A warm June evening, a local tradition: the students of Nantucket High have gathered for a bonfire on the beach. What begins as a graduation night celebration ends in tragedy after a horrible car crash leaves the driver, Penny Alistair, dead, and her twin brother in a coma. The other passengers, Penny's boyfriend, Jake, and her friend Demeter, are physically unhurtbut the emotional damage is overwhelming. Questions linger about what happened before Penny took the wheel.
As summer unfolds, startling truths are revealed about the survivors and their parents, the secrets kept, promises broken, and hearts betrayed.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Elin Hilderbrand: novelist, mother of three, sports enthusiast, avid fan of Bruce Springsteen, Veuve Clicquot, and four-inch heels. She sits on the Board of Directors at the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club and Nantucket Little League. Her resting pulse is 65.
Read an Excerpt
By Elin Hilderbrand
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2012 Elin Hilderbrand
All right reserved.
Nantucket: the name of the island brought to mind rolling surf, cobblestone streets, the brick mansions of whaling captains, a battered Jeep Wrangler with a surfboard strapped to the roll bars. It brought to mind cocktail parties on undulating green lawns, investment bankers wearing faded red slacks and dock shoes without socks, a towheaded little girl holding a grape popsicle that dripped down the front of her seersucker dress. Nantucket: it was the land of wealth and privilege, a summer playground for those with a certain prep-school, old-money, I-used-to-row-with-him-on-the-Charles type of pedigree.
So few outsiders (and by “outsiders,” we meant everyone from the casual day-tripper from West Bridgewater to Monica “Muffy” Duncombe-Cabot, who had been summering on the island since she was in utero in 1948) understood that Nantucket was a real place, populated by real people. Like anywhere else, it was home to doctors and taxi drivers and a police chief and plumbers and dishwashers and insurance agents. It was home to mechanics and physical therapists and schoolteachers and bartenders. They were the real Nantucket: the ministers and the garbage collectors and the housewives and the members of the crew that filled in the potholes on Surfside Road.
Nantucket High School had a senior class of seventy-seven students graduating on June 16. This turned out to be one of the first balmy days of the year—warm enough to sit on the football field and wish that you, like Garrick Murray’s grandmother, had worn a wide-brimmed straw hat.
Up on the podium stood Penelope Alistair. Although she was only a junior, Penny had been asked to sing the National Anthem. Hers was the voice of Nantucket, her tone so pure and ethereal that she didn’t need any accompaniment. We mouthed the words along with her, but no one dared to sing out loud because no one wanted to hear any other voice than Penny’s.
When Penny finished singing, there was a beat of thrumming silence, and then we all cheered. The seniors, sitting in neat rows on a makeshift stage behind the podium, whooped until the tassels on their caps shimmied.
Penny sat down in the audience between her twin brother, Hobson Alistair, and her mother, Zoe. Two chairs away sat Penny’s boyfriend, Jake Randolph, who had attended the ceremony with his father, Jordan Randolph, publisher of the Nantucket Standard.
Patrick Loom, valedictorian of the senior class, took the podium, and some of us felt tears prick our eyes. Who among us didn’t remember Patrick Loom in his Boy Scout uniform, collecting money in a mayonnaise jar for the victims of Hurricane Katrina? These were our kids, Nantucket’s kids. This graduation, like other graduations, was part of our collective experience, our collective success.
Twenty-three of the seventy-seven graduating seniors had written a college essay entitled “What It’s Like Growing Up on an Island Thirty Miles Out to Sea.” These were kids who had been born at the Cottage Hospital; they had sand running through their veins. They were on intimate terms with Nor’easters and fog. They knew that north was marked by the Congregationalists, and south by the Unitarians. They lived in gray-shingled houses with white trim. They could distinguish bay scallops (small) from sea scallops (big). They had learned to drive on roads with no traffic lights, no off-ramps or on-ramps, no exits. They were safe from ax murderers and abductors and rapists and car thieves, as well as the more insidious evils of fast food and Wal-Mart and adult bookstores and pawnshops and shooting ranges.
Some of us worried about sending these kids out into the wider world. Most of the seniors would go to college—Boston University or Holy Cross or, in Patrick Loom’s case, Georgetown—but some would take a year off and ski in Stowe, and still others would remain on Nantucket and get jobs, living lives not so different from those of their parents. We worried that the celebration surrounding graduation weekend would lead our seniors to drink too much, have unprotected sex, experiment with drugs, or fight with their parents because they were eighteen, goddammit, and they could do what they wanted. We worried they would wake up on Monday morning believing that the best years of their lives were behind them. The electric buzz they had felt the last four autumns during the first Friday-night football game under the lights, when they ran out onto the field or led the crowd in cheering—those moments were gone forever. Next September the Nantucket Whalers would play again, the weather would be brisk again, the air would smell like grilled hot dogs again, but there would be a new guard, and the seniors who were, as we watched now, walking across the stage for their diplomas, would be old news.
High school was over.
There was a bittersweet element to June 16, graduation day, and as we walked off the field at the end of the ceremony, some of us said we would never forget this one in particular, either because the weather had been so spectacular or because Patrick Loom’s speech had been so poignant.
It was true that we would always remember graduation that year, but not for these reasons. We would remember graduation that year because it was that night, the night of June 16, that Penelope Alistair was killed.
What? the world cried out in disbelief. The world wanted the Nantucket that resided in its imagination: the one with the icy gin and tonic resting on the porch railing, the sails billowing in the wind, the ripe tomatoes nestled in the back of the farm truck. The world did not want to picture a seventeen-year-old girl dead, but the world needed to know what we knew: Nantucket was a real place.
Where tragic things sometimes happened.
Everything looked different from the air. There, below him, was Nantucket Island, the only home he’d ever known. There were Long Pond and the Miacomet Golf Course and the patchwork acres of Bartlett’s Farm. There was the bowed white stretch of the South Shore. Already cars were lining up on the beach. Jake had spent every summer Sunday of his entire life on that very beach with his parents and the Alistairs and the Castles. They had body-surfed and played touch football; they had hidden in the dunes. They had constructed forts out of boogie boards and beach towels in the back of Mr. Castle’s pickup truck. Jake recalled the smell of charcoal, the marinated steak, the ears of corn dripping with herbed butter. There was always a bonfire with marshmallows, and fireworks that Mr. Castle bought when he was away on business.
Jake felt his father’s hand on his shoulder, a cupping, a squeeze. This happened four or five times an hour now, his father’s touching him for no reason other than to reassure himself that his son was still there.
Jake picked out Hummock Pond Road, like a fortune teller reading a palm. It was a life line without life, a love line without love. The road ran due south from town. Seen from the air, it was just a path cut through the pine forest. The cars traveling it looked like toys.
Jake pressed his forehead against the vibrating window. The plane floated over Madaket and Eel Point. Nantucket was receding. No! Jake thought. He felt tears sting his eyes. He was losing Nantucket. Tuckernuck was below them now, then Muskegut, its shores crowded with seals. Then the Yankee-blue water of Nantucket Sound. If only he could jump out, land safely, swim back. So many terrible things had happened in the past four weeks, and one of those things was what his parents had deemed to be the solution: they were running away from home.
The phone had rung in the middle of the night. Nobody, and especially not the parent of a teenager with his own car, wanted to be woken up by that sound. But Jordan was the publisher of the island’s newspaper, the Nantucket Standard, and so the phone rang in the middle of the night in the Randolph household more often than it did in other households. People called with news, or what they thought was news.
Zoe had been known to call in the middle of the night as well, but that was always Jordan’s cell phone, and he’d taken to shutting it off when he went to bed to avoid unnecessary drama. Anything Zoe wanted to say to him at two in the morning would sound better at eight o’clock, once he was safely in the car and driving to the paper.
It was a Saturday night, or technically Sunday morning. It was eighteen minutes past one. Jordan had a pretty good handle on what was happening around the island at any hour of any day. At one o’clock in the morning on a Sunday in mid-June, the crowd would be spilling from the Chicken Box onto Dave Street. There would be a string of taxicabs waiting there, and a police cruiser. Downtown, there would be clusters of people on the sidewalk outside the Boarding House and the Pearl; there would be the inevitable woman who attempted to cross the cobblestone street in four-inch stilettos. An older, more sedate clientele would roll out of the Club Car once the piano player finished “Sweet Caroline.”
