two weeks Jake had called at least once a day; he’d insisted on accompanying her to her doctor’s appointments at Northwest General and the clinic in Lake Forest; he’d run to the drugstore to fill a prescription she told him she had no intention of taking; he’d made himself constantly available to her. In short, he’d suddenly turned into something he hadn’t been during the almost sixteen years of their marriage—a husband. “Go back to the office,” Mattie told him now. “You’re a busy man.”

“I’m finished for the day.”

Mattie made no effort to hide her surprise. “God, I really must be sick,” she said.

“Mattie—”

“Just a joke, Jake. What they call gallows humor. Anyway,” she continued, before he could interrupt, “if you’re finished for the day, why don’t you spend it with your little friend? I’m sure she’d be thrilled to see you home so early.”

“I’m not going back there,” Jake said, his voice so low Mattie wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly.

“What?” she asked, in spite of herself.

“I can’t go back there,” he said, subtly altering his words, volunteering nothing further.

“She kicked you out?” Mattie was incredulous. He’d walked out on her after almost sixteen years for a woman who’d thrown him out after less than three weeks?! And now he expected her to just forget all about his betrayal, to bury her anger and hurt feelings and welcome him back with open arms? My house is your house? Fat chance, buddy. That’s not the way it works.

“It was a mutual decision,” Jake explained.

“You decided what, exactly?”

“That I should come home,” he said.

“Home,” Mattie repeated. “You’re saying you expect to move back here?”

“I’m saying I want to move back here.”

“And why is that?” The sinking feeling in the pit of Mattie’s stomach told her she already knew the answer. He wanted to come back home, not because he loved her, not because he realized he’d made a terrible mistake, not because he wanted to be her husband, not even because his girlfriend had kicked him out, but because he believed she was dying. “This marriage doesn’t need a second opinion, Jake,” Mattie told him angrily. “It’s over, finished, dead and buried. Nothing’s changed since you left.”

“Everything’s changed.”

“Oh, really? Do you love me?”

“Mattie—”

“Do you know that in over fifteen years of marriage, you never once told me you loved me? Are you trying to tell me that’s changed?”

Jake said nothing. What could he say?

“I’ll make this easy for you, Jake. You don’t love me.”

“You don’t love me,” he countered.

“So, what are we arguing about? We’re in agreement. There’s no reason for you to come back.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” Jake said simply.

“According to whom?”

“We both know it’s the right decision.”

“And you made this decision when, exactly?”

“I’ve been thinking about it for several days now. It finally crystallized for me this morning.”

“I see. And your girlfriend? When did it crystallize for her?”

Jake ran his fingers through his dark hair, sank down into the soft cushions of the sofa behind him. “Mattie, none of this is relevant.”

“You’re not in court now, counselor. I’m the judge here, and I find it very relevant. I direct you to answer the question.”

Jake looked away, pretended to stare at Ken Davis’s impressionistic rendering of a quiet street corner, the sun glowing pink through leafy summer trees. “We talked it over this morning. She agrees with me.”

“Agrees with you about what?”

“That I should be here, with you and Kim.”

“Your girlfriend thinks you should be home with your wife and daughter. How enlightened of her. And what is she going to be doing while you’re here with your wife and child?”

Jake shook his head, lifted his hands into the air, as if to say he didn’t know, as if to suggest it was no longer any of his concern.

“What did you tell her, Jake? I think I have the right to know,” Mattie continued when he didn’t answer.

“She knows the situation,” Jake said finally.

“She thinks I’m dying.” Mattie resumed her pacing back and forth in front of her husband, like a caged tiger, angry and ready to strike. “So, what, she’s planning to wait me out, is that it? She figures she can hold on for a year or two, providing I don’t drag it out too long?”

“She understands that I need to be here.”

“Yes, she’s very understanding. I can see that. And what? You’ll keep seeing her on the side? Is that the plan? That way she gets to be noble and enlightened and understanding and a slut all at the same time.”

“For God’s sake, Mattie—”

“What’s her name, by the way?”

Mattie saw a slight flicker in Jake’s eyes, recognized it as a sign of indecision. Should he tell her or shouldn’t he? Would it do any good? Would it advance his cause? What would she do with this information? Could she use it against him?

“Honey,” he answered softly.

For an instant, Mattie thought he was talking to her. She felt her body sway toward him, her heart quicken, her defenses dissolve.

