Wilmington, North Carolina
She sat on the top step of the front porch of her Sunset Park bungalow, leaning against the post, her eyes on the full moon. She would miss all this: The night sky. Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks. September air that felt like satin against her skin. She resisted the pull of her bedroom. The pills. Not yet. She had time. She could sit here all night if she wanted.
Lifting her arm, she outlined the circle of the moon with her fingertip. Felt her eyes burn. I love you, world, she whispered.
The weight of the secret pressed down on her suddenly, and she dropped her hand to her lap, heavy as a stone. When she’d awakened that morning, she’d had no idea that this would be the day she could no longer carry that weight. As recently as this evening, she’d hummed as she chopped celery and cucumbers and tomatoes for her salad, thinking of the fair-haired preemie born the day before–a fragile little life who needed her help. But when she sat down with her salad in front of the computer, it was as though two beefy, muscular arms reached out from her monitor and pressed their hands down hard on her head, her shoulders, compressing her lungs so that she couldn’t pull in a full breath.
The very shape of the letters on her screen clawed at her brain and she knew it was time. She felt no fear-certainly no panic-as she turned off the computer. She left the salad, barely touched, on her desk. No need for it now. No desire for it. She got everything ready; it wasn’t difficult. She’d been preparing for this night for a long time. Once all was in order, she came out to the porch to watch the moon and feel the satin air and fill her eyes and lungs and ears with the world one last time. She had no expectation of a change of heart. The relief in her decision was too great, so great that by the time she finally got to her feet, just as the moon slipped behind the trees across the street, she was very nearly smiling.
Going upstairs to call Grace for dinner was becoming a habit. I knew I’d find her sitting at her computer, ear buds in her ears so she couldn’t hear me when I tried to call her from the kitchen. Did she do that on purpose? I knocked on her door, then pushed it open a few inches when she didn’t answer. She was typing, her attention glued to her monitor. “Dinner’s almost ready, Grace,” I said. “Please come set the table.”
Twitter, our Goldendoodle, had been stretched out beneath Grace’s bare feet, but at the mention of “dinner” he was instantly at my side. Not so my daughter.
“In a minute,” she said. “I have to finish this.”
I couldn’t see the screen from where I stood, but I was quite sure she was typing email rather than doing her homework. I knew she was still behind. That was what happened when you taught at your child’s high school; you always knew what was going on academically. Grace had been an excellent student and one of the best writers at Hunter High, but that all changed when Sam died in March. Everyone cut her slack during the spring and I was hoping she’d pull it together this fall, but then Cleve broke up with her before he left for college, sending her into a tailspin. At least I assumed it was the breakup that had pulled her deeper into her shell. How could I really know what was going on with her? She wouldn’t talk to me. My daughter had become a mystery. A closed book. I was starting to think of her as the stranger who lived upstairs.
I leaned against the door jamb and studied my daughter. We had the same light brown hair dusted with the same salon-manufactured blond highlights, but her long, thick mane had the smooth shiny glow that came with being sixteen years old. Somewhere along the way, my chin length hair had lost its luster.
“I’m making pasta with pesto,” I said. “It’ll be done in two minutes.”
“Is Ian still here?” She kept typing but glanced quickly out the window, where I supposed she could see Ian’s Lexus parked on the street.
“He’s staying for dinner,” I said.
“He might as well move in,” she said. “He’s here all the time anyway.”
I was shocked. She’d never said a word about Ian’s visits before, and he only came over once or twice a week now that Sam’s estate was settled. “No, he’s not,” I said. “And he’s been a huge help with all the paperwork, honey. Plus, he has to take over all Daddy’s cases and some of his records are here in his home office, so–”
“Whatever.” Grace hunched her shoulders up to her ears as she typed as if she could block out my voice that way. She stopped typing for a second, wrinkling her nose at her screen. Then she glanced up at me. “Can you tell Noelle to leave me alone?” she asked.
“Noelle? What do you mean?”
“She’s always emailing me. She wants me and Jenny to–”
“Jenny and me.”
She rolled her eyes and I cringed. Stupid, stupid. I wanted her to talk to me and then I critiqued what she said. “Never mind,” I said. “What does she want you and Jenny to do?”
“Make things for her babies-in-need program.” She waved her hand toward her monitor. “Now she’s on this ‘community work will look great on your college applications’ kick.”
“Well, it will.”
“She’s such a total whack job.” She started typing again, fingers flying. “If you could compare her brain with a normal brain on an MRI, I’m sure they’d look completely different.”
I had to smile. Grace might be right. “Well, she brought you into the world and I’ll always be grateful for that,” I said.
“She never lets me forget it, either.”
I heard the timer ringing downstairs. “Dinner’s ready,” I said. “Come on.”
