AWL_3Prologue

Maggie

So this is how it ends.

That was the totality of Maggie Anthony’s thoughts as the fifty-passenger express bus swerved, fishtailed, and then began what felt like an almost painfully slow series of barrel rolls down the steep embankment. She took a deep breath and gripped the armrests on either side of her seat. The woman in the seat next to her had done the same thing and their forearms touched.

“We’re all going to die.”

The murmured words were so low Maggie was surprised that she even heard them. She turned her head to stare at the woman next to her. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion now and the elongation of time gave her an opportunity to take in the tiny details of the person with whom she had made pleasant conversation off and on for the past two hours.

The woman was small and efficient looking, with blondish hair that was glossy and probably very silky. She had green eyes . . . thick lashes . . . a blemish she had tried to cover with make-up. When the woman had slid apologetically into the seat next to her in New York, Maggie had noticed that she had seemed anxious. Helen, Maggie thought suddenly. She said her name was Helen.

Maggie moved her hand to reassure Helen, but it was too late. The bus had begun its first rotation and Maggie, who had the window seat, was thrown against Helen who let out a “whoosh” as Maggie’s right elbow and shoulder slammed into her chest.

We’re like those balls in that round Bingo ball cage thing, Maggie thought as the force of the rotation flipped her upwards—or downwards given that the roof of the bus was suddenly below her. Helen was on top of her, but only for a second before they were separated and jerked sideways.

Everything happened faster now and suddenly, the noise was deafening—the groan of bending metal, the crunch of breaking glass, the screams and the rush of air as she was flung forward. Around her, the passengers bounced against each other and the seats of the bus. Purses and bags bounced, too, their contents spilling out and spraying like shrapnel.

“Grandma!”

It was, Maggie thought dimly, the little boy—the one she had seen with the sticker with his name written in Sharpie, sitting in the seat directly behind the driver when she had boarded the bus. Unaccompanied minor she had thought when he was led onto the connector bus in Philadelphia. Why that phrase occurred to her now, she didn’t know.

“Fuck!”

This came from the heavy-set man who had sat behind them. He had been on her connector bus from Indianapolis. He’d boarded in Harrisburg, she remembered. She had gotten off the bus to stretch her legs and to use the bathroom at the station. When they got back on the bus, he had chosen to sit directly behind her. He had small brown eyes that were lost in the flesh of his face. Something about him made her uncomfortable and she considered switching seats before deciding it would take too much work to move all of her stuff. When they changed buses in New York, he had again chosen the seat behind her.

Why these thoughts . . . not my life flashing before my eyes . . . tell Sarah.

The questions came to her in snatches—half-developed thoughts that she understood without completion.

The bus was flipping again. It was the second, perhaps third rotation. Maggie wasn’t sure. And there was Helen again, her eyes wide, her mouth in a perfectly round O, her lipsticked mouth standing out in sharp contrast to her pale face.

Maggie reached for her—or perhaps thrust her arms out to soften the impact of their bodies crashing together again. One or both of them groaned as they came together and Maggie thought, oddly, that at least Helen was softer than the hard angles of the seats. They held onto each other and once again, Maggie was on her back on the roof of the bus.

Around them, coins and pens and a hundred other bits and pieces from pockets and bags rained down. The bus had stopped rolling and was now just gently rocking from side to side. Then silence for what felt like a full second as everything and everyone came to rest. And then the moans and cries began. Helen was sprawled halfway on top of her, loose-limbed and unmoving.

I’m alive.

The thought occurred to Maggie just as a sharp pain shot through her head and down her spine. Her body tingled, every nerve suddenly aware and too sensitive. Adrenaline. Helen’s weight was too much. She tried to move but didn’t have the strength. Move. She tried again to force her body to do … something . . . anything. She felt another stab of pain – this time it was excruciating and she moaned. She knew she had broken bones and likely internal injuries. She wondered what her face looked like.

I hope they do a good job on the restoration.

She imagined her naked body on the cold, shiny funeral home gurney—imagined the work that would go into making her broken body and damaged face look presentable. She should have gone with cremation. Besides, who would to go to the funeral anyway? Ben? Sarah? Would Sarah even know that she had died? After the way Maggie had treated her, would she even care?

Now is not the time to feel sorry for yourself.

