Several times that summer, Leigh further tormented herself by considering all the ways the accident might never have happened. She thought of the stray dog, and how its presence had, in a sense, decided everything. If there had been no dog, there would have been no accident. If the dog would have stayed home where it belonged, if it would have had a more responsible owner, if it wouldn’t have dug under a fence or slipped through an open door, it would not have followed some scent this way and that until it ended up in the middle of Commerce Street at that particular time on that particular afternoon. Leigh’s daughter would most likely have driven home without incident, and Bethany Cleese would still be alive.
But the dog was there, standing on the raised median of Commerce, and maybe enjoying its freedom, though Kara later said that it was panting hard when she saw it. It was warm out, the middle of the afternoon of the last day of school. Kara, being a senior, had already been out for a week, but she and Willow had gone back to the high school to pick up their graduation gowns. On the way home, they stopped at the Sonic drive-thru, and when they pulled back onto Commerce, they noticed the dog as it started to step off the median. They watched, cringing, as the dog moved past screeching tires until it reached the other side of the street. Kara, who volunteered Sundays at the animal shelter, who on her twelfth birthday asked her parents to take the money they were going to spend on her presents and instead buy food for the shelter’s animals, couldn’t just drive away. She pulled into the parking lot of Raymond’s Liquor, where she and Willow got out of the car, crouched low, and held out their still-warm fries to lure the dog away from traffic, into their arms, and eventually, the Suburban that Gary, not Leigh, had allowed Kara to start driving around town as soon as she’d gotten her license.
So really, Leigh often thought, any small change in detail might have altered the horrible outcome. If the stray would have been a different breed of dog, not so friendly, more skittish, it wouldn’t have come to the girls, and Kara would not have been so distracted when she pulled back out of the lot. Willow later told the police that they were both laughing, trying to keep the dog in the backseat when they heard the dull thud that turned out to be the sound of the car striking another girl hard enough to kill her. But Leigh knew there had been other distractions: Kara had been on the phone -- she’d admitted that from the start. Leigh imagined the girls had the radio turned up as well, though she never asked if this were true. Leigh was a mother capable of tact and sympathy. She tried. She was always trying. Sometimes, however, despite her best efforts, she apparently said the wrong things.
When she imagined the interior of the Suburban in those final moments, she pictured the dog as a terrier mix, tan, for some reason, like Benji. Leigh never actually saw the dog. She didn’t even know about the dog and its involvement in the accident until much later, even though when the accident happened, she was just seven blocks away, teaching eighth grade English at the junior high, as she had been almost every school day for more than a decade. She was seven blocks away, and she had no idea it had happened. Just after the ambulance arrived, Kara used her cell phone to call her father’s office on campus. Gary wasn’t there, but the call had gone back to the English Department, and the secretary, hearing the distress in the caller’s voice, had tracked him down in a faculty meeting on a different floor. Gary told Leigh later that when he got on the phone, he didn’t recognize their daughter’s voice. She was crying hard, and it sounded as if she were shivering, which, he remembered thinking, made no sense on such a warm day. When he finally understood, he gave the phone to the secretary and ran across the neatly trimmed lawns of campus to the parking lot in his tie and jacket. He had not run so far and so quickly for many years, and when he finally got to his car, he had to stand still for a moment to catch his breath, his hand pressed hard against his heart.
All this happened around three in the afternoon. Leigh remembered hearing the sirens, and she felt the worry she always did, but it was the vague worry she associated with other people’s losses, other people’s children. She didn’t know the sirens had anything to do with her life until she arrived home hours later, her students’ final exams rolled under one arm. She had been slightly irritated. Someone had overturned the recycling bin in the mudroom, and she almost slipped on a stray aluminum can. Catching herself, she looked up and saw her husband and her daughter in the living room. They were on the couch, sitting very close to each other in a way that made her think of couples she sometimes saw in trucks, the man driving, the woman in the middle where an armrest should be. She’d made a clicking sound with her tongue, loud enough for them to hear. They had just left the cans sitting there for her to pick up. But then she walked closer, and she knew something was wrong. Gary had his arm around Kara’s shoulders, and his other arm held her hands down against her knees. She couldn’t see Kara’s face, just a tangled mass of dark blond hair. She could see Gary’s face, strained with effort, his eyeglasses crooked on his nose. And Justin, Justin was there too. He sat on the floor, his lunch bag and backpack by his feet, looking up at Leigh as if the three of them had been stranded there together for days, and she was the long awaited help that had finally arrived.