“Two seconds.” She got to her feet, bending over the desk, still typing furiously. Suddenly she let out a yelp, hands to her face. She took a step back from the keyboard. “Oh no.” she said.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh no.” She said again, whispering the words this time as she dropped back into her chair, eyes closed.
“What is it, sweetie?” I started toward her as if I might somehow be able to fix whatever was wrong, but she waved me away.
“It’s nothing.” She stared at her monitor. “And I’m not hungry.”
“You have to eat,” I said. “You hardly ever eat dinner with me anymore.”
“I’ll get some cereal later,” she said. “Just. . . right now, I have to fix something. Okay?” She gave me a look that said our conversation was over, and I backed away, nodding.
“Okay,” I said, then added helplessly, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“She’s having a meltdown,” I said to Ian as I walked into the kitchen. “And she’s not hungry.”
Ian was chopping tomatoes for the salad but he turned to look at me. “Maybe I should go,” he said.
“No way.” I spooned the pesto-coated rigatoni into my big white pasta bowls. “Someone needs to help me eat all this food. Anyway, it’s not you that’s keeping her away. It’s me. She avoids me all she can.” I didn’t want Ian to leave. There was comfort in his company. He’d been Sam’s law partner and close friend for more than fifteen years and I wanted to be with someone who’d known my husband well and had loved him. Ian had been my rock since Sam’s death, handling everything from the cremation to the living trust to managing our investments. How did people survive a devastating loss without an Ian in their lives?
Ian set the bowls of pasta on the kitchen table, then poured himself a glass of wine. “I think she worries I’m trying to take Sam’s place,” he said. He ran a hand over his thinning blond hair. He was one of those men who would look good bald, but I knew he wasn’t looking forward to that prospect.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” I said, but I remembered Grace mentioning that he might as well move in. Should I have asked her why she said that? Not that she would have answered me.
I sat down across the table from Ian and slipped the tines of my fork into a tube of rigatoni I didn’t really feel like eating. I’d lost twenty pounds since Sam died. “I miss my little Gracie.” I bit my lip, looking into Ian’s dark eyes behind his glasses. “When she was younger, she’d follow me everywhere around the house. She’d crawl into my lap to cuddle and I’d sing to her and read to her and. . . ” I shrugged. I’d known how to be a good mother to that little girl, but she was long gone.
“I imagine everyone feels that way when their kids become teenagers,” Ian said. He had no kids of his own. Forty-five and he’d never even been married, which would be suspect in another man but we’d all just accepted it in Ian. He’d come close long ago–with Noelle–and I didn’t think he’d ever quite recovered from the sudden ending of that relationship.
“Sam would have known what to say to her.” I heard the frustration in my voice. “I love her so much, but she was Sam’s daughter. He was our . . . our translator. Our intermediary.” It was true. Sam and Grace had been two quiet souls with no need to speak to one another to communicate. “You could feel the connection between them when you’d walk into a room where they were sitting, even if one of them was on the computer and the other reading. You could feel it.”
“You’re such a perfectionist, Tara,” Ian said. “You have this expectation of yourself that you can be a perfect parent, but there’s no such thing.”
“You know what they loved to do?” I smiled to myself, stuck in my memory, which was where I was spending a lot of my time lately. “Sometimes I’d have a late meeting and I’d come home and find them sitting in the family room, watching a movie together, drinking some coffee concoction they’d invented.”
“Sam and his coffee.” Ian laughed. “All day long. He had a cast iron gut.”
“He turned Grace into a caffeine addict by the time she was fourteen.” I nibbled a piece of pasta. “She misses him like crazy.”
“Me too,” Ian said. He poked at his rigatoni.
“And then to have Cleve break up with her so soon after. . . ” I shook my head. My baby girl was hurting. “I wish she were a little more like me,” I said, and then realized that was unfair. “Or that I was a little more like her. I just wish we had something more in common. Some activity we could share, but we’re so different. Everyone at school talks about it. The other teachers, I mean. I think they expected her to be into theater, like me.”
“I think there’s a law there can only be one drama queen in a family,” Ian said, and I kicked him beneath the table.
“I’m not a drama queen,” I said. “But I’ve always thought the theatre could be so good for her, don’t you think? It would get her out of her shell.” “She’s just quiet. It’s not a crime to be an introvert.”
Not a crime, no, but as someone whose need to be with other people bordered on the pathological, I had trouble understanding my daughter’s shyness. Grace loathed any social event that involved more than one or two people, while–as my father used to say–“Tara can talk the ears off a stalk of corn.”
“Is she talking about getting her driver’s license yet?”
