Everything I Never Told You [CHAPTER- 12]

 


CHAPTER- 12

All the way home, James thinks to himself: It is not too late. It is not too late. With each mile marker, he repeats it until he is back in Middlewood, the college and then the lake whipping by. When at last he pulls into their driveway, the garage door is open, and Marilyn’s car nowhere in sight. Each breath sways him, no matter how hard he tries to keep upright. All these years he has remembered only: She ran away. He has taken this for granted: She came back. And: She stayed. As he reaches for the front doorknob, his legs wobble. It is not too late, he assures himself, but inside, he quavers. He cannot blame her if she has gone away again, this time for good.


In the front hall, a heavy silence greets him, like that of a funeral. Then he steps into the living room and sees a small figure huddled on the floor. Hannah. Curled in a ball, hugging herself with both arms. Eyes a watery red. He remembers suddenly a long-ago afternoon, two motherless children on a cold doorstep.


“Hannah?” he whispers, even as he feels himself collapsing, like an old building grown too weak to stand. His bag drops from his fingers to the floor. It’s as if he’s breathing through a straw. “Where’s your mother?”


Hannah looks up. “Upstairs. Sleeping.” Then—and this is what gives James his breath again—“I told her you would come home.” Not smugly, not triumphantly. Just a fact, round and simple as a bead.


James sinks to the carpet beside his small daughter, silenced by gratitude, and Hannah considers whether to say more. For there is more, much more: how she and her mother had curled up together on Lydia’s bed and cried and cried all afternoon, holding each other so close that their tears mixed, until her mother had fallen asleep. And how, half an hour ago, her brother had arrived home in a police car, rumpled and groggy and stinking to high heaven but strangely serene, and had gone straight up to his room and into bed. Hannah, peeking from behind the curtain, had seen Officer Fiske at the wheel, and late that night, Marilyn’s car will quietly reappear in the driveway, washed, keys set neatly on the driver’s seat. It can wait, she decides. She is used to keeping people’s secrets, and there is something more pressing to tell her father.


She tugs at his arm, pointing upward, and James is surprised by how small her hands are, and how strong. “Look.”


At first, so overcome with relief, so accustomed to ignoring his youngest, he sees nothing. It is not too late, he thinks, glancing up at the ceiling, clean and bright as a new sheet of paper in the late-afternoon sun. Not yet the end.


“Look,” Hannah insists again, tipping his head with a peremptory hand. She has never dared to be so bossy, and James, startled, looks carefully and sees it at last: a white footprint against the off-white, as if someone has stepped in paint and then onto the ceiling, leaving one faint but perfect track. He has never noticed it before. Hannah catches his eye and the look on her face is serious and proud, as if she’s discovered a new planet. It’s ridiculous, really, a footprint on the ceiling. Unexplainable and pointless and magical.


Hannah giggles, and to James it sounds like the tinkling of a bell. A good sound. He laughs too, for the first time in weeks, and Hannah, suddenly bold, nestles close to her father. It feels familiar, the way she melts into him. It reminds him of something he’s forgotten.


“You know what I’d do with your sister sometimes?” he says slowly. “When she was small, really small, even smaller than you. You know what I’d do?” He lets Hannah climb onto his back. Then he stands and turns side to side, feeling her weight shift against him. “Where’s Lydia?” he says. “Where’s Lydia?”


He’d say this, over and over, while she nestled her face in his hair and giggled. He could feel her hot little breath on his scalp, on the back of his ears. He’d wander the living room, peering behind furniture and around doorways. “I can hear her,” he’d say. “I can see her foot.” He’d squeeze her ankle, clutched tight in his hand. “Where is she? Where’s Lydia? Where could she be?” He would twist his head and she’d duck, squealing, while he pretended not to notice her hair dangling over his shoulder. “There she is! There’s Lydia!” He’d spin faster and faster, Lydia clinging tighter and tighter, until he collapsed on the rug, letting her roll, laughing, off his back. She never got tired of it. Found and lost and found again, lost in plain sight, pressed to his back, her feet clasped in his hands. What made something precious? Losing it and finding it. All those times he’d pretended to lose her. He sinks down on the carpet, dizzy with loss.


