When the Torrent of That Time
Comes Pouring Back
©2005 The Angst Guy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2005 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: The lone survivor of a disastrous family vacation returns to Lawndale in January 2005, in this sequel to the Daria fanfic, “Nine Point Oh.”
Author's Notes: This story is rated R for language (f-word, etc.) and for graphic imagery that some readers might find disturbing.
This story is a sequel to “Nine Point Oh,” a description of what happens after the Griffin family’s vacation in Thailand is overtaken by cataclysm in late December 2004. Reading that story first is recommended, as it sets the tone for what is to come, but this story can be read independently of that one. “Nine Point Oh” was sparked by Thea Zara’s call for fanfic taking place on New Year’s Day, 2005, involving Dariaverse characters. This story uses character backgrounds from two of Thea Zara’s own stories in that collection, “New Year’s Under the Stars” and “Resolutions,” and Guy “Deceleraptor” Payne’s tale, “Gator Bowl.” A Daria graduation year of 2000 is assumed. Character ages were derived from The Daria Database, by Peggy Nicoll, and a transcript of the 1998 MTV Daria Day marathon at Outpost Daria (http://www.outpost-daria.com/)
This story’s title was taken from verses in the poem, “A Distance from the Sea,” by Weldon Kees, from The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees.
On the soundtrack from the movie Blade Runner, by Vangelis, the songs “Tales of the Future” and “Damask Rose” strongly reflect the emotional quality of the events in the following story, at least in my own mind. The words in “Tales of the Future” are neologisms, part of a fictional language.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Thea Zara for the original push to do “Nine Point Oh,” and for her critical brainstorming on character motivation and involvement regarding her two New Year’s stories. Guy Payne contributed unpublished notes on his story that helped this one, and he gets a bushel of thanks, too. Thanks also go out to beta readers Thea Zara, Sleepless Man, Deref, Mr. Orange, Steven Galloway, and et alia (a.k.a. Scissors McGillicutty) —and to James “Cincgreen” Bowman, for a valuable idea.
And, as before:
Aftershock: Friday, January 7, 2005
Subduction Zone: Saturday, January 8, 2005
Tectonic Event: Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Displacement/Deformation: Thursday, January 13, 2005
Transient Vibrations: Saturday, January 15th, 2005
Seismometer Readings: Sunday, January 16th, 2005
Hypocenter: Tuesday, January 18th, 2005
Mainshock: Thursday, January 20th, 2005
Tsunami: Sunday, January 30th, 2005
Friday, January 7, 2005
After a week exposed to the air of the tropics, a human corpse entangled in mud and debris becomes a gas-bloated, greenish-black, maggot-ridden caricature of itself. Digestive enzymes and bacteria liquefy the internal organs. The black tongue protrudes as fluid oozes from the corpse’s nose, mouth, and other orifices, and the thick stench of methane and hydrogen sulfide chokes everyone nearby. If the body is then wrapped in plastic and buried for four or five more days, the process of decay slows but continues. If the body is dug up and unwrapped after that, it will be unrecognizable, known only by its possessions. One doubts if even God would come near it.
When the white-garbed workmen were finished, Sandi Griffin carefully squatted beside the corpse that had been pulled from the mass grave and unwrapped before her. The descriptive tag on the body’s feet suggested it was the one she most sought. The discovery that one of the corpses hastily buried here had been incorrectly identified led to this particular mass grave being dug up by hand and its contents reexamined. A recovery worker read the tag and remembered a detailed missing-persons description from a flier posted on a have-you-seen-this-person wall. The body fit one of the two people named in the flier. The flier’s creator was summoned to make the final decision.
Though she wore a white facial mask with a pungent-smelling paste smeared under her nostrils, Sandi dared not inhale. She was weak from diarrhea and had lost her resistance to vile odors of any sort. Her gaze took in the corpse’s matted brown hair, decorated with sticks and wood splinters; the fouled green dress with colorful orchids printed on it; and the chips of red polish on what was left of the toenails. She tilted her head to see the left hand: a white-gold wedding ring. Her left hand reached for it, but her latex-gloved fingers stopped short, and withdrew.
“Mother, you?” asked a Thai workman behind her in halting English.
Sandi nodded but continued to stare at the body of Linda Griffin until she had to breathe in or pass out. She stood on wobbly legs, turned away, inhaled too soon—then tore the mask from her face and doubled over and vomited and vomited until she had nothing left inside her to get rid of. She fell to her knees, gasping and fighting the dry heaves, and silently begged God for death. She was ready to go, but she had no strength left to end it herself. Only if God killed her would her suffering end.
But there was no God at Khao Lak.
After she was helped to her feet and moved yards away to lean against a palm tree, the work foreman asked if she wanted her mother’s wedding ring. She almost refused, but after a long bout of coughing she nodded yes. He made her turn away, then two minutes later handed her something wrapped in a small red handkerchief. She did not ask how he got it off the body. It was better the ring went to her, she thought later, rather than into the pockets of grave-robbers she knew would be by in time. At that moment, she knew only that leaving the ring behind would be a mistake she would always regret, even if taking it was the last thing she wanted to do. She left immediately afterward.
Her mother went into a refrigerated truck for storage until DNA samples could be processed. At her daughter’s request, the body would later be interred in another mass grave, remaining as close as possible to the rest of the family at life’s end. Sandi did not stay to see the power shovels bury her mother a second time. She had already looked down at the white-wrapped bodies of her father and youngest brother, laid on top of an uncountable line of the dead in another long, backhoe-dug trench near the jungle, a distance from the sea. The deep trench had been covered over and the earth packed down by bulldozers a week earlier. Her middle brother Sam, like so many others caught in the Boxing Day tsunami, had not yet been found, and she knew he might never be.
It did not occur to her to hold out hope he was alive. In a way she could not articulate, she knew he would not come back again.
The evening after her mother was found, Sandi Griffin bought a ticket with all the Thai bhat she had been given as charity, then boarded an overloaded bus heading for Bangkok. She pressed her forehead to a dirty window as green jungle and people on foot passed before her uncaring gaze. She did not say goodbye to the other volunteers with whom she’d worked since December 26th, hunting for the living and the dead. She simply left. The ride was long and bumpy enough as to prevent sleep for longer than a few minutes at a time. There was nothing to do or see once it got dark. All she had left of her family was in a red handkerchief in her pocket.
The Griffins’ end-of-year vacation in Thailand was officially over.
Behind her, in Khao Lak, a handful of tourists and locals danced in a reopened discothèque surrounded by overturned cars and piles of broken lumber. The signs on the disco still said it was Christmas.
Saturday, January 8, 2005
Many people at the huge white American embassy in Bangkok already knew of Sandi Griffin. Some foreign volunteers at Khao Lak had cell phones and portable computers with e-mail, and several had made detailed blog entries on websites about their fellows, or phoned or e-mailed the embassy on her behalf. Sandi’s name had come up numerous times, with daily updates on her deteriorating health and her futile attempts to find her family alive. Her long and uncomplaining work at recovering the dead was often noted, as were her mounting sleep difficulties. There were even digital pictures of her: a dirty, bone-thin, unsmiling twenty-something brunette with slashed-off hair, sunburned skin, and salvaged clothes, reaching down to pull a corpse from under a mound of wreckage, or sitting listless in the evening with an empty water bottle dangling from her fingers. That she rarely wore a facial mask until late in her work made identification of her quite easy.
A young woman from the embassy staff met Sandi as she got off the bus and drove her to the compound, where she was fingerprinted and positively identified. Several reporters recognized her and called out questions she ignored. Two doctors saw her, cleaned up an infected cut on her right thigh, noted her wasting away from diarrhea, and immediately put her on heavy antibiotics and a clear-liquid diet, ordering her to rest. She refused hospitalization, wanting to go back to the States as soon as possible. Several women at the embassy let her take an hour-long shower, found dresses for her that fit her ravaged frame, and took her to a salon to fix her ruined hair.
The paperwork took hours, but it had to be done. Death and burial reports for her parents, Tom and Linda Griffin, and youngest sibling Chris were authenticated and processed. An affidavit that Sandi had survived and was eligible to receive her family’s remaining estate was filled out, though it repelled her to do it. A report on the status of the search for her middle brother Sam was completed, and his missing person report was updated. A report on the losses of material goods was completed, to the best of Sandi’s recollection of what had been brought on the trip. None of it remained but her mother’s ring. (Why didn’t you take your father’s wedding ring, too? she was asked. I didn’t think of it, she replied, and she wondered why she hadn’t.) Insurance companies were contacted, and paperwork sent by fax and Internet. She was photographed. A man later gave her a new passport, medical papers, copies of all important documents, a small amount of American money, and a used mystery novel that she took with her but did not read. The airline her parents had used for the trip issued her a return electronic ticket when she was identified, to be used at her leisure. A place was found at a hotel for her to sleep, though her dramatic sleep disturbances forced a quick relocation to a more secluded, soundproofed spot.
In the final interviews with her, representatives of the American and Thai governments expressed their gratitude for her unselfish work. Reporters kept their questions few and brief, but she responded with delayed shrugs to most. Do you know where your missing brother might have been that morning? Are you planning to return to look for him? Will you ever return to Thailand? How do you feel about losing your whole family? She could not think of a coherent answer to that one. What do you recall of the wave? She did not clearly remember what happened when the tsunami came in, only disconnected fragments of climbing to escape the all-consuming water. Men and women wept openly as she described how she had found her mother’s body, only to leave her behind. Strangers shook her hands, embraced her, and promised to keep looking for Sam. Keep your hopes up, they said. She nodded and swallowed, thinking the hope was ill placed. The hardest task, though, was to say thank you. She lowered her head and mouthed the words in silence, as if embarrassed. It reminded her of her complete dependence on the good will of others for survival.
The embassy staff had a significant stack of messages waiting for her before she left for the States. She did not read any of them then and only glanced through them once before folding them up and stuffing them in a colorful woven handbag she was given, a Thai-made handbag that held nothing else but her paperwork, the unread mystery novel, and a tiny black beaded coin purse that came with the handbag.
