AWL_3

Prologue

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 City, Maggie had noticed that she had seemed anxious. Helen, Maggie thought suddenly. She had said her name was Helen.

The bus rotated 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 numbered balls in that round Bingo 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 on his chest, his name written in Sharpie, sitting in the seat directly behind the driver. Unaccompanied minor she had thought when she first saw him. Why that phrase occurred to her now, she didn’t know.

“Fuck!”

This came from the heavy-set man who had sat behind her. He had been on her connector bus to New York City. 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 pale flesh of his face. Something about him made her uncomfortable and she had considered switching seats before deciding it would be too much work to move all of her things. 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, on the second, perhaps third rotation. Maggie wasn’t sure. And there was Helen again, her eyes wide, her lipsticked mouth in a perfectly round O.

Maggie 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 ten seconds 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, dammit. 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 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 her 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

November 12, 2014

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’d 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 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 had learned when she was fifteen, 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 need to sign or do before I leave.”

Betty Jo shook her 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 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 so 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 reply. 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 had been left with the impression that she would never hear from Maggie again. Still, Maggie 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 . . . didn’t it?

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 touched 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 had 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 and grandfather 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 chains 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. If she wore it this time, 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, she amended, 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, nothing was predictable.

“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.

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. Grandma Jean 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 Grandma Jean and how happy he had been, 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 drunk and he’d 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.” “Buuuuug.” “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. She was high, as well.

Somewhere in her brain though, she must have heard and registered some of what the boys were saying because she suddenly thrust out her skinny arms and said, “Give me a hug, Bug.”

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

Bug felt his face redden in embarrassment. His mother stamped her foot and wiggled her outthrust arms. 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, her voice hard and sharply edged. “Don’t piss me off.”

Cringing inwardly at the contact, Bug stepped forward. His mother stank of cigarettes, cheap whiskey, 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. “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 two smaller 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. Bug could tell she was uncomfortable around kids.

“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 it 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 rundown red brick building. Maybe Rhonda was going to come to the shelter to say goodbye.

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 fluorescent lights.

“I’ll see ya after school,” Tasha said as they each turned to head down different hallways to their separate classrooms.

Bug’s homeroom 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.

 

Jimmy

Jimmy Reilly studied his reflection in the full-length mirror and scowled.

“I don’t even know why I bother,” he muttered.

This was the third combination of clothes he had tried on and each had looked worse than the one before. Part of the problem, he knew, was he no longer wore anything but athletic warm-up pants and sweatshirts. With no real reason to go out or do anything but stay home, surf the net, and play online video games, he had no need for “real clothes.” The other part of the problem was all the clothes he owned that were something other than sweats and t-shirts, were from before he had his accident and they no longer fit.

He stared at the jeans he had struggled to fit into. The waistband squeezed his hips below his belly, which hung uncomfortably over the cold buckle of his belt. The t-shirt he had once thought was trendy now looked dated and unflattering as it stretched over his bulk.

Jimmy sighed. He had never been thin. Even when he was in grade school, he’d had to wear husky sized jeans. His mother said it was because he was just big boned and reassured him that it ran in the family. But Jimmy had always known the truth; he was the fat kid.

It made little difference that he made a formidable offensive lineman in high school or that he could bench press two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. What mattered was that off the football field and outside of the weight room, he was still the unpopular kid who couldn’t get a date to any of the dances. He was still the socially awkward boy (and eventual man) who made people uncomfortable; the guy who laughed at the wrong time and never really fit in.

Jimmy frowned again at his reflection. The two weeks of dieting had done little to slim his physique. He quickly tallied his credit card balances. The bus ticket to Boston and the room at the Comfort Inn had already pushed him over the limit. There was no room for new clothes. There wasn’t even really enough money to take Helen out to dinner if, once she learned the truth, she forgave him for the lies he’d told her.

He turned and walked back to his closet. He could wear his sweatshirt and warm-ups on the bus. And, he could stand his too-tight jeans for one day, even if it meant being uncomfortable. He scanned the clothing that hung limply from wire hangers and noticed the oxford shirt in the back of his closet. He pulled it out. The shoulders were covered with a thin layer of fine, gray dust and it could stand to be ironed, but it might work. And, it was February so he could wear a coat some of the time, too.

