a novel by
HARPERS FERRY. WEST VIRGINIA
Claire Harte-Mathias believed you could be forced to endure only one major catastrophe in your lifetime. Once the trauma had passed, you were safe. Jon had suffered his own catastrophe long ago, and so Claire stayed close to him always, as if she could make his tragedy her own, thereby warding off one for herself. She had held tight to this notion ever since meeting Jon twenty-three years earlier, when she had been barely seventeen.
So, it never would have occurred to her that the snow falling outside their hotel in Harpers Ferry might present a danger to her and Jon on their drive home. Most of the other conference attendees were staying an extra night at the gently aging High Water Hotel to avoid driving in the storm, but Claire simply couldn’t imagine anything other than safe passage for their sixty-mile trip home to Vienna, Virginia.
The young woman behind the time-worn wooden counter wore a frown as Claire settled their bill. “It’s treacherous out there,” she said.
“We’ll be fine.” Claire looked toward the stone fireplace, where an enormous blaze burned, warming the lobby and its cozy assortment of antique and reproduction furniture. Jon sat in front of the hearth in his wheelchair. Behind him, the snow fell steadily through
the darkening sky. Jon was bending forward, elbows on knees, engaged in an animated discussion with Mary Drake, the vice-president of the Washington Area Rehabilitation Association. He was already wearing his brown leather jacket, and he held his gloves in his hand. The flames from the fire laid a sheen of gold on his cheeks and glittered in the silver that laced his brown hair. Watching him, Claire felt a rush of desire. For a moment, she entertained the idea of spending one more night in the turret room, where their bed was nestled in a circle of windows, where she could be nestled in the warm circle of Jon’s arms. It would be a relaxing night. The conference was over. They could forget about work.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay the night?” the young woman asked.
Claire let go of the fantasy, replacing it with thoughts of Susan. She smiled at the receptionist. “No,” she said. “Our daughter’s going back to William and Mary in the morning. We want to be there to say good-bye.”
She signed the credit card slip with the new, jade green fountain pen Jon had given her for her fortieth birthday and began walking toward the fireplace.
Ken Stevens suddenly appeared at her side, catching her arm. “You and Jon were an inspiration, as always,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how many times I hear the two of you speak, I always get something new out of it.”
“I’m glad, Ken. Thanks.” She embraced him warmly, his shadow of a beard scratching her cheek. “We’ll see you next year.”
Jon was laughing with Mary Drake, but he looked up as Claire approached. “Ready?” he asked.
She nodded, zipping up her red down jacket. Through the wavy glass of the hotel’s front windows, she could see their blue Jeep in the circular driveway. She had moved it there an hour earlier and stowed their suitcases inside.
“You guys are crazy to drive in this stuff.” Mary stood up and followed Claire’s gaze to the window.
Claire pulled her black knit hat low on her head, tucking her long, dark hair inside it. “It’s going to be a gorgeous drive.” She gave Mary a hug. “And we’ll have the road to ourselves.”
Jon zipped up his own jacket. He took Mary’s hand and squeezed it. “Say hi to Phil for us,” he said, and Mary bent low to buss his cheek.
“Drive carefully,” she said, and as Jon and Claire made their way to the door, those words were echoed by a half dozen of their friends in the lobby.
Outside, the cold air felt good, and the snow fell quietly from the dark sky. A thick white blanket layered the earth, illuminated by the lights from the hotel windows and puckering here and there over shrubs and other unseeable objects. “It’s so beautiful out here.” Claire stretched out her arms and tipped her head back, letting the snow chill her face for a moment.
“Mmm, it is,” Jon agreed as he wheeled through the snow. He stopped to look at the snowman Claire had coerced a few people into building with her that afternoon. He laughed. “It’s great,” he said.
The snowman, sitting in his snow wheelchair, had lost his features under a mask of white. Claire dusted the snow from the round face so Jon could see the gravel eyes and holly-berry lips. Then she turned toward the edge of the cliff, longing for one final view of that steep drop to the rivers below but settling for the memory. She could picture the rivers crashing and tumbling together in a rush of black water and white foam before finally surrendering to each other and slipping quietly into the mountains.
Jon opened the door on the driver’s side of the two-door Jeep. Claire held his chair while he picked up his legs and set his feet on the floor of the car. He grabbed the steering wheel, gathered his strength, and pulled himself up to the seat. Claire hit the quick disconnect button on the side of the wheel and had the chair disassembled and tossed into the back of the Jeep before Jon had even closed his door. She brushed the fresh snow from the windshield, then climbed into the passenger seat beside him.
