I drive slowly past a familiar house where strangers now live. Staring up the driveway like a voyeur, I watch a mother and daughter go about the ordinary task of carrying groceries from their car.
I swore I’d never come onto this street again, wouldn’t be drawn to Mother’s house, and until now I’ve kept away. My belongings were packed long ago by Rosario, our housekeeper, and removed by hired men. I’ve never seen the new wallpaper that covered all evidence of what happened in the kitchen and bathroom.
My sister Michelle and I let a real estate agent make decisions relating to the sale, and we weren’t present at the closing. But the agent told me when the new owners would move in, and this, finally, pulled me back. I wanted to see who took our places. When we were supplanted by a happy, ordinary family, maybe I’d be able to put the past to rest.
This family came from California, and the real estate agent said in answer to my blunt question that no, they don’t know someone died in the house. A neighbor or acquaintance will tell them soon enough. Most people can’t wait to share a shocking story.
I look at my left hand on the steering wheel, run a finger along the scar until it disappears below my blouse cuff. What’s hidden by the sleeve is too ugly to expose to other people’s eyes, but I’ve memorized every rough inch of it.
I realize I’ve stopped the car in the middle of the narrow street, inviting attention, but I don’t move on. The woman and her daughter, a dark-haired girl of perhaps ten, are at the far end of the long driveway, and they haven’t noticed me. They swing plastic grocery bags from the car’s trunk, disappear around the back of the house with them, return empty-handed. I picture the blue bags accumulating on the smooth white surface of the kitchen counters.
Something is wrong with the sun-dappled scene before me, something other than the presence of strangers, and it takes a moment for me to realize what it is. The yews along the street, which Mother allowed to grow so high that they shielded the house from view, have been chopped to no more than four feet. She would be horrified by the row of raw stubs.
My gaze is drawn upward by the arching, blossom-laden branches of a tree in the front yard. When Mother had asked what I wanted for my thirteenth birthday, I’d promptly said a weeping cherry tree. I remember leaning back against Mother, one of her arms hugging me to her, her other hand stroking my hair, while we watched two nurserymen hoist the tree into a freshly dug hole.
Happy birthday, Rachel. She’d kissed my cheek when the planting was done.
The tree is losing its spring blossoms now. Gusts of wind tear the petals free and swirl them into the street, and they drift against my windshield like pink snow. My cherry tree is the one thing I regret leaving.
Mother’s house, where I spent most of my life, is an Elizabethan Tudor of brick, stucco, and timbers, set well back from the street. Although it’s just minutes from the busy George Washington Parkway, and beyond that the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., the neighborhood feels hidden away, with winding curbless streets, and houses tucked among mature trees. Behind our house, the lawn and Mother’s garden slope down to a wooded stream valley where my sister and I used to explore, searching for wildflowers on the banks and frogs in the water of Dead Run.
I watch the memory reel out: Michelle with a blond braid dangling halfway down her back, me with my auburn hair in the same chin-length bob I have today; Michelle carefully keeping herself clean while I scramble along collecting grime on my hands, my legs, my face. Back at the house Mother would shake her head and murmur, “Rachel, go make yourself presentable,” her voice and manner so patient that I could never feel justified in believing she disapproved of me.
On the driveway the woman slams the trunk lid and she and the girl carry two last bags inside. Now they’ll put away the groceries in the big pantry off the kitchen.
It’s time to go. I have a three o’clock appointment at the veterinary clinic. For a living I doctor cats and dogs, and sometimes injured wildlife brought in by people who can’t bear to leave nature to its own devices.
With one last look at the house — this time I know it will be the
last — I drive away. I’m thinking about my sister. In her need to blame an outside force for what happened to our lives, she fastened irrationally on Luke Campbell. I can still see the hatred working under her rigidly calm expression when our conversation shifts toward him.
But it didn’t start with Luke. It started with a basset hound named Maude who chased a squirrel into the path of a car.
Late on a raw April afternoon, I stood at the front desk of the McLean Animal Health Clinic, adding a note to my last patient’s chart. Gray rain streamed past the windows. The red mat inside the front door was sodden, and a confusion of muddy footprints, human and canine, covered the white tile floor.