“What’s going on?”
No one answered, and she felt the first tick of dread. But they were all there, her husband, her son, and her daughter. So nothing so terrible could have happened. She glanced through the picture window. The Suburban wasn’t in the driveway.
“What happened? The car?” There may have been a hint of righteousness in her tone. She had been against letting Kara drive the Suburban to school. It was Gary’s old car, seven years old with a dented fender, but when Leigh was in high school, she’d taken the bus. There was nothing wrong with the bus.
Kara said nothing, squinting up at her mother as if she were a too bright light. Maybe it was only later that she decided this, but the way Leigh remembered it, the very moment their eyes met, even before she knew what had happened, she had the impression that something about her daughter’s face had changed in a permanent way. Kara’s posture was usually so good, but she sat hunched forward on the couch, and she looked young and small next to Gary. Her eyes had that luminous, silvery glaze they took on when she’d been crying, and they moved from the floor to the ceiling to the wall in quick, jerky movements. She looked like a dying bird, Leigh thought, a fledgling kicked out of the nest.
Leigh ducked to meet her gaze, but couldn’t catch it.
“What?” she said again, the t sound coming out hard. She looked at Gary, but he, too, said nothing. Leigh felt herself getting angry. They had already formed their alliance, Leigh thought. They would not admit she had been right about the car.
“There was an accident,” Gary said, and Leigh understood by the tone of his voice that the Suburban was not the concern. She let herself fall into an armchair, her keys jingling in her hand. Her key chain had a large, pink heart attached to the rings -- it was sentimental and cheap looking, nothing she would have purchased for herself. But it had been a gift from Justin last Christmas, so she had dutifully clipped it to her keys. As Gary talked, Leigh saw that Kara had scratch marks on each cheek. Gary was holding her hands down, she realized. She looked at Kara’s polished, pink nails, and turned the metal heart in her hand.
“Kara was driving. She hit someone in a crosswalk. A girl.”
Kara’s eyes moved in his direction, then back to the floor. Leigh held her breath. Gary’s eyes were shiny behind his glasses, and just by that, perhaps, Leigh should have known. They’d been married for twenty years, and she’d seen him cry exactly twice -- when he first learned his mother had cancer, and again on the night she died.
“What happened? What happened to the girl?”
He closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them, he looked away, as if he had answered her question.
“She died,” he said. He sounded annoyed, as if she were pestering him about something obvious.
Leigh glanced through the kitchen and the mudroom to the door she’d just come in. Two minutes earlier, she’d pulled into the garage on a sunny afternoon, another school year over, U2 playing on the radio. She’d been worried about Mr. Tork and the PTA. Before she got out of the car, she’d looked in the rearview mirror and considered that she had been skinny and fleshless her whole life and this was probably why her face was aging so quickly. These things -- the PTA, wrinkles -- had been her concerns.
“Who?” she asked.
“Another high school student.”
She braced herself. “Who? What was the name?”
Gary frowned. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned two buttons, but his shirt was stained with sweat beneath his armpits.
They both flinched. Kara had spoken, and her voice sounded unfamiliar, low and gravelly, like an old man’s. Leigh made a quick, pushing movement with her hands, but an image of Bethany came to her at once, the way she had looked in Leigh’s eighth grade class, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, sitting at her desk in the front of the room. Leigh had had so many students over the years, and it was hard to remember the quiet ones. But last year, she’d bumped into Bethany and her mother at the grocery store. The mother had a different last name, something Leigh couldn’t remember, and she’d had dyed blond hair, yellowy and flat under the grocery store’s fluorescent lights. She’d apologized for never making it to parent-teacher conferences. She’d been working in the evenings then, she explained, but she’d very much wanted to meet the teacher her daughter had liked so much. Bethany had looked embarrassed, Leigh remembered, her large brown eyes cast downward. But the mother kept talking, pushing her shopping cart back and forth as if there were a sleeping child inside. She’d started her own cleaning business, she said, and now she could be at home with her daughter in the evenings. Business was going well.