Then he feels small arms curling round his neck, the warmth of a small body leaning against him.


“Daddy?” Hannah whispers. “Will you do that again?”


And he feels himself rising, pushing himself back up to his knees.

•   •   •


There is so much more to do, so much yet to be mended. But for now, he thinks only of this, his daughter, here in his arms. He had forgotten what it was like to hold a child—to hold anyone—like that. How their weight sank into you, how they clung instinctively. How they trusted you. It is a long time before he is ready to let her go.


And when Marilyn wakes and comes downstairs, just as the light is fading, this is what she finds: her husband cradling their youngest in a circle of lamplight, a tender look of calm on his face.


“You’re home,” Marilyn says. All of them know it is a question.


“I’m home,” James says, and Hannah rises on tiptoes, edging toward the door. She can feel the room is poised on the edge—of what, she’s not sure, but she does not want to destroy this beautiful, sensitive balance. Accustomed to being overlooked, she sidles toward her mother, ready to slip by unnoticed. Then Marilyn touches a gentle hand to her shoulder, and Hannah’s heels land on the floor with a surprised thump.


“It’s all right,” Marilyn says. “Your father and I just need to talk.” Then—and Hannah flushes with delight—she kisses her on the head, right where the hair parts, and says, “We’ll see you in the morning.”


Halfway up the steps, Hannah pauses. From downstairs, she hears only a low murmur of voices, but for once she does not creep back down to listen. We’ll see you in the morning, her mother had said, and she takes this as a promise. She tiptoes across the landing—past Nath’s room, where behind the closed door her brother lies in a dreamless sleep, the remnants of the whiskey slowly steaming from his pores; past Lydia’s room, which looks, in the dark, like nothing has changed, though nothing could be further from the truth; all the way up to her own room, where through the windows the lawn outside is just beginning to turn from inky blue to black. Her glow-in-the-dark clock reads just past eight, but it feels later, like the middle of the night, the darkness quiet and thick as a down comforter. She wraps that feeling around her. From up here, she can’t hear her parents talking. But it’s enough to know that they’re there.

•   •   •


Downstairs, Marilyn lingers in the doorway, one hand on the jamb. James tries to swallow, but something hard and sharp lodges in his throat, like a fishbone. Once he had been able to read his wife’s mood even from her back. By the tilt of her shoulders, by the shifting of her weight from left foot to right, he would have known what she was thinking. But it’s been a long time since he looked at her carefully, and now, even face-to-face, all he can see are the faint wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, the faint wrinkles where her blouse has been crushed, then straightened.


“I thought you’d gone,” she says at last.


When James’s voice squeezes around the sharp thing in his throat, it comes out thin and scratched. “I thought you had.”


And for the moment, this is everything they need to say.


Some things they will never discuss: James will never talk to Louisa again, and he will be ashamed of this for as long as he lives. Later, slowly, they will piece together other things that have never been said. He will show her the coroner’s report; she will press the cookbook into his hands. How long it will be before he speaks to his son without flint in his voice; how long it will be before Nath no longer flinches when his father speaks. For the rest of the summer, and for years after that, they will grope for the words that say what they mean: to Nath, to Hannah, to each other. There is so much they need to say.


In this moment of silence, something touches James’s hand, so light he can barely feel it. A moth, he thinks. The sleeve of his shirt. But when he looks down, he sees Marilyn’s fingers curled over his, the merest curve as they squeeze. He has almost forgotten what it felt like, to touch her. To be forgiven even just this much. He bows his head and rests it on the back of her hand, overwhelmed with gratitude at having one more day.