The whoosh of the glass door swinging open made me look up. Young Mrs. Coleman stood there panting, her jeans and sweatshirt wet through, her short blond hair plastered to her scalp. “Dr. Goddard,” she gasped. Her hands flailed. “Maude– she got hit by a car– Her leg– the bone’s sticking out–”
I bolted for the door, calling back to the desk clerks, “Get Carl out front, and tell Dr. Bonelli we’ve got one for him.”
I clambered into the rear of the Colemans’ Jeep Cherokee and leaned over the basset hound. Maude’s left hind leg was cocked at a crazy angle, jagged bone ripping the skin. She was conscious, her sad eyes staring up at me. Thick blood coated half her face and one of her soft floppy ears. The sweet-rank smell filled my nostrils and brought a flood of saliva to my mouth.
Gently but firmly, I pulled open her mouth to check her gum color, but I couldn’t see much in the gloomy interior of the vehicle.
Behind me, out in the rain, Mrs. Coleman cried and babbled. “She saw a squirrel– not on the leash– just getting in the car– It’s my fault, God, it’s my fault.”
Carl leaned in, handed me a soft nylon muzzle. I snapped it over Maude’s jaws to keep her from biting when we moved her, then scooted to one side so Carl could position the small stretcher he’d brought. Together we slid Maude onto it, and Carl covered her with a blanket.
Grasping one end of the stretcher, I backed out of the vehicle. Carl, a young aide built like a football player, took the other end. Maude was a silent, limp weight between us.
Mrs. Coleman, sobbing loudly, followed us to the clinic’s side door, then we were all under the bright lights of the treatment room. Carl took away the wet blanket. Two young female techs set to work quickly and smoothly, positioned Maude on the steel table, found a front leg vein for an IV, swabbed the surprisingly minor facial laceration.
I was listening to Maude’s heart and lungs when Tony Bonelli walked in, pulling on latex gloves. “Okay,” he said, peering at the fractured leg, “what have we got here? Want me to take over?”
I stepped back, rattling off what I’d found in my quick check.
Mrs. Coleman sagged against a wall and squeezed her eyes shut. I gave her a second to calm down and catch her breath.
“Maude’s probably going to be all right,” I told her. “I didn’t see any sign of internal bleeding. Dr. Bonelli’s a bone specialist, a surgeon, and he’s the best one to take care of her right now. Try not to worry, okay?”
“All right,” she whispered. “Okay.” Then her hands flew to her face. “Oh my God! Kristin!” She wheeled in a circle, searching. “Where’s my daughter?”
I clutched her arm to make her stand still. “I’ll find her, don’t worry. Just answer a couple of questions for Dr. Bonelli, and I’ll have Kristin waiting for you out front.”
She swiped tears and rain from her cheeks with the flat of her hand, then bobbed her head. As I pushed open the door I heard Tony’s calm, unhurried voice asking whether Maude had been able to stand up after she was struck.
I ran to the Cherokee. The child wasn’t there. She must have gone in the front door when her mother did, although I didn’t remember seeing her.
I found Mrs. Coleman’s three-year-old daughter in the reception area, pressed against the front of the big desk with her tiny hands clenched at her sides, her face puckered. She was invisible to the four young women answering phones and working on computers behind the desk.
“Hi, Kristin,” I said, leaning down. Rain dripped from my hair. “Your mom’s in the other room with Maude. She’ll be out in a minute.”
Wet blond curls hugged her head. Her jeans and blue sweatshirt, miniature versions of her mother’s, were soaked, and one sleeve had a smear of blood across it. “Mommy,” she whimpered.
I knelt before her. “She’ll be back just as soon as she finishes talking to the doctor about Maude.”
Her face screwed up. Her blue eyes, wide and frightened, brimmed with tears. “I want Mommy now!” She drew in a gasping breath and began to wail. “Mommy… Mommy…”
Poor kid, terrified by seeing her dog broken and bloody, then the rush, and her mother’s panic. “Everything’s going to be okay,” I told her. “Your mommy’s coming back in just a minute.”
“Mommy!” she screamed.
Her cries cut through me. A stab of distress made me reach out and clasp her in an embrace. She stiffened for a second, then wrapped her thin arms around my neck. Her hair smelled of baby shampoo and rain. She was so tiny and delicate. So much like my sister Michelle as a child. How many times had I hugged Michelle this way to chase away her fears?