“Honey Novak.”

“What?”

“Her name is Honey Novak,” he repeated, as Mattie’s body swayed to a stop.

“Honey,” she said. “Isn’t that sweet. Pardon the pun,” she added, then laughed, a short, manic burst of energy. She was such a fool. One moment of imagined tenderness and she was ready to concede, give in, give up, agree to anything. “Is that her real name?”

“Apparently it was a childhood nickname that stuck,” Jake said.

“How appropriate. Honey stuck because Honey’s sticky.” Once again, Mattie heard herself laugh, the sound sharper, more brittle, than the time before. “Honey’s sticky,” she said again, trying to stop the laugh from growing, metastasizing, spreading its poison. But it was as if the laugh existed quite apart from her, as if some alien life form had seized control of her body, and was using her lungs and her mouth to push forth its evil message. She couldn’t stop it. She was its captive audience. “Oh God,” she cried. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” And then she was gasping, gasping for air, gasping for breath, except that there was no air, she couldn’t breathe. An alien force was laughing and gasping and coughing and choking the life right out of her body.

Instantly Jake was on his feet, surrounding her with his arms, holding her, until Mattie felt the awful sounds start to die in her throat, the coughing shudder to a halt, and her breathing gradually return to normal. Immediately she pulled out of her husband’s arms, took a deep breath, then another, wiped the tears away from her eyes, swiped at her nose with the back of her hand. How long before her hands stopped working? she wondered, panic building inside the pit of her stomach. How long before she was no longer able to wipe away her own tears? Mattie walked over to the piano in the far corner of the room, slammed her hand down hard against the keys. A discordant fistful of sharps and flats shot into the air, howling their protest, like a wolf in the night. “Damn it,” Mattie cried. “Goddamn it to hell.”

For a moment nobody moved; nobody spoke. Then, “Can I get you anything?” Jake asked, his voice steady, although the color had drained from his face.

Mattie shook her head, afraid to speak. If she spoke, she’d have to acknowledge what they both already knew: that the test results were conclusive, that she was dying, that Jake was right—everything had changed. “I’m going to Paris in April,” she said finally.

“That’s good.” The calmness of Jake’s voice was betrayed by the bewilderment in his eyes. “I’ll come with you.”

“You’ll come with me?”

“I’ve never been to Paris.”

“You never wanted to go. You never had the time,” Mattie reminded him.

“I’ll make time.”

“Because I’m dying,” Mattie said quietly, a statement, not a question.

“Please let me help you, Mattie.”

“How can you help me?” Mattie looked at her husband of almost sixteen years. “How can anybody help me?”

“Let me come home,” he said.

___________

Mattie sat alone on her living room sofa, slumped down in the same space Jake had occupied earlier, trying to make sense of the afternoon, of the last several weeks, of the last sixteen years, hell, she might as well make that the last thirty-six years while she was at it. She pushed her hair away from her face, wiped away what appeared to be a never-ending supply of tears.

Her eyes drifted toward the sun-dappled street of Ken Davis’s large oil painting, on the wall to the right of the piano. It was a street much like the one she grew up on, Mattie realized, although this was the first time she’d made the conscious connection. Immediately, she saw a towheaded child of eight come skipping along that sun-filled street, on her way home from Lisa’s house, eager to get home in time for lunch. Her father was taking her to the Art Institute. There was a major exhibition of impressionist paintings he wanted to show her. He’d talked of little else for weeks. Today was the big day.

Except where was his car? His car wasn’t in the driveway, and it had been there when she went out this morning, just down the street, less than half a block away, to visit Lisa. And now her father’s car wasn’t there, although maybe he had to go out for a few minutes, to pick up something for lunch, and he’d be right back. There was no need to worry. Her father would be back in plenty of time.

Except that, of course, he didn’t come back. He never came back. Her mother explained that her father had run off with some whore from his office, and although Mattie didn’t understand what her mother meant by “whore,” she knew it meant her father wasn’t going to be back in time to take her to the Art Institute.

