They were arguing in the seconds before impact. Later, Deborah Monroe would agonize about that, wondering whether, had she been focused solely on the road, she might have seen something sooner and been able to prevent what occurred—because the argument had been nearly as distracting as the storm. She and her daughter never argued. They were similar in looks, temperament, and interests. Deborah rarely had to tweak Grace—her son, Dylan, yes, but not Grace. Grace usually understood what was expected and why.
This night, though, the girl fought back. “You’re getting hyper about nothing, Mom. Nothing happened.”
“You said Megan’s parents were going to be home,” Deborah reminded her.
“That’s what Megan told me.”
“I would have thought twice if I’d known there would be a crowd.”
“We were studying.”
“You, Megan, and Stephie,” Deborah said, and, yes, the textbooks were there, damp from Grace’s dash to the car in the rain, “plus Becca, and Michael, Ryan, Justin, and Kyle, none of whom were supposed to be there. Three girls study. Four girls and four boys make a party. Sweetie, it’s pouring rain, and even above the noise of that, I could hear shrieking laughter all the way from the car.”
Deborah didn’t know if Grace was looking guilty. Long brown curls hid broad–set eyes, a straight nose, and a full upper lip. She did hear the snap of her daughter’s gum; its spearmint shrouded the smell of wet books. But she quickly returned her own eyes to the road, or what she could see of it, despite the wipers working double time. Visibility on this stretch was poor even on the best of nights. There were no streetlights, and moonshine rarely penetrated the trees.
Tonight the road was a funnel. Rain rushed at them, swallowing the beam of the headlights and thrashing against the windshield—and yes, April meant rain, but this was absurd. Had it been as bad on the way out, Deborah would never have let Grace drive home. But Grace had asked, and Deborah’s husband—ex–husband—too often accused her of being overprotective.
They were going slowly enough; Deborah would repeat that many times in subsequent days, and forensics would bear it out. They were less than a minute from home and knew this part of the road well. But the darkness was dense, the rain an unreckoned force. Yes, Deborah knew that her daughter had to actually drive in order to learn how, but she feared this was too much, too soon. Deborah hated rain. Grace didn’t seem fazed.
“We finished studying,” the girl argued around the gum in her mouth. Her hands were tight on the wheel, perfectly positioned, nothing wrong there. “It was hot inside, and the AC wasn’t on yet, so we opened the windows. We were taking a break. Like, is it a crime to laugh? I mean, it’s bad enough my mother had to come to get me—”
“Excuse me,” Deborah cut in, “but what was the alternative? You can’t drive by yourself on a learner’s permit. Ryan and Kyle may have their licenses, but, by law, they’re not allowed to take friends in the car without an adult, and besides, we live on the opposite end of town from the others—and what’s so bad about your mother picking you up at ten o’clock on a weeknight? Sweetie, you’re barely sixteen.”
“Exactly,” Grace said with feeling. “I’m sixteen, Mom. I’ll have my real license in four months. So what’ll happen then? I'll be driving myself places all the time—because we don’t only live on the opposite end of town from everyone else, we live in the middle of nowhere, because Dad decided he had to buy a gazillion acres to build a McMansion in the forest, which he then decided he didn’t want, so he left it and us and moved to Vermont to live with his long–lost love from twenty–five years ago—”
“Grace–” Deborah couldn't go there just then. Grace might feel abandoned by her father, but the loss hit Deborah harder. Her marriage wasn’t supposed to end. That hadn’t been in the plan.
“Okay, forget Dad,” Grace went on, “but once I get my license, I’ll be driving places alone, and you won’t see who’s there or whether there’s a parent around, or whether we’re studying or having a party. You’re going to have to trust me.”
“I do trust you,” Deborah said, defensive herself now, but pleading. “It’s the others I don’t trust. Weren’t you the one who told me Kyle brought a six–pack to the pool party at Katherine’s house last weekend?”
“None of us had any. Katherine’s parents made him leave.”
“Katherine’s parents. Exactly.”
Deborah heard her growl. “Mom. We were studying.”
Deborah was about to list the things that could happen when teenagers were studying—things she had seen both growing up, when her father was the only family doctor in town, and now, being in practice with him and treating dozens of local teenagers—when a flash of movement entered her line of sight on the right. In quick succession came the jolt of a weighty thud against the front of the car, the slam of brakes, the squeal of tires. Her seat belt tightened, holding her while the car skidded on the flooded pavement, fishtailed, and spun, all in the space of seconds. When it came to a stop, they were facing backward.