Leigh had nodded enthusiastically, thinking she wished she could convey that it wasn’t necessary to explain all this: Bethany had been out of her classroom for a year, and she realized many parents worked evenings. But then the mother reached into a compartment of her purse and handed Leigh a card. She had room for another client, she said. The rates were low, the service fantastic. Bethany made a quiet growling sound and turned away for a moment, but then they both smiled at Leigh, looking at her with their matching dark eyes. Later, when Leigh caught sight of them in the produce aisle, Bethany had her head close to her mother’s shoulder, and the mother was laughing at something she’d said.
Leigh had thrown the phone number away. She and Gary might have been able to afford a cleaning, maybe once a month, but Bethany’s mother, even with her bleached hair, had seemed like such a neat and tidy person, with her clipped coupons and her organized purse. Leigh would have been embarrassed, knowing how bad her house could get.
Now, sitting stunned in the armchair and holding the metal heart key chain, she could recall Bethany’s mother perfectly, her snub nose, her high thin brows. Leigh wondered if she knew yet, and if so, how the news had been delivered. She pictured her doubling over, shaking her head. She would hate them. She would hate Kara. Leigh looked at her daughter. Gary had pulled her hands away from her knees, and Leigh could see the half-moon marks her nails had left in her skin. She’d started going to a tanning booth just before the prom, and the skin around the marks was golden.
“Oh honey,” she said, and at that moment she was speaking for all of them, for Kara, for Bethany and her mother, for Justin, and for Gary, who looked so miserable and hot. He had pale skin that burned easily, and the afternoon light coming through the window was strong and bright. Leigh stood up and pulled the curtain shut, then sat on the armrest next to Kara, reaching behind her so her hand grazed Gary’s side. Her knees touched Justin’s small back, and for a moment, she felt stronger, knowing they were all four physically connected. It was as if she’d been activated, a lamp plugged into a socket. But then Kara stiffened, and Leigh was certain she seemed to pull away from her, leaning a little closer to her father.
“They just . . . let her come home with you?” Leigh heard her own voice, so uncertain. She didn’t know what to say. “What did the police . . .”
Gary leaned forward. “She wasn’t drunk. It was an accident.”
Leigh shook her head. That wasn’t what she’d meant. She touched Kara’s arm. Her fingers looked pale against her tanned skin. “Were you . . . She was in the crosswalk? You’re sure?”
Kara shrugged. “I didn’t see her.”
She asked this as gently as she could. But she needed to know. Everyone else knew what had happened, but she was just learning. The information would all come to her secondhand. She would never know as much as she should.
“Did she . . . Did she run out?”
“I don’t know.” Kara looked up at her mother, her gray eyes wide and bright. “I can’t tell you. I don’t know, okay? I don’t know why I didn’t see her. I just didn’t.”
Leigh drew back. They were both mad at her. It was this same old hurt, she thought, feeling selfish and stupid, that brought the first tears to her eyes. She should be crying for Bethany, or not at all. She swallowed, shook her head, and stood up.
“I’m going to make you a sandwich,” she said. She didn’t look back. She didn’t want to hear yes or no. She would find out the details from Gary later. But when she got to the entryway of the kitchen, she turned around and looked at them once again. Gary’s arm was still around Kara’s shoulders, and it rested there in a natural, easy-looking way. Kara was turned toward him, her cheek pressed against his chest. Leigh stared for a moment, holding her breath. Her whole life, she’d blurred sadness with anger. She knew this about herself. She was aware. But it was still hard to tell when this blurring was a fault.
She walked back into the living room and coughed twice. Gary and Justin both looked up, and Leigh nodded her head toward the kitchen. When Justin started to rise, she raised her palm. At twelve years old, he could understand subtle gestures, but Gary, the one she actually wanted to stand, stared at her dumbly from the couch. She moved her head again and bulged her eyes. When Gary stood, she ducked back into the kitchen. She turned on the dishwasher. There was a bag of sliced bread on the counter, but she took a loaf out of the freezer, pulled out two slices, and put them in the microwave. She went to the sink and turned on the faucet.