Jordan had been at the Club Car with Zoe a few years earlier, on the night they experienced what they now referred to as “the moment.” The moment when they both knew. They knew then, but they did not act. They didn’t act until more than a year later, on Martha’s Vineyard.
The phone, the phone. Jordan was awake. His mind was instantly alert, but it took him a few seconds to get his body to move.
He swung his legs to the floor. Ava was sleeping in Ernie’s nursery with her earplugs in and the white-noise machine going, and the door locked and the shades pulled. And the magic elixir of her nightly Ambien silencing her demons. She would be completely dependent on him to rescue her in the event of a fire.
Fire? he thought.
And then he remembered: graduation.
He raced to the phone. The caller ID read Town of Nantucket. Which meant the police, or the hospital, or the school.
“Hello?” Jordan said. He tried to sound alive, awake, in control.
That was the only word Jake was able to say. What followed was blubbering, but Jordan was buffered by the knowledge that Jake was alive, he could talk, he had remembered the phone number for the house.
A policeman came on the line. Jordan knew many of the officers but not all of them, and especially not the summer hires.
“Mr. Randolph?” the officer, his voice unfamiliar, said. “Sir?”
She had flaws, yes she did. What would be the worst? There was the obvious thing, but she would set that aside for a moment. She would travel back to before her love affair with Jordan Randolph. What had been her faults before? She was selfish, self-absorbed, self-centered—but really, wasn’t everyone? She occasionally—but only occasionally—had put her own happiness before the happiness of the twins. There was the time she had left Hobby and Penny with the Castles and flown to Cabo San Lucas for a week. She had convinced herself, and Al and Lynne Castle, that she was suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. She had lied to Lynne and claimed that an off-island doctor, the mythical “Dr. Jones,” had actually “diagnosed” her with SAD and “prescribed” the trip to Cabo. The lie had been unnecessary; Lynne said she understood, and Zoe deserved a week away, and it would be no trouble at all for her to take care of the twins. Lynne didn’t know how Zoe did it, raising the two of them on her own.
The trip to Cabo had been a onetime thing. (It shimmered in Zoe’s memory: the chaise longue by the edge of the infinity pool, the scallop ceviche and mango daiquiris, and the twenty-seven-year-old desk clerk whom she had easily seduced and slept with five out of the seven nights.) Had she felt any guilt about leaving her children that week? If she had, she couldn’t remember it. And yet in that moment when they both rushed into her arms, shrieking with happiness at her return, she swore she would never leave them again. And she had kept her word.
There had, however, been nights when Zoe opened a bottle of good white Burgundy and watched six episodes of The Sopranos in one sitting while the children ate cereal for dinner and put themselves to bed. There had been other times when Zoe lost her temper with the twins for no reason other than that they were two complex creatures and she occasionally found herself at a loss as to how to deal with them. Zoe had squandered most of the inheritance from her parents on a beachfront cottage, an impractical choice for raising a family. She never exercised, and she was addicted to caffeine. She had uttered the sentence “My husband is dead” to gain sympathy from certain individuals. (The police officer who pulled her over for going ninety miles an hour on Route 3 was one example.)
She had so many flaws.
Zoe liked to think these were, for the most part, hidden, though she understood that among islanders she was considered to be not only a free spirit but a loose cannon. She felt that her parenting was constantly being judged because she was too lax, too lenient. She had been leaving the twins at home by themselves since they were eight years old. When they turned nine, she allowed them to ride their bikes into town. There had been an isolated incident when Hobby rode all the way to Main Street without a helmet. The police chief, Ed Kapenash, had called Zoe at work and told her that by law, he should give her a ticket for allowing her son to ride a bike without a helmet. Zoe replied that she didn’t allow the kids to ride without helmets; since she was at work, she hadn’t been home to see Hobby leave the house without one on. As soon as those words were out of her mouth, she knew how bad they sounded. She thought, Ed Kapenash is going to call Child Protective Services and have the kids taken from me. I am not competent to raise them by myself, after all. Ed Kapenash had sighed and said, “Please tell your children they are never again to ride their bikes without wearing helmets.”
Zoe had left work right that instant. She was all set to punish Hobby, even spank him if necessary, until he told her that his old helmet was too small. Upon investigation, Zoe discovered he was right; there wasn’t a helmet in the house that fit him. He was growing so quickly.
Zoe was sure that the story of Hobby’s not wearing a helmet would spread, and that the citizens of Nantucket would have their suspicions confirmed: she was negligent. Not a helmet in the house that fit the boy! As if that weren’t bad enough, Zoe drove an orange 1969 Karmann Ghia, which she’d bought while she was in culinary school. Although people always honked or waved when Zoe passed, she was sure they were all secretly wondering why she drove two kids around in a car without airbags.
She didn’t buy organic milk.
She was flexible with bedtime and lax about movie ratings.
She allowed the twins to pick their own outfits, which had once resulted in Hobby’s wearing his Little League All-Star jersey five days in a row. It also once led to Penny’s wearing her nightgown to school over a pair of leggings.
But really, how could anyone criticize Zoe’s parenting? She had fabulous, talented kids! The marquis students of the junior class: Hobson and Penelope Alistair.
Let’s start with Hobson, known all his life as Hobby, born five minutes before Penny. He was the reincarnation of his father, also named Hobson Alistair. Hobson senior had been the incredibly tall and commanding man of Zoe’s dreams, a man as big as a tree. Zoe had met him when she was a twenty-one-year-old student at the Culinary Institute of America, in Poughkeepsie. Hobson senior was only six years older than Zoe, but he was already an instructor at the CIA. He taught a class called Meats and was a master butcher; he could take apart a cow or a pig with a cleaver and a boning knife and make it look as elegant as a ballet.
Hobby was big like his father, and graceful and meticulous like his father. Hobby was shaping up to be the best athlete Nantucket Island had seen in forty years. He became the quarterback of the varsity football team as a sophomore; the Whalers had gone 11 and 2 last season and had, most important, beaten Martha’s Vineyard. Hobby also played basketball for the varsity team; he’d been the top scorer since his freshman year. And he played baseball—ace pitcher, home-run king. Watching him, Zoe almost felt embarrassed, as though his prowess were something shameful. He was so much better than anyone else on his own or any opposing team that he commanded everyone’s attention. Zoe always felt like apologizing to the other parents, though Hobby was a good sport. He passed the ball, he cheered for his teammates, and he never claimed more than his share of the glory.
Zoe would overhear the other mothers say things like, “I guess the father was a giant.”
“Are they divorced?”
“No, he died, I think.”
Hobby wanted to be an architect when he grew up. This pleased Zoe. Hobby could be an architect and still live on Nantucket. She was afraid, most of all, of her kids’ leaving the island and never coming back.
“But you can’t force them to stay,” Jordan would tell her. “You know that, right?”
Zoe was certain she would lose Penny. Penny was a gorgeous creature with long, straight black hair and blue eyes and a perfect little nose sprinkled with pale freckles. She had tripped around the house in Zoe’s high heels at age three, had gotten into Zoe’s makeup at age four, and had asked to have her ears pierced at age five. And then, one day when Penny was eight years old, Zoe went to pick up the twins after school, and Mrs. Yurick, the music teacher, was standing out in front with her hand on Penny’s back, waiting for Zoe.
Zoe thought, What? Trouble? Neither of her kids ever misbehaved, so the trouble had to be with Zoe herself. But she wasn’t even late for pickup that day (though she had been late in the past, but never by more than ten minutes—not bad for a working mother). Zoe knew she wasn’t going to win any parenting awards, but she packed healthy lunches for the kids, and when it was cold, she always made sure they each had a hat and gloves. Okay, true, sometimes only one glove.
“Is everything okay?” Zoe asked Mrs. Yurick.
“Your daughter…,” Mrs. Yurick said, and here she put her hand to her bosom, as if she were too overcome with emotion to continue.
What Mrs. Yurick was trying to say was that she had discovered Penelope’s singing voice. A voice as sweet and pure and strong and clear as any Mrs. Yurick had heard.
“You have to do something about this,” Mrs. Yurick said.