In the weeks immediately following her father’s desertion, Mattie sat by her mother’s side as her mother systematically erased any trace of Richard Gill from the house, disposing of his clothes in boxes she sent to the Salvation Army, burning whatever papers and documents he’d left behind, cutting his face out of each and every family photograph, so that after a while it was as if he’d never existed at all. Pretty soon, Mattie noticed her mother stopped looking at her as well. “Whenever I look at you, I see your father,” her mother explained testily, shooing Mattie away, busying herself with her new puppy. And so, every day when Mattie came home from school, she raced to the photo albums to make sure she hadn’t been decapitated, that she was still there, her child’s smile assuring her that eventually everything would work out for the best.

It didn’t. No matter how hard she tried or how desperately she prayed, nothing brought her father back or made her mother love her. Not the grades she received, not the scholarships she won. Nothing she accomplished accomplished anything.

And what exactly had she accomplished? Mattie thought now, extricating herself from the painting on the far wall, pushing herself off the sofa, shuffling toward the kitchen in her tatty plaid slippers. She’d exchanged one loveless home for another, devoted sixteen years to a man who’d left her for a whore of his own.

In the end, her life came down to three little words—she was dying. She chuckled, suddenly afraid. Afraid of the sound of my own laughter, Mattie realized sadly. An increasing occurrence.

Of course, there was still an outside chance the doctors were wrong. Perhaps if she saw another specialist, agreed to undergo more tests, went off to Mexico in search of a cure, she’d find someone who could give her a different prognosis, she’d find the happy ending she’d been searching for all her life. Except that there were no happy endings. There was no cure. There was only a drug called Riluzole. And all it offered was a few extra months. Mattie shuffled across the kitchen and lifted the bottle of pills from the counter.

“If I take them,” Mattie said out loud, returning the bottle of pills to the white tile countertop, unopened.

How would her mother react to the news? Mattie wondered, tempted to pick up the phone right now and call her. Would her mother immediately start cutting her face out of the family photographs, or would she begin slowly with Mattie’s feet, moving on to her arms and torso later, mimicking the course of the disease, so that eventually, only Mattie’s head remained?

A father without a face. A daughter without a body. A mother without a clue. Some family.

And now Jake wanted to come home, to be a part of her life for however much of her life remained. He said it was because he wanted to do the right thing. But was it the right thing? And for whom?

“You’ll need someone to drive you places,” he’d argued, appealing to Mattie’s practical side when all other approaches failed.

“I can drive.”

“You can’t drive. What if you have another accident? What if you kill someone, for God’s sake?”

“Kim will have her license in a few months. She can drive me.”

“Don’t you think Kim will have enough to deal with?”

It was that question, startling in its simplicity, that forced Mattie’s capitulation. How could she ask Kim to be her sole means of emotional support, to pick her up when she fell down, to pick up after her when she was no longer able to pick up after herself, to pick up the pieces of their broken lives without breaking herself? Her beautiful little girl, Mattie thought, sweet little Miss Grundy. How would her daughter survive without her? “How can I tell you I’m leaving you?” she asked out loud, hearing the key turn in the lock.

“Mom?” Kim called from the front hall, the door opening and closing in one continuous arc. “What’s the matter?” she asked, as Mattie appeared in the kitchen doorway. “You look like you’ve been crying.”

Mattie opened her mouth to speak, but was distracted by the sound of a car pulling into the driveway.

Kim swiveled around, looked out the small window near the top of the front door. “It’s Daddy,” Kim said, clearly confused as she turned back to face her mother. “What’s he doing here?”

FOURTEEN

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

“I do.”

“Please state your name and address.”

“Leo Butler. One-forty-seven State Street, Chicago.”

“You may be seated.”

Jake watched from his seat at the defense table as Leo Butler, a balding and well-dressed man of sixty-two, withdrew his hand from the Bible and lowered himself carefully into his chair. Even sitting, he remained an imposing figure, his six-and-a-half-foot frame squeezed uncomfortably inside the small witness box, his shoulders broad beneath his brown cashmere jacket, his neck thick, his hands big and rough despite well-manicured nails. You can take the man off the football team, Jake thought to himself, but it wasn’t so easy to take the football away from the man. Not when the man in question was Leo Butler, former college running back, who’d inherited his father’s massive clothing empire at age twenty-five, only to run it almost into the ground ten years later. He’d been rescued by his wife Nora, who’d saved her husband’s ass shortly after their wedding thirty-one years ago, only to shoot him in the back on the eve of their divorce.