From the time she arrived at the embassy to the moment she was driven to the airport in an embassy staff car, three days after her arrival, she said less than a thousand words. She did not laugh or smile or cry, and she never once complained, which for her was truly unusual. She drank enough water to float a cabin cruiser, still fighting diarrhea.
In the car, she had a daydream and imagined that everything that had happened to her since the morning after Christmas was being hidden inside the little beaded coin purse inside her woven handbag, tucked away with her own two hands. She felt the daydream so strongly that she even opened her handbag and made a gesture of putting something into her coin purse, though her hands were empty. She then snapped the black coin purse shut, put it back in her handbag, and looked out the window at the traffic, too tired to sleep. Her escorts watched but said nothing. They did not understand, but they did not need or want to understand, and it made no difference, anyway.
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
The flight out of Bangkok to Baltimore/Washington International was scheduled to last almost twenty-nine hours, with stopovers and plane changes in Seoul and Chicago. When Sandi Griffin had left with her family on their end-of-year, between-semesters trip, she had brought along two large suitcases, a garment bag, an overstuffed carryon, and a shoulder purse. She returned with only her handbag and a small carryon case, another gift from someone at the embassy. The red handkerchief and its contents, repeatedly laundered, stayed in a pocket in her dress.
Flight attendants made sure she was seated near a restroom at the front of the plane, having been informed by the embassy of the nature of her illness, and they asked if she had taken her medications. A doctor at the embassy had given her a three-day supply of tricyclic antidepressants to alleviate her sleep difficulties and, with luck, reduce some of the more disturbing symptoms she was experiencing. Anything she asked for she was given, but she asked for nothing except cold fresh water, crackers—the only solid food she could tolerate—and the use of the bathroom. No one could give back the last two weeks, which was what she really wanted.
Somewhere over the South China Sea, she grew tired of wondering where she would stay when she got to Lawndale. She didn’t have a key to her parents’ home or to the family car in the BWI airport’s long-term lot. Maybe she could call a friend—but all her friends had long ago left Lawndale for less stultifying pastures. She wearily gave up worrying about it, became restless, and finally opened her handbag. Inside were the messages given her by the embassy staff. The messages had been sorted and paper-clipped together in chronological order. She pulled them out and began to read.
The first was a telegram to the embassy dated Monday, December 27th (Bangkok time), from a Stacy McCubbins: SANDI PLEASE CALL ME ASAP STOP HOPE YOU ARE OKAY FROM THE TIDAL WAVES IF THEY WERE THERE STOP I AM STACY ROWE BUT MARRIED STOP CALL ME STOP. Hyper-alert as ever, Sandi thought, though she was grateful. Once a good friend, Stacy had not written in ages after going off to college in Virginia. On the following day came another telegram from Stacy, more urgently worded, and two e-mails printed out in tiny type, sent to the embassy staff from one of her sorority sisters at Middleton College. The girl inquired about Sandi and her family. Sandi made a mental note to call both girls soon.
There was more, however. A handwritten page of notes showed that Sandi’s rarely seen uncles, aunts, and cousins (and Stacy, too) began calling the embassy after Tuesday to ask for information, as did her mother’s co-workers at KSBC-TV and her father’s boss at Taxes ‘N Stuff of Lawndale. Wednesday included a spate of e-mails not only from Stacy, but also from Sandi’s sorority pals and classmates at Middleton, and from classmates of her two brothers at Lawndale High School. Sam had been a senior and Chris a sophomore. On Thursday and Friday came twenty-seven more e-mails, most from a highly emotional junior at Lawndale named Rachel Landon, who appeared to have been Sam’s steady girlfriend. The e-mails, except those from Rachel, faded out after Friday, and Sandi wondered why until she remembered that Saturday had been New Year’s Day. News of Khao Lak’s near-complete destruction was circulating by then, too.
Then came a huge jump in phone calls and e-mails from Monday, January 3rd, and onward. It became clear in skimming the texts that Sandi’s image and story had appeared on the Internet and had been rebroadcast by KSBC-TV in Lawndale. Everyone who had previously contacted the embassy wrote again, but except for Rachel they wrote only to Sandi, offering sorrow, sympathy, and prayers. Everyone asked if he or she could do anything at all to help, like buy her a plane ticket home.
Sandi vaguely recalled other recovery volunteers trying to tell her that she had messages waiting for her at the American embassy. There had even been offers to show her the e-mails on portable computers, but she had not been interested. She had been too focused on finding her family. Nothing else had been important, though the offers were of minor comfort.
She flipped a page and saw a familiar name at the bottom of an e-mail from the past Monday: Quinn Morgendorffer. Quinn, Stacy, and another girl named Tiffany had once belonged to Sandi’s exclusive Fashion Club in high school. Sandi had kept in regular touch with Quinn over the following years, far more than she had with anyone else, even her parents. She felt it was strange how being apart had caused the two to grow even closer. Perhaps it was because they no longer competed for power, attention, and boyfriends, so the less likeable aspects of their personalities no longer conflicted. Perhaps they had both simply grown up.
Sandi’s gaze traveled up the page. Quinn’s message read much like the others, a mixture of shock and horror, with prayers for her safety and pleas for her to come back to the States at once. Why had it taken so long for Quinn to find out what happened? Quinn could be a bit scatterbrained, true, like her mother and father. Sandi then recalled that she had not been clear about the family’s destination when she had last written to Quinn. She had wanted to surprise her redheaded friend later with exotic photos from the trip, a Sandi sort of way of rubbing it in that she had been in a very cool place and Quinn had not.
Quinn, though, had obviously been in a much better place than Sandi.
Tell me when you plan to arrive, read the end of the message, and I swear I will meet you at the airport with anything you need. Mom and Dad say you can stay at the house with us until things get sorted out. I don’t have to go back to Brown U right away. Tom will do all he can to help, too (have news but it can wait). Please just get on a plane and fly back to us as quickly as you can. I love you and cannot wait to see you. You are my best friend ever. Love, Quinn.
Sandi’s gaze lingered over the phrase, “have news but it can wait.” She’s getting married to Tom Sloane. That’s good, sort of figured that was coming. Wonder if he’s still got that faithless streak, like when she told me he dumped that artist girl for Quinn’s older sister, then got dumped in return. Amazing that Quinn went for him, but love is funny like that. Well, even if he cheats on her, she’s smart enough to get a good pre-nup, and she’ll collect half of everything he’s got. You can’t beat that. She sighed, feeling a bit like her old self, and flipped through the rest of the messages. It was more of the same except from Rachel Landon, who wrote to Sam nonstop and pleaded with Sandi to keep looking for him. Sandi shook her head as she read. Rachel had attached numerous high-res digital photos to her messages for use in finding him, pictures of Sam around Lawndale in regular clothes or his football outfit. He looked so huge in his Lawndale Lions gear, the most feared lineman in recent memory yet always smiling or laughing.
Strange, she thought, how he looks so big, but I keep thinking he’s small, as small as he was before I left for college. I so rarely came home afterward. Every time someone found a dead child in the ruins, I thought it might be Sam, but he was almost six feet tall when we went to Khao Lak. He called me his “little sister.” Could I have looked right at his body and missed him because he looked too large to be Sam? She sighed, a sad anxiety building inside her. Rachel’s pleas were pointless, she knew. Sam could not have survived. Thousands at Khao Lak had been crushed or drowned under falling buildings and meters of debris-choked water. If he had survived, he would have tried to find the rest of the family just as she had, but he hadn’t. It was simple: Sam Griffin was dead, like their brother Chris and . . . their parents.
Her parents were dead.
I’m an orphan now.
The realization stunned her into motionlessness for ages of time, there in the aisle seat at the front of a jumbo jet next to a restroom, with a sheaf of papers in her trembling hands. I’m an orphan. I’m all that’s left. I’m all there is of our family. She had a crazy, unfunny picture of her as a little girl wearing a red dress, like Little Orphan Annie, living in a cold, barracks-like orphanage with unlit windows. I’m an orphan. I have no one left. I’m an orphan and there is no one left but me, no one—
She jammed the messages into her handbag and unfastened her lap belt and struggled to her feet. A flight attendant saw her and hurried over to help, but Sandi got into the vacant restroom first and locked the door. She sat down on the closed toilet and clamped her hands over her mouth to stifle her weeping. I am at the bottom of my life, she thought. This cannot possibly get any worse. It just can’t.
The flight attendant talked Sandi into getting out of the restroom again after twenty minutes. By then, however, she had pushed all the bad stuff back down into her mental coin purse and locked it away. She did not want it to get out again, ever.
Hours later, the aircraft landed in cloudy, bleak, freezing Seoul. Sandi Griffin walked the length of the airport and back before her next flight began boarding, but the sheer willpower that had kept her going for almost two weeks at Khao Lak disappeared as soon as she got on the plane. She sank into her seat with the curious sensation that she was falling into an infinitely deep abyss. Exhausted, she dozed off halfway across the North Pacific Ocean on the way to Chicago O’Hare. She slept peacefully for fifty-one minutes, eighteen seconds. Then she began screaming.
A medical doctor on the same flight sedated her with a ketamine injection in her right thigh, as two flight attendants and a passenger fought to hold her down. The flight was diverted to Hawaii. One day later, she checked out of Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, begged the airline for one more chance, and was finally allowed to continue home on a flight routed through Denver. She swallowed two 200 milligram caffeine pills before boarding, took two more in Denver, and slept not a wink.
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Her plane landed at Baltimore/Washington International on a dreary, overcast Thursday evening. Prolonged rain was expected within hours. Traveling without sleep or solid food since she’d left Hawaii, Sandi felt she was having an out-of-body experience and had trouble focusing on her surroundings. She sat at the front of the cabin in first class, rocking slowly in her seat from side to side as two flight attendants watched.
When the door was opened, she was helped off the plane and put into a wheelchair with her few belongings and her medical papers in a folder for quick access. A burly male airline employee then pushed her up the passenger ramp to the terminal, with a male flight attendant as an extra escort. The colorful terminal interior was like a half-remembered dream. Shops and kiosks passed, and crowds of people stepped out of the way as they went.
“You have some folks waiting to see you, just past the security checkpoint,” said the man pushing her wheelchair.
“Okay,” Sandi said. After a pause, she added, “Who?”