Do something? Zoe thought. Like what? But she knew what Mrs. Yurick meant. She, Zoe, the mother of the child with the exceptional singing voice, had to take steps to develop it, to squeeze out every ounce of its potential. Already, Zoe had clocked countless hours at the ball field and the Boys & Girls Club watching Hobby play baseball, football, and basketball. Now she would have to do the same for Penelope’s singing.
And to her credit, Zoe had done it. It hadn’t been easy, or cheap. There had been a voice coach off-island once a week and entire weekends spent with a renowned singing instructor in Boston. Both the voice coach and the singing instructor were wowed by Penny’s talent. She had such range, such maturity. At twelve, she sounded like a woman of twenty-five. She sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the Boston Pops the summer following ninth grade. She got the lead in every school musical; she had solos in every madrigal concert.
She was a nightingale.
Zoe wasn’t sure where it came from; she herself could barely carry a tune. Hobson senior had liked music (the Clash, the Sex Pistols), but in their short time together, Zoe couldn’t remember his singing anything but “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” once, at a chefs’ after-hours party.
If Zoe was to be very honest with herself, she would have to admit she wasn’t sure that Penelope’s voice was an unadulterated blessing. At times, Penny seemed almost burdened by it. Her voice had to be cared for like some exotic pet—a macaw, maybe, or a rare breed of chinchilla. Penny wouldn’t eat spicy food or drink coffee; she wrapped her throat in a warm, damp cloth at night as she lay in bed and listened to Judy Collins sing “Send In the Clowns” over and over again. She couldn’t stand smoke of any kind; every winter she begged Zoe to get rid of the woodstove.
It was during the year that Penny turned thirteen, which was also the year that she started her period, which was also the year that Ava and Jordan’s baby died, that Zoe heard her sobbing in her bedroom one night. Zoe knocked, and when Penny didn’t answer, she walked right in. She found Penny sitting on the floor of her closet, hugging herself and rocking in a way that made Zoe think that this sobbing was a ritual that she had missed many times before. Zoe had to pull Penny from the closet and drag her to the bed before demanding a reason for her tears.
“What is it?” Zoe asked. “What’s wrong?”
Penny said that she felt like there was less love in the world for her than for other people. Because she had no father.
Whoa: that answer had leveled her. Hobson senior had died of a heart attack when Zoe was seven months pregnant with the twins. Zoe had given birth to them alone; she had raised them out of infancy alone. She had hunted for a job as a private chef, and an opportunity on Nantucket had fallen into her lap. She had moved to the island, she had bought the cottage, she had put the kids in day care, and she had worked for the Allencast family on upper Main Street. The Allencasts paid her a generous salary that included health insurance and an IRA, they gave her flexible hours, and they introduced her to people who provided her with side jobs. Zoe suddenly had a role on the island: she was an elite personal chef, as well as the mother of two exceptional kids. There were certainly times when Zoe felt like she was doing nothing right, but there were also times when she felt like she was doing something right.
But watching Penny sob and hiccup and fight for breath that night because she had no father made Zoe feel certain she had done nothing right. Nothing in thirteen years.
She said, “I love you twice as much as any other mother loves her child.” She had grabbed Penny around the shoulders and kissed her fiercely in the part of her hair. “Goddammit, you know that, Penny.” She had feared the kids would grow up with an empty space in them. She had worried it would be Hobby who would suffer, but Hobby had always had men in his life—coach after coach, and the admiring fathers of his friends. Jordan was like a father to him, as was Al Castle. But it wasn’t Hobby Zoe had to worry about; it was Penny.
Zoe tightened her grip on her daughter and noticed how Penny seemed to slip through her grasp, like a handful of butter. Zoe had done all she could, but she couldn’t be two people at once.
Zoe took Penny to see a psychologist. It was one more thing for Zoe to fit into her already bursting schedule, one more thing for her to pay for, but it had to be done. The psychologist, a kind, plain woman named Marcy, met with Penny alone half a dozen times before finally talking with Zoe.
“She’s a terrific kid,” Marcy said.
“Thank you,” Zoe said. She smiled, waiting for more. Marcy smiled back, bobbing her head.
“That’s it?” Zoe asked.
“Well…,” Marcy said. She held her palms out, as if trying to show Zoe something—a baby chick or a milkweed pod—that Zoe couldn’t see. “Penelope has a heart made from the finest bone china. Just be aware.”
A heart made from the finest bone china? Zoe thought. That had been one of the rare times when she had craved a partner, a spouse, a husband, someone to turn to and ask, “Can you believe this crap?”
That was the end of Marcy the psychologist. “Just be aware”: ha! Zoe was aware of that and a lot more. She would take care of her daughter herself.
Zoe had heard warnings from other mothers since Penny was a little girl: “She’s cute now, but just you wait!” Something sinister lurked on the horizon; it would roll in like bad weather. Adolescence. But Zoe and Penny had remained close. They were best friends. As a parenting strategy, this was neither popular nor fashionable, but Zoe didn’t care. She loved her intimacy with her daughter. There were nights when Penny climbed into Zoe’s bed and the two of them slept next to each other, sharing a pillow like orphaned sisters. Zoe continually told both the twins, “You can tell me anything.” There would be no judgment, nothing to fear. She loved them unconditionally. “You can tell me anything.”
And right up until the day she died, Penny had told Zoe everything, or what Zoe had assumed was everything.
They flew to Boston, then boarded a shuttle bus that would take them to the international terminal. Jake’s father kept doing the shoulder thing. He didn’t touch Jake’s mother at all, not even accidentally, but that wasn’t unusual. Jake’s mind was spinning and flashing like a police light. Escape! Get back home! He was ten months away from his eighteenth birthday.
The dirt on Penny’s grave was as moist and black as chocolate cake. Grass would grow over it, but Jake couldn’t decide if that would make things better or worse.
Terminal E. Boston to LAX, LAX to Sydney. After that interminable trip, another six-hour flight to Perth. They were traveling to the other side of the world.
Their gate was filled with jolly Australians. Was there such a thing as a national temperament? Jake wondered. Or were there Australians out there somewhere who weren’t open and friendly and affable? Jake’s mother perked up as soon as she heard the accent. It was as if she had been transported into an episode of Home and Away, the Australian soap opera that she watched incessantly on the bootlegged DVDs sent to her by her sister May. She swung her hair around gracefully and said, “I’m going for a coffee. You want?”
“No, thank you,” Jake’s father whispered.
Jake shook his head.
His mother gave him a genuine smile, an event that was so rare it actually spooked him. She was the unhappiest person Jake knew, though she hadn’t always been that way. Before Jake’s infant brother, Ernie, had died, Ava had been normal and momlike, maybe a little annoying, maybe a little uptight and preoccupied with giving Jake a sibling. But there were pictures of Ava in the red photo album where she was making silly faces and kissing baby Jake and Jake’s father. There were pictures of her before Jake was born where she was deeply tanned and wearing a bikini, her golden-brown hair braided down her back. There were pictures of her surfing and kayaking and one of her leaping in midair, getting ready to pummel a volleyball. Jake used to stare at these pictures. That was the woman he wanted to claim as his mother. But since Ernie had died in his crib at eight weeks old, Ava had become jagged and shrill half the time, and mute and despondent the other half. Anger and bitterness—which were really sadness and deep, deep grief, his father said—lived inside her like a monster. Jake’s father pleaded with Jake to try and forgive her for the way she sometimes acted. But it was too much to ask, Jake thought. Jake had grown calluses over his nerve endings where his mother was concerned.
Ernie had a tombstone in the cemetery, just as Penny now did. Jake’s mother tended the plot at Ernie’s grave; she bought bouquets of supermarket flowers every week. When Ava was home, she sequestered herself in the room where Ernie had—for no good or explicable reason—stopped breathing. Ava either watched episodes of Home and Away or reread passages of her favorite book, which was, shockingly, not an Australian classic but rather that most American of novels, Moby-Dick, because her father had read it to her when she was a child. Ernie’s grave, the soap opera, Moby-Dick: these comprised 90 percent of the life of Ava Randolph. It was the other 10 percent, her interactions with the outside world, that glinted like shards of broken glass on the side of the road. There was her anger, which could take anyone’s eye out like an errant arrow. And there was her venom, which she seemed to save solely for Jake’s father.