“What are you doing?” Gary always had to duck a little as he passed into the kitchen, the white frame grazing the top of his head. He liked to joke that it was the frame that was taking his hair off, a little more every year. She took his arm and pulled him to her. “I’m making noise so she can’t hear.” She’d intended to whisper, but it came out as a hiss. “My God. Tell me what happened.”
He nodded, readjusting his glasses, and she saw how exhausted he looked. She could smell the dried sweat on his shirt. It was then he told her about running across the campus lawn, how his heart had pounded, how it had seemed to take forever to drive across town. When he got there, he’d found Kara in the backseat of the sheriff’s car, lying on her side, her arms covering her face. She’d called him “Daddy,” he said. She hadn’t done that in years.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
He blinked. For a moment, he seemed not to know. “I tried. I tried right away, as soon as I got the call. It was after three thirty, so I called your cell. You didn’t answer. I tried again from the car.”
And then she remembered. Her phone had rung when she was talking with Jim Tork. The meeting had been tense -- Jim Tork did not want his son reading The Great Gatsby in Leigh’s eighth grade English class the following year because -- Mr. Tork had counted off each reason on a long, thin finger -- the story was inordinately depressing; it held up a decadent lifestyle as something to aspire to; it narrated adultery as if it were commonplace; and more than one character casually took the Lord’s name in vain. He was also upset about the Flannery O’Connor story, and the memoir by Tobias Wolff. He’d looked at all the stories on Leigh’s reading list, he said. The common thread, as far as he could tell, was that they were all depressing.
Mr. Tork had an elegant face, Leigh considered, with a Roman nose and tragic-looking eyes, the outer edges drooping. He was handsome, and he had a deep, confident voice. While he talked, she’d nodded with an earnest expression and thought about how with a face like that, under different circumstances, he might have been a famous actor. Had he been born in a different part of the country, or reared by different parents, she might have encountered him only on the big screen, with a better haircut and an expensive suit, half smiling for the camera. The moment she realized she wasn’t listening to the real Mr. Tork of Danby, Kansas, who had a very bad haircut, and who was wearing a polo shirt buttoned to the top button and not smiling even a little, she’d reprimanded herself and refocused her attention. She had to at least appear sensitive to his concerns; he could get other parents behind him. So when her cell phone rang, she’d reached into her purse and switched it off without even looking at the number.
She walked past Gary to the counter and opened her purse, rifling through its contents until she found her phone. He watched her flip it open and touch several buttons, scanning the screen.
“What are you doing? Leigh, I’m telling you, I tried to call. You don’t bel” He stopped, realizing.
Leigh stared at the screen. He reached for her shoulder, but she pulled away.
“She probably thought she couldn’t get ahold of you,” he said. “Honey. She was out of her mind. She wasn’t thinking.”
“You could have called the office. They would have sent someone to my room.”
“There wasn’t time.” He looked at the sink, at the water rushing out of the faucet and into the drain. “I needed to stay right with her. They were already asking her questions. They were interviewing Willow.”
“She was in the car. She was in the car with Kara.”
Leigh shook her head. She had pictured Kara in the car alone. This was how it would be, she realized. She would remain unclear on the details. She would never know as much as he did.
Gary took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He looked old, Leigh thought. He’d always had a long, narrow face, but now his skin appeared heavy, weighted down, sagging from the bones of his cheeks. “They’d already given her a Breathalyzer test, but they were looking at her carefully, asking her questions. Someone was searching the car. There was a crowd of people watching. A couple different people taking pictures.”
“Did you see her? Did you see Bethany?”
He frowned as if she had said something hostile. “She was covered up.” He glanced to the side, over her shoulder. “I saw where she fell.”
“Was her mother there?”
He seemed confused. “No.”
She looked away again. The refrigerator was covered with small mementos of their life -- an invitation to Justin’s upcoming recital, a receipt for dry cleaning that Leigh had failed to pick up for more than two months, a picture of Gary dressed up as a vampire so he could answer the door on Halloween. There was the small newspaper article reporting that Leigh had won a state award for her work with disabled students. And just to the right of this, somehow more eye-catching than anything else, was a picture of Kara clipped from the newspaper a year earlier, an amazing color shot of her on the soccer field just after she’d maneuvered the ball away from another girl. Her long right leg was extended, muscles flexed, and the ball was at the tip of her toe. The picture was still held in place by four words from the poetry magnet kit Leigh had purchased on a whim: LOVELY GIRL KICKS WELL. Gary had cut out the picture, but it was Leigh who had arranged the words while talking on the phone with her sister one day. She hadn’t really thought about it. The words fit, though. Kara was lovely in the picture, all youth and strength, her ponytail flying high behind her.
