The Best Man


Page 40


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The quiet of the night settled around him.
Faith's mother had been dead for twenty years. That was a long time to keep a secret.
The cookies would have to wait. Levi turned off the oven, grabbed his car keys and headed for the police station.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
THE DAY HER MOTHER had died had been utterly normal except that Faith had needed shoes.
Faith had always loved being the baby of the family. In exchange for all the fun things the rest of them had done before she was born or when she was tiny, it seemed only fair that she got special treatment. She knew her family viewed her as vaguely cute but somewhat useless. Mom still never asked her to start supper...only Honor could do that (and had been doing it for years, as her older sister liked to point out). Jack was in college learning how to make wine and already knew cool stuff like how to fix the harvester and clean the thresher. Prudence was a grown-up, married and everything.
So Faith got to be the cute one. Her parents' attention was spread thin, and Faith used it to get away with stuff...not being a straight-A student, for example, unlike her siblings. Not going to bed on time, because who really noticed? She didn't have to eat all her vegetables, because with four kids over seventeen years, her parents were a little weary of enforcing the rules.
Her epilepsy got her the kind of attention she didn't want-the panicky eyes from Dad, the short, sharp orders from Mom. She'd take some benign neglect any day.
But the day she needed shoes would be, she hoped, one of those rare and special times when she and Mom could do something, just the two of them, like those cloudy, lovely memories from when everyone else was in school, and Faith was her mom's little shadow. Maybe they'd stretch the day out, get some ice cream at the cute place on Market Street.
Instead, Mom had been in a mood. "Don't think you can try on every pair in the store, Faith," she said as they pulled into the parking lot. "I have a thousand things to do today. Why you couldn't have told me you needed these last week, when I had to come to this exact same place when Jack was home..."
And so Faith had ended up with a pair of not-bad sneakers, though she hadn't been one hundred percent sure she wanted those and not the cute Reeboks with the pink laces. No time for ice cream, just back in the car. "You can sit in the front, you know," Mom said, a trifle impatiently.
"That's okay," Faith said. She'd gotten in back automatically, accustomed to being low man on the totem pole when it came to the shotgun seat. It was a move that saved her life, the firefighters would say later.
But still, Faith had new sneakers. She always felt as if she could run faster in new sneakers, and gym was on Tuesday. Jessica Dunn was the fastest girl in their class and often made fun of the way Faith ran, and wouldn't it be nice to run faster than Jessica, just once? Not that it was possible, but still...just once.
"Make sure you see the world before you settle down, Faith," Mom said abruptly from the front seat. "I told Prudence the same thing, and did she listen? No. You get married young, and your options are severely limited."
Faith frowned. Why would her mother say something like that? Pru and Carl were so cute. Plus, Faith was an aunt already. Everyone at school had been jealous. Possibly even Jessica Dunn.
Mom glanced in the rearview mirror. "You should see the world when you still can. This is a huge country, though if you asked anyone in the Holland family, they'd probably tell you the earth falls into an abyss if you cross the county line."
"I love it here," Faith objected. She took a new shoe out of the box and stroked the pure white shoelace. Should've gotten pink. Or maybe not. Maybe pink was babyish.
"Yeah, well, you've never seen anywhere else, have you?" Mom asked. "There are other places worth seeing, too, you know. Pru would have to be dragged kicking and screaming off the vineyard, and your brother's already a lost cause, but you and Honor don't have to stay."
Mom's voice went on and on and on. And the thing was, Faith wanted to stay. Where else was better than home? She'd already been to New York City on a field trip just a month ago. Levi Cooper and Jessica had gotten caught kissing in the back of the bus, which was bad enough (Faith still played with dolls...kissing? Gross!). The city had been so loud and hot; Manningsport seemed like heaven when they got back.
"There are days when all I can do is think about how nice it'd be to live somewhere else. Wouldn't it be great to live in a city? Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, all these places I've never even seen. And what does your father do? He laughs when I talk about it." Mom's voice was inescapable. "That's why you should live a little before you settle down. You'll regret it otherwise."