“I’ll call ahead,” said the flight attendant. He raised his walkie-talkie and spoke a few words. When the reply came back, Sandi heard the name Morgendorffer.
“Wait,” she said suddenly, sitting up. “Wait a minute. Help me up.”
“It’s better if you stay seated, miss,” said the burly man pushing her.
“No, let me up. I can’t—I can’t let her see me like this. Please. Let me get up.”
The flight attendant and wheelchair pusher exchanged looks, then reluctantly let her get up. Sandi allowed the flight attendant to walk beside her, with one hand supporting her elbow for guidance. Her luggage was placed on the wheelchair.
The way seemed long, much longer than it had been when she’d walked it the first time with her family on the way out. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead. When they rounded a curve in the hallway, Sandi saw the tables and conveyor belts of the security checkpoint, then the milling crowd standing beyond. Camera crews and reporters from the local TV stations were present, too, aiming bright lights at her. Someone in the crowd gasped aloud and cried, “Sandi? Sandi!”
“Ma’am!” called a security guard. “Hey! Please stay behind the barrier!”
Sandi saw a thin, stylish figure with waist-length orange-peel hair waving her arms and striding forward. Sandi turned to head for her, lifting her chin to look as if she were still in charge. She managed a few steps more, then spots appeared in her vision. Light-headed, she found her feet traveling in the wrong direction. Things began to spin.
“Watch it!” the flight attendant shouted, and he tried to hold her up by her elbow. Sirens abruptly howled all around, then someone wrapped long arms around her chest and held her tight, keeping her up as her legs went out from under her.
“I’ve got her!” Quinn Morgendorffer yelled, almost in her ear. “Get that stuff out of the wheelchair! I’ve got her!”
The sirens stopped howling. “You can’t run past the barrier like that!” the security guard shouted. “Everything goes off when you do! Everyone, please stay back!”
“Help me get her down! Help her down—”
Sandi woke up. Everything still spun around her. Rolling her head from one side to the other, she found that she was back in the wheelchair, her senses numbed. She seemed to be in a small, bright room with several other people.
“Sandi?” said Quinn’s voice. “Sandi, are you okay now? We’re going to call an ambulance.”
Sandi shook her head and mouthed no. She inhaled and shook her head and said in a louder tone, “Nnnooo.” She thought she sounded like a cow mooing.
“Mom? Wait, don’t call yet. She’s coming to.”
Helen Morgendorffer, Quinn’s corporate-lawyer mother, swam into view. She stood next to an airport security guard, a cell phone pressed to her ear. Sandi focused on Helen and smiled. She’s coloring her gray hair, just like Mom. How funny.
“She may need special attention, Quinn,” said Helen, eyeing Sandi in return. “We can’t take her home like this.”
“Well, let’s see what the airport’s medic says when she gets here. Sandi?”
Sandi turned her head and focused on her best friend, who knelt in front of her. Quinn was still the cutest girl in existence—or the cutest twenty-something, anyway. At least I’m second best, she thought. At least I’ve got that. She yawned.
“Sandi?” Quinn repeated. “We’re going to take you home with us. Daddy’s bringing the car around and we’re taking you back to our place. We’re going to put you in my room, okay?”
Sandi nodded and yawned again. She was too weak to care.
An African-American woman in a dark uniform came into the room. She knelt by Sandi’s side, talked to her, took her pulse and blood pressure and temperature, flashed a light in her eyes, then read some of Sandi’s medical paperwork.
“Well, she’s conscious but not really with it,” said the medic. “Don’t let her walk anywhere unaided. You should get her in to see a doctor as soon as possible. It says she’s recovering from bacterial and possibly viral diarrhea. She’s lost a lot of body fluid. Look at her eyes and cheeks, sunk in like that. She’s also got an infected cut on her right thigh that needs to be checked. She should stay in bed for a few days. Follow the instructions on this page, right here, when you give her her medication, assuming she’s still got it with her. Keep this with her meds.” The medic paused, still reading. “It says here she’s got night terrors. See this?”
“Night terrors?” interrupted Quinn’s mother, leaning over to read the page.
“What’s that mean?” said Quinn, her voice strained. Sandi tried to focus on her best friend, but Quinn’s image would not stay in one place.
“It means she’s having something like nightmares,” said the medic. “She’s been screaming in her sleep since . . . since at least two weeks ago. She looks like she’s awake when she’s doing it, ‘cause her eyes are open, but she’s not conscious. She doesn’t know she’s doing it. The doctor who wrote this out . . . oh, this is from Honolulu.” A pause, more reading and shuffling of papers. “Two days ago, she was taken off a jet coming in from Seoul because she was screaming and fighting the flight attendants, but she was asleep when she was doing it. They had her in a hospital in Hawaii for about a day, then she signed herself out. That was yesterday.”
“Yeah,” said Quinn, shaken. “We thought she’d be here two days ago, but she—”
“I don’t know too much about night terrors, but you should keep an eye on her if she goes eventually home with you. Was she in Thailand? This paperwork is from Bangkok. Oh, was she in that tidal wave that was on the news?”
“Yes, yes she was. Her fam—she had a really bad time there.”
“That’s probably it, from the trauma. That’d give me nightmares, too. Look, my advice is to get her in to see a doctor as soon as you can. If you can’t do it tonight, do it as soon as you can in the morning and let someone read all this and sort it out. She’s got paperwork from all over. Bangkok, Honolulu—wait, look. She’s on psychotropic meds, too. Right here. Someone in Thailand gave her this on account of her sleep problems, the night terrors. Man, she’s got all kind of stuff here. You need to get this sorted out with a doctor as soon as you can. She needs to be looked at in an E.R.”
Helen called an ambulance for transport to Cedars of Lawndale Hospital. Quinn talked the medics into letting her ride in the back with Sandi, holding her hand, while her parents followed in their own car.
“Sleepy,” muttered Sandi, her eyes half open. The ambulance gently rocked back and forth. Quinn’s hand felt warm.
“You’ll be okay,” said Quinn. “I’ll take care of you.”
“I can’t—” yawn “—fall asleep.”
“It’s okay. You’re back home now.”
That’s nice, she thought. I’m home. Everything will be okay.
After more paperwork and insurance discussions, they waited in the Cedars of Lawndale ER in a dim side room. Sandi was settled back on a semi-comfortable gurney and covered with a sheet. Quinn pulled up a chair and sat by her side, while her parents stayed in the waiting room to watch TV. Sandi yawned, saw Quinn was reading a fashion magazine, and then closed her eyes and stopped trying to stay awake. She was tired of waiting for doctors. They always made her wait. So sleepy . . .
Bright light stabbed her eyes. Two people had her arms pinned, and more were trying to force down her legs. “Watch it!” a man shouted. “Watch her feet!”
“What’s wrong with her?” Quinn’s voice was high and frightened. “What happened to her? Is she okay? She just started screaming—”
“Can someone get her out of here?”
“Here, go on back to the waiting room, hon. She’ll be okay. We’ll—”
Quinn wailed in the background. “She really scared me! She just—”
“She’s slowing down.”
“I think she’s coming out of it. Sandi? Sandi, can you hear me?”
Sandi tried to catch her breath, cold sweat running down her face. An unfamiliar man leaned over her. “Sandi, it’s okay! Calm down, okay? I’m a nurse. It’s all right. We can’t let go of you until you calm down. You’ve had a bad dream. You’re at Cedars of Lawndale’s emergency room. You remember coming here from the airport? Relax, okay? Try to relax. Listen, we’re going to give you a shot of something that will help you sleep. You won’t have—Sandi, don’t fight me! Don’t fight me! There you go. Okay, we’re going to keep holding you until you go to sleep, so you won’t hurt yourself. That doctor over there, she’s going to give you a shot, and you’re going to sleep. It might sting . . . okay, good girl. Relax, Sandi. We’re trying to help you. You’re going to feel real good in just a minute. Real good.”
“Quinn,” she rasped. Her voice was so hoarse, it hurt to speak. “Quinn.”
“Your friend’s waiting for you outside, all right? Once we get you stabilized, she can come see you in your room, and when you’re rested up, you can go home. You need to sleep first. You feeling good yet?”
Sandi nodded, relaxing all over. She was feeling good. She floated away and—
Saturday, January 15th, 2005
The Morgendorffers’ SUV pulled into their driveway just after 10 a.m. on a cold, overcast Saturday. Jake beeped the horn before he got out, without explaining why. He then got Sandi’s bags, as Helen took all the paperwork and Quinn had Sandi put her arms around her shoulders and walked her to the door.
Daria, Quinn’s older sister, came to the door and held it open. She looked much as Sandi remembered her, though a bit disheveled. Daria unconsciously ran a hand over her long brown hair as her parents came inside. The older Morgendorffers did not look Daria in the face. In the background, flushed and looking ill at ease, was Daria’s best friend from high school, Jane Lane. The air had a slightly funky aroma. As Sandi was helped inside, she glanced from one young woman to the other—and noticed Jane was not wearing her trademark red lipstick. There had been a time when Jane was never seen without it. Instinct said that something was up. Daria and Jane were hiding something. In fact, everyone but Sandi was hiding something, likely the same something.
And it all fell into place.
I knew it, Sandi thought as Quinn led her to the family room. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I was right. And everyone else has finally figured it out and that’s why her dad beeped the horn, so there were no surprises when we came in, and why Jane won’t wear lipstick so she won’t leave evidence behind, and it’s driving the family nuts—and they won’t tell me. They’ll never tell me, but I already knew.
“I’m okay,” said Sandi, letting go of Quinn. “I’ll—” The long sofa looked like two people had been wrestling on the pillows “—sit on the loveseat.” Thank God for this. I could use some entertainment. She lowered herself to the loveseat and sank back with a long sigh. And thank God I don’t have the runs anymore. I hope. I practically look like a skeleton, like that stupid urban legend about the Rattling Girl.
“Sandi?” called Jake. “I’ll take your things up to Quinn’s room, okay?”
Sandi nodded her thanks, though she grimaced. Her mouth had had a bad taste in it since she’d awakened. She figured it was from either her medication or screaming in her sleep, or both.
“Can I get you anything?” After a moment, Sandi looked up and realized that Daria was speaking to her. It was the first time she ever recalled Daria offering to get her something.
