The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 23

They had put down both rows of backseats, allowing Nickie to lie immediately behind them in the now spacious cargo area.

As Brian pulled away from her bungalow, Amy thought that she glimpsed Theresa’s small pale face at a window in Lottie Augustine’s house.

She said, “Wait, stop.”

Brian braked, but when Amy looked back, a curtain fell across the glass, and the face was gone.

After a hesitation, she said, “Nothing. Let’s go.”

Block after block, street after street, and up the freeway ramp, she kept checking the side mirror and leaning between the seats to get a better view through the tailgate window.

“No one’s following us,” he said.

“But she told you we’d be watched.”

“They don’t need to watch us now. They know we’re going to Santa Barbara. They can put a tail on us there.”

Rush hour had long passed. Northbound traffic remained heavy, but it moved fast, the freeway a loom ceaselessly weaving from the warp and woof of speeding vehicles a fabric of red and white light.

“Do you think, as bitter and troubled as she is, she really could manipulate some very wealthy man into this, and into marriage?”

“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “If he was unfortunate enough for their lives to intersect, Vanessa could turn him off his path and onto hers. It’s not just how she looks. She has an instinct for your weaknesses, for finding the buttons that open the door to your dark side.”

“You? Even young and stupid, as you described yourself then? I don’t think you have a dark side.”

“I think most of us do,” he disagreed. “Maybe all of us. And the most important thing we can ever do is keep the door shut to it, keep the door shut and locked tight.”

Chapter 45

Piggy can’t keep them out. They can keep her in, but she can’t keep them out.

She never knows when the door will open. This is scary.

Let not your heart be troubled.

Sometimes she hears footsteps. But sometimes they make no sound, like your shadow makes no sound when it runs down steps behind you, and they come in quick.

She must never be caught doing the thing she does sometimes, so whenever she is doing the Worst Thing She Can Do, she always listens really hard for the lock squeak.

She cleans up potato salad, all Mother’s mess. She bags trash. She washes dirty cleaning rags in her bathroom sink.

Then she goes to the door to listen. Voices. They are far away, maybe as far as the kitchen.

Mother and the man stay awake all through the dark. They sleep when the sun happens.

Doing the Worst Thing She Can Do is safer when they sleep. But right now she wants to do it so bad.

She wishes she had a window she could see out. Sometimes, they live where she can see sky.

Her windows have wood over them now. Sun comes through some cracks, but she can’t see out.

If she could see sky, she could wait to do the Worst Thing. Sky makes her feel better.

Sky is best when the dark comes out. It gets deeper. You can see then, and you think what Bear said.

She misses Bear. She misses him worse than all the windows there will ever be or never be. She will always miss Bear.

She will never forget him, never, the way she makes herself forget some things.

She likes moon. She likes stars. She likes shooting stars you can wish on.

If she could see a shooting star, she would wish for a window. But first she has to have a window to wish from.

Bear taught her how star wishing works. Bear knew everything. He wasn’t dumb like her.

Let not your heart be troubled, Piggy.

Bear said that a lot.

And he said All things work out for the best, hard as that is to believe.

You just have to wait. Wait for a sandwich without a dead bug or live worm or nail in it. You wait and sometimes a good sandwich comes. Wait for a window. Wait.

The kitchen voices are still kitchen voices, you can’t hear the words from this far. Maybe she is safe.

The big chair has a cushion. The cushion has a cover. The cover has a zipper.

Inside the cover, under the cushion, the Forever Shiny Thing is hidden.

Forever means all the days there are ever going to be, and then that many more. Bear explained it.

Forever means no start and no finish. Forever means every good thing can happen to you, every good thing you can think of, because there’s time for all of it.

If there’s time for every good thing you can think of to happen, is there time for every bad thing you can think of to happen?

She asked Bear her question, and he said no, it doesn’t work that way.

Piggy herself is forever. Bear said so.

As soon as she has the Forever Shiny Thing in her hand, Piggy feels better. She feels not alone.

Alone is better than with Mother and the man.

But alone is hard.

Alone is very hard.

Alone is mostly what she ever remembers. She didn’t know how bad alone was until Bear.

She had Bear, and then she didn’t, and after there was no more Bear, she knew for the first time how hard alone was.