Jimmy pulled the shirt from the wire hanger and returned to the mirror where he slid his arms into the sleeves. The fit was tight, but if he left it unbuttoned over the t-shirt, it covered many of the bulges and looked, to his mind, intentionally casual. He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and assumed a casual pose.

“It could work,” he murmured as he turned to the side and craned his head so he could see what he looked like from the back. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t awful either.

Relieved that he had at least picked out what to wear, Jimmy undressed, making sure not to look at his nearly-naked reflection. Once back in his track pants and sweatshirt, he picked up the oxford and studied it. No time to get it professionally laundered nor was there the money to justify it—not even for Helen.

Helen.

Jimmy closed his eyes and wondered yet again how he could have let it get this far. If only she hadn’t contacted him in the first place, he reasoned and then stopped himself from the justification.

It’s your own fault, he thought angrily. You did this to yourself and you have no one else to blame.

Jimmy opened his eyes. His right eyelid twitched. Stress. He sighed and threw the shirt onto the bed with the pile of clothing he was taking to the Laundromat to wash before his trip. All of this was his fault. He knew that. He also knew there was a special place in hell for people like him—people who lied and manipulated innocent people. He shook his head slowly and then turned back to the closet for the black duffle bag he had stuffed in the corner after he had returned from the hospital. Like the shirt, it, too, was covered with a thin layer of dust.

Story of my life, he thought bitterly as he carried it back to the bed and dropped it next to the pile of dirty clothes. He started to brush away the dust with his hand before stopping and fishing a white tube sock from the laundry stack. They were dirty clothes already, he reasoned as he used it to wipe off the bag. He finished, tossed it back on top of the oxford, and then unzipped the bag. Inside were two pairs of jockey shorts and one of the bracelets they had attached to his wrist when he had been a patient. It was green. What had green meant? Go?

Jimmy had hated the hospital and everything about it. The interruptions. The smell. The desperation. Even now, a year later, the sight of the plastic bracelet made him wince. He wondered suddenly if he had hidden any pills in the recesses of the bag and had to stop himself from checking.

The pull was still strong and he had to close his eyes, breathe deeply, and swallow several times before he felt in control again. It was surprising how he could go for months without thinking about getting high and then have such a strong, almost overwhelming desire. He wondered if it would always be like that.

Think about what Diane said. Do something to take your mind off of it. Engage your body; distract your mind. He looked down at the bed. Laundry. He had to do laundry. He scanned the room for the tan canvas bag he used to transport his clothes to and from the Laundromat. It lay crumpled in the corner next to his nightstand. He moved quickly to pick it up and stuffed his clothes into it. The detergent was already in the trunk of his Ford Escort.

Jimmy heaved the bag over one shoulder and winced at the flare of pain in his back. He needed to be careful not to reinjure himself, especially if he was going to spend the better part of a day sitting in a bus seat. He imagined how it would look if, in addition to everything else, he showed up to meet Helen hunched over like Quasimodo.

Jimmy shook his head. He wouldn’t think about it, he vowed as he stood straighter, picked up his keys, and headed toward the front door. As he pulled it open, he saw himself reflected in the glass pane of the dented aluminum storm door. The image was distorted, but still accurate enough to dispel any illusions he might have created. He was still fat, he was still ugly, and he was still a liar.

 

 

Helen

“So, I told him that it was completely unacceptable. I mean, Jesus, can you believe it?”

Helen cradled the phone between her ear and shoulder. David’s rants about other peoples’ ineptitude had a tendency to go on much longer than necessary and more often than not, she found herself zoning out. As he continued to talk, she looked down at her list. Pack . . . check. Mail bills . . . check. Thaw lasagna for dinner . . . check. Get money . . . this she still needed to do.

“Uh huh,” she said into the phone as she walked back into the living room.

She stretched up onto her toes and pulled the books she wanted off of the uppermost shelves. They were romances chosen specifically because she knew that David wouldn’t even bother to give them a second glance.

“Mindless drivel,” he observed one evening as she walked into the room with the hardback Danielle Steele novel.