The timer on the microwave dinged. Leigh and Gary looked at it as if it had interrupted.
“She was in the crosswalk?” Leigh asked. This question mattered, she thought. She would keep asking it until someone answered her.
Gary lowered his eyes. “Not by then. She’d fallen by the curb. There was blood there. They were measuring it.” He frowned, pointing at the kitchen floor. “The distance to the tires.”
Leigh balanced herself against the counter. She pictured Bethany again, her dark eyes, her slow smile, the curve of her cheek reflecting light from the classroom window.
She looked up at Gary. “So what happens now?”
“They said they would do a report. It’ll go to the municipal court, and then maybe the district attorney.”
“She’ll be arrested?”
“I don’t see why. It was an accident, Leigh.”
“Yes, but . . .” She shook her head, trying to think. “Even with accidents, you know this, if she was careless . . .”
He put his hand over his mouth. “I don’t know. They didn’t say. They kept the Suburban, but they let me bring her home.” He leaned back and peered through the entryway. She stood on her toes to look over his shoulder. In the living room, Justin had moved up on the couch next to Kara, his cheek pressed against her shoulder. She patted his hand absently, staring out the window of the opposite wall.
“I gave her some Valium just before you came in,” Gary whispered. “I had some left over from my surgery.” He rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses again. “We’ll need to call a lawyer,” he said.
They stared at each other for several seconds, and then he turned and walked back into the living room. Leigh stood where she was. The bread in the microwave was overcooked and hard. She threw both slices in the garbage, then took eight new slices out of the bag, laying them out on the counter.
When the phone rang, Gary walked quickly back into the kitchen.
“Don’t answer it,” he said. “We shouldn’t talk to anyone yet.”
Leigh looked at him. His jaw was set, and she could see he was still breathing heavily. He rarely spoke in such a commanding tone. She pictured the garage door lowering, the bridge of a moat drawn up.
The machine picked up the call. They heard the outgoing message, Kara and Justin singing their rhyme:
The Churchills are not at home.
If we were, we’d run for the phone.
But we’re not, so wait for the tone.
Unless you’re a telemarketer -- in that case leave us alone.
There were a few seconds of laughter, followed by the jarring beep, and then the soothing but imploring voice of Eva Greb rose up out of the machine.
“Leigh? Hello? Anyone? Oh my God. I just heard. Willow is so upset. She’s worried about Kara. We’ll be home all night. Just call as soon as you can . . . . I’ll come right over with anything you need. Call tonight. I’ll stay up late. I just want to make sure . . .”
Gary shook his head. “We can’t talk to anyone yet.” He kept his eyes locked on Leigh’s. “You understand? Anyone. Especially not her.”
Only Justin ate his sandwich. He took small, soundless bites, his napkin folded neatly in his lap. Leigh pulled back the curtain again. It was early evening now, and the dim square of light from the picture window had moved from the couch to the floor. Kara’s eyes looked small, her lids heavy. She’d taken off her hoop earrings, and she was shaking them in a cupped hand as if they were a pair of dice.
The phone kept ringing. A reporter from The Danby Chronicle left her name and number. Willow called next, her airy, high voice so quiet it was difficult to hear. At seven, Eva called again. “Just checking to see if you all are home yet. Both Willow and I are worried. I might swing by later. Just call me when you can. I’ll be up late.”
Leigh didn’t look at Gary. She went back to the table, picked up her sandwich, and set it down. Moments later, the phone rang again.
“Hello? Hello? Hello? This is Ed-na Cas-tle.”
There was a long pause. Justin looked at his mother, and they almost smiled at each other.
“I am calling for Jus-tin Churchill,” the voice said carefully, as if testing a microphone. “We thought he was coming by tonight so we could sing. We’re all down here waiting. We were all looking forward to having him play.”
They listened to the dial tone. Gary, who was sitting on the piano bench now, smiled. “You can go if you like,” he told Justin. “Just don’t talk about it, okay? Don’t say anything about your sister or the accident.”