Jon turned the key in the ignition, giving the Jeep a little gas with a twist of his hand control, and the engine coughed, breaking the spell of the still, white night. He looked over at Claire and smiled.
“Come here,” he said, and she leaned toward him. He kissed her, tugging a strand of her hair free of her hat. “You did a great job, Harte,” he said.
“And you were fabulous, Mathias.”
The Jeep appeared to be the only moving vehicle in all of quiet, tucked-in Harpers Ferry. The roads were covered with white, but they were not very slippery. Nevertheless, Jon used the Jeep’s four-wheel drive on the steeply descending main street through town. The darkened shops that lined the road were barely visible behind the veil of falling snow. Jon would have difficulty seeing the white line on the highway, Claire thought. That would be their biggest problem.
They had done a great deal of talking the past few days, with each other as well as with the participants at the annual conference, and now they were quiet. It was a good silence. Comfortable. Their part in the conference had gone exceedingly well. It was always that way when there were many new, sharp, fresh rehabilitation specialists in the audience, hungry to see them. Being in a workshop led by Jon and Claire Harte-Mathias was viewed almost as a rite of passage.
Jon drove slowly along the street that paralleled the Shenandoah, and Claire knew he was testing the road, getting a feel for how bad conditions were.
The Jeep skidded almost imperceptibly as they turned onto the bridge that rose high above the river, and Jon shifted into four-wheel drive again. The long ribbon of white in front of them was untouched by tire tracks. Overhead lights illuminated the falling snow and the hazy white line of the guardrail, and Claire had the sensation of floating through a cloud. She felt a little sorry for Jon that he had to concentrate on driving and couldn’t simply relish the beauty of this drive across the bridge.
They were nearly halfway across the river when she spotted something in the distance. Something ahead of them, on the left, resting at the side of the bridge. At first, she thought it was a piece of road equipment covered with snow. She squinted, as though that might help her clear her vision, and the piece of equipment moved.
“Jon, look.” She pointed toward the object. “That’s not a person, is it?”
“Out here?” Jon glanced toward the side of the bridge. “No way.” But then he looked again. They were nearly even with the object now, and Claire clearly saw a snow-covered arm lift into the air, glowing in the overhead light before dropping back again to its resting place.
“God, it is a person.” Jon stopped the Jeep in the middle of the road.
It was a woman. Claire could see the long hair, clotted white with snow, and she thought: Homeless? Mentally ill? Out of gas?
“She’s outside the guardrail,” Jon said.
“You don’t think she’s planning to do something stupid, do you?” Claire leaned forward for a better look. “Maybe she just likes to come up here when it’s snowing. I bet she has an incredible view from there.”
Jon looked at her with amused disbelief. He might as well have called her Pollyanna, as Susan frequently did.
“I’m getting out.” Claire opened her door and stepped out of the Jeep, her feet sinking into the thick layer of snow.
“Be careful,” Jon called as she closed the door behind her.
The snow was wild this high above the river, caught in the wind that blew wet and blinding against Claire’s face as she plowed her way across the bridge.
The woman wore a light cloth coat covered with a thick crust of snow. How long had she been out here? She wore no gloves, no hat. Her hair—blond?—was hidden beneath a veil of white. She had to be freezing.
Claire reached the guardrail and could see that the woman stood at the very edge of the bridge, high above the black abyss, untethered to anything.
“Miss?” Claire called.
The woman didn’t turn around.
Claire leaned over the railing. “Miss,” she called again, but the snow swallowed the word.
“Hello,” she tried. “Can you hear me? Please turn around.”
The woman stood as still as an ice sculpture.
There was a narrow break in the railing a few yards from where Claire stood. She glanced behind her at the Jeep, her view obstructed by snow and darkness. She couldn’t see Jon clearly, couldn’t signal him to call the police on the car phone, but surely he was doing so. Surely he would think of that.
Tugging the collar of her down jacket closer to her chin, Claire walked toward the break in the railing. She stepped onto the platform, which was nothing more than a few feet of slippery metal separating her from the ice and rocks and water far below. She had the immediate sensation of suspension, of hanging in the air high above the river on a slender thread of concrete. She had no fear of heights, though. She didn’t feel the magnetic pull of the open space the way others might.