“Oh . . . uh, water, please. Small glass. Thank you.”
“Okay,” said Daria, and she left for the kitchen.
Jane cleared her throat. “Um, Quinn?” she said. “Tom called.”
“Okay.” Quinn was taking Sandi’s shoes off and did not look at Jane. “I’ll get back to him in a minute. Did he say what it was about?”
“No.” Jane seemed more uncomfortable and began to drift toward the kitchen.
“Jane,” said Helen, hanging up her coat, “if you don’t mind, we’ll need some time to ourselves—”
“Sure,” Jane interrupted. “I’m . . . I was just leaving.” She then did an amazing thing. She waved at Sandi, looking a little embarrassed as she did. “Hey,” she said. “It’s good to see you back.”
“It’s good to see you, too,” Sandi replied, wiping her face with the back of her hand. Jane actually greeted me? And Daria’s coming back into the room with a drink at my request? “I’m sorry I’m not more presentable,” she added. “I could use a shower.”
Daria handed the water glass to Sandi as Jane swallowed and spoke. “I was . . . very sorry to hear about your family. If there’s—”
“Jane,” said Helen softly.
“Okay.” Jane turned to Daria. “I’ll call later.”
“Maybe not tonight,” said Helen with an edge in her voice. “We have a lot—”
“She’ll call if she wants to,” said Daria flatly. She turned to stare at her mother.
“Hey,” said Quinn, looking worried, “let’s not do this right now, okay?”
Jake shook his head with an annoyed, tired look and walked into the kitchen, tossing his car keys on the counter.
“Daria,” whispered Jane, “don’t—”
“She’ll call if she wants to,” Daria repeated, almost glaring at Helen.
Helen’s face turned to steel. “Young lady—” she began.
“You know what’s funny?” Sandi interrupted, and the room grew instantly quiet. She leaned forward and carefully sat the half-empty glass on the carpet by her feet, then straightened. “This is almost like having my family back again,” she finished.
Everyone stared at Sandi, their faces drained of color.
“Bye,” said Jane, touching Daria on the arm before she walked out the front door. She closed it quietly behind her.
Quinn hid her expression from Sandi for a moment, then dropped her hand and blew out a weary breath. “Sandi, I’ll go get the bed ready,” she said as she stood up. “You can take a nap whenever you want.”
“I’d appreciate that. A nap might be a good idea.” Sandi watched Quinn go. Helen also left, walking into the kitchen after her husband Jake.
Only Daria remained. She looked around, obviously intending to escape, but saw no one else was present to be with Sandi. Exhaling, she walked over and sat down on the sofa. “Sorry about that,” she said in an undertone.
The sound of a door shutting came from the kitchen, followed by silence. Sandi knew Helen and Jake had just gone into the garage to talk.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” said Sandi. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been better,” Daria replied, looking irked.
“Me, too,” said Sandi. Daria winced, regretting her choice of words. “How are you and Jane doing in Boston?” Sandi continued. “Are you still living there?”
“We’re still there.” Daria’s tone was sullen. “We’re in our first year of graduate school, Boston University. I graduated Raft last year and she graduated Boston Fine Arts College. At least now we’re on the same campus.”
Sandi nodded. “Doing well together?”
“What?” Daria looked surprised. “Jane and I? Uh, yeah. We’re okay.”
Sandi picked up her glass. “Good. It’s good to have a friend around.”
Daria looked at Sandi, a response on her lips—but she turned away.
“Are your parents talking about you?” asked Sandi, pointing to the kitchen. It was none of her business, she knew, but talking about this meant no one could start asking about Sandi’s life, which was the whole point.
Daria looked back, making a face. “Yes.”
“When did they find out?”
“Find out?” Daria frowned. “Did Quinn say something?”
“She’s said nothing to me about anything,” said Sandi softly. “I sort of figured it out on my own.”
“Figured out what?”
“That you and Jane were a couple.”
Daria looked irked, but then she sighed and visibly gave up. “Yeah. We told everyone on New Year’s Day. It didn’t go over well, not like Quinn’s announcement.”
“That she’s getting married to Tom?”
“Are you two getting married, too?”
A shake of the head, but only a small one. “We haven’t talked about it. We’re still feeling things out.”
Sandi almost smiled. “So to speak.”
Daria caught it and rolled her eyes.
“This been going on since high school?”
“Um . . .” Daria looked as if she was going to get up and flee the room, but held herself back at the last moment. “No. We just, um, started, uh, going together.”
“Took long enough.” Sandi watched Daria’s discomfort a moment more, then decided to speak her mind in full. “Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way,” she said. “If this is what you both want, go for it.”
“What?” said Daria.
“If you care about her, if you care about anyone, go with it. Give it everything you have. What other people think is not important, not so much as that.”
Daria looked at Sandi in disbelief.
“I’m serious,” said Sandi. “I really thought I’d see my family again. I walked off one morning to go shopping, and that was it. I really thought I’d . . . see them.” She paused, looking at something that was not in the room. “I guess I did see them, later, but not as I’d wanted.” She looked back at Daria. “Don’t let that happen.”
After a stunned moment, Daria said, “Okay.”
Footsteps sounded in the upstairs hall, heading for the stairs.
“It wasn’t any of my business,” said Sandi. “Sorry for that. I just . . . wanted to wish you good luck.”
“Thank you.” Daria appeared drained of conversation. “I’ll—”
“Hey,” said Quinn, waltzing in with a toss of her hair. “Everything okay here?”
“As much as can be,” said Sandi, looking up. She was feeling more like her old self all the time—so long as no one probed too deeply under the surface. “So,” she said with forced brightness, “You said that you had some news? About you and Tom?”
Sunday, January 16th, 2005
Sandi slept a great deal that Saturday, under the influence of antidepressants. She did not scream at night, though Quinn woke up several times to the sound of sobs and moans. She got off the inflatable, hideaway bed to check on her friend, sleeping in Quinn’s own bed, but Sandi did not respond to questions, noises, or moderate amounts of light. There was nothing else to do, so Quinn checked her e-mail and read magazine articles until Sandi’s bad moments passed and sleep was possible again.
During one of these late-night interruptions, Quinn put her hand next to Sandi’s and noted how little flesh was on the latter. Both young women were five-foot-eight, Sandi at twenty-three and Quinn at twenty-one, but Sandi was barely over a hundred and ten pounds and still not eating well.
Cabin fever took its toll the next day. Feeling stronger and surer of her ability to get around without fainting or rushing off to a bathroom, Sandi talked Quinn into a quick trip to Lawndale Mall, just to get out.
“I liked it better when it was Cranberry Commons and it looked like it was supposed to: a shopping center and not a junkyard,” said Sandi. She squinted upward. “A hanging black-and-white TV set? When did they put in all this fifties art deco stuff?”
“Mom said two years ago.” Quinn slowed, looking into a shoe store, then moved on. “Those ceiling decorations, I swear, it’s like they forgot to put in the tiles and just left the wires and pipes hanging there. Maybe they ran out of money to finish the construction and just said it was supposed to look like that.”
“I could believe that.” Sandi paused, looking into an imports shop. She stopped, lowering her vanilla milkshake (small, the only size Quinn could talk her into getting), and pointed. “That’s interesting. There was a hotel in Khao Lak that had rattan furniture just like that, down the beach from our bungalow.”
Quinn glanced at Sandi with concern, but her friend seemed calm enough. “It had an outdoor patio, like with a snack bar,” Sandi continued with a distant look on her face. “A lot of the Europeans liked it. I used to go over there to flirt with the guys. There were a couple of cute ones. I remember one of them, Swedish I think, took pictures of me hanging out with . . .” She stared at the furniture and breathed, then looked away and moved on with a shrug.
Quinn cleared her throat. “Did any of them survive?”
A shake of the head. “Not that I know. I saw two of them later, on the beach.”
“You did? I thought you said they—”
“They were dead,” said Sandi, looking ahead down the mall corridor. “They were laid out in a row so relatives could claim them. One of them was almost next to my dad. This was about three, four days after, something like that. I identified them, and then I had to, to—” She waved a hand “—to give a disposition for my dad and sign some stuff, but I don’t know if anyone got the other guys.”
“Do you mean you gave a deposition?” asked Quinn.
“No, they wanted a disposition,” Sandi said in a quiet voice. “For burial there or back here. I said there, didn’t see that it really mattered. Dad and Chris were buried in a mass grave about two kilometers back from the coast. I didn’t find Mom until about a week after New Year’s. They’d already buried her and then had to dig her up again because of paperwork screw ups. It was lucky they did, or I’d have never found her.”
As they walked past a garbage can, Quinn dropped her milkshake into it, the contents untouched. Sandi raised her own shake and took a long drink through the straw.
“Did Tom come over last night while I was asleep?” asked Sandi when she lowered her drink.
“What? Oh, yeah. We went out for a couple hours. He’s got to go back to Bromwell on Monday latest. I’m heading back to Brown the Saturday or Sunday after.”
“Isn’t that a little late?”
“I okayed it with the school, no prob. I’d rather hang around with you for a while, anyway.”
Sandi wondered if Tom had anyone on the side at Bromwell. “Thanks. How often do you and Prince Charming get to see each other?”
“Oh, not as often as I’d like. Weekends, mostly. His folks are just the sweetest. You’d love his sister, Elsie. I want you to meet them when . . . whenever we can work it out. Um, have you thought about going back to Middleton?”
“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know if I will.” Sandi stopped at a clothing store window, peering inside, then wandered in, Quinn behind her. “This place is new. I can’t go back to Middy right now, anyway. There’s too much to sort out. Your mom said I could get back into my parents’ house on Tuesday, after she and I go through some legal papers and see somebody downtown. Because they haven’t found Sam, I can get only part of the inheritance and insurance money, but it’ll be enough to get me through. I’m glad your mom’s helping me with the legal stuff. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“She’s helped me out, too. She fixed a traffic ticket for me. Double parking.”
Sandi tsk’ed as she sorted through a stack of slacks on a sale table. “Someone got these pants in the wrong piles,” she said. “All the sizes are screwed up.” She inhaled the rest of her shake and looked around for a waste can. A store clerk saw her and took the empty cup away.