She feels close to Bear when she holds the Forever Shiny Thing in her hand. She holds it now very tight.

Bear gave it to her. A secret. Mother can never know. If Mother finds out, she will get the Big Uglies.

Right here at the chair, where she can quick shove the Forever Shiny Thing into the cushion cover, Piggy does the Worst Thing She Can Do.

Maybe she will be caught, so she is scared. Then not scared.

The Worst Thing always makes her not scared. For a while.

She has to be careful about time. She is not good about time. Sometimes no time at all seems like a lot. Sometimes a lot of time goes by like nothing.

If she forgets about time, she will Drift Away, like she does, and then she’ll forget about listening for the lock squeak, too.

She is quiet for a while but says what is in her heart.

Always say what is in your heart, Piggy. That’s the best you can do.

She is done. She feels not so alone as before.

“Oh, Bear,” she says.

Now and then Piggy thinks if she says his name out loud, he’ll answer. He never does. She still tries sometimes.

Bear is dead. But he could still answer.

Bear is dead but Bear is forever, too.

He will always be with her. He promised.

No matter what happens, Piggy, I’ll always be with you.

Mother killed him. Piggy saw it happen.

Piggy wanted to be killed, too.

For a long time things were so bad. Very bad. Dark even when there was light.

The only thing that kept the dark back was the Forever Shiny Thing that was her secret.

Now, before shoving it inside the cushion cover, Piggy looks at it one more time.

Silver. Bear said it is made of silver.

It is a word, one of just a few words she can read when she sees it. The word hangs on a silver chain. The word is HOPE.

Chapter 46

They drove through an In-N-Out for cheeseburgers, fries, and soft drinks, and they ate on the road, paper napkins tucked in their shirt collars, more napkins layered on their laps.

Thrusting her head between the seats, licking her chops to take back the drool before it dripped, Nickie suckered Amy into giving her three morsels of hamburger and four fries. She withdrew her head and obediently settled down behind Amy’s seat when firmly told “No more, nada, no.”

Every road has romance, especially at night, and eating on the fly appeals to the delight in journeying that abides in the human heart. There is an illusion of safety in movement, the half-formed idea that the Fates cannot find us, that they stand on the doorstep of the place from which we recently departed, knocking to deliver a twist or turn that, while on rolling wheels, we will not have to receive.

This false but welcome dream of safety, coupled with the comfort of delicious unhealthy food, put Amy in a mood that made disclosure more imaginable than it would have been elsewhere.

When they had eaten and she had stuffed all their napkins and debris into the In-N-Out bag, she said, “I told you about being abandoned at the orphanage, about the adoption and cement truck and the orphanage again…but I never told you about my first dog.”

After the accident and the return to Mater Misericordiæ, she had been reduced by her experiences to frequent silences that concerned the nuns, to a poverty of smiles though previously she had been rich in them, and to a desire for distance from others.

One sunny afternoon in October, a month after her return, she had sneaked off alone to the farther end of the play yard from the church, abbey, school, and residence, the buildings that embraced Mater Misericordiæ’s quadrangle. The big play yard was on high land, and from it a meadow sloped gently to the valley where the town rose and the river ran and the highway receded.

She sat on the mown green grass just where it ended at the brow of the hill, beneath the spreading boughs of immense old oak trees. After a searing Indian summer, the tall grass of the descending meadow had faded to the color of the sunshine that had stolen the green from it.

The shadows of the oaks began to spill down the slope in early morning, but they seeped uphill once more as noon approached. By this hour, the shadows of other trees at the foot of the meadow steadily inked toward the crest.

Through the shadows, young Amy saw something golden coming, and then through the sunshine it ascended, red-gold in the white-gold grass. When she realized that it was a dog, she rose to her knees, and when she saw that it was limping, she stood.

In those days, she had never been in the company of canines, and she had been naturally wary of this animal. Because the dog limped, favoring its left hind leg, Amy’s wariness was tempered by sympathy that encouraged her not to retreat.

The poor thing was in miserable condition, its coat matted and filthy, as though it had been abandoned to fend for itself or as if it had been mistreated. Yet when it came to her, weary and weak and hurting, it smiled.