Ava was present for the important stuff at school, such as Jake’s induction into the National Honor Society and the final night of the musical. This past year, the musical had been Grease, with Jake playing Danny and Penny playing Sandy. His mother had taken a shower and brushed out her hair. She had put on makeup and perfume. She had entered the auditorium with her head held high and her eyes defiant, his father trailing three steps behind her like a loyal servant. Jake had peered at them from behind the heavy stage curtain. He could hear the audience murmuring: Ava Randolph was out. Sightings of her were as rare as comets, and everyone knew why, so everyone kept a respectful distance—except Lynne Castle, his mother’s only stalwart friend. Lynne plopped herself down next to Ava and kissed the side of her face as though nothing were amiss, as though Ava weren’t capable of lashing out even at her, or of standing up and walking out of the auditorium for no reason at all.
Ava had seemed to enjoy the musical. She had clapped at the end, and when Jake and Penny took their final bows, she had joined in the standing ovation.
The only person who sought out Ava Randolph’s company was Penny. Some afternoons, after Jake had stayed late at school working on Veritas, the student newspaper, or at a Student Council meeting, he would come home to find Penny in his mother’s room, lying across the foot of her bed, the two of them watching Home and Away, Ava dutifully explaining the intricacies of the plot lines. Jake would be lying if he said this hadn’t worried him.
He’d said to Penny, “You don’t have to hang out with my mother, you know.”
And Penny had said, “Oh, I know. But I like her.”
Like her? Jake loved his mother—she was his mother, after all—but even he didn’t like her. He was afraid of her. On her best days, she was like a ghost that lived in the house with his father and him, occasionally haunting the dinner table and eating a few bites of whatever they were having. (They ate a lot of pizza and Thai takeout.) Ava floated around the house—mostly in the predawn hours—dealing with the cut flowers for Ernie’s grave. She slept alone in Ernie’s nursery.
Jake didn’t think his parents ever had sex. They didn’t touch; they barely even spoke, though there were nights when Jake would be awakened by the sound of the two of them screaming at each other.HIS MOTHER: I want out of here, Jordan! HIS FATHER: You’re free to go, Ava, you know that. HIS MOTHER: I want to go for good, and I’m not going without Jake. Or you. HIS FATHER: My family has owned and run the paper since 1870, Ava. Six generations of Randolphs. It’s my birthright, and guess what else? I love it. You knew this when you married me. You knew my life had to be here. HIS MOTHER: My life doesn’t matter. My life has never mattered. HIS FATHER: If you want to go, go. For God’s sake, just go. Go by yourself, stay as long as you want! You used to have no problem doing that. HIS MOTHER: But everything is different now. Isn’t it? HIS FATHER: [No response.] HIS MOTHER: Isn’t it? HIS FATHER: Yes. HIS MOTHER: Ernie is dead! Say it! I want to hear you say it, Jordan! HIS FATHER: Ernie is dead.
Now, in Terminal E, Ava reappeared with her steaming latte and her sesame bagel. Jake checked with his father to see if Jordan found this behavior as remarkable as he did, but Jordan was staring into the middle distance, thinking about something, and Jake knew not to interrupt him. Used to be that he’d be thinking up headlines or lead-ins, or maybe trying to figure out how to justify raising ad rates or how to fire the sports writer, or where to find a new sports writer from among such a limited pool of candidates. Or he’d be pondering the death of newspapers in general. But what would he be thinking about now? He was thinking backward and not forward. Jake could tell by the glazed look in his eyes.
Ava blew across her latte and picked a tiny piece off her bagel and popped it into her mouth. Jordan had told Jake that Ava didn’t eat much because after Ernie died, it was one of the many things she had stopped taking pleasure in.
Now, however, she seemed to be savoring her snack. Sip of latte, bite of bagel. She even opened a tiny container of cream cheese and dragged the bagel through it.
Jake was as angry as he’d ever been in his life. His heart was a trash fire. We are leaving Nantucket because of you! he thought. He wanted to splash Ava’s latte in her face. He wanted to choke her with her bagel. But the moment passed, followed by an immense ocean of self-pity.
They were leaving Nantucket because of him.
They took her to the hospital even though there was nothing wrong with her. Nothing wrong with her except that she couldn’t stop shivering. Penny was dead. The car had gone up over the embankment at Cisco Beach, where the drop was… eight feet? ten feet? The car had seemed to fly at first, they had been going wicked fast, but Demeter was loving it, it was a carnival ride, scary and thrilling, right up until the very end, right up until she realized that Penny wasn’t slowing down, Penny was on some kind of rampage, and they were going to crash.
There were police at the hospital. Demeter was confused. Doctors, nurses, police—but where were her parents? Maybe they hadn’t come, though surely someone had called them. Demeter’s fake Louis Vuitton bag had been in the car, and her license was in her wallet, and—sickening thought—there was a nearly empty fifth of Jim Beam in the bag, too. Demeter had drunk some of it in her bedroom alone while the rest of those guys went to the graduation party at Patrick Loom’s house. Demeter hadn’t been invited to Patrick Loom’s party—or rather, she had been invited, but only through her parents, who got asked to everything because her father was a selectman. She hadn’t been invited in earnest, on her own merit. She never was.
So she had drunk some of the Jim Beam in her bedroom, and then she’d locked the door and climbed out her window. She’d scooted on her butt down the sloping roof to just above the garage, where she was able to leap to soft grass. Her parents would never have believed Demeter capable of doing this, because she was overweight and the least coordinated human being alive. She would never be able to execute her escape in reverse, because how would she climb the drainpipe to the roof? Someone could—Hobby could, Jake could, possibly even Penny could—but not Demeter. She was too heavy. She would rip the drainpipe right off the side of the house. She would wait until her parents were home from their evening out—they had no less than four graduation parties to attend—and when she was sure they were asleep, she would walk right back in the house, and pop the lock on her bedroom door with a pin.
Demeter was being largely ignored at the hospital. There was a flurry of urgent-sounding business swirling around her like a tornado. She heard the letters D.O.A., and she knew that that must be Penny. Penny had been dead on arrival. Demeter knew this, and she knew she was supposed to feel something, but she didn’t feel anything. The room was warm, but Demeter couldn’t stop shivering.
She heard the incoming helicopter. Medflight. Someone was being flown off-island. Someone was really hurt. Was it Penny? Penny was D.O.A. Did they fly dead people to Boston? Certainly not. So it must be someone else: Jake or Hobby. The Castles’ house was on the flight path of the air ambulance, and every time Demeter’s mother, Lynne, heard it incoming, she would genuflect and say, “God bless the patient. God bless the mother of the patient.” In this way, Demeter had learned that it was even worse to be the mother of the hurt person that it was to be the hurt person herself.
A nurse approached Demeter and lifted up her chin. Demeter was convulsing into the pillow she held against her chest.
“I think she’s in shock,” the nurse said aloud to herself.
Shock? Probably certainly correct. When the Jeep smashed into the sand, there had been an impact like the apocalypse, a world-ending smash. A horrible shattering noise, an acrid smell. And then the Jeep had tipped over, and Demeter had gotten that roller coaster feeling in her stomach. She had tucked her head to her chest. One hand had gripped the door handle, one hand had pressed against the seat in front of her, the seat where Jake was sitting. The Jeep tilted to the left, and Demeter might have crushed Hobby with her oppressive weight, but she was literally dangling from the harness that was her seat belt.
At that moment she had seen the unnatural angle of Penny’s head.
All of a sudden, everything that had happened in those seconds became unthinkable. Demeter’s mind shut off. Dark screen. Was this shock?
To the nurse, Demeter whispered, “Are my parents here?”
The nurse wasn’t familiar to Demeter. She said, “Yes. But I can’t let them see you just yet. We have to examine you. And you have to talk to the police.”
They had the bottle of Jim Beam, for sure.
She said, “Did someone get flown to Boston? Someone from the car?”
The nurse was taking her pulse. She looked levelly at Demeter. “Yes.”
“Who was it?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Is it bad?” Demeter asked.
“Yes,” the nurse said. “It’s bad.”