Maggie tried to raise her head again and gasped when the pain and nausea hit her simultaneously, followed by the white noise and tunnel vision. The chaos of the other passengers was obscured as she felt herself lose consciousness. The escape was welcome, she realized as she gave into it and felt herself let go.

Suddenly, she was looking down on the scene—at her bloody and broken body with Helen curled on top of here as if they were lovers. To her right was the man who had sat behind them. His face was bloody and his head was cocked at a strange angle. His eyes were open but he wasn’t moving. Maggie knew that expression. Toward the front of the bus was the little boy, curled into a ball, crying. The old woman who had taken so long to board lay sprawled limply on her stomach, her limbs at unnatural angles. Maggie saw all of it and felt nothing. It was a nice change—to see death and not to feel sadness.

Maybe dying is not so bad after all. Maybe . . . She had trouble forming the rest of the thought. The scene below her faded and then, before she could be troubled to summon up the words to describe what happened next, there was nothing.

 

Wednesday

Maggie

Maggie Anthony closed her laptop and pushed her chair back from the ornate wooden desk. As she stood, her hands braced on the highly polished wood, she thought for the hundredth time that although it was pretty, the mahogany desk wasn’t what she would have chosen for herself. It was too large . . . too substantial . . . too stuffy. When she had first taken over, she had considered replacing it, but ultimately hadn’t. It had been her father’s desk and his father’s desk before him. It, like the business, was her heritage, even though she knew that deep down in his heart, her father had hoped one day Ben would change his mind and fulfill the promise of the Anthony & Son Funeral Home sign out front.

To his credit, Franklin Anthony had never made Maggie feel inferior to her brother. If anything, he had gone out of his way to show her how much he appreciated that at least one of his children wanted to follow in his footsteps. Just not the right child, she often thought.

Many people thought that funeral directors were historically men, but in fact, until the 1860s, women were the ones who had the responsibility of preparing the body for burial. Men, Maggie often said, when people expressed surprise that she was in charge, historically dug the graves and built the coffins. It had been only in the last twenty to thirty years that women had begun to reassume their rightful place in the mortuary industry. That said, in places like Seymour, Indiana, which were more southern in culture and mindset and where confederate flags still were flown with pride, Maggie was still an anomaly.

“Betty Jo, I’m about to head out,” Maggie called out, knowing her voice would easily carry to the outer office. “Is there anything I need to sign or—”

Maggie jumped as Betty Jo popped her head into the room. Her hair was a flaming shade of red that could only have come from Clairol and its almost violent intensity never ceased to startle Maggie.
“You don’t need to shout, Margaret.”

Betty Jo was one of the few people who still called Maggie by her birth name. She had been her father’s office manager—and, she learned after her father’s death, mistress—since the late 1960s and took personal pleasure in reminding everyone that she knew the business as well as, if not better than, anyone else—including Maggie. Maggie didn’t doubt it and was thankful that, despite being in her seventies, Betty Jo had agreed to stay on after Franklin’s death.

“Sorry.” Maggie bent to pick up the computer bag that leaned against the desk. She straightened and busied herself sliding the computer and various cords inside. “I’m getting ready to leave for the NFDA conference in Boston and I wanted to know if there was anything I needed to sign or do before I leave.”

Betty Jo shook her tightly-permed, Aqua Netted head. “No. Though I do need the on-call schedule for while you’re gone.”

Maggie nodded and picked up a sheet of paper, which she extended toward Betty Jo. “Nick is on call today and Friday. Amber said she’d be fine with covering Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday.”
Betty Jo frowned as she studied the schedule. “Are you sure you want to do that? She’s just an intern.”

“I know,” Maggie said. “But I think she can handle it. And it’s unfair to ask Nick to be on call for five days straight. Besides, I’m only a phone call away if there are problems.”

Betty Jo nodded again, slowly, and then lowered her head to study the schedule, giving Maggie a clear view of her office manager’s very gray roots. Time for a touch-up, she thought with a small smile.

Betty Jo looked up and caught Maggie’s expression.

“What’s funny?” She self-consciously touched her brittle coif.

“Nothing,” Maggie said quickly. “I was just thinking about how much I’m looking forward to getting away—even if it does involve public speaking.”

Betty Jo’s stern expression softened somewhat. “You’ll do fine. And it’s to the women’s development group, so you’ll be preaching to the choir.”

“I know.” Maggie laughed ruefully. “And let’s face it, I’ll have plenty of time to work on it.”