She didn’t know then that it was a golden retriever or that the lovers of the breed referred to this expression as the golden smile, which was easily offered and so different from the false smile of a dog merely panting.

When Amy reached out a hand to the golden, it did not growl or shy away, but instead took another step and licked her fingers in a manner that at once seemed to her to be a grateful kiss.

Halfway across the play yard, leading this four-legged foundling toward the orphanage residence, Amy encountered Sister Angelica, and then for a while there was much bustling about and excitement, with eager children streaming to the yard to see the wounded dog that Amy Harkinson had rescued from the meadow.

Sister Agnes Mary, the abbey’s infirmarian, arrived with a medical kit. She found a shard of glass embedded in one of the pads on the dog’s left hind foot, extracted it, and treated the wound with an antibiotic solution.

As bedraggled and dirty and flea-ridden and gaunt as the dog was, the children nevertheless were at once of the unanimous opinion that it should be given residence for life as the school mascot.

Mater Misericordiæ had never before enjoyed a mascot, and the sisters were not convinced that it was a good idea. Besides, being nuns and therefore responsible, they intended to attempt to locate the owner of the dog, though it wore no collar.

After assuring the gathered children that the pooch would not be sent to the pound, where it might eventually be put to death if not claimed, Sister Angelica chased everyone out of the yard to dinner in the refectory.

Amy lingered, tagging behind Sister Angelica and Sister Claire Marie as they, with a makeshift rope leash, led their new charge to the concrete work deck outside the laundry, behind the residence hall. There, they provided water for the dog to drink and devised solemn strategies for giving it a bath.

When Sister Claire Marie noticed Amy, she reminded her that she had been instructed to go to dinner. Reluctantly, Amy retreated.

Although the dog had made no comment on the departure of the other children, it began to whimper as Amy hesitantly walked away. Every time she looked over her shoulder, the dog was watching her, its head lifted, ears raised. She could hear its thin mewling even after she had turned the corner of the building.

Amy had eaten little of the food on her dinner tray when Sister Jacinta-who, because of her sweet high-pitched voice, was secretly called Sister Mouse by the children of Mater Misericordiæ-arrived in the refectory to bring her back to the deck outside the laundry.

The dog had not stopped whimpering since Amy had left. Because of their years of experience with the techniques of manipulation employed by cunning orphans, the nuns were not easy marks. But the dog’s mewling was of such a pathetic character that they could not harden their hearts to it.

Instantly upon Amy’s arrival, the dog quieted and smiled and wagged its tail.

Through the twilight and into the evening, a gaggle of sisters worked on the dog, cutting the terrible mats out of its coat, giving it two baths with shampoo and then a third bath with a flea-killing solution for which Father Leo had made an emergency trip into town.

When Amy strayed more than two steps from the dog, it whimpered, so eventually she participated in the grooming.

Because she was by then hopelessly smitten and desperate to find ways to tie the dog inextricably to Mater Misericordiæ, she decided that they must name it right there, right then, while it was still wet from the bath. Instinctively she knew that a dog with a name would work its way into the sisters’ hearts more quickly than would a nameless stray.

She announced that since Christmas was only a little more than two months away, the dog must be an early gift from Saint Nicholas, and therefore should be named for him. Sister Angelica informed her that this foundling was a girl, which set Amy off her stride only a moment before she said, “Then we’ll call her Nickie.”

Now, almost twenty-eight years later, behind the wheel of the Expedition, Brian glanced away from the road and said, “My God. The same name.”

Amy watched him think through the ramifications of this seeming coincidence, and though he returned his attention to the highway, she knew when a shiver of wonder went through him.

“There was a moment in the Brockmans’ kitchen last night,” Brian remembered, “right before you offered to buy Carl off. You’d been crouching beside the dog, and suddenly you stood up, staring at him so intently. You looked…I don’t know, not just startled, stricken, but I didn’t understand what it was.”

“He said her name. Janet hadn’t mentioned it on the phone to me. Right away, before any of the rest of this strangeness had happened, I knew the name wasn’t a coincidence. And don’t ask me how I knew or what I mean even now about what our Nickie is or why she’s here. But I knew…no coincidence. Then later, when I asked Janet why they decided to call the dog Nickie, she said Theresa named her.”

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