“Helpful, aren’t they?” Sandi remarked. She pulled a pair of dark green pants from the pile and held them against her, looking down. “I don’t know if I’d fit into these anymore. What is this color? Lichen, eww. Well, what’s in a name. Is there a changing room?” She gave an empty laugh. “Forgot, no money. Never mind, we’ll do this later.”
“Why? Oh, wait—let me get these for you, okay? My treat. Here, try those on.”
“No, I can come back after I get the estate sorted out. I owe so many people so much for everything they’ve done, I just can’t—”
Quinn was adamant. Ten minutes later, Quinn sat in a changing room as Sandi prepared to try on an assortment of pants and blouses. “Only one of each,” Sandi warned, “and it’s my treat next time.”
“Sure thing,” said Quinn. Her breathing slowed as Sandi undressed. Her friend’s arms and legs were stick thin. A large bandage was still wrapped around her right thigh, and minor scars and scrapes crisscrossed all of her once-smooth, tanned skin. “I never thought I’d say this,” Quinn said, looking away, “but you need to put on weight.”
“You think?” Sandi looked at herself, down to her socks and underwear. “Tiffany would be so jealous, wouldn’t she?”
“I’m serious. You can’t go around like that. It’s not good for you.”
“Heh. Listen to you, Miss Do-They-Make-Diet-Water.” Sandi tried on a pair of pants, holding them up at the waist. When she let go, the pants fell in a heap around her ankles. “No hips. Okay, so maybe you’ve got a point there.”
“We’re going to Burger Barn right after this and get you a sack full of double cheeseburgers, with extra fries.”
Sandi made a face, her tongue out. “Bleah. My appetite’s coming back, but let’s not go overboard.” She pulled up the pants again and threaded a belt through the loops. “See if this works.”
“You’ve just got this one semester to finish for your marketing degree, right?”
Sandi didn’t answer. After pulling the belt as tight as it could go, she found she was able to keep her pants up. She pulled a new ivory blouse from a hangar and put it on.
“Just a few more credit hours?” Quinn pressed. “You could finish it later over the summer, if you wanted.”
“No,” Sandi said in a low voice. “It’s not worth it.”
“Not worth it? Why?”
Sandi buttoned up the blouse and looked at herself in the dressing booth mirror. Nervous fingers smoothed down wrinkled in the soft fabric. “It’s not worth it. Really, it isn’t. Let it go.”
Quinn stared. “But why?”
“You like this?” Sandi turned to face Quinn. “I’ll get my butt back eventually, but this should do for now, you think?”
Quinn looked her friend over. “I’ll never have your color sense,” she said. “That’s perfect. Think about college anyway, okay? Maybe not now, but . . .”
With a snort, Sandi turned back to the mirror and tugged on the blouse sleeves. “Think about it, think about it,” she said. “That’s all I do anymore is think. Lot of good it does. I don’t understand the world, you know? I don’t get it. I’ve been thinking about this since it all happened. It all used to make sense, and now it doesn’t at all.”
Quinn opened her mouth—and closed it.
Sandi stood with her arms at her sides, looking in the mirror. She pulled on the bottom of her blouse, turned to check her profiles. “My mom was really smart,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You know what her P-STAT score was, the combined score? Almost fourteen hundred. Mine was less than a thousand. She graduated in the top fifth of her class at Vassar. When we were on our trip, she told me Christmas morning she was getting a promotion to executive vice president for sales and marketing at the station. She was going to pull down almost two hundred kay a year. She was really smart. She was a million times smarter than me, but she knew that. She knew long ago I wasn’t that bright. She held me back a year in school so I wouldn’t look like I was so far behind everyone else, and she pulled every string she could just to get me into Middleton, because my P-STAT scores didn’t make the cut. We used to get into fights, and she’d say, ‘You have no idea what I’ve done for you. No idea at all.’ And then she’d tell me.”
Sandi began unbuttoning the new blouse. “Dad wasn’t as smart as Mom, but he pulled in about seventy kay a year and was in solid with his office. He was dependable, reliable, always there even if he complained. He got promoted a year ago so he was in charge of all tax preparations through his office for the entire county. He and Mom had like this arrangement that he’d pay for the day-to-day things, like the phone bills, electric bills, school supplies and stuff, and Mom got the big-ticket items like new cars, big vacations, or a new house when we needed one. I always had the impression that they . . . they were different in what they could do, but they made it work, you know? I mean, it wasn’t perfect, they had their problems sometimes, but they brought in a lot, and they had it together. They were good at everything they did.”
She slipped out of the new blouse and put on her old one. “Sam got a football scholarship to Vance. His grades were good, too, better than mine. He wasn’t a brain or anything, he just did everything well. His girlfriend’s Rachel Landon, Jodie’s kid sister. Her family’s worth millions. And Chris, he got all his brains from Mom. He was on the honor roll. He liked math big time and wanted to go to some Ivy League college and do nothing but math all day.” She undid her belt and took off the new pants, then reached for her old ones. “Me . . . the only way I could keep from flunking out at Middleton was to screw three of my teachers. Gawd, I’ll never do that again.”
Sandi saw the horror on Quinn’s face, then turned away to zip up her pants. “Yeah, I did it. I couldn’t stand the thought of flunking out. Mom and Dad were really counting on me, and I didn’t want to be a loser. I’d never hear the end of it.” She finished dressing, her face turning pink, then slipped her stocking feet into her shoes. “It wasn’t so bad. The teachers were jerks, but they passed me. I thought of it as like going on a bad date and just got it over with. It was the only way I could make it through. Oh, come on, don’t look at me like that. It doesn’t matter now. I’m not going back.”
“Oh, Sandi. Oh, my God.”
“Don’t look at me like that, okay? It was all I could do to pass! I’m not like everyone else in my family, Quinn. I can’t do what they do—what they did. I don’t have their brains or their skills or anything. Sam and Chris were miles better off than I was. I wasn’t anything. The only things I could do were look good, boss other girls around, and dress myself in the morning. You don’t know how fucking scared I used to be of losing control of everything. The Fashion Club was all I had. You don’t know how hard I worked to stay on top of a little heap, and look what it got me. Look what it got me! Now I don’t control anything. I don’t even know why the fuck I’m still around, and Mom and Dad and Sam and Chris are dead. They used to be so in love with you, you know that?”
“Oh, Sam and Chris. They just idolized you. You must have known. I don’t know how many times they told me they wanted to marry you. They used to get into fist fights over it. Sam got over it eventually, but I don’t know if Chris ever did.” She looked at the clothing they’d brought into the booth with them. “I’ll just take these two, the lichen slacks and the ivory blouse. Let’s put the others back and go home. I’m tired.”
Quinn got up, but she reached for Sandi instead and hugged her. After a moment, Sandi dropped the clothes and hugged back. Then Quinn began to shake.
“I don’t get it,” Sandi whispered, her eyes as dry as stones. “I’m nothing. They had everything, Mom and Dad and Sam and Chris, and I had nothing, but I’m alive and they’re dead and I don’t get it. I keep trying to figure out why I made it through, what little tiny thing it was that made me special and made everything come out the way it did, but I keep coming up with nothing. I don’t know why it happened or what was so great about me that I should live and they didn’t. I don’t even remember what happened, not a fucking thing except bits and pieces that don’t make sense. Now they’re gone, and I’m alone. I’m a goddamn orphan, and nothing makes any sense anymore.”
They held each other in silence for a minute.
“I love you,” Quinn sobbed into Sandi’s blouse. “I’m so glad you’re alive.”
Sandi stared at the wall across from her and said nothing. I can’t imagine why you are, she thought. I cannot for the life of me imagine why, but I’m glad to hear you say it.
Later, on the way out to the car, Quinn got brave for a moment and asked, “Do you think there’s a chance Sam will turn up?”
It disconcerted her to see Sandi only shrug her shoulders in response. It didn’t seem right for Sandi to give up hope for her brother so soon and so completely. Everyone held on to hope, no matter what, but Sandi didn’t. It wasn’t as if she didn’t care or was glad Sam was gone. It wasn’t that. It was more as if on some level she knew about Sam, what had happened to him . . . but she didn’t remember.
Quinn bit her lip and shivered, but not from the cold.
Tuesday, January 18th, 2005
The doorknob on the front door of the Griffin home turned and rattled just after 11 a.m. on a frigid, cloudy Tuesday. Scratching noises came from it, then the deadbolt turned and the knob lock popped. The door swung open. A piercing whine rang through the house as a security alarm went off, but Sandi was on the code box in a moment and shut the alarm down.
“Thanks,” she said to the locksmith. A Lawndale police officer came inside after her, followed by Helen Morgendorffer and her daughter Quinn, who carried in Sandi’s few items of luggage. The officer and Sandi walked through the house to make sure it was secure, then he shook hands and left. The locksmith gave Helen a bill, which she paid with a check; then he took off as well.
Sandi took the bill from Helen and stuck it in the pocket of the winter coat she’d borrowed from Quinn. “I’ll pay you back within a week, if things go right,” she said. “If they screw up, it might take longer, but you’ll get it.”
“I’m not worried, believe me.”
“Yeah, well, had to say it.” Sandi wandered away. “The spare car and house key ring should be in the kitchen. Be right back.”
Helen closed the front door, shivering, and traded looks with Quinn. “I’m a little worried about her being here by herself after you go back to school,” she whispered.
Quinn nodded, looking glum. “I think she’ll be okay. She’s got our numbers and e-mail. I’m going to drive her over to pick up her mom’s car at the airport in a while, get the mail, all that.” She threw a glance at the door. “Plus pick up all the newspapers on the front steps and throw them out. They forgot to put a vacation stop on their sub.”
“I’ll do that on my way out,” said Helen. “Listen, if you need anything, call me right away. Eric’s giving me a little extra time to take care of things, if necessary.”
“Sure, Mom. Thanks.”
Sandi walked back from the kitchen, a key ring jangling in her fingers. She looked very tired. “Found it,” she said.
“Okay, dear.” Helen began pulling papers out of her briefcase. “Here is the court order, and here are the rest of the papers you’ll need.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Morgendorffer.”
“Helen, dear. Just call me Helen.”
“Uh, Helen,” Sandi said, caught off guard. “Okay. That might take a while to get used to.”