She clung to the guardrail as she made her way toward the woman. Afraid of startling her, she walked very slowly. When the woman finally turned her head in Claire’s direction, though, she didn’t seem surprised to find her there, and for a moment, her eyes locked fast with Claire’s. She was young—late twenties or early thirties. In the overhead light of the bridge, her eyes were translucent, like gray ice on the surface of a midwinter lake. Her lashes were white with snow. Flakes battered her cheeks and her eyelids, yet the woman didn’t blink or make any attempt to brush them away.
Claire held tight to the rail with one mittened hand and reached toward the woman with the other. “Let me help you come behind the railing,” she said.
With an air of indifference, the woman turned slowly away from her. She looked out into the darkness expectantly, as though she could see something that Claire couldn’t, and Claire lowered her hand to her side. She glanced down at the woman’s legs. The dark pants were far too short. Her feet were clad only in white socks bunched around her ankles and in tennis shoes. The toes of those sodden-looking shoes extended an inch if not more over the edge of the slippery platform, and for the first time in her life, Claire felt the sickening pull of vertigo. She tightened her hands on the railing, but it was hard to get a good grip with her mittens. The snow had turned to tiny icy pellets that stung her cheeks and blurred her vision, and deep inside the layers of her down jacket, beneath her sweater and her turtleneck, her heart beat like that of a captured bird.
She swallowed hard and tried again. “Please,” she said, “tell me why you’re out here.”
“Leave me alone.” The woman’s voice was soft, muffled by the snow, and Claire dared to take a slippery step closer to hear her better. She could touch her now if she wanted to, but she kept the fingers of both hands curled around the metal railing. There was no feeling left in her fingertips.
“Please come back,” she said. “You’ll fall.”
The woman let out a soft, bitter laugh. “Yes,” she said into the air. “I suppose I will.”
“But you’ll die,” Claire said, feeling stupid.
The woman raised her head to the sky, shutting her eyes. “I died here a long time ago.”
“What do you mean?”
She didn’t answer.
“This is crazy,” Claire said. “Nothing can be so bad. There’s always something to live for.” Slowly, Claire let go of the railing with her right hand and reached toward the woman. She circled her hand around the woman’s wrist, struck by how reed-thin her arm was inside her coat. The woman didn’t react to Claire’s touch. She didn’t even seem to notice.
Suddenly, she cocked her head to one side. “Do you hear it?” she asked. “Chopin?”
“Nocturne in C-sharp Minor.”
Claire strained her ears but heard nothing other than the muted sound of falling snow. “No,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t hear anything.”
“That was his problem, too. He could never hear the music.”
“Whose problem? Chopin’s? What do you mean?”
The woman didn’t answer, and now Claire thought she could hear something other than the snow. She listened hard. Yes. A siren, far in the distance. A city sound, out of place here as it sifted toward them through the black-and-white night.
The woman heard it too. Her head jerked toward Harpers Ferry, and Claire felt a spasm run through that slender, birdlike body. The woman gave Claire the look of someone betrayed.
“You called the police,” she said.
Claire nodded. “My husband did.”
“Let go of me,” the woman said evenly.
“Tell me what you meant about the music,” Claire prompted. Her own legs were trembling, and the stinging snow pelted her eyes. “Tell me what you can hear.” Tell me anything. Just don’t jump. Please.
The siren cut through the air, through the snow. Glancing over her shoulder, Claire saw a red light flashing at the entrance to the bridge. Hurry.
The woman locked her gaze with Claire’s again, but now her eyes were wide and full of fear. Claire tightened her grip on the bony forearm. “It’s going to be all right,” she said. “You’re going to be safe.”
The woman twisted her arm beneath Claire’s hand in its black mitten. “Let go of me,” she said. The first siren was joined by a second. One of the police cars screeched to a stop behind the Jeep. “Let go!” the woman shouted now.
Claire only locked her hand more securely around the woman’s wrist. “Let me help you,” she said.
The woman raised her head high again, her eyes still riveted on Claire’s, and when she spoke, her voice was even and unflinching. “Let go,” she said, “or I’ll take you with me.”
She meant it, Claire knew. Behind them, there was a squeal of brakes, a rush of voices. A horn honked. The woman didn’t shift her eyes from Claire’s for even a second. “Let go now,” she said.
Claire opened the fingers of her hand, and the woman offered a small smile of victory, or perhaps gratitude. She didn’t leap so much as fly from the bridge, or fall so much as be lifted and carried by the snow. The streetlight glittered in the thousands of ice crystals clinging to her hair and her coat, and Claire thought she was watching an angel.