Betty Jo’s smile was sad. The funeral home staff knew that Maggie was terrified of flying—a fear that had nothing to do with the fact her parents had been killed four years earlier in a plane crash. More than anything, it had to do with the claustrophobia of being trapped in a pressurized tube with no option for escape. There probably wasn’t all that much difference traveling by bus or train, she knew, but being able to see trees, cars, and knowing she could open the window somehow made her feel less constricted. And hell, if bus or train travel was good enough for John Madden, who was notorious for his fear of flying, it was good enough for her.

“How long is the trip?” Betty Jo asked.

“Long,” Maggie admitted. “I leave Indianapolis at four o’clock and get into Boston tomorrow at four-twenty in the afternoon.” She sighed. “I wish Amtrak had a Wednesday train but with the meet and greet Thursday night . . .” She shrugged.

“Well, either way, try to get some rest.” Betty Jo lifted her chin slightly. “You know how grumpy you get when you’re tired.”

Maggie nodded rather than replied. Unbeknownst to Betty Jo—or anyone for that matter—she had no intention of going to the mixer or, if her plan to see Sarah worked, getting any rest. Granted, Sarah didn’t know she was coming into town and was under the impression that she would never hear from Maggie again, but she would worry about that later.

So, I’m going upstairs to pack and then I’m heading to Indy,” Maggie said. “I’ll have my phone if you need anything.”

Betty Jo sniffed. “I’ve been running this place longer than you’ve been alive. I’m sure we can get along without you for a weekend.”

Maggie stifled the urge to point out that wasn’t what she meant and said simply, “Great.”
She picked up the computer bag and the folder that contained the beginnings of her speech and walked around the side of the desk to where Betty Jo still stood. Impulsively, she leaned down and kissed the crusty woman on the cheek. “I know we’re in good hands.”

Maggie opened the door of the administrative offices and stepped into the hallway. She closed the door gently behind her. How, she wondered, had her father justified his relationship with Betty Jo when his wife and children lived just upstairs on the second floor of the funeral home? And how had her mother stood it, knowing that her romantic rival was in such close proximity? Her parents had always seemed happy enough—in fact, they had died while on vacation together. That had to say something . . . right?

It says that being with one person for your entire life is unrealistic and love is . . . She shook her head at the unfinished thought and walked down the hallway to what had originally been an entryway. The room was quiet and cool. The afternoon light had moved to the back of the building and the front rooms, with only natural light, were shadowed.

Maggie stopped at the foot of the waterfall staircase and reached out her hand to touch the polished newel. The dark wood was cool beneath her fingers and she smiled. She had always loved this room—this stairway. In fact, she loved almost everything about the rambling building with its warren of small rooms, carved mantles and stained glass. Built in 1901, it has served not only as a residence, but also as a boarding school and, very briefly, a furniture store.

She had seen pictures of how it had looked in the past and the one commonality was that regardless of what it was being used for, the building always looked homey. And it was that sense of warmth and family that had made Anthony & Son so successful—that and the fact that her father had built a reputation for caring and integrity. It was a mindset that Maggie was dedicated to keeping alive, despite the increasing pressure from one of the country’s largest corporate funeral chain to buy the business.

Maggie closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her nose, and, for a moment, was transported back to her childhood. Her mother, Jackie, was upstairs baking and her father was in the embalming room or doing paperwork in his office. Ben was at baseball practice. Everyone was safe. Everyone was present and accounted for. They all still loved each other. Or had they? Maggie opened her eyes. Had any of them ever really been fully present or had she been the only one living under the illusion that everything was fine? The familiar anger rose into her chest, her fingers tightened on the banister.

“Don’t,” she murmured.

She forced herself to relax her grip and climb the stairs to the second-floor living quarters. It was, she thought as she walked down the hallway to her bedroom, too large for one person. But, it would probably always be that way. She would never marry and have children. And there was no way she could ever live openly with a partner—not if she wanted to maintain the reputation of an upstanding, moral business owner. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t. She pushed down the familiar anger. So what if it wasn’t fair. She had made her decision long ago.

Inside her room, she surveyed the clothing she had chosen, but not yet packed for the trip. They lay neatly on the bed. The obligatory black suit. A gray suit. Blouses. Jeans. A couple of tops. Running clothes and shoes. She went to the dresser, pulled open her underwear drawer and grabbed several bras and pairs of underwear.