Jake smiled at the small, fine-boned, white-haired woman beside him at the defense table, her hands neatly folded in the lap of her gray silk dress, the pronounced blue veins on the backs of her hands competing with the blinding array of diamonds on her fingers. “I paid for the damn things,” she’d told Jake at their first interview. “Why shouldn’t I wear them?” Clearly not as delicate as she looked, Jake understood then, as now. Tough on the inside, delicate on the out—the perfect combination for a defendant in an attempted murder trial, where stamina was as important as appearance, and appearance often as important as evidence. Jake knew that a jury often ignored what it heard in favor of what it saw. And wasn’t one of the first things they taught you in law school that the appearance of justice being served was at least as important as justice itself?

In this case, the jury would hear about a bitter and unhappy woman, furious at having been abandoned by her husband for a woman younger than her daughter, embarrassed by the escalating openness of their affair, and desperate to retain her social standing in the community. The prosecution would show how she’d lured her estranged husband back to their home on New Year’s Eve just over one year ago, and pleaded with him to come back to her. They quarreled. He tried to leave. She shot him six times in the back. His girlfriend, waiting outside in the car, heard the shots and called the police. Nora Butler gave herself up to the arresting officer without a struggle.

Open and shut, the police proclaimed. Guilty as charged, the newspapers opined. Not so fast, said Jake Hart, signing on for the defense.

The assistant state’s attorney, Eileen Rogers, an aggressive and attractive brunette in a tailored navy pinstriped suit, was on her feet in front of the jury, asking the witness to describe his business holdings and current social status, guiding him quickly and expertly through the years of his marriage, detailing the couple’s bitter fights, the heavy drinking, the outright despair, right up until the day he asked for a divorce. Eileen Rogers then paused, took a deep breath, and lowered her voice to a dramatic whisper. “Mr. Butler, can you tell us what happened the night of December 31, 1997?”

Jake swiveled around in his chair, quickly searching through the rows of spectators until he found the one he was looking for. Unlike the rest of the spectators, Kim sat slumped in her seat in the middle of the fourth row, looking tired and uninterested. Even those who didn’t know her could tell by her posture that she didn’t want to be there. Her dark blond hair was twisted into a tight little bun on top of her head, and her bow-shaped mouth was twisted into an equally tight little pout that all but screamed her displeasure. Although her bored blue eyes stared straight ahead, Jake knew she was aware of his gaze. Pay attention, Kim, he wanted to shout. You might actually find what I do interesting. You might actually learn something about your father.

Not that she was remotely interested in anything concerning him, Jake understood. She’d made that very clear in the three months since he moved back home, speaking to him only when he addressed her directly, looking at him only when he got in her way, acknowledging his existence with eyes that wished he were dead. She was as protective of her mother as she was dismissive of him, as if one posture dictated the other. Clearly, if Jake wished to have a relationship with his daughter, he’d have his work cut out for him. So when he found out that today was a professional development day at school, he’d seized the opportunity to ask Kim to accompany him to court. “I think you’d enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a high-profile case, lots of drama. I’ll take you out to lunch. We’ll make a day of it.”

“Not interested,” came the immediate response.

“Be ready by eight o’clock,” he insisted, still hearing the echo of Kim’s loud groan in his ears. Something about his tone must have told her not to give him a hard time on this one, or maybe it was Mattie who’d been able to persuade her. Whatever the reason, Kim was dressed, albeit in sloppy jeans and a sweatshirt, and ready to go at the appointed time. She’d feigned sleep in the car on the drive to the courthouse, which was fine with Jake, who used the time to mentally fine-tune his strategy for the day’s upcoming cross-examination. “Here we are,” he said, pulling the car into the parking garage adjoining the courthouse, gently tapping Kim’s arm. She pulled it away abruptly, and he felt as if his own arm were being torn from his side. Give me a chance, Kimmy, he wanted to say, running after her as she strode purposefully toward the elevators. “Kim—” he began, once inside the courthouse.

“I need to go to the bathroom.” She immediately disappeared behind the doors of the women’s washroom, not reappearing for a full fifteen minutes, until Jake wondered if she had any intention of ever coming out.

And now here she was, fourth row, fifth seat from the aisle, looking as if she’d been run over by a steamroller and was about to slide off the bench and disappear under the feet of the two middle-aged men sitting, ramrod-straight, to either side of her. I shouldn’t have insisted she come, Jake thought, wondering what he’d been hoping to accomplish.