The nurse took her blood pressure, checked her eyes, her ears, her nose, her throat. Asked her to stand up, asked her to move her limbs, her digits. Asked her to say the alphabet backward, asked her her home address, her date of birth, and the date of Valentine’s Day.
“February fourteenth,” Demeter said. “Not a favorite.”
The nurse gave a dry laugh. “Does anything hurt?”
“Not really,” Demeter said, though there was something in her mind like a coin at the bottom of a well. Something shiny that she wanted to pick up but couldn’t quite grasp. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate. Then she realized that the shiny thing was Penny, but Penny was D.O.A. Dead. Demeter leaned forward and vomited all over the floor.
The nurse jumped out of the way, but she wasn’t quite fast enough; she got splattered. Her turquoise scrubs, her nice white sneakers. Demeter vomited again. All that Jim Beam and the bag of cheese puffs that she’d eaten by big, guilty handfuls in her room, but not too guilty because cheese puffs were mostly air.
The nurse made a noise of disgust, which she then tried to cover up with gestures of concern and practical care. She reached for a shallow dish and called for someone to clean up Demeter’s mess.
The nurse asked, “Have you been drinking tonight?”
Demeter gagged and spit in the shallow bowl. Should she lie and say no, or should she tell the truth? The truth didn’t always help. This was a lesson Demeter had learned that very night: some truths should never see the light of day.
“Yes,” Demeter whispered.
The nurse patted her on the back. She said, “The Chief is coming in to talk to you. Okay?”
Oh God, no, Demeter thought. Not okay. The Chief and her father were friends; they were in Rotary together. They passed the basket in church together. Demeter had known the Chief since she was little. She didn’t want to talk to the Chief.
She thought they would move her to another room, a square white room with a simple wooden table, like an interrogation room on TV. She thought they would transport her in a cruiser to the beautiful, brand-new, bajillion-dollar police facility on Fairgrounds Road. Demeter’s father had, thanks to his political clout, made it possible for that police station to get funded and built. Would the Chief take that into account when he was questioning her?
Oh God, the Jim Beam.
Oh God, the walk with Penny into the dunes at Steps Beach. What had Demeter done? It was true that Demeter had hated Penny a little, but she had loved her, too. A lot of love and a little hate, and maybe the hate was inexcusable, but Demeter dared the world to find a girl more worthy of hateful envy than Penelope Alistair—for her singing alone, her beauty alone, her relationship with Jake Randolph alone. They had all been friends since Montessori: Demeter, Penelope, Hobby, and Jake, sitting in a circle singing songs about magic pennies and grandfather clocks. They had painted in the art room, they had learned the names of the continents, they had sliced their own cucumbers at snack time. Penny and Demeter had sat together at lunch each day and talked about the things that four-year-olds talked about. Who remembered what those things were? They had played chase on the playground. Keep-away with the boys.
Penny was D.O.A.
The Chief walked into the ward. Demeter almost didn’t recognize him; he was in street clothes. A pair of jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt that said NANTUCKET WHALERS across the front in navy letters. He pulled a chair to the side of the bed where Demeter was sitting.
“Demeter,” he said.
He put his face in his hands, and when he looked up, Demeter could see that he was close to tears.
He said, “Penelope Alistair is dead.”
Demeter pursed her lips and nodded. She wanted to tell the Chief that she knew this already and explain that her brain wasn’t allowing her an emotional response. Because she was probably certainly in shock.
“Hobson Alistair is in a coma. And he has sixteen broken bones. He’s been flown to Boston.”
Demeter gagged and spit in the bowl. Her body was in rejection mode. She made some ungodly retching noises. The Chief cast his eyes down.
“I have you, and I have the Randolph kid. It was Jake Randolph’s Jeep, but he wasn’t driving?”
“Penelope was driving?”
“Had she been drinking? You can tell me the truth. We’re going to do a tox report.”
“No,” Demeter said. “Penny wasn’t drinking. She doesn’t…” Demeter blinked. “She doesn’t drink at all, ever. Didn’t, I mean.”
“But the rest of you were drinking,” the Chief said. Somehow he made Demeter’s fake Louis Vuitton bag materialize, and he pulled out the nearly empty fifth of Jim Beam. “This. Where did you get this?”
Oh God. Lodged in Demeter’s mind was a boulder she couldn’t budge. The truth was that she had stolen the bottle from the Kingsley house, on a night when she had been babysitting for Barrett, Lyle, and Charlie Kingsley. Demeter had been the Kingsleys’ babysitter for five years. The Kingsley parents went out a lot, and they paid Demeter well, and Mrs. Kingsley was always amazed and relieved to find that she was available. (“Because I have no life,” Demeter wanted to confess.) Mrs. Kingsley kept her pantry stocked with potato chips and Doritos and Triscuits and white cheddar popcorn and cheese-filled pretzels and Italian rosemary crackers; Mr. Kingsley called it the 7-Eleven. The fridge was always packed with dips and smoked sausages and hunks of cheese and leftover containers of potato salad or fettuccine Alfredo. The bottom drawer was filled with Cokes and ginger ale, grape soda, root beer. And every single time that Demeter had babysat for her over the past five years, Mrs. Kingsley had opened her arms as wide as they would go and said, “Help yourself to whatever you want.”
This had been a rare form of torture, especially after the kids were in bed and Demeter was faced with empty hours of homework or independent reading or the two hundred channels of the Kingsleys’ satellite TV. Demeter’s cell phone lay charging on the Kingsleys’ granite countertop, but no one ever texted, and no one ever called. That wasn’t strictly true: at least once a night, Demeter’s mother, Lynne, would text her to ask how things were “coming along.” Demeter never responded to these messages; she found receiving texts from her mother humiliating. Now and then Demeter sent a text out to Penny, but that was a shot in the dark. Demeter would write something general and innocuous like, what u doin? And on occasion, Penny would text back, hanging with J. Or, sometimes, hanging with A, who was Ava, Jake’s mother. To Demeter, Ava Randolph was a tragic figure along the lines of Mr. Rochester’s crazy wife locked in the attic in Jane Eyre. But to Penny, she was more like Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf: brilliant, artistic, bipolar, possibly suicidal.
“Is Mrs. Randolph okay?” Demeter had asked her mother once.
“ ‘Okay’?” Lynne Castle said.
“I mean, I know she’s still really sad about the baby,” Demeter said. The baby had died when Demeter and Jake and Penny and Hobby were in seventh grade. “But what does she do? Like, with her life, what does she do?”
“That’s an interesting question,” Lynne Castle said. This was the kind of answer that made Demeter want to scream. Her parents were all about validation. What Demeter wanted was the truth.
“Tell me, Mom,” Demeter said.
“She’s just…” Lynne held her hands out, as if checking for rain. “Well, it seems to me that Ava is lost.”
Lost? Demeter was alarmed to learn that a person could make a career out of being lost. She worried that this might someday be her career.
“Did someone sell it to you?” the Chief asked. He held the bottle in two hands. “Someone on-island?”
Demeter was startled. Her thoughts had digressed so dramatically that she had forgotten she was under this line of questioning.
“No,” she said, honestly.
“Someone off-island?” the Chief asked. He sounded relieved, and she couldn’t blame him. He didn’t want to have to shut down a local business for selling liquor to minors. Demeter knew she should just tell him she had bought the Jim Beam off-island. “Off-island” was the whole rest of the world, an infinite bigness filled with people and places and things. It was impossible to police “off-island,” because where would you start?
Did Demeter want to lie? No, she did not. Her alternative was to admit that she’d stolen the Jim Beam from the Kingsleys, but to explain that it hadn’t felt like stealing because Mrs. Kingsley always said, “Help yourself to whatever you want.” And so last week, on a particularly fragrant spring night, the night of the Nantucket High School awards ceremony, which Demeter wasn’t attending because she hadn’t been selected to receive any awards, she had helped herself to the bottle of Jim Beam. And what she wouldn’t be able to tell Chief Kapenash was how happy and liberated taking the bottle had made her feel. It was secret and contraband; it was a bandage to have ready for a time in the future that might be even worse than that night. It was numbness in a bottle, oblivion in liquid form. Demeter knew this because she had already systematically run through every drop of alcohol in her parents’ house. Al and Lynne Castle weren’t drinkers—not a beer at a ball game, not a glass of wine at book club. At dinner Al had water and Lynne drank a glass of milk, like a child. That they even kept any alcohol in the house stunned Demeter. She had stumbled across the stash by accident one night when her parents were out and she was ransacking the kitchen looking for chocolate. In the never-opened cabinet above the refrigerator, she discovered a bottle of vodka, a bottle of gin, a bottle of dark rum, a bottle of scotch, a bottle of vermouth, and a bottle of Kahlua. All of the bottles were opened, with an inch or so missing from each. They had been bought for some party years earlier and hadn’t been touched or thought of since.