Her hand hovered over the black, lacy nightgown. It was the one she had worn last year—the one she had worn the only time she had broken all of her rules. Would Sarah remember it? She held the nightgown against her body and studied her reflection in the mirror. Black really was her best color. It accentuated the paleness of her skin and complimented the dark hair that hung to just below her shoulders. Her hair had been longer last year. Would Sarah notice the difference?

She leaned forward suddenly as she caught a glint in the brown. Was that a gray hair? She narrowed her eyes and peered at her reflection. She was only thirty-one, but she knew that they had a way of just appearing. She thought again of Betty Jo’s dye job and promised herself that when she reached that age, she would never try to hide her gray—or if she did, she would at least do it gracefully with highlights.

As she straightened and leaned away from the mirror, Maggie caught the glowing red reflection of her alarm clock. The bus departed at four o’clock and she wanted to be early so she had her choice of seats. She did the math quickly in her head. She still had the hour-and-a-half drive from Seymour to the bus station in Indianapolis. She needed to leave.

Maggie glanced down at the scrap of lace in her hand and then turned and tossed it into her suitcase. Having choices was important.

 

Bug

Bug stood next to the black, wrought iron fence that surrounded the playground and stared out at the cars parked up and down South 47th Street. Behind him, he could hear the other ten year olds as they ran and played, their games punctuated by occasional shrieks and disagreements.

“I don’t think she’s going to come.”

Bug turned and looked at Tasha. She stood to his right, next to the red-and-white cinder block column that anchored the fence. She was his only friend at Lea Elementary School and the only one who knew he was living at the shelter.

Bug shrugged and returned his gaze to the sidewalks that ran in front of the red brick buildings across the street. The few times Rhonda had come to the school, her approach had been from the south. Of course, given that he didn’t know the location of the rehab program she was in, there was no telling from which direction she would come. Like Rhonda herself, he had no way to predict how—or if—it would play out.

“She will,” he said finally. “If she finds out they’re sending me to Aunt Sarah’s, she might.”

Bug didn’t want to admit it, but he hoped more than anything his mother would suddenly appear, clean and sober, and rescue him from being sent to live with a woman he’d only met once. He hoped for it but as with most things concerning his mother, he didn’t expect it. It was mid-morning. She probably wasn’t even awake yet.

Tasha touched the sleeve of his coat with her mittened hand. “I’m going to miss you, Sammy.” Her voice was soft.

Bug nodded but didn’t turn to meet her gaze.

Like him, Tasha suffered at the hands of bullies. His grandmother would have said it was because they were both “sensitive children” but Bug suspected there was more to it. The other kids sensed there was something wrong with them—that there was a weakness in them that made them targets. For Bug, that weakness was not only the fact that he was one of the few white kids in this part of West Philadelphia, but also the very visible vulnerability of neglect. For Tasha, it was her lazy eye and clubbed foot. They were both outcasts and too gentle for Walnut Hill’s survival-of-the-fittest mentality.

“Thanks, Tasha,” he mumbled. “I’m gonna’ miss you, too.”

She leaned forward and grasped the bars of the fence. “I’ve never been to Boston. I wonder what it’s like.”

Bug blinked. He had never been to Boston either. Aside from Philadelphia, the only other place he knew was Harrisburg and he tried not to think of his life there because if he did—if he allowed himself to remember his grandmother and the happy times—it would make the present all that much more unbearable.

He shrugged again. “Probably like here. But colder maybe.”

“You could go see where they did the tea party,” Tasha said. “Maybe your Aunt—”

A group of boys had formed a half-circle around them. “Hey, Bug. You and your girlfriend havin’ a good time over here all by yourselves?”

“Don’t listen to them,” Tasha said softly.

Bug didn’t turn.

“Hey, Talbott, I’m talkin’ to you!” The voice was Albert’s. “Or, sorry . . . am I bugging you?”

Bug blinked but still didn’t turn. He remembered with shame the day Albert and his friends had learned the nickname his mother had given him. She had shown up just as school was letting out. Rhonda—she didn’t let him call her “mother” or “mom”—had been high and he tried to pretend he hadn’t seen her, slinking down in his jacket and walking quickly past, but she had seen him and called out to him.

“Bug!” She yelled and waved. “Bug! Get your ass over here. I came to walk you home.”

All the children standing around heard—including Albert and his pack of friends. Up until then, they had only known him by his real name, Sam.