She didn’t think to scream. She barely breathed, suspended between the earthbound sounds of the men and machines behind her and the drifting, fading glimmer of the angel below. She barely noticed the heavy, gloved hands that wrapped around her own arms, her own shoulders. Hands that struggled to tug her back from the edge of the bridge. She tried to block out the voices, too loud in her ears, as she stared into the snowy abyss, because—at least for a second—she thought she heard the music after all.
Jon could hear Claire’s teeth chattering nonstop during the two hours they spent in the police station. The police had questioned her at length, not in an interrogatory style but gently, and Jon felt grateful to them for their sensitivity. Claire was in no shape to be raked over the coals.
Someone—he could no longer recall who—had draped a gray wool blanket over Claire’s shoulders, and she sat on one of the metal chairs lining the wall of this small office. He had moved another chair out of the way so he could wheel close enough to put his arm around her. Her shoulders felt stiff beneath his arm, though, as if she couldn’t relax enough to take comfort from him.
The police had driven her to the station, while he’d followed in the Jeep. They’d wanted to take her to the hospital. She was in shock, they’d told him. But Claire had adamantly refused to go, insisting she was fine. They were overreacting, she’d said. Jon knew, though, that Claire was not fine. He had seen her in the emergency room after Susan’s grisly bicycle accident. He’d seen her seconds after she’d discovered her mother’s lifeless body in their living room. Yet he had never seen her like this. So shaken. So shivery. She hadn’t cried, but that was not unusual. She never did, at least not in front of him. She was a soft touch at movies or when reading sad books,
but in real life she held those tears inside her as though they might turn to acid once on her cheeks.
They were waiting now for the police to find them a place to stay for the night. They could have returned to the High Water, but the thought of having to explain what had happened to them tonight to so many friends and colleagues was overwhelming.
He kissed the side of Claire’s head, his lips brushing the dark hair where it was beginning to give way to silver. “We should call Susan,” he said, and she nodded. The sound of her teeth chattering made him want to wrap both his arms around her. He pulled the edges of the blanket more snugly across her chest, then tried to meet her eyes, but her gaze only darted past him on its way to nowhere. He looked at Detective Patrick, the burly, kind-faced officer behind the desk.
“May I use that?” He pointed to the phone at the edge of the desk.
Jon wheeled forward a foot or two and lifted the phone into his lap. It was nearly eight o’clock. He thought Susan might be out with her friends, but she answered on the fourth ring.
“Hi. You still in Harpers Ferry?”
“Yes. We’re going to have to stay here the night, hon.”
“Oh, sure. No problem. It’s pretty awful out.”
He thought he detected relief in her voice, and he felt a jab of pain. Susan had reached the age—nineteen—where she needed them far less than they needed her. Sometime during this past year, he’d finally admitted to himself that she had labored to graduate early from high school not because she was brilliant or an over-achiever but because she was anxious to leave home, anxious to escape from him and Claire. He had never shared that thought with Claire. He would let her believe they had an ambitious daughter, hungry for college.
“We were on our way home, but…” He let his voice trail off as he collected his thoughts. He was going to have to find a way to tell this story. This wouldn’t be the last time he would have to recount the events of this evening. “There was a woman standing on the bridge outside of Harpers Ferry and we stopped to try to help her, but she … she jumped off while Mom was talking to her.”
Susan was quiet for a moment. He could picture her leaning against the kitchen counter in her tight jeans and oversized gray sweater, her long brown hair falling in a shiny swath over her shoulder. A cloud would have fallen over her large dark eyes and she would be frowning, two delicate lines etched into the perfect fair skin of her forehead. “You mean, this lady committed suicide right before your eyes?”
“I’m afraid so. Right before Mom’s eyes, anyhow. Mom was out on the edge of the bridge with her, trying to talk her out of jumping.”
There was one more beat of loaded silence from Susan’s end of the line. “What do you mean, out on the edge of the bridge?” she asked.
“Outside the guardrail.”
He heard a sound through the phone—a book being slammed onto a table, perhaps—before Susan spoke again. “God, why does she do things like that?” she asked, her voice rising. “Is she there? Can I talk to her?”
He glanced at Claire. “She’s a little upset right now, and—”
Claire shook her head and reached for the phone, the blanket falling from her shoulders to the chair. Reluctantly, Jon relinquished the receiver.