“You’re twenty-three. It’s about time.” Helen looked into Sandi’s eyes. “Your mother was a good friend. I miss her. I really do.”
Sandi nodded, not looking up. “Okay. Thank you, Mrs. . . . Helen. Thanks for everything.”
“Of course. Goodbye.” Helen gave Sandi a hug, then left, pulling the door shut behind her.
Sandi and Quinn looked at each other, and then looked around at the great, soundless house.
“I’m glad you’re here,” said Sandi, shrugging off the borrowed coat. She hung it in the hall closet with Quinn’s, then booted up the house alarm. “We’d better check the kitchen and see if we have to throw out anything that was left in the frig.”
Quinn followed. The house was chilly with the thermostat turned down. Sandi turned the knob up, but it would take an hour to reach a comfortable level. After the refrigerator was cleaned out and the trash taken into the garage, the two young women nervously wandered through the basement and first floor to see if anything was amiss. Sandi looked through her parents’ bedroom closets. “I don’t think I could stand to wear Mom’s things,” she said. “I’ll have to drive up and get my stuff from the dorm this week, before anyone steals it.”
“I can go, too, if you don’t mind the company.”
“Uh—” The unhappy look on Sandi’s face deepened. “Maybe I’d better do that alone. I have some loose ends to tie up.”
Quinn gave in, not wanting to know which loose ends were involved. “Say,” she asked, “where’s Fluffy? Is he in a kennel or something? We’d better go get him.”
“Oh.” A long sigh. “He caught feline loo-something last year, that cat disease. Mom and Dad had him put to sleep in November. I didn’t want to talk about it when it happened. I was too upset.”
“Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry t—” Quinn grimaced and turned away.
“It’s okay, forget it. Doesn’t matter now. Let’s go upstairs.”
On the second floor, Sandi went down the hall and looked briefly into her brothers’ rooms, deep in thought, then shut the doors without touching anything inside. She opened the door to her room at the top of the stairs and looked around, rubbing her upper arms. “Still cold up here,” she told Quinn. “Can’t wait for the heat to come on.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. A little tired.” She walked over to her bed, on which a large suitcase lay open, half full of clothing. “At least I have something to wear. This is all the stuff I decided not to take on the trip. Some of it’s grubby, some of it’s dirty.” She picked up a college textbook on marketing techniques, eyed it, then tossed it aside. “Everything else was in the bungalow. This is better than nothing, I guess.”
As Quinn watched, Sandi pushed the suitcase aside and sat down on the bed, resting her arms on her thighs. “I’m beat,” she muttered, “and I haven’t even done anything today. I can’t be this tired.”
“When you’re ready, we should get out for the mail, then go to the airport and get the car,” said Quinn. “We’ll meet back here and figure out what to do next.”
Sandi glared at the floor, then shook herself and got up. “You’re right. I don’t feel like doing a thing, but we’d better. Remind me to take that paperwork with us, so they don’t argue with me at the post office over who’s supposed to pick up the mail.”
A knock sounded through the house, coming from downstairs. Quinn and Sandi looked up, startled.
“Now what?” said Sandi, reluctantly getting to her feet.
“Better not be a reporter,” said Quinn. She let Sandi go downstairs first. Sandi peeked through the spy hole in the door—and gasped. Steeling herself against more than the cold, Sandi turned off the house alarm, unlocked the door, and opened it.
Standing on the front step, wearing an oversized blue-and-gold Lawndale High athletic jacket, was a black teenage girl with long, tightly curled hair that reached to her shoulders. She trembled and looked into Sandi’s face with desperate eyes.
“Can I—” She choked, and tears ran down her smooth cheeks “—can I talk to you, please?”
Sandi regained the presence of mind to pull Rachel Landon out of the cold wind and into the house. Quinn shut the door. When she turned around, she saw Sandi clutching Rachel tightly in her arms as Rachel sobbed aloud. Sandi’s face was filled with a dreadful sadness.
Quinn took this moment to make herself scarce, heading back to the clean, well-organized kitchen. She guessed that the Griffins had had their housekeeper clean everything just before they took off on their vacation. Rather than stand around and be depressed, which was far too easy to do of late, she resolved to brew a pot of noncaffeinated herbal tea. Recalling a magazine article that extolled the healing properties of chamomile, she found the right teabags in a cabinet and, with the help of the microwave and a Pyrex measuring cup, she had a small pot full ready in fifteen minutes.
After checking and finding Sandi and Rachel hugging in silence on the great room sofa, Quinn quietly brought in a tray with two cups, the teapot, and sweetener, then sat it on the coffee table in front of the two girls. Sandi glanced up and whispered thank you as Quinn retreated back to the kitchen.
A half hour passed. Quinn busied herself with exploring the kitchen and dining room, having nothing else to do. The house was much as she remembered it from the days when she came over to see Sandi in high school. In time, sounds from elsewhere in the house indicated that Sandi and Rachel had gone upstairs. Shortly after that, Sandi came downstairs again and wandered into the kitchen. She wandered around at random before going back into the great room. Quinn followed and found Sandi sprawled on the sofa like a marionette with its strings cut.
“She’s in Sam’s room,” Sandi whispered, staring into space. “I let her stay there for a little.”
“What if she takes something?” asked Quinn, at once ashamed to have said it.
“I told her to. She can take anything she wants, and I told her if Sam comes back, she can give it to him. If not . . . she can keep it.”
Quinn sat down on a sofa cushion and took one of Sandi’s hands in hers. Her best friend’s fingers were ice cold.
“I was thinking,” said Sandi, “that it was the shopping. I remember I wanted to go shopping that morning, though not for anything in particular. Sam and Chris wanted to go swimming. Mom wanted to meet some new friends and lay out for a while, and Dad was wandering around with the digital camera. He wanted to e-mail pictures to some friends.” She stared at the ceiling and did not blink. “I had the strangest idea that Dad . . . that there was someone he was writing to all the time on the computer. He spent a lot of time with his laptop, and he wouldn’t share it, even for someone else to get e-mail.”
She turned her face to Quinn. “Someone at the American embassy in Bangkok asked me why I—” Sandi stopped, then swallowed and continued “—why I took my mother’s wedding ring, but not my father’s. I took my mother’s because I felt like it meant something to her. It was all I would ever have of her after that. But I didn’t take my father’s because . . . I didn’t think it meant as much to him.”
Her gaze ran over Quinn’s shock-filled expression. She raised a hand and touched Quinn on the cheek, then let her hand fall back. “I’m a little afraid of what will be in the mail,” she said. “Dad had a separate mailbox somewhere, I think. I don’t know if I want to find it. I think I’ll have to, though, if I get a bill for it. I think I know where it is, too.”
They stared at each other for a moment.
“Was I really hard to get along with?” Sandi asked, staring at Quinn.
“No,” said Quinn with a dry throat. “You never were. You were always my best friend, no matter what.”
“I can’t believe that,” said Sandi. “I can’t believe I was always easy to be with. I’m still not. But you were always there for me when I needed you. After I broke my leg, you were there for me. I realized then that you really liked me, and I couldn’t imagine why you did because I’d never been very nice to you. I knew right then that I loved you and you were the only real friend I’d ever had in my life, but I don’t understand why—”
Footsteps came down the stairway. Sandi sat bolt-upright on the sofa next to Quinn and got to her feet to meet Rachel. Quinn stood as Sandi and Rachel hugged, then walked out to the front foyer. After a whispered conversation, the door opened and shut.
Sandi came back and stopped in the archway leading into the great room. “Let’s go get the mail and the car,” she said. “I’m about to go insane.”
They went to the post office in Quinn’s flame-red Chevrolet Cobalt. Halfway there, Sandi said, “She took one of Sam’s old shirts with her.”
“It was lying on the floor, probably where he dropped it when he changed clothes before we left. It hadn’t even been washed. I think she wanted it that way.”
“Because she could still smell him.” Sandi looked out the windshield at the gray urban landscape. “If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine he’s there with you. I could smell my family in their rooms, too, but I don’t think I can take much more of it. I don’t want to keep thinking they’ll come back when they never will.”
That evening, Quinn walked into the family room in sock feet and caught Sandi doing an odd thing. She was holding a colorful woven handbag she’d brought back from Thailand, removing a small black coin purse from it. After opening the coin purse, Sandi seemed to pick something out of her head and tuck it deep into the coin purse, then snap it shut and put it back into the handbag. It was the second time since Sandi’s return that Quinn had seen her do that, but Quinn never asked about it and Sandi never told.
Thursday, January 20th, 2005
Sandi found herself at Lawndale Mall in the evening two days later, looking for something she couldn’t name. She was desperate to get out of the house, where she was sinking into lethargy and accomplishing less each day unless Quinn was there to jump-start her. Quinn was with her parents this evening, out for one last dinner before her return to Brown University on Saturday. Sandi and Quinn had Friday together, a little time on Saturday morning, and that would be it for many weeks to come.
“Unless I drive up,” she said aloud. “I could do that.”
She had talked herself into buying a Super Orange Frosty-Freeze at the mall’s food court and sat alone at a remote table, arms and legs crossed, the drink and a napkin on the table in front of her. She stared off into space at nothing at all.
“I could move to Providence,” she said, only half aware she was talking to herself. “She says it’s a good place. It’s close to New York, can’t be all bad. I could hang out with her when she’s not seeing Tom. That might work. Maybe we could get an apartment together. I’ve got money, or I will next Monday after the court date Helen set up for me. Helen—I’ll never get used to calling Mrs. Morgendorffer that.
“Quinn might get tired of me, though. I don’t have anything to do in the daytime. I could get a job in town, though. I know clothing pretty well. I could sell stuff. Maybe I could transfer my credits from Middleton and finish my degree there at Brown, and—” She groaned and rolled her eyes, kicking an elevated leg in disgust. “Oh, what’s the use? She’s moving with Tom to Palo Alto after they get married this summer so he can transfer to Stanford. I’d be stuck all the way on the other side of the country by myself. I’d hate to have to chase them all over the planet and look like I’m needy and weak, even though right now I probably am. That would just—”
She jumped and turned in her seat at the sound of deep male voice behind her. “Wha—Jamie?”