He was watching Masterpiece Theatre at the time and, for whatever reason, tended to speak to her as if it were 1920 and he were an English gentleman.

Joke’s on you, buddy, she thought as she opened the books one by one and pulled out the thin stacks of hundred dollar bills she had secreted between the pages. On the phone, David continued to talk as she carefully replaced the books, returned to the couch, and silently counted her stash. She knew to the dollar how much was there but wanted to double check anyway.

Five hundred, six hundred, seven hundred . . .

“Helen?”

She jerked and almost dropped the handset from where it was cradled between her ear and shoulder.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry, David,” she said. “I didn’t catch that last part. I was . . . the neighbor’s dog is sniffing around the trash again and I was putting my shoes on in case I had to go out.”

David made a noise of disgust.

“Damn dog,” he said. “If they’re going to let it out into the common area, they should pay attention to it and keep it out of the trash. Did I tell you that I stepped in dog crap yesterday?”

Helen rolled her eyes and resisted the urge to sigh. “You did. But, you were saying . . . ?”

“Dinner,” he said with a twinge of exasperation. “I was thinking about inviting Kevin and Jenna and Steve and Nancy over for dinner sometime next week. I wanted to make sure you could shop and cook.”

Helen had to bite back the nasty response about not wanting to entertain his work friends. “That’s fine.”

She felt bad about the lie, but only momentarily. She had no intention of being there to cook for David next week—or ever again for that matter. Or wash his clothes. Or listen to his self-indulgent pontifications.

“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said finally. “Not all of us get to take the day off.”

“I had to use my excess vacation or—” Helen began.

“I know, or lose it,” David interrupted. “Well, have a good day. I’ll be home by six. Let’s have supper by seven, okay? Maybe chicken? Gotta go. Talk to you later.”

Helen pressed the disconnect button without answering.

“Asshole,” she muttered as she tossed the phone onto the couch. It bounced off the cushion and onto the floor. Helen stared at it, tempted to pick it up and put it where it belonged. No, she told herself. Let David find it when he got home. It would be just one more thing she hadn’t done to his satisfaction, but she didn’t care. She’d be long gone by then.

She turned back to her stack of cash. There should be almost three thousand dollars. It wouldn’t last long, but that, plus half of the money she and David had in their savings account, would be enough to get her started. It seemed only fair, she reasoned, given that she helped earn it. In fact, if she wanted to break it down, she made more money working for the insurance company than David did as a technical writer.

Maybe that was the problem with their marriage, she thought suddenly. David was used to the detail of technical writing. He thrived in the step-by-step, controlled environment at work where he dictated the order of things. But she wasn’t one of his projects. She didn’t want to have the flowchart of her life written out by someone else—at least, not anymore.

It hadn’t always been that way. Or, at least it hadn’t seemed so stifling. When they had first gotten together, David had seemed so sure of everything. His organization had given her life structure. It had. But now, it was just oppressive; which was why she was going to run away. She was going to take control of her own life. She was going to eat fast food for every meal if she wanted. She was going to have more than one glass of wine with dinner. She was going to scream and dance and fuck. She was going to make a mess of her life and apologize to no one.

Helen glanced down at her watch. It was just after one o’clock. She had planned her escape with a meticulousness that in different circumstances would have made David proud. She had only a couple of hours to finish packing her bags, run to the bank, and get to the Greyhound bus station by three p.m. so she could buy her ticket for the four p.m. departure.

Helen allowed herself a quick smile, feeling suddenly giddy with the possibility of the unknown. She was running away. She was going to ride with strangers on a bus that would shoot through the night and deposit them in New York City where they would all begin the next day of their lives. Some, like her, might take an express bus to Boston. Others would stay in New York City. And still others would go north to Maine or even Canada.

Helen folded the bills and put the wad of paper into her pocket. Being free only accounted for half of her excitement. Leaving David meant that finally she could pursue her relationship with James. She grinned at the thought. They had, up to this point, only corresponded online and by phone and text. But by tomorrow evening, she was going to not only meet him, but also, she hoped, take their cyber relationship to the next level.

 

Maggie

“Seriously?” Maggie screamed at the car in front of her and banged her palms on the steering wheel in frustration. “Could you go any slower?”