“I don’t have to go,” Justin offered. “I can call them and tell them I’m sick.” There was resignation in his voice, concern in his expression. He wanted to do his part. He’d long finished his sandwich, but he was still sitting at the table.
“Go ahead,” his sister said, and again, both Leigh and Gary were startled by her voice, the new lowness of it. She sounded like a completely different person. Her brow was furrowed, as if it required great effort for her to speak, and her shoulders appeared concave, folded in. “Go on, Justin. It’s okay. You can’t help by staying here.”
He looked at his mother. Leigh nodded, and he stood with his empty plate. “You’ll drive me?”
She almost nodded again, but stopped herself. She always drove him. She drove him everywhere, to the nursing home, to the video store, to the grocery store for his special requests. Normally, she didn’t mind. But Gary had already gotten his time alone with Kara on this terrible night. Leigh deserved hers. There was something ridiculous and petty about worrying about this now, at a time like this, but on a deeper, more crucial level, Leigh also believed something -- or someone, maybe Gary -- was always cutting her off from her daughter in a subtle but strong way. She looked at Gary.
“Can you take him? I’d like to stay here.”
She asked this lightly, as if he might have expected the request. But there was a pause after she spoke, and during the silence, Leigh felt her own discomfort, and saw it reflected in the eyes of everyone else in the room.
“Sure,” Gary said, and his voice was lighter still. But for several seconds, he and Justin only stared at each other as if they were both unsure of how to proceed. Justin pointed to the piano bench his father was still sitting on. “I need to get my music,” he said. “It’s in there.” Gary stood up, feeling his pockets for his keys. Leigh felt a heavy dread move across her chest, but she said nothing. Once they left, she and Kara would be alone, and she would be able to say something right and useful, to show Kara that though she ached for Bethany and her mother, she would stand with her and love her through it all. The words would come to her. She would say them in the right way. She would just say what she felt.
But as soon as they heard Gary’s car leave the garage, Kara stood up and said she was going to bed. Leigh hadn’t gotten even a word out.
“Are you . . .” Leigh followed Kara to the stairway. “Honey? Are you okay?”
“No.” Her tone made Leigh think of how Gary had sounded earlier, pestered by a ridiculous question. She managed the first few steps, holding on to the banister as if the ground were moving beneath her.
“You should eat something,” Leigh said.
Kara turned and gave her a look of such disdain that if such a horrible thing had not just happened, Leigh might have spoken to her sharply. Kara’s eyes were strikingly similar to Leigh’s, and so when Leigh looked at her daughter, she sometimes had the disconcerting sensation of staring into the face of her younger self. But Kara, at eighteen, was already several inches taller than Leigh, and her gaze could also seem condescending, as if she were observing her mother not just from a physical height, but a moral one, with equal parts humor and pity.
Or maybe Leigh was imagining that. It didn’t matter, she thought. She shouldn’t be thinking of herself now.
“If you want to talk . . .,” she called up.
Apparently, Kara did not. She continued her climb, holding the rail as if she needed it for support, and Leigh was left by herself in the dark living room, the windows backlit in dusk. She sat on the arm of the couch and gazed out the window. She could not feel sorry for herself. Somewhere, not far away, on this warm spring evening with the lilacs in bloom, Bethany Cleese’s mother was taking in the news that her child was gone forever. Leigh tried to concentrate on this, as if feeling the pain of it were some penance, something she could do to help.
But the image that appeared and then stayed in her mind was of her own daughter, at a particular moment when she was very young. She’d just gotten off the school bus, and she was running up the driveway in cotton tights and tennis shoes to meet Leigh with outstretched arms. Leigh could still see her crooked-toothed smile, pre-braces, and that burst of love in her eerily familiar eyes as she’d jumped up into her mother’s embrace. They’d started out so well together, she and her little girl; but now, sitting in her darkening living room by herself, she thought of something she’d read in a magazine once, something Jackie Kennedy had said: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” Leigh had liked that quote when she’d first read it. She had grown up sure she would always be on the good side of those words, a good mother, certain and smug.
Excerpted from THE REST OF HER LIFE © Copyright 2011 by Laura Moriarty. Reprinted with permission by Hyperion. All rights reserved.
The Rest of Her Life