“Hi, honey,” Claire said cheerfully. Detective Patrick looked up from his desk at the transformation in her voice. “We’re fine. . . . Hmm?” She frowned at Jon as she listened to her daughter. “No, Susan, I don’t think I can save the world,” she said, “I just thought I might be able to help one person.” She nodded. “Yes, I know. And I’m so sorry we won’t get to see you tonight. I’m going to put Dad on again, okay?”
He took the phone back and immediately heard a volley of chatter from Claire’s teeth, as though they were making up for the minute and a half they’d had to be still while talking with Susan.
“Susie?” he said into the phone.
“She could have gotten herself killed.” There was a small break in Susan’s voice, and Jon heard the love behind her words. He ached to see his daughter, to hug her, before she took off for school again.
“Mom’s okay,” he said. With a little surge of joy, he thought of the snow. Susan wouldn’t be able to drive back to school until the roads were clear. “I guess we’ll still get to see you tomorrow,” he added. “You can’t drive to school in this weather.”
“Yes, I can. Or at least, I’ve got a ride. I’ll have to come back in a few weeks for my car, though.”
“Who are you riding with?”
“There’s this guy here who has some kind of four-wheel-drive wagon. He’s taking a bunch of us down.”
Jon winced at the thought. “Well, tell him to drive carefully, all right?”
She let out one of her exasperated sighs. “Right.”
“I love you.”
“Okay. You drive carefully, too.”
He hung up the phone, setting it back on the desk, and Claire let out a sigh of her own. “I’m going to the rest room,” she said. She stood up, pulling the blanket once more around her shoulders.
After she had left the room, Detective Patrick raised his eyes to Jon’s. “Do you mind a personal question?” he asked.
Jon shook his head.
The older man looked down at his desk, rubbing a hand over his jowly chin. “Well, I’m asking this because my nephew just got a back injury.” He lifted his eyes to Jon’s. “A spinal cord injury, they call it.”
Jon nodded again.
“And, you know, you see people in wheelchairs and you don’t think about it much until it happens close to you, and now it looks like he’s going to be paralyzed and … well, do you mind if I ask what happened to you?”
“It was an accident in my case, too,” Jon said. “My family and I were in a plane crash.” He wouldn’t tell him that it was his family’s private plane. He didn’t want this man to focus on wealth. “I was sixteen. My parents and sister were killed, and I was in a coma for a few months. When I woke up, they told me I’d never walk again.”
The detective’s eyes were wide. “Shit,” he said.
“And your nephew?”
“Motorcycle. They say he’s a T-four. Do you know what that means?”
“Yeah.” Jon touched his own chest at the level of the boy’s spinal cord injury. This kid was not going to have an easy time of it. “I’m an incomplete L-three,” he said, although he doubted that would have much meaning to the detective.
He questioned the man about the rehab program his nephew was in and offered to make a call to the program director—a woman he’d known well for many years—to check on the boy.
Detective Patrick wrote his nephew’s name on a business card and handed it to Jon. “I feel better talking to you,” he said. “I mean, it seemed like it was the end of the world for the kid, you know? But now I look at you”—he gestured toward Jon—”and you get around okay and you’ve got a pretty wife and all. And you must have met her after you were …” The officer pointed to Jon’s wheelchair.
“Yes. We met in high school.”
“Aha.” The man smiled. “High school sweethearts, huh?”
Jon smiled himself, remembering. “Not of the usual variety.” He had moved in with an aunt in Falls Church after his six-month stay in a rehab program, transferring into Claire’s public high school after a decade of being pampered by private schools. He could still, if he let the memories in, taste the bitterness of that year after the accident. He had lost everything. But then Claire drew him under her protective wing. They began dating. Neither of them ever dated anyone else again.
“And you have a kid?” The detective nodded toward the phone, his voice tentative, and Jon laughed. He knew exactly what the man was thinking.
“Yes, she’s mine,” he said. For years, he and Claire had counseled couples where one of the partners was disabled, and they had learned that sharing personal experience was sometimes more helpful than anything else they might say. He could talk about Susan’s parentage without an ounce of discomfort, but Detective Patrick colored.
Jon worried he had given the man false hope. “I was very lucky,” he added. “It’s rare for a man with a spinal cord injury to be able to father a child, and we weren’t able to have other children.”
The older man shifted in his seat. “Well, that’s great you got the one.” He poked at a stack of papers on his desk. “Do you think my nephew stands a chance in that department?”
Jon drew in a breath. “I wouldn’t want to guess. Everybody’s different.” He saw the pain in the man’s eyes. “He’ll do okay,” he said. “He’s in a fine program. They’ll take good care of him.”