I shook my head. Grace was afraid of driving since Sam died. Even when I drove her someplace, I could feel her tension in the car. “I mentioned it a couple of times, but she doesn’t want to talk about it,” I said. “She would have talked to Sam about it, though.” I slipped my fork into another piece of pasta. Sitting there with Ian, I was suddenly slammed by the reality that could catch me unawares at any moment–in the middle of my classroom, while casting the junior play, while doing the laundry: Sam was never coming back. He and I would never make love again. I’d never again be able to talk to him in bed at night. I’d never again feel his arms around me when I woke up in the morning. He’d not only been my husband but my dearest and oldest friend, and how many women could say that about the man they married?
We were loading the dishwasher when my phone rang, the electronic tones of All That Jazz filling the kitchen. I dried my hands and glanced at the caller ID. “It’s Emerson,” I said to Ian. “Do you mind if I take it?”
“Of course not.” Ian was even more addicted to his Blackberry than I was. He had no room to complain.
“Hey Em,” I said into the phone. “What’s up?”
“Have you spoken to Noelle?” Emerson asked. It sounded like she was in her car.
“Are you driving? Do you have your headset on?” I pictured her holding her cell phone to her ear, her long curly brown hair spilling over her hand. “Otherwise I’m not talking to–”
“Yes, I have it on. Don’t worry.”
“Good.” I’d become uber-conscientious about using a cell phone in the car since Sam’s accident.
“So have you spoken to her in the last couple of days?” Emerson asked.
“Um. . . ” I thought back. “Three days ago, maybe? Why?”
“I’m on my way over there. I haven’t been able to reach her. Do you remember her talking about going away or anything?”
I tried to remember my last conversation with Noelle. We’d talked about the big birthday bash she, Emerson and I were planning for Suzanne Johnson, one of the volunteers for Noelle’s babies program . . . and Cleve’s mother. The party had been Noelle’s idea, but I was overjoyed to have something to keep me busy. “I don’t remember her saying anything about a trip,” I said.
Ian glanced at me. I was sure he knew who we were talking about.
“Not in a long time,” Emerson said.
“You sound worried.”
Ian touched my arm, mouthed “Noelle?” and I nodded.
“I thought she was coming over last night,” Emerson said, “but she didn’t show. I must have. . . Hey!” She interrupted herself. “Son of a bitch! Sorry. The car in front of me just stopped for no reason whatsoever.”
“Please be careful,” I said. “Let’s get off.”
“No, no. It’s fine.” I heard her let out her breath. “Anyway, we must have gotten our wires crossed, but now I can’t reach her so I thought I’d stop in on my way home fromHot!” Hot! was the new café’ Emerson had recently opened down by the waterfront.
“She’s probably out collecting baby donations.”
It was like Emerson to worry. She was good-hearted and caring, and no one ever described her without using the word nice. Jenny was the same way, and I loved that my daughter and the daughter of my best friend were also best friends.
“I’m in Sunset Park now and about to turn onto Noelle’s street,” Emerson said. “We’ll talk later?”
“Tell Noelle I said ‘hi’.”
I hung up the phone and looked at Ian. “Noelle was supposed to go over Emerson’s last night and never showed up, so Em’s stopping by her house to make sure everything’s okay.”
“Ah,” he said. “I’m sure she’s fine.” He looked at his watch. “I’d better go and let you take some food up to Grace.” He leaned over to kiss my cheek. “Thanks for dinner, and I’ll pick up the rest of Sam’s files in a couple of days, all right?”
I watched him go. I thought about heating up a bowl of the pasta for Grace, but I doubted she’d appreciate it and I frankly didn’t want to feel her coolness toward me again that evening. Instead, I started cleaning the granite countertops–a task which I found soothing until I found myself face to face with the magnetized picture on the refrigerator of Sam, Grace and myself. We were standing on the Riverwalk on a late summer evening a little more than a year ago. I leaned back against the island and stared at my little family and wished I could turn back time.
Stop it, I told myself, and I started cleaning the counters again.
I pictured Emerson arriving at Noelle’s, giving her my greeting. I talked to Noelle a couple of times a week, but I hadn’t seen her face-to-face in a while. Not since she’d shown up at my door on a Saturday evening in late July, when Grace was out with Jenny and Cleve and I was sorting through Sam’s desk in our den. I’d found combing through his desk agonizing. Touching all those things he’d so recently touched himself. I had piles of papers on the floor, neatly stacked. I would give them to Ian, because I couldn’t tell if the documents and letters were related to any cases Sam might have been working on. Ian was still having trouble making sense of Sam’s files. Sam was sloppy. His desk was a roll top and we’d had an agreement: He could keep the desk as disorganized as he liked as long as I didn’t need to see the mess. I’d give anything to see that mess right now.
I realized only later why Noelle had come that night. She knew from Emerson that Grace was out with Jenny. She knew I would be alone, on a Saturday night, when it felt as though everyone in the world was part of a couple except me. The summer was hard, since I didn’t have my teaching job to throw myself into and I wasn’t involved in any production at the community playhouse. Noelle knew she would find me sad or frustrated or angry-some emotion that made me too vulnerable to be around other people but safe with her. We were all safe with her, and she was always there for us.