Faith looked out the window. Daddy was perfect. He never seemed impatient or short. He always said Faith was his princess. And he loved Mom! He picked her flowers! Faith turned her eyes to the scenery outside, where black-and-white cows gazed placidly at their minivan. Leave here? Never.
Mom glanced in the rearview mirror. "It could be just us three," she said. "You, me and Honor. Girl power."
White-hot anger flashed like lightning. Oh, so now Mom was leaving? Fine! They'd be fine without her! And girl power? Is that what she called divorce?
"Why are you so quiet?" her mother asked, as if she didn't know.
Faith didn't look away from the fields. No, she didn't think she would answer at all. Mom could suck it up.
"Honey, are you okay?" Yeah, that's right. Call me honey, Faith thought. You should, after all that mean talk. From the corner of her eye, Faith saw Mom put a hand on the back of the passenger seat to turn around more fully. "Faith?"
Nope. Not gonna answer.
And then there was a slam, so loud it was like an explosion, and they were spinning, and the ground wasn't where it was supposed to be, and the noise, the screeching and crashing, they were tumbling so fast it felt like she was in a dryer, arms and legs flopping helplessly, the seat belt hurt, grinding into her shoulder, her new shoe hit her in the side of the face, and God, they were still rolling and bouncing, someone stop that horrible noise, the grinding and crunching, it was awful.
And then they stopped, and the noise stopped, too, except a hissing sound and someone's gasping little screams. She was dizzy, on an angle. There was a tree in the car with her, a chunk of the bark gouged out.
They'd been in an accident. That was it.
She was the one making the noise. Faith wrestled her mouth closed and stopped those awful little scream-gasps. Was she still in the backseat? Because the car didn't look like the car anymore, bent around her, torn upholstery, wires and broken glass everywhere. It was crushed around her; the place where her seat belt fastened hidden in twisted metal. She seemed to be on her side, and her chest hurt. She could move her legs, if not see her feet. The door handle was against the ground.
She couldn't get out, in other words.
"Mommy?" Her voice was weak and high. "Mommy?"
There was no answer.
"Mom? Are you okay?"
No answer. No sounds at all, not even moaning. "Oh, Mommy, please, please," she heard herself say, and suddenly she was shivering and damp and could smell pee. She'd wet herself.
There. There was her mother's hair, almost the same color as Faith's, a few feet in front of her face, just out of reach. Faith's fingers strained, but the car was trapping her. "Mommy," she whispered, and she didn't like the sound of her voice, not one bit.
Then she looked out the broken windshield, and there was her mother, standing in the field, completely unharmed, smiling and beautiful. Thank God.
"Mommy, get me out!" she called, trying to pull herself from the mess of the car, tugging on her seat belt strap.
"Don't worry, sweetie," her mother said. "You're fine. I love you!"
Then she blew Faith a kiss. Why was she so happy when they'd just been in an accident? Faith looked back at the hair in the front seat.
It was still there.
When she looked out the windshield again, the field was empty, and Faith understood in a sudden, wrenching tear.
Her mother was dead.
"Mommy," she cried, her voice so thin and ruined. "Oh, Mommy, I'm sorry."
She stopped trying to get out.
No one came to help. For a very long time, the only sound was the birds and the wind. Horribly, the clock on the dashboard still worked, so Faith was all too aware of the time that passed. Fifty-two minutes before someone called out, "Are you okay? Hello? Can you hear me?" She wasn't able to answer, because then she'd have to give the news that Mommy had died. Sixty-three minutes before she heard sirens in the distance. Sixty-eight minutes before Mr. Stoakes from the candy store appeared in the windshield, strange in his firefighter clothes, and said, "Oh, God, no. Oh, no," before he saw Faith looking at him.
Seventy-four minutes when they started cutting with the noisy tools, yelling reassuringly to her, their faces telling the true story.