Claire had walked back into the room as he was speaking, and he was struck by her pallor. She was still beautiful, though. She was one of those women who was far more striking at forty than she had been at eighteen. Her sharp features had softened. Even the vivid green of her eyes seemed to have mellowed over time.
Struggling to smile at him, she sat down again and took the hand he offered. Her fingers were cold and damp.
A female officer appeared in the doorway to let them know they had a room at a nearby bed and breakfast, one that was ramped for a wheelchair. Claire stood up, folding the blanket, and faced the detective.
“When you find out who she is,” she said, “will you call and let me know?”
“Sure will,” he said.
Outside, the snow had nearly stopped, but the air was still blustery and cold. Claire was quiet on their cautious drive to the bed and breakfast, and she was merely polite to the owners of the small inn, when her usual style was to make instant friends of anyone she met. Jon was scared by her silence. It wasn’t until they were lying under the thick comforter in the canopy bed that she began to talk.
“I should have held on to her,” she said.
He pulled her close to him. “You did as much as anyone could have done.”
“Maybe if I’d held on, she wouldn’t have jumped. And then if she did jump, I could have simply let go of her at the last minute.” She was quiet a moment. “It’s like I gave her permission to do it, Jon. I let go, and said, fine, go ahead, end your life. I was the last person to have a chance with her and I failed. Maybe if we hadn’t called the police. That’s when she freaked out.”
“Are you aware that you’re talking nonsense?”
She shivered. “I can’t get warm.” She’d worn nothing to bed, and her skin felt chilled against his chest.
“Do you want one of my T-shirts?”
“No. Just keep holding me, please.”
He rubbed her arm. “Shall we try the carousel?”
“Mmm.” She snuggled closer to him. “Yes.”
He closed his eyes, pressing his cheek against her hair. “Once upon a time, on a big and beautiful farm in Jeremy, Pennsylvania, there was an enormous red barn.”
Claire cocked her head against his shoulder. “Do you think it really was enormous, or do you think I just remember it that way because I was so small?”
“Does it matter?”
She nearly giggled. “No.”
“It looked like an ordinary barn, although certainly a very well-cared-for barn, because the farmer who owned it was the type to take very good care of the things and the people he loved.”
“This farmer had two little granddaughters who loved going into the ordinary-looking barn, because inside there was an extraordinary carousel. There were many beautiful horses on the carousel, and some empty spaces where more horses would go when the farmer had finished carving them out of the big blocks of musky-smelling wood he kept in his workroom.”
“At the side of the barn.”
“Yes. The workroom at the side of the barn. One of the little granddaughters had a favorite horse—a white horse with a wild golden mane—named Titan. And she liked to—”
“And he was a jumper,” Claire added.
“Yes. He was one of the jumpers on the carousel. That’s why his mane was so wild. And Claire liked to climb on his back and pretend she was a cowgirl.”
“And try to grab the ring.”
“Right. She’d try to grab the brass ring so her grandfather would let her go around again.”
“It’s working,” Claire mumbled against his chest. “You’re so good at this.”
He knew it was working. Her body was growing warm next to him. The tension was gone.
“The organ played ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon,’ and the little granddaughter would gallop around the barn on her beautiful horse, and she’d feel the most extraordinary sense of joy and peace, there on her grandfather’s carousel.”
“Mmm. I love you so much, Jon.”
“Love you, too.”
Within minutes she was asleep. Her body was warm and heavy next to him, her breathing almost too soft to hear. The air in the room was dark and still; if there was any light outside the windows, the heavy shades didn’t let it in. He lay awake, staring at the black ceiling, wishing he could fall asleep and escape the sense of powerlessness that had been haunting him all evening.
He had long ago come to grips with his limitations, but the helplessness he’d felt tonight as he watched Claire struggle with the woman on the edge of the bridge had been different. It had felt like an enemy, a taunting foe he could never defeat. He had watched that scene unfold in terror, thinking that both women would slip on the icy platform, both women would plunge to their deaths. For a long dark moment, he’d thought he would lose his wife, and although he had been no more than a few yards from her, he’d been powerless to save her. He couldn’t recall another time in his adult life when he had felt so utterly helpless.
The image of the woman and Claire seemed etched on the ceiling of this room. He closed his eyes, but the scene sprang to life on the backs of his eyelids. No matter how hard he tried to wipe the memory from his mind, it slipped back in, again and again, and he wished he had a carousel of his own to carry him through the night.