Demeter had drunk it all. The Kahlua with a little milk was her favorite. She drank the vodka with fresh-squeezed O.J. She mixed the gin with the vermouth—a martini! She replaced the missing vodka with water, the Dewar’s with iced tea. Would her parents ever discover her treachery? No, Demeter was certain they wouldn’t. Lynne Castle had forgotten that the bottles existed; even when company was over, they were never pulled out. By the time Al or Lynne happened upon these bottles, Demeter would be safely out of the house. At college, or beyond.
“Off-island,” Demeter said. She willed herself not to flash the Chief shifty eyes.
He was scribbling on a pad. “And you’re certain Penelope wasn’t drinking?”
“She was not drinking.”
“What about the boys?”
Demeter needed water. Her mouth was coated with a film of vomit. She asked the Chief if she could have some.
“Uhhhh… .” He glanced around and caught the attention of the short Hispanic man who’d had the good fortune to clean up Demeter’s Jim Beam–and-cheese-puff vomit. “Agua? Por favor?”
The man nodded. He reappeared a second later with a small blue cup of tepid water. Demeter was so grateful, she nearly cried. She sipped the water, though she wanted to gulp it.
“So, I was asking…”
Yes, Demeter knew what he was asking: he was asking her to rat out the boys. The truth was, both Jake and Hobby had taken swigs off the bottle. And then the four of them had gone to a bonfire on Steps Beach. It was just a general graduation party, there were lots of seniors there—refugees from earlier, legitimate parties—but there were juniors in attendance as well, and some sophomores. The party had livened up when Demeter arrived with Hobby and Jake and Penny. Everyone on earth loved those other three, and Demeter was lucky enough to be with them because she had texted Penny and said that she had a bottle, and not only that—she wasn’t sure that one bottle of Jim Beam would offer enough allure—but there was something BIG and IMPORTANT that she needed to tell Penny. Something ginormous.
There had been a keg at the bonfire, sitting in a trash can filled with ice. There was a line for the keg, but somehow Demeter found herself in charge of the tap. She was a good pour, someone said. Not too much foam. She filled a hundred plastic cups at least. How many of those had been Hobby’s or Jake’s? Two or three apiece, maybe? And Demeter herself had had three or four beers, though after all the hard stuff she’d drunk at home alone, beer had very little effect on her. For her, drinking it was like drinking juice.
“We were at a bonfire on Steps Beach,” Demeter said. “We were drinking beer.”
“Hobson and Jake were drinking beer?”
“And then what happened?” the Chief asked.
Demeter drank her water down. She needed a hundred more cups just like that, but preferably colder.
“After that?” Demeter said. She wouldn’t talk about after that. She couldn’t. Besides, she was getting confused. Had the party she was talking about taken place that very night? Because it seemed like days ago. Last week. And was Penny really dead? She couldn’t be dead if only hours before she had been talking to Demeter in the dunes. And was Hobby really on a helicopter, in a coma? Sixteen broken bones? Demeter had been in love with Hobby when she was younger. She had berated herself for how unoriginal this was, for everyone on Nantucket was in love with Hobby Alistair—every girl, every mother, every father. Eventually Demeter had grown out of it and moved on to being in love with Patrick Loom, then Anders Peashway, then Jake Randolph, but Jake only because Penny loved him, and Demeter wanted to be like Penny.
Demeter let her face fall in fake disappointment-in-herself. “After that, I can’t remember.”
“You don’t remember getting into the car?” the Chief asked.
Demeter gnawed on her lower lip. She had tried out for Grease this past winter—she’d desperately wanted to play Rizzo—but she’d gotten only a part in the chorus, so she’d quit, much to her parents’ dismay. What Mr. Nelson and Mrs. Yurick hadn’t realized during the auditions was that Demeter was an excellent actress.
“I remember getting in the car,” she said. “I sat in the backseat, on the right. Hobby was in the backseat on the left. Jake was in the front passenger seat, and Penny was driving.”
“Penny was driving even though it was Jake’s car?”
“She was the only one who hadn’t been drinking,” Demeter said.
Even so, Jake had tried to take the keys. He’d held Penny’s wrist and tried to pry open her fingers, but she had swung her arms at his face as if to hit him, and he’d backed off. Penny had been in full freak-out mode. That was exactly what Demeter had thought at the time: She’s freaking out. Freaking freaking.
Hobby had said, with his unflappable calm, “Jeez, Pen, pull yourself together.”
“Please,” Jake had said. “Please let me drive.”
Penny had screamed. No words, just a scream.
Demeter had felt her stomach do funny things. She was certain Penny was going to spill the beans, even though Demeter had made her promise. Had made her swear.
“And Penny drove out to Cisco Beach,” Demeter said. “And she was going really fast.” Even while they were still on the road, the car was shuddering. Jake was pleading with Penny to slow down, while Hobby was leaning forward, trying to see the speedometer. He seemed most interested in finding out how fast the Jeep could go. Demeter was in a drunken daze, a dreamlike state in which she wasn’t sure if what seemed to be happening was really happening. She was, however, wearing her seat belt. And Jake was wearing his. That, she thought, was the result of good parenting. The twins were unbuckled because that was the kind of house they’d been raised in—an unbuckled household. Zoe laid down no rules. “Listen,” Zoe had said recently to Lynne Castle. “Raising them without hard- and-fast rules has worked. Look how wonderfully they’re turning out.”
“And then we crashed,” Demeter said.
She had seen Jordan at the hospital. He was in the waiting room with the Castles. Ava wasn’t there. The fact that Ava wasn’t there was a relief, but not for the usual reason. If Ava wasn’t there, Zoe thought, then things mustn’t be that bad.
The police had called Zoe and told her that there had been an accident and that she should come to the hospital right away. When she arrived and saw the expression on Lynne Castle’s face, she knew. It was death or near-death, but she didn’t know which child. She had read Sophie’s Choice along with everybody else, and along with everybody else she had thought, No, I wouldn’t be able to pick. If they made me choose, I’d tell them to put a bullet in my head. I’d rather die than choose one over the other. Dr. Field came out. Zoe had known Dr. Field for fifteen years. He had sewed up her forefinger after a particularly bad accident with her Santoku knife. He had treated her kids for strep throat and pinkeye and something like fifty-two earaches between them. He had been the one to pop Hobby’s dislocated shoulder back into place, right there on the thirty-five-yard line of the Whalers’ field. He had been the one to show up at the Randolphs’ house when Ernie Randolph died of SIDS. He was the island’s doctor, on-call something like 350 days a year. Zoe felt proud to be his patient. She brought him a jar of homemade mustard and a bag of her from-scratch soft pretzels every Christmas.
She had never seen him look at anyone the way he was looking at her now. Tenderly, and with fear.
“Zoe,” he said. “I need you to sit down.”
“Tell me,” she said. Her voice was froggy. The call had woken her up. “Just fucking tell me.”
“Penelope,” he said.
“Yes,” he said.
It was Penny, she thought.
“And Hobson has been flown to Boston. He’s in a coma. And he has sixteen broken bones.”
Zoe swooned. The room melted, and she thought, I’m going down. She thought, Put a bullet in my head.
“Patsy!” Dr. Field called out. He had Zoe by both arms, he was holding her, but she was done, gone, checking out. There was no life for her without those two. She had made her own way and found a modicum of personal happiness, but there was no life left to her without the twins.
Patsy, the nurse, helped carry Zoe to the chairs.
“Get her water and an Ativan,” Dr. Field said.
“No,” Zoe said. She wanted a bullet, yes, but not drugs. She wouldn’t be weak like that. She opened her eyes and focused on the white of Dr. Field’s coat.