For a minute, Deborah didn’t hear the rain over the thunder of her heart. Then, above it, came Grace’s frightened cry. “What was that?”
“Are you okay?”
“What was that?” the girl repeated, her voice shaking this time.
Deborah was starting to shake, too, but her daughter was upright, belted in, clearly okay. Scrabbling to release her seat belt, Deborah hiked up the hood of her slicker and ran out to search for whatever it was they had hit. The headlights reflected off the wet road, but beyond that paltry light, it was totally dark.
Ducking back into the car, she fumbled through the glove box for a flashlight. Outside again, she searched the roadside, but saw nothing that remotely resembled a downed animal.
Grace materialized at her elbow. "Was it a deer?" she asked, sounding terrified.
Deborah's heart continued to pound. “I don’t know. Sweetie, get back in the car. You don’t have a jacket.” It was a warm enough spring night; she just didn’t want Grace seeing what they had hit.
“It had to be a deer,” Grace cried, “not even hurt, just ran off into the woods—what else could it be?”
Deborah didn’t think a deer wore a running suit with a stripe up the side, which was what she swore she had seen in the split second prior to impact. A running suit meant something human.
She walked along the edge of the road, searching the low shrubs with her light. “Hey,” she called out to whoever was there, “are you hurt? Hello? Let me know where you are!”
Grace hovered at her shoulder. “Like, it came from nowhere, Mom—no person would be out here in the rain, so maybe it was a fox or a raccoon—or a deer, it had to be a deer.”
“Get back in the car, Grace,” Deborah repeated. The words were barely out when she heard something, and it wasn't the idling car. Nor was it the whine of wind in the trees or the rain splattering everything in sight.
The sound came again, definitely a moan. She followed it to a point at the side of the road and searched again, but it was another minute before she found its source. The running shoe was barely visible in the wet undergrowth some four feet from the pavement, and the black pants rising from it, half hidden under a low branch of a hemlock, had a blue stripe. A second leg was bent in an odd angle—broken, she guessed—and the rest of him was crumpled against the base of a tree.
Supine, he ran no risk of suffocation in the forest undergrowth, but his eyes were closed. Short dark hair was plastered to his forehead. Scrambling through a clump of wet ferns, Deborah directed her flashlight to his head, but didn’t see any blood other than that from a mean scrape on his jaw.
“Omigod!” Grace wailed.
Deborah felt for a pulse at his neck. It was only when she found it that her own began beating again. “Can you hear me?” she asked, leaning close. “Open your eyes for me.” He didn't respond.
“Omigod!” Grace cried hysterically. “Do you know who that is, it’s my history teacher!”
Trying to think quickly, Deborah pulled her daughter back onto the road and toward the car. She could feel the girl trembling. As calmly as she could, Deborah said, “I want you to run home, honey. It isn’t more than half a mile, and you’re already soaked. Dylan’s alone. He’ll be scared.” She imagined a small face at the pantry window, eyes large, frightened, and magnified behind thick Harry Potter glasses.
“What'll you do?” Grace asked in a high, wavery voice.
“Call the police, then sit with Mr. McKenna until an ambulance comes.”
“I didn’t see him, I swear, I didn’t see him,” wailed Grace. “Can’t you do something for him, Mom?”
“Not much.” Deborah turned off the engine, turned on the hazards. “I don't see any profuse bleeding, and I don’t dare move him.”
“Will he die?”
Deborah grabbed her phone. “We weren’t going fast. We couldn’t have hit him that hard.”
“But he got way over there.”
“He must have rolled.”
“He isn’t moving.”
“He may have a concussion or be in shock.” There were plenty of worse possibilities, most of which, unfortunately, she knew.
“Shouldn’t I stay here with you?”
“There's nothing you can do here. Go, sweetie.” She cupped her daughter’s cheek, frantic to spare her this, at least. “I’ll be home soon.&rdquo
Grace’s hair was drenched, separating into long, wet coils. Rain dripped from a gentle chin. Eyes wide, she spoke in a frightened rush. “Did you see him, Mom? Like, why would anybody be walking on the road in the rain? I mean, it’s dark, how could I possibly see him, and why didn’t he see us? There are no other lights here.”
