On the last ordinary day of her life before her family went off for the weekend, Abby made a real breakfast—French toast with maple syrup and bacon. It was penance, the least she could do, given how utterly delighted she was at the prospect of being left on her own for two whole days to do as she pleased. It would sicken her later, in the aftermath of what happened, that she could so covet the prospect of solitude, but in that last handful of ordinary hours, she was full of herself, her silly plans. She set a small mixing bowl on the counter, found the wire whisk, and when Nick came in the backdoor, she brandished it, smiling at him.
He frowned. “What are you doing?”
“Cooking breakfast, French toast.”
“We don’t have time. We’re going to hit rush-hour traffic as it is.”
“It’ll be fine,” Abby soothed.
He came to the sink still wearing the wisp of bloodstained tissue he’d stuck below his ear where he’d cut himself shaving and the rumpled cargo shorts he’d pulled out of the hamper as if he didn’t have a drawer full of clean ones. As if the unwashed pair were the only ones that suited him.
Abby got out a frying pan, aware of his mood, regretful of it. She wished he hadn’t bothered with shaving. She wished she’d done the laundry yesterday. Leaving the breakfast makings, she went to him, circled his waist from behind, laid her cheek against his back. “I’m sorry about your shorts.” The words were right there, but they caught in her throat when she felt him go still.
“Don’t,” he said, and she backed away. She returned to the stove, absorbing herself in the task of separating the strips of bacon and arranging them with care in the bottom of the pan. As if her care made a difference, as if it could keep her family safe when it couldn’t. She ought to have known that much at least. She went to the refrigerator and took out the carton of eggs.
Nick washed his hands.
“I wish you’d tell me what’s wrong,” she said when he shut off the water.
“Why do you always think something’s wrong, Abby?”
“Fine,” she said. She would not stand here squabbling as if they were their children.
He hung the kitchen towel over the oven door handle, gave her one of those side-of-the-mouth kisses. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Nothing’s wrong. I just want to get on the road.”
Abby’s jaw tightened. She knew better.
“Wouldn’t cereal be easier?” he asked.
She broke the eggs into the bowl. “I’d like us to sit down to breakfast together for once.”
“What about the mess? You do realize we can’t stay to help you clean up.”
“I don’t mind.”
He went to the foot of the stairs and shouted, “Lindsey? What’s taking you so long? I could use some help loading the camping gear.”
“Down in a minute, Dad,” she shouted back. “I had to get ready in Jake’s bathroom because the shower in mine is still leaking.”
Nick looked at Abby. “I thought you called the plumber.”
“I did. He hasn’t—”
Nick left. The screen door clattered shut behind him.
“—called back yet,” Abby finished.
She whipped the eggs, fuming. She wished she had taken Nick’s advice and served cereal. They’d be gone faster. She wished she had said it was only lately that she assumed something was wrong. Because there was something; she could feel it. Nick was distracted, moodier than usual. Too quiet. That is, when he wasn’t biting her head off for no reason. And since when did he push her away? Say no to her touch? It wasn’t like him.
Abby added powdered sugar and a splash of vanilla to the eggs. She got out a fork and poked at the bacon, aggravated at the sudden stab of her tears, a duller sense of alarm. Whatever it was, she wasn’t a mind reader; she couldn’t fix it by herself. Why couldn’t he see that?
“I can’t get my hair to do anything.” Lindsey came up beside Abby, her brush and comb in her hand.
Abby composed her face. “Want me to French braid it?”
Lindsey’s hair reached the middle of her back, a thick mane that blended shades of honey blond with darker shades of reddish brown, colors very similar to those of Miss Havisham, Lindsey’s chestnut mare. Lindsey said she’d rather groom Miss Havisham’s mane than her own, and she conned Abby into doing it whenever she could. Abby didn’t mind; she loved the feel of it through her fingers, like rough silk. Deftly, she parted off three sections and began weaving them together. “Should I call you tomorrow and let you know if Hardys Walk wins tonight?”
“Is Scott pitching?”
“I don’t know. Who cares anyway? He barely knows I’m alive.”
“Oh, honey.” Abby squeezed Lindsey’s shoulder. Scott Kaplan was her first serious crush, the first boy to truly trouble her heart, and Abby was both exasperated and pained by the experience. She wished she could say how little Scott would matter in the long run, but she didn’t dare. “Did you bring a rubber band?
Lindsey handed it over along with a bit of taffeta ribbon, pink with a narrow green stripe. “I don’t see why I have to go on this trip when Jake doesn’t.”
“He has finals,” Abby said.
“Oh, sure,” Lindsey scoffed. “Like he’d choose cramming for finals over camping in the Hill Country. Finals aren’t until next month anyway.”
Abby kept silent.
Lindsey said, “If you ask me he’s not going because he doesn’t want Dad on his case about law school again.”
“Can you blame him?” Abby asked.
Lindsey didn’t answer. She was as tired of Nick and Jake’s continual bickering as Abby was. Nick was so much harder on Jake than he was on Lindsey. His preference was obvious, hurtful, but if Abby brought it up, Nick denied treating Lindsey differently. “You don’t understand about boys,” he would say.
“Oh, I think I understand perfectly. He’s exactly like you,” Abby would say.
Stubborn, she meant. Each one was determined to have it his own way.