He said, “Hobby is alive. He’s on his way to Mass General. You have to get to Boston.”
“Okay,” she said. She was strong enough to open her eyes, but not strong enough to stand, and certainly not strong enough to get herself to Boston. “Can I ask? What happened?”
“There was a car accident,” Dr. Field said. His voice was floating over her head. “Penelope was driving. Hobson was in the backseat.”
“Whose car? Jake’s car? The Jeep?”
“Yes. Jake Randolph was in the car, as was Demeter Castle.”
“Are they dead?” Zoe asked, though she knew the answer.
“No,” Dr. Field said. “They’re fine. Cuts and bruises. A bad case of shock.”
Cuts and bruises. A bad case of shock. Not dead. Not in a coma. Zoe wished she were the kind of person who could be happy that other people’s children were alive and unharmed while her two children were dead and nearly dead—but she wasn’t.
“Mr. Randolph has offered to make sure you get to Boston safely,” Dr. Field said. “And the Castles have offered to help as well.”
Zoe pivoted her head and saw the three of them sitting in chairs. Jordan sat on the edge of his seat, staring at her, and Al and Lynne were huddled together. Lynne was crying, and Al—steady, solid Al—was rubbing her back. The Castles and their smug togetherness, their unassailable bond, made Zoe want to scream. She had—admit it!—used their marriage as a fortress. They were her closest friends, and Zoe had ridden on the coattails of their outstanding citizenship.
Al was a selectman, he owned the local car dealership, he knew everybody, and Lynne, no slouch herself, owned a title-search and permitting business that she ran from home so she could always be around to tend to the fire. They had two sons away at college—Mark at Duke, Billy at Lehigh—and they had Demeter, who was, like Penny and Hobby, in eleventh grade. Demeter was something of a sore spot.
But she was still alive.
I don’t have a daughter, Zoe thought. Anymore.
But no, this was impossible.
Zoe let out a high-pitched noise, a keening, a sound she had never made before in her life. Dr. Field was standing before her; she was staring at his belt buckle. He was an intelligent man, a distinguished man, and she needed him to fix this. When Hobby had taken that hit from the monstrous inside linebacker on the Blue Hills team and was lying on the field writhing in pain, Ted Field had jogged out and, with his magic hands, popped his shoulder back into place.
Zoe looked up at him. She was shaking, and this awful noise was escaping from her. Fix this! she thought. She had once carried Penny into the Emergency Room at two in the morning. Penny had been four years old, and she had vomited in her bed. When Zoe touched her forehead, she felt as if it nearly scorched her hand. She hunted around awhile in the bathroom for a functioning thermometer—this was the kind of object she never seemed to have at the ready—then she gave up. The child was on fire; she needed a doctor. It had been hard as a single mother. She’d had to carry Penny out to the car, then go back inside and wake up Hobby and take him, too. (She had considered calling Lynne Castle and asking her to come over and watch Hobby, but back then, Zoe was determined to handle everything herself.) Penny’s cheeks had been bright pink, her hair damp around her face, but when Zoe had carried her into this very room so many years earlier, Ted Field had met them at the door and taken Penny into his arms. He had taken her temperature—104.5—and gotten some Tylenol into her. He’d discovered the problem: a raging double ear infection.
But he couldn’t fix this. Penny was dead.
“Do you want to see her?” he asked.
Zoe wailed. The mere question was hideous. Did she want to see her dead daughter? It was a decision from a nightmare. This would be followed by other unholy decisions, such as whether to bury her daughter or cremate her.
“No,” Zoe said. No: seeing Penelope dead would only do her further damage. Maybe that was the wrong decision; maybe another mother, a better mother, someone like Lynne Castle, would’ve been strong enough to look upon the body of her dead child, but Zoe couldn’t do it. I love you twice as much as any other mother loves her child, she thought. And therefore I cannot stand to see you dead.
Penny. Her dark hair and rosy cheeks and the spray of freckles across her nose. Zoe wasn’t religious, but every year the Catholics asked Penny to sing “Ave Maria” at their Christmas Eve service, and every year Zoe went to listen. Hearing her daughter sing that beautiful song made Zoe feel as close as she ever had to God.
The Castles had come over to her. They had been her friends for fifteen years, but Zoe could see that they didn’t know how to proceed in this situation. They stood in front of her.
Lynne said, “Oh, Zoe.”
“It’s too much,” Lynne said.
Too much what? Zoe wondered.
Al said, “Can we take you to Boston? There’s a flight leaving at five-thirty. I’ll have a car waiting in Hyannis. We’ll go with you.”
Zoe stared. Al was as bland-looking as a person could get, which was why people liked him so much. He had brown hair and a bit of a paunch; he wore slacks and tie clips. He embodied some kind of American ideal: the local businessman, the selectman, the affable, reliable type. Nothing hidden or surprising. He seemed a little milquetoast, but he had a way of getting things done. He would put Zoe on the flight, he would have a car waiting for her at the airport, he would be Zoe’s substitute husband now, on the worst night of her life, just as he’d been her substitute husband a hundred times before: scheduling her oil changes and her car inspections, checking her tire pressure before she drove out onto the beach, sending someone over to seal up her ocean-facing windows in the winter, calling the people at Yates Gas when they neglected to fill her tanks and her heat went off, giving her free tickets to the Boys & Girls Club clambake because he bought twenty-five for his employees and always had extras.
Al and Lynne Castle were her closest friends. But how to explain it? A chasm was opening between her and them now, expanding with every passing minute. Their daughter was alive, and Zoe’s daughter was dead. She couldn’t bear to be in their presence.
“I need to go alone,” Zoe whispered.
“You can’t go alone, Zoe. Don’t be ridiculous.” This came from Jordan. Jordan was looming above her now, but where had he been five minutes ago when Dr. Field delivered the blow? He should have been holding her, steeling her. Jordan Randolph was her substitute husband in all the ways that Al Castle was not. Jordan sent her flowers, he put suntan lotion on her back, he made love to her every Tuesday and Thursday morning while the kids were at school. He washed her hair in the outdoor shower afterward. He kissed her fingertips, he ate the food she made for him. They’d spent exactly six nights together: two nights in New York City, two nights in Boston, one night on Martha’s Vineyard, and one night at the crummy Radisson in Hyannis. Those had been the six best nights of Zoe’s life.
She loved him so much. He was that man for her. The one who made everything matter.
His dark, curly hair was matted. The lenses of his glasses were smudged. How many times had she lifted Jordan’s glasses from his face, breathed on them, and wiped them off on her own shirttail?
He said to the Castles, “I’ll take Zoe to Boston.”
Zoe got to her feet. She slapped Jordan across the face, as hard as she could. Lynne Castle gasped. Jordan’s glasses were askew. He set them straight again. He said nothing.
His father had cheated. Rory Randolph had conducted a classic martini- and-high-heels affair with the arts editor from the Boston Globe; for months he had kept a suite at the Eliot Hotel. There was a long-standing dalliance with a socialite from Philadelphia named Lulu Granville, who summered on Monomoy Road. Rory seduced one of his copyeditors; rumors flew that he had gotten her pregnant, then paid for her to have an abortion. Who knew if that was true? What was true was that the copyeditor had quit the newspaper after a tearful scene behind the closed door of Rory’s office, on the night of a deadline. And then there was the nineteen-year-old journalism student who worked on the classifieds desk. She later went to law school and filed a retroactive sexual harassment suit that Rory had to spend ten thousand dollars to make go away. Those were the women Jordan knew about.
In his day, Rory Randolph had been the most powerful man on Nantucket. He was handsome and charming, he drank good scotch, he smoked a pack of Newports a day, he had a Purple Heart from Korea, he’d gone to Yale on the G.I. Bill, and he didn’t care what people said. He was convinced of his own superiority. His family owned the newspaper and always had. He was the island’s voice.
Jordan had grown up despising his father. He hated the cheating and the lying, the stink of cigarette smoke, and the taste of whisky. He hated that his mother threw away the hotel receipts with a sigh. She and Jordan never talked about the other women, though she knew that he knew, and he knew that she knew that he knew.
She cooked the roasts, she poured the scotch. She said to her son once, apropos of seemingly nothing, “I take the bad with the good.”