In bed, they touch each other gently, as if it’s the first time they’ve ever been together: his hand sliding carefully across the small of her back, her fingers careful and deliberate as she undoes the buttons of his shirt. Their bodies are older now; he can feel his shoulders sagging, he can see the silver scars from childbirth crisscrossing just below her waistline. In the dark they are careful of each other, as if they know they are fragile, as if they know they can break.

•   •   •


In the night, Marilyn wakes and feels her husband’s warmth beside her, smells the sweet scent of him, like toast, mellowed and organic and bittersweet. How lovely it would be to stay curled here against him, to feel his chest rising and falling against her, as if it were her own breath. Right now, though, there is something else she must do.


At the doorway to Lydia’s room, she pauses with her hand on the knob and rests her head against the frame, remembering that last evening together: how a glint of light had caught Lydia’s water glass and she’d looked at her daughter across the table and smiled. Spinning out her daughter’s future, brimming with confidence, she’d never imagined even for a second that it might not happen. That she might be wrong about anything.


That evening, that sureness, feels ancient now, like something grown small with the distance of years. Something she’d experienced before her children, before marrying, while she was still a child herself. She understands. There is nowhere to go but on. Still, part of her longs to go back for one instant—not to change anything, not even to speak to Lydia, not to tell her anything at all. Just to open the door and see her daughter there, asleep, one more time, and know all was well.


And when at last she opens the door, this is what she sees. The shape of her daughter there in the bed, one long lock of hair stretched across the pillow. If she looks hard, she can even see the rise and fall of the flowered comforter with each breath. She knows she’s been granted a vision, and she tries not to blink, to absorb this moment, this last beautiful image of her daughter sleeping.


Someday, when she’s ready, she’ll pull the curtains, gather the clothing from the bureau, stack the books from the floor and pack them away. She’ll wash the sheets, open desk drawers, empty the pockets of Lydia’s jeans. When she does, she’ll find only fragments of her daughter’s life: coins, unsent postcards, pages torn from magazines. She’ll pause over a peppermint, still twisted in cellophane, and wonder if it’s significant, if it had meant something to Lydia, if it was just overlooked and discarded. She knows she’ll find no answers. For now, she watches the figure in the bed, and her eyes fill with tears. It’s enough.

•   •   •


When Hannah comes downstairs, just as the sun is rising, she counts carefully: two cars in the driveway. Two rings of keys on the hall table. Five sets of shoes—one Lydia’s—by the door. Though this last causes a sting, just between the collarbones, these sums bring her comfort. Now, peeking through the front window, she sees the Wolffs’ door open and Jack and his dog emerge. Things will never be the same again; she knows this. But the sight of Jack and his dog, heading for the lake, brings her comfort, too. As if the universe is slowly returning to normal.


For Nath, though, at his window upstairs, the opposite is true. Awaking from his deep and drunken sleep, the whiskey purged from his body, everything seems new: the outlines of his furniture, the sunbeams slicing across the carpet, his hands before his face. Even the pain in his stomach—he hasn’t eaten since yesterday’s breakfast, and that, like the whiskey, is long gone—feels bright and clean and sharp. And now, across the lawn, he spots what he’s sought every day for so long. Jack.


He does not bother to change his clothes, or to grab his keys, or to think at all. He simply pulls on his tennis shoes and barrels down the stairs. The universe has given him this chance, and he refuses to squander it. As he yanks open the front door, Hannah is merely a startled blur in the front hall. For her part, she does not even bother to put on shoes. Barefoot, she darts after him, the asphalt still cool and damp against her feet.


“Nath,” she calls. “Nath, it’s not his fault.” Nath doesn’t stop. He’s not running, just marching with a fierce and angry stride toward the corner, where Jack has just disappeared. He looks like the cowboys in their father’s movies, determined and tense-jawed and unshakable in the middle of the deserted street. “Nath.” Hannah grabs his arm, but he keeps walking, unmoved, and she scurries to keep up. They’re at the corner now, and both of them see Jack at the same moment, sitting on the dock, arms wrapped around his knees, the dog lying beside him. Nath pauses to let a car go by and Hannah tugs his hand, hard.