“You know I’m right, Mom,” Lindsey said.
“At least you won’t have to listen to them argue.”
“Maybe I’ll go to law school.”
Abby made a face. Lindsey never passed up an opportunity to remind her parents that she was the better student, the orderly, more agreeable child. “I thought you were going to play pro basketball overseas, travel the world.”
“Is there a reason I can’t do both?”
“Nope. You, my darling daughter, can do anything you set your mind to, just like your brother.” Abby ran her fingers lightly down the length of Lindsey’s braid.
“If only I could stay home like my brother.”
“Your daddy has gone to a lot of trouble to plan this trip so he can spend time with you.”
“I know. I just wish it wasn’t this weekend.”
“There are worse sacrifices,” Abby answered, blithely.
“I have finals next month, too. And don’t say it’s not the same.”
“Okay, I won’t.” Abby centered the griddle over the burner. “Will you set the table and call your dad? The French toast’ll be done in a minute.” She could feel Lindsey considering whether or not to push.
Please, don’t. It was a prayer, a wish, yet one more in the sea of mundane moments from that morning that would return to mock her. To ask her: How could you? Because she would remember that Lindsey hadn’t pushed; she’d set the table and left the kitchen without another word.
“What about jackets?” Abby followed her husband and daughter through the back door, onto the driveway. Although it was April, it was still chilly, and it would be colder where they were going.
Colder than home.
“It’s supposed to rain,” she said. “Maybe you guys should take your boots.”
“Dad says it’s not going to rain, that the weatherman doesn’t know his—”
“Lindsey,” Abby warned.
“I wasn’t going to say ass, Mom. I was going to say bum or buttocks or what about seater rumpus?”
Abby rolled her eyes.
“He doesn’t know his seater rumpus from a hole in the ground,” Lindsey finished. She stowed her purse and iPod in the front seat. “Mom?”
“I wish you were going.”
“You do? How come?”
“Because that delicious French toast you made for us? It’s the last good meal I’ll eat till we get home.”
“Very funny.” Nick hefted his briefcase and laptop into the back of Abby’s Jeep Cherokee, shifting it to fit, muttering what sounded to Abby like, “Who needs this?” Or, “Why am I doing this?”
She said, “Why don’t you leave that stuff here? You don’t have to work every weekend.”
“I gave you the keys to the BMW, didn’t I?” he asked as if he hadn’t heard her, and maybe he hadn’t or didn’t want to.
“Oh, my gosh!” Lindsey’s eyes were round in mock amazement. “Dad’s letting you drive his precious BMW?”
“I know,” Abby said. “I’m astonished, too.”
He straightened. “Hey, funny girl, maybe I’ll let you drive Mom’s Jeep.”
“For real?” She only had her learner’s permit, wouldn’t turn sixteen until August.
“Do you think that’s wise?” Abby was instantly anxious. “She’s never driven on the highway.”
“She has to learn sometime.”
“But they said it might storm.”
“Like they know.” Nick dropped his arm around her shoulders. “You worry too much.”
“Just promise me you won’t let her drive if the weather’s bad.”
“Jesus, Abby, I’m not stupid.”
“No, Nick, I didn’t mean—”
But he was stepping away, telling Lindsey to get in the car. He wanted to get to the campsite before dark.
She came over to Abby and hugged her. “Never mind, Mommy. You know how stressed he gets before a road trip. If he lets me drive, I promise I’ll be careful.”
Abby clung to Lindsey for a moment, breathing in her scent, leftover maple syrup and something citrusy, a faded remnant of little girl, the color pink, a lullaby. She said, “I know you will.” She walked with Lindsey to the car.
“We’ll be back on Sunday.” Lindsey settled into the front seat. “Unless we’ve starved to death from Daddy’s cooking.”
“I’ll make a big dinner, barbequed chicken and corn on the cob. Chocolate cake for dessert. How’s that sound?”
“I just hope I’m not too weak to eat it.”
“I think you’ll survive,” Abby said. She looked at Nick over the hood. “Don’t be mad because of what I said about Lindsey driving, okay? I didn’t mean anything.”
“She has to learn, Abby, and it’s best if one of us is with her.”
“I’m glad it’s you.” Abby meant it. Nick’s nerves were steadier. She went around to him. “I hope you can relax and have some fun.”
“Yeah, me, too.”
She wanted his gaze and touched his wrist. “Nick?”
“We should probably talk when I get home.”
“Things. Us. You know. Isn’t that what you’re always saying, that I should be more open with you?”
“Yes, but—” What’s wrong? She bit her lip to stop herself from asking.
“Thanks for making the French toast.” His eyes on hers were somber.
“Sure, of course. I was glad to. You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
Instead of answering, he cradled her face in his hands and kissed her, and his kiss was so gentle and tender, and so filled with something she couldn’t define. Later she would think it was regret she felt coming from him, maybe even remorse. But then she’d wonder if she’d read too much into it, if her sense of that had been created in hindsight.
He touched her temple, brushed the loose wisps of hair from her forehead. “I don’t want you to worry. We’ll be fine, okay?” His look was complicated, searching.
“Okay,” she said, and she might have questioned him then, but he left her and got into the car too quickly. They reached the end of the driveway, Lindsey waved, and they were gone.