The phone rang on Claire’s office desk. She was about to ignore it, but then remembered that Jill, her secretary, was not in today to pick it up. Most of the foundation’s employees were still digging out from the storm.
Claire lifted the receiver to her ear.
“I’d like to speak with Mrs. . . . uh, Harte-Mathias, please?” The raspy male voice sounded vaguely familiar.
“This is she.”
“Uh, hello. This is Detective Patrick in Harpers Ferry. You wanted to know when we identified that suicide.”
“Yes.” Claire sat up straight. “Did you find out who she is?”
“Her name was Margot St. Pierre, and she—”
“Margot, with a’t’?”
Claire jotted the name on a notepad.
“They finally found her late last night. The body’d gotten caught in the rocks about a quarter mile from the bridge. She fit the description of a woman who’d been reported missing from Avery Hospital in Martinsburg. That’s a mental—uh, a psychiatric hospital.”
“How far is Martinsburg from Harpers Ferry?”
“Twenty-five, thirty miles. She’d just walked out of the hospital Sunday morning, according to the staff there. No one realized she was missing until that evening. They didn’t have her in a locked ward, because she’d never given any indication of being a danger to herself or anyone else in the three years she’d been there.”
“Three years?” Claire looked out her office window at the leafless, ice-coated trees.
“Yeah. Don’t know why she was in that long. So, anyway, a fella picked her up outside Martinsburg. She had her thumb out and said she wanted to go to the bridge in Harpers Ferry. The guy called us late last night. Said he’d read about a woman jumping off the bridge and thought he’d better report what he knew. He said he refused to drop her off at the bridge, what with the snow and all, so she told him to take her to a certain house nearby, which he did. He didn’t see her go in, though. We checked at the house. No one there knew of her, and she never went inside. Trying to throw the guy off her trail, I suspect.”
Claire tapped her pen on the top of her desk. “Is there any family?” she asked. “Someone who cares about her, who should know what happened to her?”
“I don’t have that data right in front of me, ma’am. Sorry.”
They talked for another moment or two, but it was obvious that Detective Patrick had little other information to offer.
Claire hung up the phone, her eyes on the name she’d written on her notepad. Margot St. Pierre. A beautiful name. If she’d heard it spoken by a stranger on the street, the name would have stayed in her mind for days. The fact that it belonged to the woman on the bridge meant she would never be able to forget it. No matter how much she wanted to.
It was nearly noon. Claire’s morning had been long and full, despite the quiet, abandoned climate of the foundation offices. She had called the rehabilitation therapists she usually supervised on Tuesdays to cancel their meeting because of the weather, but Kelley Fielding, one of the graduate students doing her internship at the foundation, had broken into tears at that news. Needless to say, Claire had invited her to come in.
She’d listened to Kelley berate herself over her inability to work effectively with the angry, belligerent young men who made up the bulk of the foundation’s rehab patients. They scared her, she said. She was useless with them.
Claire tried to get the young intern to see that her patients’ hostility was only a mask for their fear. “Imagine waking up one day and having your life completely changed,” she said. “Changed for good. Forever. The plans you had for yourself are gone. The goals you’d set for yourself are out of your reach. You can’t work at your former job. You can’t even go to the bathroom the way you used to. And you certainly can’t make love the way you used to. These guys were macho and independent at one time. Now they wonder if they’ll ever be able to do anything for themselves again. They’re terrified men trying to cope the only way they know how.”
“I just wish they could be a little less combative,” Kelley had said.
“They have fight in them.” Claire pounded a fist on her desk. “That’s terrific. It gives you so much to work with.”
Kelley had looked relieved and relaxed by the end of their meeting. She told Claire that she’d applied to do her internship at the foundation primarily to be able to work under her supervision. “I’ve never known anyone who could turn a negative into a positive the way you do,” she said. “And you always manage to get me to see things through my patients’ eyes.”
It was easy for Claire to understand what Kelley’s patients were going through. She was married to someone who’d been there.
Now, with the long morning behind her, Claire dialed the number for Jon’s office on the other side of the building.
“Are you ready for a break?” she asked.
She ran a fingertip over Margot’s name on her notepad. “I just heard from the Harpers Ferry police.”
“What did they say?”
“I’ll tell you when I get there.”
She got off the phone and stood up, and the room whirled around her for a second before coming to a standstill. That dizziness—that sudden vertigo—had seized her several times over the last two days. Twice last night, she’d awakened with a start, thinking she was still suspended on the slippery edge of the bridge.