“Please,” she says. “Please.” The car passes and Nath hesitates, but he’s been waiting for answers so long. Now or never, he thinks, and he jerks himself free and crosses the street.


If Jack hears them coming, he doesn’t show it. He stays there, looking out over the water, until Nath is standing right over him.


“Did you think I wouldn’t see you?” Nath says. Jack doesn’t reply. Slowly, he gets to his feet, facing Nath with his hands tucked in the back pockets of his jeans. As if, Nath thinks, he’s not even worth fighting. “You can’t hide forever.”


“I know it,” Jack says. At his feet, the dog utters a low, moaning whine.

“Nath,” Hannah whispers. “Let’s go home. Please.”


Nath ignores her. “I hope you were thinking about how sorry you are,” he says.


“I am so sorry,” Jack says. “About what happened to Lydia.” A faint tremor shakes his voice. “About everything.” Jack’s dog backs away, huddling against Hannah’s legs, and she’s sure now that Nath’s hands will unclench, that he’ll turn around and leave Jack alone and walk away. Except he doesn’t. For a second he seems confused—then being confused makes him angrier.


“Do you think that changes anything? It doesn’t.” The knuckles of his fists have gone white. “Tell me the truth. Now. I want to know. What happened between you two. What made her go out on that lake that night.”


Jack half shakes his head, as if he doesn’t understand the question. “I thought Lydia told you—” His arm twitches, as if he’s about to take Nath by the shoulder, or the hand. “I should have told you myself,” he says. “I should have said, a long time ago—”


Nath takes a half-step closer. He is so close now, so close to understanding, that it makes him dizzy. “What?” he says, almost whispering, so quiet now that Hannah can hardly hear him. “That it’s your fault?”


In the second before Jack’s head moves, she understands what’s going to happen: Nath needs a target, somewhere to point his anger and guilt, or he’ll crumble. Jack knows this; she can see it in his face, in the way he squares his shoulders, bracing himself. Nath leans closer, and for the first time in a long time, he looks Jack right in the eye, brown on blue. Demanding. Begging. Tell me. Please. And Jack nods his head. Yes.


Then his fist smashes into Jack and Jack doubles over. Nath has never hit anyone before, and he’d thought it would feel good—powerful—his arm uncoiling like a piston. It doesn’t. It feels like punching a piece of meat, something dense and heavy, something that does not resist. It makes him feel a little sick. And he’d expected a pow,like in the movies, but there’s hardly any noise at all. Just a thump, like a heavy bag falling to the floor, a faint little gasp, and that makes him feel sick, too. Nath readies himself, waiting, but Jack doesn’t hit back. He straightens up, slowly, one hand on his stomach, his eyes watching Nath. He doesn’t even make a fist, and this makes Nath feel sickest of all.


He had thought that when he found Jack, when his fist hit Jack’s smug face, he’d feel better. That everything would change, that the hard glob of anger that has grown inside him would crumble like sand. But nothing happens. He can still feel it there, a lump of concrete inside, scraping him raw from the inside out. And Jack’s face isn’t smug, either. He’d expected at least defensiveness, maybe fear, but in Jack’s eyes he sees nothing of that. Instead Jack looks at him almost tenderly, as if he’s sorry for him. As if he wants to reach out and put his arms around him.


“Come on,” Nath shouts. “Are you too ashamed to hit back?”


He grabs Jack by the shoulder and swings again and Hannah looks away just before his fist meets Jack’s face. This time, a trickle of red drips from Jack’s nose. He doesn’t wipe it away, just lets it drip, from nostril to lip to chin.


“Stop it,” she screams, and only when she hears her own voice does she realize she’s crying, that her cheeks and her neck and even the collar of her T-shirt are sticky with tears. Nath and Jack hear it too. They both stare, Nath’s fist still cocked, Jack’s face and that tender look now turned on her. “Stop,” she screams again, stomach churning, and she rushes between them, trying to shield Jack, battering her brother with her palms, shoving him away.