When it came to driving pet peeves, Maggie had no patience for two things: people who drove below the speed limit and people who didn’t understand that the left hand lane was for passing only. The woman in front of her, who could barely see over the steering wheel of her twenty-year-old Volvo, was doing both.

Maggie flashed her headlights.

Nothing.

She growled in frustration.

It wasn’t that she insisted on driving fast—though she did always set the Lexus’s cruise control at four miles over the speed limit. The fact of the matter was Maggie simply didn’t like having cars in front of her. They blocked her view of the open road and for some reason she couldn’t articulate, that made her angry.

“Move!” Maggie yelled and was about to flash her lights again when her cell phone rang. Without looking at the display, she pushed the hands-free button on the steering wheel. “This is Maggie.”

“It’s me,” Betty Jo said, as always, skipping over the niceties. “I thought you would want to know that Benny called looking for you.”

Maggie frowned. Her brother rarely called unless he needed something and had nowhere else to turn.

“Did you give him my new cell number?”

“Of course,” Betty Jo said with a note of indignation. “But he didn’t seem like he was going to call you so I thought I’d let you know . . . so you could call him.”

Maggie sighed. Dealing with Ben’s drama was the last thing she needed on top of preparing for her presentation and psyching herself up for a confrontation with Sarah. His timing, as always, was impeccable.

“I’m sure he’s fine.”

Betty Jo made a non-committal noise but said nothing.

“Really,” Maggie insisted.

“You just might not want to wait for him to call you is all I’m saying,” Betty Jo said.

“Did he sound desperate?” Maggie asked.

Betty Jo sighed. “He sounded like Benny.”

Maggie nodded. The description was enough. Though there had never been any overt animosity between Maggie and Ben, his relationship with their parents had been strained since he had gone away to college and refused to major in mortuary sciences or take over Anthony & Son. The argument had been ongoing. Franklin pushed, Ben pulled away until it all came to a head in 2001. Ben was home for Easter and Maggie, who was in her senior year of high school, had just made the decision to enroll in the Mortuary Sciences program at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis. She had hoped her announcement would relieve the tension. Instead, it had the opposite effect.

“Well at least one of my children sees the value in what I do,” Franklin had said. “Maybe I should change the sign out front. Anthony & Daughter.”

Ben, who was hunched over his plate, shoved a forkful of sweet potato in his mouth and shrugged. “Maybe you should.”

Franklin dropped his fork and knife onto his plate with a clatter. Maggie looked quickly down at her dinner. The gravy had broken and bubbles of fat from the drippings gleamed in the light of the chandelier. She hoped her mother wouldn’t notice.

“It amazes me how you continue to go out of your way to disparage the business that puts a roof over your head and provides the food you eat.” Franklin’s voice was tight with anger. “All I have ever wanted it to pass along my father’s legacy. It’s a shame your sister has to pick up your slack.”

“Really?” Ben stood suddenly, his chair falling backwards with a loud bang. “That’s your concern? Has it ever occurred to you that I hate what you do—that I have always been embarrassed by you?” He snorted. “When people ask me at school what my childhood was like, I have to lie because it freaks people out to know that I grew up in a house filled with dead bodies.”

“It’s an honorable—” Franklin began.

“It’s disgusting,” Ben interrupted. “You are disgusting. And you know what I’m talking about.”

Maggie glanced from her father to her brother and then back. Franklin’s face turned a deep crimson at Ben’s last statement and Maggie realized on some level that it wasn’t anger that caused the flush, but shame. She looked again at her brother. His chest rose and fell in quick, heavy breaths.

“I’m done,” he said and turned to their mother. “I’m sorry, Mom, but I can’t be here.”

Jackie nodded without looking up from her plate and in that instant, Maggie understood that she was aware of Franklin’s infidelity. Maggie blinked and looked again at her father, who stared blankly at the center of the table where the half-carved ham sat on her mother’s “special” silver platter. The muscles of his jaws jumped and twitched as he clenched and unclenched his teeth.

“I’m done,” Ben repeated and then turned and walked out of the room.

Maggie hadn’t realized just how serious he had been until he dropped out of school and disappeared from their lives.