Jordan took pleasure in doing things differently. He went to Tabor instead of Choate and Bennington instead of Yale, he smoked marijuana instead of cigarettes, he drank wine instead of whisky, he was a Democrat instead of a Republican, he was humble and self-effacing instead of pompous and self-congratulatory.
What was Jordan like with women? Well, like his father, he’d never had a problem there. He wore his hair over his collar, he wore rimless glasses, he wore faded jeans and flip-flops. He taught himself to play the guitar. There were always women. But Jordan wasn’t interested in a wife, wasn’t interested in a family—people he would inevitably let down. After watching his father for all those years, he decided it would be better for him to stay free and not owe anybody else a thing.
Then, one summer, there was Ava.
The best thing about Nantucket was that its allure drew people from all over the world. Jordan had grown up spending his summers with wealthy children from Manhattan, Boston, Washington, London, Paris, and Singapore. But he had never met anyone as bewitching as Ava Price.
She worked as a waitress at the Rope Walk. The first time Jordan saw her, she was wearing her uniform: Nantucket-red miniskirt, white T-shirt, white sneakers. She was bending over a table, clearing plates piled high with lobster carcasses. Her honey-blond hair was in one long braid down her back; she had a pencil tucked behind her ear. But what had gotten him was her accent. What American didn’t love a British accent? Which in Ava’s case was actually not British but Australian. Jordan didn’t learn this until later, though, when he saw her at the beach, playing volleyball in her string bikini. It was a Saturday, a day he took off from the paper, and he was at the beach with a bottle of wine and a book of Robert Bly poems. He placed himself advantageously. The volleyball landed on or near his towel no less than half a dozen times, and each time Ava came to fetch it with increasingly amused apologies.
She said, “Perhaps you should move your towel.”
He said, “Why would I want to do that?”
That was Ava Before: a twenty-three-year-old goddess from Perth, Australia, who had come to Nantucket for the summer because her father had read Moby-Dick out loud to her and her five siblings. It had taken them three years to finish it, she said. But as a result of that reading, Nantucket was the one place in the world she’d always wanted to visit.
Thank you, Herman Melville, Jordan thought when she told him that.
Ava Before was refreshing. She was intelligent and outspoken, she was a socialist in a good-natured Australian way, and she was an environmentalist before it was popular. She bought a secondhand ten-speed bike and rode everywhere with her straw bag tied to the back. She was a fierce volleyball player and a fearless swimmer—she had learned to swim when she was eighteen months old and happily took on waves Jordan wouldn’t even consider. She agreed to go on a date with Jordan, but she didn’t want anything serious, she said, because to her the idea of falling in love was about as attractive as the notion of having a piece of chewing gum stuck in her hair.
“Right,” Jordan said. “Good,” Jordan said. “I don’t want anything serious either,” Jordan said. “That’s the last thing I want.”
He took her to dinner at the Club Car, and to impress her he ordered the caviar, which was accompanied by a bottle of vodka encased in a block of ice. It cost seventy-five dollars, but it was worth every penny to watch Ava throw back shots of vodka and then grin at Jordan wickedly across the table. And then to have her, later, on top of him in the sand, kissing him, tasting of caviar. He took to picking her up on the nights when she didn’t have to work and driving her out to Madaket to watch the sun set. They drank wine, they opened clams and oysters she brought from the raw bar at work, they talked. Her life, his life. They had almost nothing in common. He had been raised extravagantly on a tiny island, she had been raised frugally on a giant island. He hated his father and pitied his mother; Ava adored her father and feared her mother. He liked poetry and short stories; she read big, sweeping novels like Moby-Dick and The Fountainhead. He was an only child; she came from a brood of six, with two sisters and three brothers. His experience growing up had been lonely and sheltered: hers had been rollicking and egalitarian. He had never been in love; she had been, once, with a man named Roger Polly, who was fifteen years older than she, a relationship that had ended badly.
Jordan was working full-time at the newspaper, as second in command under his father. Jordan hated everything about Rory Randolph, but he couldn’t bring himself to hate the paper. He had been bred to it. His father was itching to retire and buy a fishing boat in Islamorada. Jordan wanted his father to retire. There was no conflict where the paper was concerned; the handover was going to be seamless. Another year at the most, and then Jordan would be in charge. Did this impress Ava? He had thought it might, but she simply said she felt sorry for him because he was chained to this tiny island.
He took umbrage. “I’m not chained,” he said. Ava stuck around until Columbus Day. Then the Rope Walk closed, and it became too cold to spend the day at the beach, and Ava announced that she was going home.
By that point, she and Jordan were spending every night together in the garage apartment that Jordan was renting on Rugged Road. He had gotten used to sleeping with Ava’s long hair across his face; he had gotten used to her penchant for playing Crowded House while she took a shower. Jordan was reading The Fountainhead at her insistence. But now, when he finished, she would be gone. There would be no one for him to talk about it with. So what was the point? She packed up the things she’d been keeping at Jordan’s apartment, and he threw the book across the room. Their eyes locked. She frowned at him.
Now, twenty-one years later, he thought, What if I’d just let her go?
Ava returned to Perth and got a job waitressing at one of the seafood restaurants in Fremantle. She was saving up money to buy a boat, she said. She wanted to sail to Rottnest Island on the weekends. Jordan wrote her letters proclaiming his love, even though he knew it might be received badly. He called her on Sundays, when the rates were cheaper though still expensive.
He said, “I want you to come back.”
She said, “Why don’t you come here?”
He had no response to this. She laughed. “You can’t. Can you?”
He thought again now, What if I’d just let her go?
Jordan had taken a week’s vacation in the middle of March and traversed the globe to Perth, Australia. When he finally arrived, grungy and sleepless, at the cramped but charming bungalow on a tree-lined street on the banks of the Swan River—the childhood home of his beloved—Ava seemed more amused by his presence than overjoyed. She held him by the arm and introduced him to her siblings and her parents as though he were a curiosity at a traveling sideshow: “This is Jordan! He’s American!” It soon became clear to Jordan that none of the members of Ava’s family had ever heard his name mentioned before.
Ava’s father, Dr. Price, gave the impression of being a thoughtful man. He was nearly seventy; heavily bearded, he smelled like pipe smoke and seemed always to be carrying the Book of Common Prayer. Ava’s mother, whom everyone, including her own children, called Dearie, was an imposing, full-bosomed field marshal of a woman, with copper-colored hair pulled back so severely into a bun that it seemed to stretch her mouth into a grim, unsmiling line. Jordan didn’t like to think ungenerously of anyone, but there was no way around it: the woman was imperious and terrifying. She sniffed at Jordan in greeting. She crossed her arms over her mountainous chest and said to Ava, “I guess he’ll want a shower, then?”
Jordan said, “Hello, Mrs. Price. It’s nice to meet you.” He handed her the jar of Nantucket beachplum preserves that he’d painstakingly transported—wrapped up in his softest T-shirt—ten thousand miles. Dearie squinted at the label and, plainly presuming that the contents were poisonous, set it on the kitchen counter behind her. When Jordan, freshly showered and shaved, checked a little while later, the jar was gone. He suspected she’d thrown it away.
Jordan cornered Dr. Price on the second afternoon to ask for Ava’s hand in marriage. Dr. Price seemed confused, or possibly frightened, by the words Jordan was uttering. Jordan was making himself clear, right? (He was so woefully jet-lagged that the words sounded jumbled to his own ears.) “I want to marry your daughter. I want to live with her in America. I’d like your blessing to do so, sir.” Dr. Price clutched the Book of Common Prayer to his chest, and Jordan felt like some kind of demonic presence that the man was trying to fend off.
Dr. Price said, “Oh, well, I don’t know about that, son. You’ll have to ask her yourself.”
A couple of days later, Jordan chartered a sailboat with the last of his remaining money and proposed to Ava on the bow. He didn’t have a ring to give her, but he hoped that wouldn’t matter. If she said yes, he would buy a ring. He wanted to marry her. Would she marry him?
“Marry you?” Ava said. She looked as confused as her father, and perhaps a little bit horrified. “Are you moving here?”
Excerpted from Summerland by Elin Hilderbrand Copyright © 2012 by Elin Hilderbrand. Excerpted by permission.
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