And Nath doesn’t resist. He lets her push him, feels himself teetering, feet slipping on the worn-smooth wood, lets himself fall off the dock and into the water.

•   •   •


So this is what it’s like, he thinks as the water closes over his head. He doesn’t fight it. He holds his breath, stills his arms and legs, keeps his eyes open as he plummets. This is what it looks like. He imagines Lydia sinking, the sunlight above the water growing dimmer as he sinks farther, too. Soon he’ll be at the bottom, legs and arms and the small of his back pressed to the sandy lake floor. He’ll stay there until he can’t hold his breath any longer, until the water rushes in to snuff out his mind like a candle. His eyes sting, but he forces them open. This is what it’s like, he tells himself. Notice this. Notice everything. Remember it.


But he’s too familiar with the water. His body already knows what to do, the way it knows to duck at the corner of the staircase at home, where the ceiling is low. His muscles stretch and flail. On its own, his body rights itself, his arms claw at the water. His legs kick until his head breaks the surface and he coughs out a mouthful of silt, breathes cool air into his lungs. It’s too late. He’s already learned how not to drown.


He floats faceup, eyes closed, letting the water hold his weary limbs. He can’t know what it was like, not the first time, not the last. He can guess, but he won’t ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she’d never told him. Whether she thought he’d failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.


“Nath?” Hannah calls, and then she’s peering over the side of the dock, her face small and pale. Then another head appears—Jack’s—and a hand stretches down toward him. He knows it’s Jack’s, and that when he gets there, he’ll take it anyway.


And after he takes it, what will happen? He’ll struggle home, dripping wet, muddy, knuckles raw from Jack’s teeth. Beside him, Jack will be bruised and swollen, the front of his shirt a Rorschach of dark brown. Hannah will obviously have been crying; it will show in the streaks under her eyes, in the damp thwack of lashes against her cheek. Despite this, they will be strangely aglow, all of them, as if they’ve been scoured. It will take a long time to sort things out. Today they will have to deal with their parents, Jack’s mother, too, all the questions: Why were you fighting? What happened? It will take a long time, because they won’t be able to explain, and parents, they know, need explanations. They will change into dry clothing, Jack wearing one of Nath’s old T-shirts. They will dab mercurochrome on Jack’s cheek, on Nath’s knuckles, making them look bloodier, like their wounds are reopened, even though in reality they are beginning to close.


And tomorrow, next month, next year? It will take a long time. Years from now, they will still be arranging the pieces they know, puzzling over her features, redrawing her outlines in their minds. Sure that they’ve got her right this time, positive in this moment that they understand her completely, at last. They will think of her often: when Marilyn opens the curtains in Lydia’s room, opens the closet, and begins to take the clothing from the shelves. When their father, one day, enters a party and for the first time does not glance, quickly, at all the blond heads in the room. When Hannah begins to stand a little straighter, when she begins to speak a bit clearer, when one day she flicks her hair behind her ear in a familiar gesture and wonders, for a moment, where she got it. And Nath. When at school people ask if he has siblings: two sisters, but one died; when, one day, he looks at the small bump that will always mar the bridge of Jack’s nose and wants to trace it, gently, with his finger. When, a long, long time later, he stares down at the silent blue marble of the earth and thinks of his sister, as he will at every important moment of his life. He doesn’t know this yet, but he senses it deep down in his core. So much will happen, he thinks, that I would want to tell you.


For now, when he opens his eyes at last, he focuses on the dock, on Jack’s hand, on Hannah. From where he floats, her upside-down face is right-side up, and he dog-paddles toward her. He doesn’t want to dive underwater and lose sight of her face.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I’ve taken a few minor historical liberties: the cover of How to Win Friends and Influence People that I describe in the novel is an amalgamation of several different editions’ covers, though the text is all real. Likewise, the quotes from Betty Crocker’s Cookbook are from my mother’s own 1968 edition, although Marilyn’s mother would have used an earlier edition.








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