For several years, Ben had wandered aimlessly around the East Coast working odd jobs. The last time Maggie had seen him had been four years earlier when their parents had died while on vacation in India. He came home for the funeral, stayed long enough to sign his half of the funeral home over to Maggie, and then left in the middle of the night. Last Maggie had heard he was working on a fishing boat someplace in Louisiana.

“So?” Betty Jo’s tone made it clear what she expected.

“I’ll call him,” Maggie said finally. “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time on the bus. Did he leave a number?”

“No, but I looked at the caller ID and it’s the same one he had before.”

“All right,” Maggie said as she flashed her lights at the car in front of her again. In her rear view mirror she could see the line of cars stacked up behind her. “Anything else?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” Betty Jo said. “Travel safe.”

Maggie was about to reply when the line went dead.

“Okay,” she said sarcastically as she pushed the disconnect button on the steering wheel. “Nice talking to you, too.” Though she was used to the abruptness of Betty Jo’s phone calls, at times her shortness irritated her.

She was ready to take out her aggression on the woman in front of her by honking her horn and flashing her lights. After several seconds, the right turn signal of the Volvo began to blink.

“Finally,” Maggie muttered as she accelerated dramatically.

As she sped past the Volvo, she turned her head to stare down the offending driver. The woman was at least eighty years old with white hair and thick glasses. Suddenly, Maggie felt bad about her behavior. The woman turned to meet her gaze and Maggie smiled apologetically and raised her hand in a “thank you” wave. The smile died on her lips as the woman jerked her chin and extended her middle finger.

Maggie blinked in surprise. “Right,” she said softly as she pushed harder on the accelerator and shot past the Volvo. To make a point, she signaled and merged into the right hand lane in front of the elderly woman, allowing the cars behind her to pass and hurry on.

Once the passing lane had cleared, she signaled, eased the Lexus into the left hand lane and slowed until she was again alongside the Volvo. The older woman turned to look at her, her expression wary. Maggie pulled her lips into a brilliant smile, and before she could stop herself, raised her right hand with the middle finger extended.

“Take that you old biddy,” she muttered in satisfaction. It was childish and passive-aggressive behavior, she knew, but she didn’t care. She was sick of being polite and socially appropriate. If she truly was going to make changes, it might as well start now. Without waiting to see if her slight had its intended impact, Maggie pressed her foot firmly on the accelerator and roared away. She didn’t have time for this crap.

 

 

Bug

Bug sat on the edge of his bed and studied the tiled floor between his feet. The design was the same as what they had at school, he noticed. It was even the same, nameless color. He wondered if all unhappy places had ugly floors. The school did. His mother’s house did. The shelter obviously did.

“Sam?”

The voice shook him from his reverie. He looked up. His bangs hung in front of his eyes and he didn’t bother to brush them aside. He could still see the woman standing in the doorway.

“How are you doing?”

Gail’s voice was soft. In fact, everything about Gail seemed soft—her voice, her sweaters, even her hands when she occasionally touched his hair or arm. He liked Gail. She was pretty. In some ways, she reminded him of Grandma Jean, though, much, much younger.

Bug shrugged and dropped his gaze to the edge of the bed. The comforter was worn from too many washings. Gail stepped into the room and sat on the bed across from Bug’s. She had come to the school early to take him back to the shelter so he could have some private time, without the other boys around, to pack up his few belongings and prepare for the trip to Boston.

“Are you nervous about going to live with your aunt?” Gail asked. “You shouldn’t be. She seems like a really nice woman.”

Bug nodded but still didn’t look up.

“She’s a teacher,” Gail continued. “At a college. That’s pretty cool. Think of all the things you’ll learn.”

“I don’t know her,” Bug said softly. “I just saw her that one time.”

“I know, sweetie.” Gail moved to sit next to him. The addition of her weight on the bed caused the mattress to dip and Bug had no choice but to lean into her sideways hug. “But I think you’re going to like staying with her.”

“What about Rhonda?” Bug asked. “What’s going to happen to her?”

Gail sighed deeply. “Well, she’s going to spend some time in the hospital and the doctors are going to try to help her get healthy again. And then she’ll go through a program to help her find a job or get training for a job.”

“Is she going to come say goodbye?” Bug asked. “Before I leave?”