A hundred and fifteen minutes before they lifted Faith out.
Two hours with her mother's body, two hours spent shivering and sobbing, fading in and out of shock. Two hours of whispering how sorry she was.
When she saw her father's face at the hospital, when she saw how old he'd become since morning, when he'd held her bruised hand, she told him she'd had a seizure and didn't remember anything.
Better for him to think that than to know his daughter was a murderer.
* * *
THREE O'CLOCK IN THE morning. The loneliest time, even with an eighty pound Golden retriever taking up two-thirds of the bed.
Since telling Levi, a strange, heavy fog seemed to be pressing on Faith's brain. For twenty years, she'd tried to avoid indulging in memories of her mother, feeling almost like she didn't deserve them. But tonight, images of her mother, good and bad, flickered through her brain like a faulty movie-Mom in the kitchen, ferociously scrubbing the sink after dinner, mad at someone. At bath time, when Faith was really small, laughing as she draped the face cloth on Faith's head. Chastising her over a teacher's comment about Faith being inattentive in class. Clapping for her as she rode her bike around the giant tree in the front yard for the first time. Sitting on the couch, reading to Honor, even though Honor could read by herself. Crying as she folded Jack's laundry before he left for college. Holding baby Ned in the hospital after he was born, her eyes so shiny as she smiled at Pru.
Kissing Dad in the back hall, then laughing, telling him he needed a shower.
Had Mom really been so unhappy? Had she really viewed her life as a mistake, filled with regret and bitterness?
It never seemed that way.
Suddenly, Blue leaped off the bed and raced out of the room. She heard his toenails clicking on the floor, then his bark. Feeling old and weary, Faith pushed the covers back and got out of bed.
A quiet knock came at the door.
It was Levi. "Got a second?" he asked, as if it wasn't the middle of the night.
She looked at him a long minute, then held the door open. He had a file and a laptop, but her brain felt too heavy to ask why.
"Have a seat," he said, turning on the light that hung over the table, making her squint.
She sat. "Would you like coffee or anything?" she asked, her voice odd to her own ears.
"No, thank you." How oddly formal they were being. He sat down, too, and put the folder on the table, then tapped it, looking at her solemnly. "This is your mother's accident report. It was in the storage place out on Route 54. Took me a little while to find it."
She glanced at it. "I don't...I don't want to look at that, Levi."
"You might." He looked at her, then ran his hand through his hair, frowning.
Blue put his head in her lap and wagged, and she petted his beautiful head, not looking at Levi.
"When you said you were responsible...why did you think that? The guy who hit you, Kevin Hart. He ran the stop sign. So why was the accident your fault?"
She looked at him, oddly wary. His gaze was steady, that slight frown creasing his forehead. "Because," she said, "my mother would've seen him coming if she hadn't been looking at me, and she could've stopped or swerved."
Mom would've swerved into the field, where the cows chewed so placidly. Constance would've cursed at the damage to the minivan, and by supper, it would've become a great story, and Faith could have told her part, about bouncing over the field, the cows scattering and mooing, and everyone would have laughed and patted her hand and not expected her to do anything for cleanup, because she'd had a scare, even though everything had turned out just fine.
It was a scenario she'd pictured ten thousand times. She had a dozen others that ended about the same way.
Levi nodded. "That's what I figured you thought. And it's a logical assumption." He paused. "You remember Chief Griggs?"
"Yes."
"He wasn't the most thorough guy."
She didn't say anything.
"I looked at the report, and it says, right here, mother distracted by sick child. But here's the thing. I'd bet that she could tell if you were really about to have a seizure or not. You ever think about that?"
Faith frowned. "No. I mean, you might be right about that, but...no, I'm pretty sure she thought I was."
"Well, I never could fool my mom, and I tried really hard. Anyway, even if she thought you were having a seizure, she'd know that she couldn't help you. There's nothing you can do for a person who's seizing, and you were buckled in, nice and safe. Right?"

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