She walked toward the door, knees trembling. There was a stiffness in her shoulders and back. She’d spent the afternoon before shoveling snow from the walks around their house while Jon rode the snowblower in the long driveway that stretched through the woods to the main road.
Leaving her boots in her office, she padded through the maze of gray-carpeted hallways in her socks. The glassy, three-story foundation building was set high above a small pond in a wooded section of Vienna. Jon’s office was in what they referred to as the “financial side” of the foundation while her office was in the “service side.” Jon was head of the financial side, determining what rehab-oriented programs would receive foundation funds, while she supervised the therapists working with the foundation’s outpatient program. There was a great deal of overlap in their work. They were a team. They planned the foundation’s annual Spinal Cord Injury Retreat together. They never spoke at a conference or led a workshop or counseled a couple without one another. People expected to see them together, and they had learned to play off each other’s cues very well.
She glanced into Pat Wykowski’s empty corner office as she passed it, wishing the foundation’s part-time psychologist had come in today. Pat might have been able to offer some insight into Margot St. Pierre’s behavior—or maybe into her own. But Pat, whom Jon affectionately referred to as a party animal, was still up in Harpers Ferry with a few other die-hard conference attendees, dragging out the recreational element of the conference, making the most of the snowstorm.
Claire stopped at the kitchenette, picked up their bagged lunches and a couple of Cokes, then walked into Jon’s office. He was sitting in his wheelchair behind his desk, talking on the phone. Claire pulled their sandwiches from the bags, along with his apple and her orange, and set them on paper plates. Then she sat down across the desk from him. When he hung up, he sighed.
“Are we overbooked for next month or can you handle one more workshop?” he asked.
She laughed. “Do you need to ask?” They never turned down an opportunity to talk to students. Never.
“And guess what?”
“We’ve got an invitation to the Accessibility Conference in Baltimore next month.”
“Fantastic.” She tried to get some zest in her voice, without success. It was truly terrific news, but she couldn’t seem to shake herself free from Detective Patrick’s phone call. “Would you like to know what I learned from the police?” she asked.
“Of course.” If he was put off by her lackluster response to his news about the conference, he didn’t show it. He took a bite from his sandwich and looked at her expectantly.
She repeated the information Detective Patrick had relayed to her, and he listened with interest. He even asked a few questions, but when she had told him all she knew, he glanced at his watch.
“We’ll have to figure out the best way to handle the Accessibility Conference,” he said. “We have to make the most of this invitation. Do you think we should host a reception in the hotel?”
His voice sounded far away. She rubbed her temples with the tips of her fingers. “I’m sorry, Jon. I’m having trouble thinking about anything other than Margot right now.”
He looked at her over the rim of his Coke can. “You sound as though she was a personal friend. She was a stranger, Claire. And you did all you could for her.”
She sighed, looking down at the untouched sandwich on its paper plate. “I know.”
Jon leaned forward to reach across the desk, and she met his hand halfway with her own. “I think about the other night sometimes, too,” he said. “It feels like a dream to me. The snow. The darkness. I feel as though it didn’t really happen.”
She wished she shared that sense of unreality. Every detail of those few minutes on the bridge was sharp and clear in her mind, and her body jerked involuntarily just thinking about it. She tightened her grip on his hand.
Jon was looking at her oddly. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine.” She let her hand slip from the desk to her lap. “I just wish I knew what her diagnosis was. Why was she in the hospital for so long?”
“Well, we can guess.” Jon shifted in his chair. He seemed tired and restless, as he always did when he’d missed a few days at the gym. “Three years is a long, long time. She was delusional. Hallucinating. Obviously psychotic. And obviously a danger to herself.”
Claire leaned forward. “But was she always that way? And who was she really? Did she have any family? Did she leave any children behind?”
Jon gave her a wry smile. “You really can’t let go of this, can you?”
She ran her fingertip around the rim of her Coke can. “I think I need to understand, for my own peace of mind, why she would do what she did.”
Jon balled up his lunch bag and tossed it, with perfect aim, into the wastepaper basket in the corner. “Two points,” he said with a satisfied nod of his head. He looked at Claire again. “Maybe you need to prepare yourself for the fact that there might not be any answers.”
She barely heard him. She looked out the window at the snow-covered trees. “Margot St. Pierre,” she said. “Someone once cared enough about her to give her a beautiful name.”