As I knelt with Kristin, a door swung wide in my memory and through it I glimpsed an old, half-forgotten image of my little sister standing in the rain, crying. I stared inward, caught fast by the familiar strangeness of the vision. My surroundings receded, the ringing of the phone and the faces behind the desk faded away.
Michelle stood in a great open space, menacing in its bleak emptiness. Long golden hair clung wetly to her scalp, cheeks, neck. Her hands were balled into fists at her sides. Her plea was high and thin and tremulous. “Mommy! I want to go home!”
I was no longer in the clinic, I was out in the streaming rain, and I was a child again too with nothing to hold onto but my sister. “Please don’t cry!” As if from outside myself I heard my voice rising, shrill and frantic. “She’ll come back, she will, please don’t cry!”
Someone was trying to pull us apart. A hand tightened on my shoulder, shook me hard. Dazed, I looked up at a tall sandy-haired man with a boyish face, and struggled to recognize him.
“Dr. Goddard? Rachel?” Narrowed eyes, creased brow. “Are you all right?”
Lucas Campbell. My boss.
Suddenly I was conscious of my crushing hold on the girl and her squirming and squeals of protest.
When I released her, she stumbled backward, her eyes swimmy with tears and huge with fearful wonderment. A bloodstain blotched the shoulder of her sweatshirt.
Mrs. Coleman reappeared and lifted the girl. Still on my knees, I reached up, seized by an urge to snatch the child back from the woman. Then I dropped my arms, baffled by my own impulse.
Dr. Campbell slid a hand under my elbow and helped me to my feet.
“I told Dr. Bonelli to do whatever’s necessary,” Mrs. Coleman said. “I’m going to take Kristin home now.” She bounced the child gently and rubbed her back.
The sight of the little girl being comforted in her mother’s arms brought a bewildering wave of sorrow and longing. All I could do was nod in response to what she’d said.
Mrs. Coleman sniffled and managed a brave smile. “Maude means so much to us. We always call her our first-born.” She tried to laugh, but the sound strangled in her throat.
“We’ll do our best for her,” Dr. Campbell said.
Mrs. Coleman walked out into the rain with her daughter, who fussed and begged, wanting to know where Maudie was, why she wasn’t coming home with them.
Dr. Campbell’s hand still cupped my elbow. I met his solemn gaze briefly as I pulled my arm free. Now that the fog was clearing from my head, I realized with a jolt that I was the center of attention. People in the waiting area, a woman paying her bill at the desk, all were staring at me. I caught the eye of Alison, the young desk supervisor, and she quickly turned away, long brown curls swinging around her neck. At the same instant the other three clerks unfroze and resumed their work.
I shoved my wet bangs off my forehead and tugged at my drenched, dirty, bloody lab coat, trying to straighten it. God only knew what was going through Dr. Campbell’s mind. What could I say to redeem myself?
He spoke first, his voice so quiet I was sure only I could hear it. “Are you okay? You’re white as a ghost. What happened?”
“I’m fine.” I tried for briskness and almost succeeded. “I’d better go clean up.”
“Look, if you’ve still got patients, somebody else can take them–”
“No, I’m finished for the day, I was about to leave. I’m fine, Dr. Campbell, really.” I spun on my heel and retreated.
He let me go, but when I reached the door to the rear corridor and glanced back, he hadn’t moved or taken his eyes off me.
He might have been a boy standing there, tall and lanky and handsome, wearing jeans and athletic shoes, his hair grown shaggy between cuts. But he wasn’t a boy. He was in his mid-thirties, a respected veterinary cardiologist, and he’d recently bought this big state-of-the-art clinic for a staggering amount of money. I was a junior associate whose contract he acquired along with the building. I wanted his good opinion. Until now I’d been sure I had it.
I stepped into the hallway and closed the door, glad to be out of his sight.
In the staff restroom I stripped off my lab coat, dropped it on the floor, then spread my hands and watched them tremble. Blood on my fingers. Good God, I’d grabbed that child with bloody hands. Leaning over the sink, hot water scalding my skin, I scrubbed furiously.
Mommy. Mommy! The plaintive cry dragged me back to that vast open space where my sister and I huddled in the rain, thunder rumbling through the sky above us, so alone, alone and scared.
I gripped the cold hard rim of the sink and watched pink-tinged water swirl down the drain.
It was starting again. So many years — how long? Years of peace when I didn’t have to fear my own thoughts, and now it was starting again…