“Nora called my apartment at about seven o’clock that night,” Leo Butler began, the deep baritone of his voice even and strong. “She said she had to see me right away, that there was a problem with Sheena, our daughter. She refused to elaborate.”

“So you drove out to Lake Forest?”

“Yes.”

“And what happened when you got there?”

“Nora was waiting for me at the front door. I told Kelly to wait in the car —”

“Kelly?”

“Kelly Myerson, my fiancée.”

“Go on.”

Leo Butler forced a cough into his open palm. “I went inside with Nora, who was crying and carrying on, not making any sense at all. I could tell she’d been drinking.”

“Objection,” Jake said.

“Your Honor,” the prosecutor said quickly, “Leo and Nora Butler were married for over thirty years. I think he’s qualified to know when she’d been drinking.”

“I’m going to allow it,” Judge Pearlman said.

“Go on, Mr. Butler,” Eileen Rogers instructed.

“Nora admitted that our daughter was fine, that she’d just used her as a way of getting me to come out to the house, that she was upset because she’d received the divorce papers from my attorneys, that she was unhappy with my offer, that she didn’t want a divorce, that she wanted me to come back home, that she didn’t want me to go to the party with Kelly, on and on. She was becoming increasingly hysterical. I tried to reason with her. I reminded her that our marriage hadn’t been good for a long time, that we were only making each other miserable.”

That it was nobody’s fault, that she’d be better off without him, Jake continued silently, squirming uncomfortably in his chair.

“Suddenly, Nora stopped crying,” Leo Butler continued, his eyes reflecting his puzzlement, even now. “She got very calm, and this strange look came over her face. She said that as long as I’d come all the way out there, would I mind having a look at the fluorescent light over the kitchen counter because it had been making a funny noise. I said the light probably just needed to be changed, and she asked me if I’d do it for her. I thought, What the hell, change the damn thing and get out of there. I walked into the kitchen, and suddenly I heard this loud popping sound and felt a sharp tug on my shoulder, almost as if someone had pushed me. And then there was another pop, and another. Next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, and Nora was standing over me, with a gun in her hand and that eerie look on her face. It was then I realized I’d been shot. I said something like, ‘My God, Nora, what have you done?’ but she didn’t say anything. She just sat down on the floor beside me. It was weird. I asked her to call nine-one-one, and she did. I found out later that Kelly had already called nine-one-one. I passed out in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

“Exactly how many times had you been shot, Mr. Butler?”

“A total of six times, although, amazingly, all six shots missed my spine and vital organs. I’m only alive because my ex-wife was such a lousy shot.”

The courtroom chuckled. Jake listened for traces of his daughter’s laugh, was grateful not to hear any.

“Thank you,” the prosecutor stated. “No more questions.”

Jake was instantly on his feet. He walked toward the jury, which consisted of four men, eight women, and two alternates, also women. “Mr. Butler, you said your wife called you at approximately seven o’clock in the evening.”

“My ex-wife, yes,” Leo Butler corrected.

“Ex-wife, yes,” Jake repeated. “The one you walked out on after thirty-one years of marriage.”

“Objection.”

“Counselor,” the judge warned.

“Sorry,” Jake apologized quickly. “So, your ex-wife called you at seven, said there was an emergency regarding your daughter, and you rushed right over. Is that correct?”

“Well, no. Kelly and I were getting dressed for a New Year’s Eve party, and we decided to finish getting ready and stop at Nora’s on our way to the party.”

“So what time did you arrive at two-sixty-five Sunset Drive in Lake Forest? Seven-thirty? Eight o’clock?”

“I believe it was just after nine o’clock.”

“Nine o’clock? A full two hours after your wife called and said there was an emergency involving your daughter?” Jake shook his head in feigned wonderment.

“Nora had pulled this sort of stunt before,” Leo Butler replied, unable to keep the testiness out of his voice. “I wasn’t convinced there was any real emergency.”

“Obviously.” Jake smiled at one of the older women jurors. Has your husband ever treated you so cavalierly? the smile asked.

“And I was right.” Once again, Leo Butler coughed into his hand.

“I believe you said you were going to a New Year’s party in the area,” Jake said, suddenly shifting gears.

“The party was in Lake Forest, yes.”

“A party at a friend’s house?”