Deborah punched in 9–1–1 with one hand and took Grace’s arm with the other. “Go, Grace. I need you home with Dylan. Now.” The dispatcher picked up after a single ring. Deborah knew the voice. Carla McKay was a patient of hers. She worked as the civilian dispatcher several nights a week.
“Leyland Police. This call is being recorded.”
“Carla, it’s Dr. Monroe,” she said and shooed Grace off with a hand. “There’s been an accident. I’m on the rim road, maybe a half mile east of my house. My car hit a man. We need an ambulance.”
“How badly is he hurt?”
“He’s unconscious, but he’s breathing. I’d say there's a broken leg, but I’m not sure what else. The only cut I see is superficial, but I can’t look more without moving him.”
“Is anyone else hurt?”
“No. How fast can you get someone here?”
“I’ll call now.”
Deborah closed the phone. Grace hadn’t moved. Soaking wet, curls long and bedraggled, she looked very young and frightened.
Frightened herself, Deborah stroked wet hair back from her daughter’s cheeks. On a note of quiet urgency, she said, “Grace, I need you home with Dylan.”
“I was driving.”
“You’ll be more of a help to me if you’re with Dylan. Please, sweetie?”
“It was my fault.”
“Grace. Can we not argue about this? Here, take my jacket.” She was starting to slip it off when the girl turned and broke into a run. In no time, she had disappeared in the rain.
Pulling her hood up again, Deborah hurried back into the woods. The smell of wet earth and hemlock permeated the air, but she knew what blood smelled like and imagined that, too. Again, she looked for something beyond the scrape on Calvin McKenna’s jaw. She saw nothing.
He remained unconscious, but his pulse was strong. She could monitor that and, if it faltered, could manually pump his chest. Studying the angle of his leg, she suspected that his injury involved the hip, but a hip injury was doable. A spine injury was something else, which was why she wouldn’t move him. The EMTs would have a backboard and head immobilizer. Far better to wait.
It was easier said than done. It was an endless ten minutes of blaming herself for letting Grace drive, of taking Calvin McKenna's pulse, trying to see what else might be hurt, wondering what had possessed him to be out in the rain, taking his pulse again, cursing the location of their house and the irresponsibility of her ex–husband, before she saw the flashing lights of the cruiser. There was no siren. They were in too rural a part of town for that.
Waving her flashlight, she ran back onto the road and was at the cruiser’s door when Brian Duffy stepped out. In his mid–forties, he was one of a dozen officers on the town force. He also coached Little League. Her son, Dylan, had been on his team for two years.
"Are you all right, Dr. Monroe?" he asked, fitting a plastic–covered cap over his crewcut. He was already wearing a rain jacket.
“I’m fine. But my car hit Calvin McKenna.” She led him back to the woods. “I can’t tell how badly he’s hurt.” Once over the ferns, she knelt and checked his pulse again. It remained steady. She directed her flashlight at his face; its beam was joined by the officer’s.
“Cal?” she called futilely. “Cal? Can you hear me?”
“What was he doing out here?” the officer asked.
Deborah sat back on her heels. “I have no idea. Walking? Running?”
“In the rain? That’s strange.”
“Particularly here,” she said. “Do you know where he lives?” It certainly wasn’t nearby. There were four houses in the circle of a mile, and she knew the residents of each.
“He and his wife have a place over by the train station,” Brian replied. “That’s a few miles from here. I take it you don’t treat him?”
“No. Grace has him in school this year, so I heard him speak at the open house last fall. He’s a serious guy, a tough marker. That’s about all I know.” She was reaching for his pulse again when the road came alive with light. A second cruiser arrived, its roof bar thrumming a raucous blue and white. An ambulance was close behind.
Deborah didn’t immediately recognize the EMTs; they were young, likely new. But she did know the man who emerged from the second cruiser. John Colby was the police chief. In his late–fifties, he would have been retired had he been working anywhere else, but he had grown up in Leyland. It was understood that he would keep working as long as his health allowed. Deborah guessed that would be a while. He and his wife were patients of theirs. His wife had a problem with allergens–dander, pollen, dust—that had resulted in adult–onset asthma, but John’s greatest problem, beyond a pot belly, was insomnia. He worked days; he worked nights. He claimed that being active kept his blood pressure down, and since his blood pressure was chronically low, Deborah couldn’t argue.
Excerpted from THE SECRET BETWEEN US © Copyright 2011 by Barbara Delinsky. Reprinted with permission by Broadway. All rights reserved.
The Secret Between Us