“Bug,” Albert had said in a singsong voice, “Your mama’s calling you.”

His friends jumped in.

“Yeah, Bug.” “Bugggggg.” “Oh, Bug, give your mommy a kiss.”

Bug stopped and turned. Even from where he stood he could see that his mother’s eyes were nothing but empty, black pupils. Somewhere in her brain though, she must have heard and registered some of what the boys were saying because she suddenly thrust out her arms and said, “Give me a hug, Bug.”

The rhyme amused Albert and his friends who took the chant up immediately. “Hug Bug. Hug Bug.”

Bug’s face reddened in embarrassment. His mother stamped her foot. He closed his eyes and walked toward her. She seemed encouraged by the chant and said again, loudly, demandingly, “Give me a hug, Bug.”

He could smell the alcohol as he got closer. It clung to her skin, oozing from her pores.

“Rhonda, please . . .” he began.

“Give me a fucking hug, Bug,” she said. “Don’t piss me off.”

Cringing at the contact, Bug stepped forward. His mother stank of cigarettes, cheap vodka, and unwashed skin. She wrapped her thin arms tightly around him and squeezed.

Bug could hear Albert and his friends hooting and making kissing noises in the background. He felt sick. Rhonda held him like that for several seconds before finally thrusting him away from her. Bug took a clumsy step backward, his balance thrown off by her sudden release of him. He refused to look at Albert and his friends, though he could see Tasha’s scuffed orthopedic shoes and unnaturally twisted right foot in his peripheral vision. His ears burned with shame.

“Come on,” Rhonda said as abruptly as she had released him. She started to walk away, not looking to see if Bug was following. He had turned and trailed after her.

“Maybe I could come see you.”

Bug jerked his attention back to the present. He had forgotten that Tasha was there—had forgotten momentarily about everything but the embarrassment of one of the few times his mother had shown up.

“Maybe.” Bug glanced over his shoulder at Albert and his friends who appeared to have lost interest in taunting them and instead, had turned their attention to taking a basketball from a two boys who had been playing HORSE. He looked back at Tasha. “I don’t know if my aunt would let you. I’ve only seen her once—when Grandma died. She was . . .”

He shrugged, unsure how to describe the woman who looked so much like his mother, but had acted so differently. Rhonda had been angry, cursing at everyone and everything. Sarah had been the opposite. She had even seemed kind in a standoffish sort of way.

“I’ll send you e-mails. And we can talk on the phone if you want.” Tasha held up her battered pink Nokia. The adhesive gemstones she had used to decorate the phone caught the light in flashes of green, red, and white.

“I don’t have a phone.” It was one of many things other kids had that he didn’t. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal until now. “And I don’t know if she has a computer.”

“I’ll bet she does.” Tasha shoved the phone into her jacket pocket. “She’s a teacher, right? Maybe she’d even get you your own.”

Bug nodded without enthusiasm.

“It’ll be okay.” She touched his arm again and seemed about to say more when the school bell pealed loudly. Bug looked once more at the street outside the school grounds and then turned to face the school. Most of the other students were heading toward the run-down red, brick building. Tasha turned and moved unevenly toward the school. She stopped when she realized that Bug wasn’t behind her.

“Sammy, we gotta’ go in.”

She reached back for him and waited until he moved. They walked together, he in his habitual slow, hunched-over shuffle and she in an uneven, lopsided gait. By the time they reached the door, they were the only two still outside. The playground monitor waited impatiently at the door.

“Come on, you two,” she said as she pulled up the sleeve of her coat and glanced down at her watch. “You’re going to be late for class.”

Bug didn’t raise his head to meet her gaze but instead focused on the tiled floor of the hallway. It looked unnatural in the glare of the florescent lights.

“I’ll see you after school,” Tasha said as they each turned to head down different hallways to their separate classrooms. Bug’s classroom was two doors down and Mrs. Simmons stood waiting. Other teachers were closing the doors to their rooms and Bug knew she wanted to do the same.

“Sam.”

He recognized the tone. It was a command—a “hurry up.”

“Sorry, Mrs. Simmons,” he mumbled as he slipped into the room and headed for his desk. His job was to do what he was told and not to complain. He had figured that much out. It was why he was going to Boston in less than twenty-four hours to live with a woman who he knew without a doubt didn’t want him. It was his life and whether he liked it or not, he had learned to accept it.