Gail was silent for several seconds.

“Sweetie, she can’t.” Gail hesitated. “The place where she is . . . she has to stay there. She can’t leave.” She leaned away and looked at Bug. She reached up and gently brushed the hair from in front of his eyes. “Your mom has some problems with alcohol and drugs. But you know that, don’t you?”

Bug nodded, even though it wasn’t really a question. He wanted to tell her it wasn’t Rhonda’s fault—that she couldn’t help it. But he knew from past experiences that trying to explain that didn’t make any difference.

“And sometimes, when people are addicted to drugs and alcohol, it takes over their minds,” Gail continued. “They can’t think about anything else. And they’ll do anything to get them. Even if it means breaking the law. That’s what happened with your mom.”

“Rhonda,” Bug said. “She doesn’t like it when I call her mom.”

“Okay,” Gail said and squeezed his shoulder. “Rhonda. And when she has done all the things she needs to and shown us that she’s better, we’ll see if you can go live with her again.”

Bug stared at the tile for several seconds before looking up to see Gail watching him.

“So . . .” Gail looked around the room.

Bug followed her gaze. He knew what she was seeing. After two months in the shelter, his quarter of the room had never looked occupied and now, with his few belongings packed in the nylon duffle bag on the floor at the foot of his bed, it looked as if no one had been in the space for months.

She sighed. “Are you all ready to go tomorrow?”

Bug nodded.

“Well, the bus leaves at nine o’clock so we should plan to leave here by seven-thirty,” Gail said. “That way we’ll have plenty of time to get there, pick up your tickets, and get you settled in. Are you sure you’re comfortable doing this by yourself?”

“We always took buses,” Bug said.

“Well, you won’t be alone,” Gail said. “There is a representative from the bus line that will make sure you get to the right bus when you transfer in New York City. Then, when you get to Boston, your Aunt Sarah and a woman named Tara will be there. She’s a social worker like me and she’ll help your Aunt Sarah get you settled and then, in a couple of days, check in to see how you’re doing.”

“Will I ever see you again?” Bug asked. He glanced shyly up at her. “Can I write you?”

Gail smiled. “Of course you can write. I’d like to know how you’re doing. You can tell me all about Boston. I’ve never been there.” She gave Bug’s shoulder another squeeze. “I’m actually kind of jealous. Boston is so much cooler than Philly.”

Bug smiled weakly.

“Maybe your aunt will take you to see the USS Constitution,” Gail said. “Do you know what that is?”

Bug shook his head.

“The USS Constitution is the world’s oldest naval ship that still sails,” Gail said. “It was named by George Washington in honor of the US Constitution and nicknamed Old Ironsides after bullets bounced off its sides during the war of 1812. It’s really cool. And there’s the Freedom Trail and the harbor where they had the Boston Tea Party. There’s so much to see and do. You’re going to love it there. And I’ll bet you’re going to love your aunt.”

Bug’s smile faltered at the mention of his aunt.

“It’s going to be fine, Sam,” Gail said reassuringly as she gave him a final hug and stood. “You’re going to be so busy you’re not going to have time to think about all of us stuck back here.” She glanced down at her Mickey Mouse watch. “You’ve got a little time before the rest of the boys get back. You want to come out and use the computer or hang out here and read?”

“Read,” Bug said and gestured toward the dog-eared Hardy Boys mystery. “I want to get it done before I leave.”

“You know what?” Gail leaned down conspiratorially. “If you don’t, it’s okay for you to take it.” She smiled and walked the short distance to the doorway.

He didn’t answer her, and she turned to look back at him.

“Thanks,” Bug mumbled. “But some other boy might need it.”

Gail frowned and nodded slowly. She seemed to be waiting for Bug to say something else. “So, I’ll see you later?” It was both a question and a statement.

Bug nodded. “Seven o’clock,” he said softly. He tried not to sound miserable.

Gail studied him, her expression unreadable.

“Sam,” she began and then stopped.

Bug knew that tone; it was pity. He inhaled deeply and forced himself to meet her eyes. The only way to make her feel better was to lie. He smiled and gave her a quick nod.

“I know,” he said. “It’s all going to be okay.”

AWL_3