The handsome face of former high-school classmate Jamie White loomed over her from behind. His long golden-blond hair was brushed back to the sides, and his smile was blindingly bright. He took a seat across from her at the table. “Sandi Griffin! Good t’ see ya! Someone said you were back. How ya doin’?”
It was difficult to know how to answer that question correctly. She sat up in her chair, wondering if he’d overheard her mumbling to herself. “I’m . . . doing a little better, I guess. You?”
“Hey, I’m doin’ all right!” he said, brushing his hair back with one hand and still smiling. He wore a blue-and-white State University football jersey with a snarling rodent on the front. “Man, it’s been like forever, hadn’t it? Since we were in school, ya know. Guess what? I made the team!” He grinned and pulled on his jersey. “I’m one of the Fightin’ Muskrats! I was on ESPN once last fall. Did ya see it?”
“Ah . . . I . . .”
“Ah, man, it was great! I got a copy of the tape if ya wanna see it. Scored a touchdown and did my victory dance in the end zone, yeah! It rocked! Hey, so, what’s goin’ on with ya? Your family back from vacation? The guys thought ya were in that earthquake or something, and I haven’t talked to nobody since then but I guess ya all made it back okay, right?”
Escape. Escape. Escape. “Uh . . . uh . . . no, we didn’t all make it back. I’m—” She coughed, her voice rough “—I’m back, but the—”
“So, the rest of ‘em are still hangin’ on the beach over there in Japan or whatever? Bet ya had t’ come back t’ school, right? Man, I feel for ya. That must suck. I drive to State U from Mom and Dad’s house. Still got my old room and everything! Listen, ya heard about Quinn gettin’ married, right?”
It was almost impossible to focus on the conversation, the noise inside her head was so loud. “What?”
know? Whoa, Quinnie’s gettin’ married! Doesn’t that just suck? Man, I really wanted t’ marry her, ya know? That just bites!
Joey and Jeffy wanted to marry her, too. That was so funny. Ya remember ‘em?
Oh, Jeffy was in the Gator Bowl! Can
you believe that?” Jamie laughed, clear blue eyes twinkling. “He’s such a
bastard! I don’t really mean it, but ya know—wow! He’s done great. And Joey’s
in the Navy! Isn’t that wild? He was on this ship that went right over the
tidal wave when that earthquake happened. He didn’t even notice it! I mean, that’s
just too much!”
Numb, Sandi started to gather her things. “Jamie, I have to go—”
“Hey, sure. Oh, one more thing.” He reached out as if to stop her, but he pointed a finger at her chest instead. “Listen, if you see Quinnie, tell her I wanna see her again sometime before she ties the knot, okay? Just ‘cause I’m gettin’ married next month don’t mean I can’t look up an old friend, know what I mean? Maybe she can have a last fling before she throws it all away, right? Man, I can’t believe somebody else got a taste of that cherry pie! I always thought it’d be me first, ya know?” He grunted and shook his head as he got up. “Man! Listen, gotta go, too! See ya!”
When Jamie was out of sight, Sandi stood up and walked away—then came back and picked up her purse and left again. Then she came back, got her coat, stood for a while with her hand over her eyes to calm down enough to be sure she hadn’t forgotten anything this time, then left for good. Her drink and napkin stayed behind.
She wasn’t sure how she got home. She found herself in the kitchen, standing by the sink, and she had to go open the garage door, turn on the light, and look out to make sure the cars were still there. Her father’s silver BMW was in front of the garage door, recently retrieved from the airport’s long-term lot, with her mother’s yellow Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder in the middle and the huge black Xterra SUV on the far side, the vehicle that once had hauled the boys and their gear to sports events. Popping noises came from under the silver BMW’s hood. Sandi descended the steps and walked over to the car, her breath frosting the air. When she touched the hood, it was warm. She decided she must have driven that car home from the mall, even if she didn’t remember it. She went back into the house to check the time: 5:13 p.m. It was getting dark. Where had the day gone?
She next found herself in front of the liquor cabinet, looking through the array of colorful bottles. Nothing seemed to suit her. She had never been more than a light social drinker, like her mother, but she felt a great urge now to tie one on. For five minutes she held on to the doors to the liquor cabinet and stared. Then she shut the cabinet doors and got her coat and walked out of the house without locking the door behind her. She was halfway down the street and moving at a quick pace before she realized Quinn wouldn’t be home until very late. Daria and Jane had already left for Boston, too. She turned and walked slowly back.
Again she stood in front of the liquor cabinet, still wearing her winter coat, but she left the cabinet closed. After a minute, she went to the dining room and stopped in the arched entryway. The long dining table was covered with piles of opened mail she’d picked up over the last few days. One pile was for utility bills; one for letters from friends and relatives asking how the family was doing, to be answered by phone later; one for correspondence having to do with Middleton College; one for problems involving unfinished family business, like credit-card bills or magazine subscriptions in need of cancellation; one for anything that didn’t fit into any other category; and one for letters from Stacy McCubbins, who wrote daily and revealed that she was married to a really smart and nice-looking guy who loved her a lot but was a little paranoid and jealous and wouldn’t let her visit friends or family anymore and had started to hit her when she screwed up, but things were getting better, really, no problem. She mailed her letters in secret, printing PLEASE DO NOT WRITE OR CALL BACK!!! on the outside of the envelopes as well as in the letters. Three times before, Sandi had tried to call Stacy, but a man always answered and told her Stacy wasn’t home, even when Stacy’s letters said she would be.
And . . . there was a small pile from her father’s private mailbox. He’d never spoken of it, but Sandi had an idea where it might be, having seen him stop at a private mailbox store once. She went there again on impulse earlier in the day, showed her legal documents, and claimed her father’s mail and closed his mailbox. And now she had three letters addressed to her father, each envelope in a pastel color with a floral scent, the handwritten initials PW always in the spot where a return address should go.
That would probably be Patty Wells, Sandi knew. Her father used to talk about his high-school flame, how much fun she could be, what a good sport she was. He never said this in front of Sandi’s mother, only as little asides to Sandi when she was small, always after he’d had a fight with her mother. Sandi had sensed there was something wrong with this kind of talk and had never mentioned it to her mom. At some point a few years ago, to her relief, her father had stopped talking about Patty Wells.
That was about the time he bought the laptop and went on long weekend trips for his accounting firm every couple months.
Sandi stared at the three letters. She had everything else in her life sorted out, as much as it could be, except this.
“Oh, fuck it,” she said. She walked over, picked up a letter, thumbed it open, and read the contents.
An hour passed before Quinn, fresh from dinner out with her parents, dropped by Sandi’s place and rang the doorbell. Though the lights were on, no one answered. Quinn rang a second time and was about to ring a third time when the door jerked open and Sandi peered out. She was perspiring heavily and had a strange look in her eyes.
“Sandi?” Quinn squinted. “Are you okay? I was just going by—”
“No!” Sandi shouted. “I am not okay, all right?”
Quinn stepped inside. A trail of dropped socks, shoes, shirts, and ties led from the master bedroom to the kitchen, where Sandi was filling large black garbage bags with her father’s clothing. Quinn saw this, still holding her car keys in one hand but having completely forgotten she did. “What are you doing?” she said, aghast.
“How late is that Goodwill place open?”
“I don’t know! I never go there!”
“I am, by golly. As soon as I can get all this stuff loaded into the Xterra, I’m out of here and all this crap is out of here!”
“Is that all your dad’s stuff?”
“Yes! Don’t bother me, okay?” Sandi ran a hand across her eyes, on the verge of tears, but she fought it down and stalked off to the master bedroom again.
Quinn followed but found it impossible to engage Sandi in conversation that did not involve yelling. While passing by the dining room, Quinn noticed some pastel letters and envelopes torn into pieces on the floor. She picked them up and within two minutes had all the basics of what was happening. Stunned, she sat down in a dining chair, bowed her head, and closed her eyes in sorrow.
Feet stamped back from the bedroom, passed the dining room, and went into the kitchen. Clothing ruffled as it was stuffed into plastic bags.
“You could at least offer to help me!” Sandi screamed.
Forty-five minutes later, the house was nearly empty of anything related to Sandi’s father, from house slippers to golf clubs.
The Goodwill store was closed, but Sandi got out of the SUV and threw everything she’d brought with her on the ground in front of the main door. Boxes and garbage bags and wads of clothing and everything else that was her father’s went into the jumbled heap. She thought of Khao Lak.
“Sandi?” asked Quinn, truly frightened of what would happen next. “Do you think you might want to save a little—”
They got home just after eight. Sandi parked the Xterra beside the Spyder, and as the garage door rolled down, she curled over the steering wheel and wept. Quinn put an arm around her but said nothing. They went into the house at fifteen after.
“I can stay maybe until Sunday,” said Quinn. “It’s not a problem. Know what? I’ll do it. I’ll stay until then. Is that okay with you?”
Sandi was emptying the liquor cabinet and throwing everything into a cardboard box. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. A vodka bottle broke as she dropped it into the box on top of the other bottles. Clear liquid ran out of the bottom of the box into the carpet, and the smell went everywhere.
“I’d like to sleep over, if you—”
“Do what you want. I don’t care.”
They carried the box of liquor down to the road at nine p.m. for garbage pickup in four days. Sandi filled another sack with the remainder of her father’s belongings and put it in the back of the SUV, but she was talked out of driving back to Goodwill at that hour of the night.
At eleven, they sat in the living room, staring at the television. The presidential inauguration was being shown on the news. They paid no attention to it at all.
“Now I know,” said Sandi. “Now I fucking know. All these years, and now I finally know everything there is to know.”
They turned off the news and sat together on the couch.
“Twenty-six years they were married. Twenty-six years. And to think I couldn’t wait for him to walk me down the aisle when I got married. I couldn’t wait.” She rubbed her forehead. She had a massive headache. “How about I go down to the road and get the tequila out of that box, and we have a little party?”
“Let’s go to bed. That would be better.”
“I can’t sleep, Quinn. You know I can’t go to sleep with people around. I’ll drive you crazy.”
“No. I don’t wanna do anything.”
“Look. What he did was really wrong.”
Sandi said nothing, staring at the dark TV screen.
“But he’s still your dad, Sandi.”
“It doesn’t matter. I should have left him there to rot.”