“Objection, Your Honor. Relevance?” Impatience played with the prosecutor’s thin eyebrows, lifting them up and down.

“I believe the relevance will be clear shortly,” Jake said.

“Go ahead,” the judge instructed.

“A party at a friend’s house?” Jake repeated.

“Yes,” Leo Butler said. “Rod and Anne Turnberry.”

“I see. Were the Turnberrys recent acquaintances?”

“No. I’ve known them for many years.”

“How many?”

“What?”

“How many years have you known the Turnberrys? Five? Ten? Twenty?”

“At least twenty.” Leo Butler’s neck flushed red above the collar of his pale yellow shirt.

“Am I correct in assuming that the Turnberrys were also friends of your wife’s?”

“They were friends of Nora’s, yes.”

“But Nora wasn’t invited to the Turnberrys’ New Year’s Eve party, correct?”

“Rod thought it might be awkward to invite both of us, under the circumstances.”

“The circumstances being that you were bringing your new girlfriend?”

“The circumstances being that Nora and I were getting a divorce, that I was starting a new life.”

“A new life that didn’t include Nora, but did include virtually all her old friends,” Jake stated.

“Objection, Your Honor.” The assistant state’s attorney was on her feet. “Still waiting for relevance.”

“Goes to the defendant’s state of mind, Your Honor,” Jake qualified. “It was New Year’s Eve, the defendant was spending it alone while her husband was going to a party with all her old friends. She felt alone, abandoned, deserted.”

“Objection,” Eileen Rogers said again. “Really, Your Honor. Mr. Hart is making speeches.”

“Save it for your closing statement,” the judge admonished, instructing the jury to disregard Jake’s later comments while overruling the prosecutor’s objection.

“So, Mr. Butler,” Jake continued, once again glancing toward the rows of spectators, trying to will his daughter’s eyes to his, “you stated when you finally arrived at your former home, you found your wife in a highly agitated state.”

“It had nothing to do with our daughter.” Leo Butler tried clearing the defensiveness out of his voice.

“No,” Jake agreed. “Your wife was upset about having received the divorce papers, you said. She wasn’t happy with the offer of settlement. Isn’t that right?”

“That’s correct.”

“What was the offer?”

“Excuse me?”

“What were you offering your sixty-year-old wife after more than thirty years of marriage?”

“It was a very generous offer.” Leo Butler’s eyes appealed to the prosecutor for help, but Eileen Rogers let the question stand. (He’s doing my job for me, Jake could almost hear her thinking. Establishing a motive for the shooting. Damned if I’ll object.) “She got to keep the house, her car, jewelry, fur coats, plus very generous alimony,” Leo Butler said.

“And the business?”

“I inherited my business from my father,” Leo Butler explained. “I didn’t think Nora was entitled to any of it.”

“Even though your business was falling apart when you married her? Even though she literally bailed you out of bankruptcy?”

“I think that’s overstating—”

“Do you deny she used virtually all of her own inheritance to pay off your creditors?”

“I don’t know the exact figures.”

“I’m sure we could find out.”

“Nora was very supportive,” Leo Butler reluctantly agreed.

“But what had she done for you lately?”

“Objection.”

“Withdrawn.”

“You said your wife had been drinking before you arrived.”

“That’s right.”

“You also stated she was a heavy drinker throughout your marriage. When exactly did she start drinking?”

“I couldn’t answer that.”

“Could she have started around the time you started beating her?”

The assistant state’s attorney all but fell out of her chair in her rush to object. “Really, Your Honor. When did you stop beating your wife?!

“I believe the question was, When did you start beating your wife,” Jake said, as laughter filled the courtroom, “but I’m happy to rephrase that.” He took a deep breath. “Mr. Butler, how often would you say you beat your wife during the course of your marriage?”

“Objection, Your Honor.”

“Do you deny beating your wife?” Jake persisted.

“Objection.”

“Overruled,” the judge declared, as Eileen Rogers plopped back into her chair with an audible thud. “The witness will answer the question.”

“I didn’t beat my wife,” Leo Butler announced, lowering his massive hands into his lap as if to hide them from the jurors.

“You’re saying you never slapped her around from time to time?”

“I may have slapped her once or twice during the course of an argument.”

“Once or twice a month, a week, a day?” Jake demanded, glancing over at Nora Butler, whose proud attempt to straighten her bony shoulders made her appear all the more vulnerable.

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Isn’t it true, Mr. Butler, that you once hit your wife so hard you burst her eardrum?”

“That was an accident.”

“I’m sure it was.” Jake spun around in a small circle, drawing the jurors effortlessly into his orbit. His eyes fell across the rows of spectators until they connected with the matching blue eyes of his daughter, her body now leaning forward in her seat. She pulled back as soon as she became aware of his gaze, resumed her earlier slouch. Jake almost smiled. “Isn’t it true that virtually all your arguments ended with your slapping your wife around?”

“Objection, Your Honor. Mr. Butler is not the one on trial here.”

“Sustained. Move on, Counselor.”

“You fought with your former wife on the night in question, isn’t that correct?” Jake asked.

“I didn’t hit her,” came the immediate response.

“But she had reasonable expectation to think you might,” Jake stated, waiting for the inevitable objection, which followed immediately. “You stated that your wife then became very calm and asked you to change a lightbulb in the kitchen.”

“Yes.” Leo Butler took a deep breath, visibly relieved at the change in topic.

“How did she look?”

“What?”

“Your wife. Ex-wife,” Jake corrected, once again smiling at several of the middle-aged women on the jury. “How would you describe her demeanor?”

Leo Butler shrugged, as if he’d never given much thought to how he would describe the woman to whom he’d been married for more than thirty years. “She just became very still,” he said finally. “Her eyes kind of glazed over.”

“Glazed over? You mean, as if she were in some sort of trance?”

“Objection,” Eileen Rogers said. “Mr. Hart is putting words in the witness’s mouth.”

“On the contrary, I’m just seeking clarification.”

“Overruled.”

“Did Nora Butler appear to be in a sort of trance?” Jake repeated.

Leo Butler went through his growing repertoire of assorted grunts, coughs, and squirms. “Yes,” he admitted finally.

“And after she shot you, how did she appear?”

“The same.”

“As if she were in some sort of trance,” Jake repeated a third time.

“Yes.”

“When you asked her to call nine-one-one, how did she respond?”

“She called them.”

“No argument? No resistance?”

“No.”

“How would you describe her movements? Sprightly? Sluggish? Did she run to the phone?”

“She moved slowly.”

“As if she were in some sort of trance?”

“Yes,” Leo Butler agreed.

“No further questions, Mr. Butler,” Jake told him. “You may step down.”

Jake watched the witness as he extricated himself from the witness stand and walked quickly, hunched slightly forward as if to disguise his great bulk, to his seat beside the assistant state’s attorney. Score one for the good guys, Jake thought, sneaking another look at the spectator gallery, hoping to catch a congratulatory smile on his daughter’s face. But when his eyes reached the fourth row, he saw only an empty space where Kim had been sitting. He heard movement behind him, and turned around in time to see his daughter as she slipped through the heavy wooden doors at the back of the courtroom and disappeared.

FIFTEEN

“So, what did you think?”

Kim shrugged, looked around the dark, decidedly dingy greasy spoon at the corner of California Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street. Her father had already apologized several times for the lack of fine restaurants in the area, although he assured her that Fredo’s made one mean hamburger. Mean, Kim thought, thinking it an interesting choice of words. “I don’t eat meat,” she told him.

“Since when?”

“Since it’s disgusting and cruel and fattening,” she answered.

“You eat chicken.”

“I don’t eat red meat,” she qualified. “Am I on the witness stand?”

“Of course not. I was just curious. I hadn’t realized you didn’t eat red meat.”

Kim made a face meant to signal her supreme disinterest in the topic at hand. There were plenty of things her father didn’t realize, she thought, wondering if there was any way she could get out of going back to court after lunch. That’s when he’d asked what she’d thought of the morning’s proceedings, although Kim knew what her father was really asking was what she’d thought of his performance.

“It was okay.” She shrugged again, the gesture smaller, less defined than the previous shrug.

“Just okay?”

“What do you want me to say?” she asked.

“I’m just interested in what you thought.”

“I thought it was okay.” This time Kim didn’t even bother to shrug. “Can we order now?”

Jake signaled for the waiter, who approached their small booth to the right of the rapidly crowding bar, pen poised to take their order.

“Do you have a Thai chicken salad?” Kim asked, ignoring the menu.

The waiter, whose wavy dark hair was almost the same shade as his skin, looked confused. “We have chicken salad sandwich,” he replied with a heavy Spanish accent.