“No. You did the right thing. He’s still your dad.”
Sandi’s face screwed up and she almost cried, but she had already cried too much over everything. She clenched her fists and clenched her teeth and fought it down, but it was a costly victory.
“Come on, Sandi. Go to bed. I love you.”
They went upstairs, got ready, and slept in Sandi’s bed just like they did when they were high schoolers. Quinn crammed her pillow over her head whenever Sandi screamed, which thankfully did not happen often or last for long.
The next morning they went through Sam and Chris’s rooms. Among other things, they threw out Chris’s collection of Internet pornography and five silver packages of pink steroid pills from Sam’s room, which he’d apparently been taking right up to the time the family had left on vacation. After the perfumed letters, these discoveries were almost trivial. They drove all the unwanted trash to the new city landfill and threw it off into the giant bins there, dropped the last bag at Goodwill, then drove home.
On the way back, Sandi told Quinn about Jamie.
“I can’t believe that!” Quinn said, really angry. “What an asshole! Well, Jamie can go—he can go fuck himself!” She had never said that word aloud before, and she had rarely gotten Jamie’s name right until now. Sandi nodded, driving as if in a daydream.
They cleaned up at home, went to lunch at a classy restaurant, and stopped at the Lawndale Mall on the way back to get a few extra things for the house. They passed a pet shop on the way to the drug store. There were kittens in the window. The young women stopped and looked at the kittens for a long time. Sandi pulled a hand from her coat pocket and touched the glass next to a mewling calico, her face full of wonder.
“Come on,” said Quinn, pulling Sandi inside.
“No! Quinn, please, don’t—”
Quinn bought her the calico. Sandi called him Patchwork, and Quinn drove them home. There was still a fair amount of kitty litter and cat food left over in the garage from Fluffy. Patchwork clawed the curtains and missed his litter box twice his first night at home. Sandi cleaned up after him and never once complained.
Sunday, January 30th, 2005
A week passed. Quinn left. Sandi slept on the couch and did not shower or change clothes or eat for two days. Only Patchwork crying by his food dish brought her out of it.
A very large amount of money came in from the inheritance and insurance claims, far larger than Sandi had imagined, even though half of the total was held back in the event Sam showed up again. All the bills were paid, starting with Helen’s legal services. Sandi got her belongings from Middleton College and withdrew from classes. Some of her aunts, uncles, and cousins came on short visits and griped about Sandi allowing the Thais to bury her family over there, about Sandi not going back to look for Sam, about Sandi giving away so much of her family’s things, about Patchwork clawing up their clothing, and about not getting anything from the wills her parents had left. Sandi made sure none of her relatives slept over in her (now it was her) house, and they griped about that, too. Several requests by reporters from her mother’s TV station to have an interview were gently refused. Patchwork got declawed and was very annoyed about it. Sandi bought a pet carrier and tried to get Patchwork used to it, with minor success.
For some reason, Stacy McCubbins stopped writing.
Rachel came to visit once more. She had stopped writing to Sam and took nothing else out of the house, wanting only to talk and be held. A few other friends of Sam and Chris came by once to ask for news, leaving only with what little comfort Sandi could give them. No one from her sorority came by, nor any classmates from college. Jamie did not come by, either. Chris’s clothing and possessions went to Goodwill in four large black plastic bags. Sam’s were earmarked to go as soon as Rachel’s life moved on, which Sandi thought would be before summer.
Daria and Jane wrote to wish Sandi well. They were still dithering over getting married, still getting used to being a couple couple, as Quinn called it. They did not keep in touch with Sandi after that.
Sandi had lunch at a nice restaurant with Helen. Helen told her funny stories about the friendly rivalry she’d had with Linda, the one-upmanship the two had engaged in for the few years they’d been friends. The women parted with a hug and a promise to meet again. Sandi sincerely hoped they would. She needed someone to fill the void her mother’s loss had left inside her, and she had the curious feeling Helen needed someone to fill the void left by the departure of both her children.
During the last weekend of the month, Quinn and Tom came to visit. Sandi put them in her parents’ bedroom, having moved all her mother’s things into her own room upstairs. Quinn gave Sandi a gold necklace with the symbol for Ares on it, Sandi’s birth sign, to match Quinn’s necklace with the symbol for Taurus. She insisted Sandi be her maid of honor in June. Sandi agreed, pleased that she was Quinn’s first pick. Quinn wanted to have their old friends Stacy and Tiffany be bridesmaids. Tiffany was in a modeling school in Baltimore, but Quinn had not heard from Stacy in ages, what could possibly be the matter? Sandi said she didn’t know, but she would find out.
For his part, Tom was lively and handsome and intelligent and charming, and he seemed to genuinely love his fiancée. However, though Sandi was the perfect hostess, she found it hard to forget that Tom was also her father’s name, or that Quinn’s Tom had once been Daria’s, and before that, Jane’s, and he had been a little careless during the transition between the last two girlfriends.
When Quinn and Tom were about to leave, Quinn excused herself to go to the bathroom before the long drive north. Tom turned to Sandi and smiled, intending to thank her and make a remark about what a pleasant stay it had been.
Not smiling, Sandi took a step closer and put herself right in his face.
“If you cheat on her,” Sandi hissed, eyes burning, “if you so much as cheat on her one time, one lousy fucking time, I will find you and slice open your throat from ear to ear with my sharpest kitchen knife. You got that?” And she drew a manicured red-nailed finger across her own throat, leaving a mark as she did. He finally nodded, the white showing all around his eyes, and he did not smile or wave when he and Quinn left.
Before she prepared for bed that night, Sandi stood in front of her closet for a long time, then undressed and put on her mother’s favorite charcoal-gray business suit, with the royal blue blouse and no-nonsense power shoes. The outfit fit her better than she had thought it would, and the blouse’s color was curiously close to perfect. A different shade of blue would have been better, but it was good enough. She then opened her jewelry box, removed the false bottom, and put her mother’s wedding ring on her right hand’s ring finger. It fit perfectly. The white-gold ring still had a trace of the odor of death about it, a scent she could not get rid of. It did not matter. She stood straight before the bedroom mirror in her parents’ room and looked herself over from several angles.
“I am going to make it,” she said to the mirror at last. “I am going to make it. My mother did not let me grow up to be weak. She wanted a strong girl just like her, and that strong girl is me. I have to be strong, for her sake. She gave me life. I will keep her gift.”
She felt better after this. She took off the suit and put it back in the closet with all of her mother’s other things, then changed into pajamas. Her mind wandered to the future. Maybe she could transfer her college credits from Middleton to Lawndale State College and finish her degree there. It was worth a try; the inheritance would not hold out forever, and school or work would at least get her out of the house. She still wished Quinn were around, and her days alone were filled with bad times when she would gladly have given anything to have had her friend beside her. She would still make it, though.
When the lights were turned out, she lay in bed and tried to sleep. She knew she didn’t have to worry about disturbing anyone but the cat with her night-terror screaming, but it didn’t help. After an hour of tossing and turning and re-fluffing her pillow, she got out of bed, put on her slippers, and went downstairs. Patchwork gave her an irritated look as she left, then went back to sleep at the foot of the bed.
She made herself a glass of warm cocoa in the kitchen and went into the dining room with it, meaning to sit down and think until she got sleepy again. She was reaching over to pull out a chair from the table when she looked at the one pile of letters that had not yet been dealt with: the large pile of letters from Stacy McCubbins.
Who had not written now in over a week.
Sandi sat down and sipped her cocoa as she reread Stacy’s last five letters. Finding the return address, she then went to the study and booted up her mother’s computer. It was easy to find a map to Stacy’s home in Virginia over the Internet, a half-day’s drive away. As she finished her cocoa, she printed out the directions. She went back to her room and packed a small suitcase, then took it downstairs and put it in the BMW in the garage. She was heading back into the house when she saw a two-handed digging mattock leaning against the wall, a tool her parents let hired help use on the flower beds. The sight of the mattock slowed her down, and the two shovels next to it brought her to a dead stop.
It was freezing cold in the garage at night at the end of January, but Sandi barely felt it. Without being aware that she did, she began to play with her mother’s wedding ring, which was still on her right hand. Clouds of her breath hung in the air before her.
When she went back inside, she left the garage door open behind her. It took only a minute to pick out the largest and sharpest knife in the kitchen, then take it to the car and tuck it into her suitcase. She then got both shovels and the mattock and put them in the trunk of the BMW with a pair of long plastic gloves, a big coil of thin rope, a hand axe, a hacksaw, and a roll of unused black plastic garbage bags in the giant thirty-five-gallon size, each big enough to hold an object up to the size of a paranoid and jealous husband who would dare hit someone as good-natured and harmless as Stacy Rowe.
She knew precisely how it would be done. It would be like Khao Lak in every way, in every detail. I have suffered too much not to care. I have suffered too much.
Going back inside, she locked the door, booted up the alarm, and went upstairs to pick out grubby clothes she did not mind throwing away. Those she packed in a gym bag that had belonged to Sam, setting it in the hallway outside the bedroom with Patchwork’s pet carrier, too tired to haul them down to the garage. After that, she got into bed, earning a dirty look from Patchwork, and turned off the lights and went to sleep.
And when the nightmare came back as it always did, and again she tried to pull herself up a drainpipe on the outside wall of a hotel as thundering waters two stories deep fought to tear her away, and again she heard Sam shout to her from the water and then watched as her brother struggled and sank under the thick debris, and again saw his body surface face-down when the wreckage-strewn waters retreated and be carried out to sea with hundreds of others, she did not scream so much as all those times before. It had not been her fault that he was gone. She could not have reached out and saved him. There had been no rhyme or reason to the disaster. It had just happened, and she had survived and her family had not. That was just how it was. It could not be changed.
Perhaps one day when she woke up, the torrent of that time would come pouring back. The black coin purse would burst open and she would know what had been hidden from her consciousness. For now, in her dreams, she again climbed the drainpipe to the hotel’s roof, the waters did not claim her, and she suffered but lived on. Her screams ended. Patchwork shook his head and lay down once more. Sandi rolled over in her sleep, peaceful again, but in the lightless depths of her heart a new tsunami gathered strength as it aimed for a distant shore.