“I don’t want a chicken salad sandwich,” Kim said stubbornly. “They’re loaded with mayonnaise. You might as well be eating a pound of butter.”

“Chicken salad sandwich sounds good to me,” Jake said, closing the menu and smiling at the waiter. Kim wondered if her father was deliberately trying to antagonize her.

“Two chicken salad sandwiches?” the waiter asked.

“No!” Kim all but shouted. “Oh, all right. But can you make mine with low-fat mayonnaise?”

“French fries or salad?” the waiter asked Jake, ignoring Kim altogether.

“French fries,” Jake answered.

“Salad,” Kim said, though the fries someone was eating at the next booth smelled delicious. “And could you put the dressing on the side?”

“Something to drink?” the waiter asked Jake.

“Coffee,” he said.

“Diet Coke,” Kim volunteered loudly.

“I read somewhere that diet pop isn’t very good for you,” Jake said as the waiter departed, shaking his head.

“Didn’t I read the same thing about coffee?” Kim asked.

Jake smiled, which Kim found more than slightly irritating. Why was he smiling? She hadn’t said anything funny or charming or even vaguely positive. Was he deliberately trying to provoke her? First he drags her into court to watch him browbeat some poor sucker on the witness stand until the jerk has to slink away with his tail between his legs, even though he was the one who got shot, for heaven’s sake. Six times, no less. In the back! And then he gives her the choice of the courthouse cafeteria or this weird little diner for lunch. Who ever heard of a greasy spoon with a full bar, for Pete’s sake, where visiting lawyers compete with local drunks for the bartender’s attention, their clothes the only way to tell them apart?

“Where did you go this morning when you disappeared for so long?” Jake was asking.

“It wasn’t long.”

“Half an hour,” Jake said.

Kim sighed, looked toward the door. “I needed some fresh air.”

“Fresh air or a fresh cigarette?”

Kim’s eyes shot to his. “Who said I had a cigarette?”

“Nobody had to say anything. I can smell it on your hair from here.”

Kim thought about protesting, decided against it. “So?” she asked defiantly, as if daring her father to do something about it.

“So, you’re not even sixteen. You know how dangerous smoking is.”

“It’ll kill me, right?”

“Good chance,” Jake agreed.

“Mom never smoked.”

“That’s right.”

“She’s dying,” Kim stated matter-of-factly, although she had to push the words out of her mouth.

“Kim—”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“I think we should talk about it.”

“Not now,” Kim stated.

“When?”

Kim shrugged, released a deep breath of air, heard her father do the same. “Did I miss something interesting while I was gone?” she asked. “You make mincemeat out of some other unsuspecting fool?”

Her father seemed genuinely surprised. “Is that what you think I do?”

“Isn’t it?”

“I like to think I’m getting at the truth.”

“The truth is, your client shot her husband six times in the back.”

“The truth is, my client was in a hysterical dissociative state at the time.”

“The truth is, your client planned the whole damn thing.”

“It was temporary insanity.”

“It was an act of cold-blooded premeditation.”

Amazingly, Jake smiled. “You’d make a pretty good lawyer,” he said.

Kim heard the unsolicited pride in his voice. “Not interested,” she snapped, watching him wince. “I mean, really. How can you defend these people? You know they’re guilty.”

“You think all people charged with a crime are guilty?”

“Most of them.” Did she? Kim wondered. Is that what she thought?

“Even if that were true,” Jake argued, “our justice system is based on the premise that everyone is entitled to the best possible defense. If lawyers started acting as judges and juries, refusing to defend anyone they thought was guilty, the whole system would fall apart.”

“Seems to me it’s falling apart already. Look at you—you get guilty people off all the time. You call that justice?”

“To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, my job is not to do justice. My job is to play the game according to the rules.”

“So this is nothing but a game to you?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Sorry. I thought it was.”

“You’re telling me there’s no room in your world for mitigating circumstances?” Jake asked.

Kim made the visual equivalent of a growl. What was he talking about now? “What’s that?”

“Mitigating circumstances,” Jake repeated. “Circumstances that lessen the severity of an act, that provide a justification—”

“For shooting your husband six times in the back? Good thing Mom didn’t own a gun.”

Jake paled, his chest caving forward, almost as if he’d been shot himself. “I’m