I’d slumped in Sam’s desk chair while she sat on the loveseat and asked me how I was doing. Whenever people asked me that question, I’d answer “fine,” but it seemed pointless to pretend with Noelle. She would never believe me.
“Everyone’s tiptoeing around me like I’m going to fall apart any second,” I said.
Noelle had been wearing a long blue and green paisley skirt and big hoop earrings and she looked like an auburn-haired gypsy. She was beautiful in an unconventional way. Pale, nearly translucent skin. Eyes a jarring, electric blue. A quick, wide smile that displayed straight white teeth and a hint of an overbite. She was a few years older than me, and her long curly hair was just beginning to glimmer with the random strand of gray. Emerson and I had known her since our college days and although she was beautiful in her own pale way, it was the sort of look that most men wouldn’t notice. But there were other men–sensitive souls, poets and artists, computer nerds–who would be so mesmerized by her as they passed her on the street that they’d trip over their own feet. I’d seen it happen more than once. Ian had been one of those men, long ago.
That night in my den, Noelle had kicked off her sandals and folded her legs beneath her on the loveseat. “Are you?” she asked me. “Are you going to fall apart?”
She talked to me for a long time, guiding me through the maze of my emotions like a skilled counselor. I talked about my sadness and my loss. About my irrational anger at Sam for leaving me, for putting new lines across my forehead. For turning my future into a question mark.
“Have you thought of finding a widows’ support group?” she asked after a while.
I shook my head. The thought of a widows’ support group made me shudder. I didn’t want to be surrounded by women who felt as bad as I did. I would sink down and never be able to climb up again. There was a floodgate inside me I was afraid of opening.
“Forget the support group idea,” Noelle corrected herself. “It’s not for you. You’re outgoing, but not open.” She’d said that to me once before and I was bothered by the description.
“I was open with Sam,” I said defensively.
“Yes,” she said. “It was easy to be open with Sam.” She looked out the window into the darkness as if she was lost in thought and I remembered the eulogy she’d given at Sam’s memorial service. Sam was a champion listener, she’d said.
“I miss talking to him.” I looked at the stack of papers on the floor. The battery operated stapler on his desk. His checkbook. Four pads of Post-it notes. I shrugged. “I just miss him,” I said.
Noelle nodded. “You and Sam . . . I hesitate to use the word ‘soul mates’ because it’s trite and I don’t think I believe in it. But you had an exceptional marriage. He was devoted to you.”
I touched his computer keyboard. The ‘E’ and ‘D’ keys were worn and shiny, the letters faint. I ran my fingertips over the smooth plastic.
“You can still talk to Sam, you know,” Noelle said.
“Pardon?” I laughed.
“Don’t tell me you don’t. When you’re alone, I bet you do. It would be so natural to say, “Damn it, Sam! Why did you have to leave me?”
I looked at the keyboard again, afraid of the floodgates. “I honestly don’t,” I lied.
“You could, though. You could tell him what you’re feeling.”
“Why?” I felt annoyed. Noelle loved to push her agenda. “What possible purpose could it serve?”
“Well, you never know if he can get your communication on some level.”
“Actually, I do know that he can’t.” I folded my arms across my chest and swiveled the chair in her direction. “Scientifically, he can’t.”
“Science is making new discoveries all the time.”
I couldn’t tell her how, when I ate breakfast or drove to school, I’d sometimes hear his voice as clearly as if he were sitting next to me and wonder if he was trying to contact me. I’d have long, out-loud conversations with him when no one else was around. I loved the feeling of him being nearby. I didn’t believe people could reach out from the other side, but what if they could and he was trying and I ignored him? Yet I felt crazy when I talked to him, and I was so afraid of feeling crazy.
“You’ve always been afraid of having psychiatric problems like your mother,” Noelle said, as if she’d read my mind. She could spook me that way. “I think it’s your biggest fear, but you’re one of the sanest people I know.” She got to her feet, taking in a deep breath as she stretched her arms high over her head. “Your mother had a chemical thing,” she said, letting her long, slender arms fall to her sides again. “You don’t. You won’t, ever.”
“The floodgates,” I looked up at her from the desk chair. I didn’t want her to leave. “I’m afraid of opening them.”
“You won’t drown,” she said. “Drowning isn’t part of your makeup.” She bent low to hug me. “I love you,” she said, “and I’m a phone call away.”
I’d polished the granite countertop until the ceiling lights glowed on its surface. Then I dared to look at the photograph of Sam, Grace and myself on the refrigerator again. Noelle had helped me sort through so much on that hot, miserable July night, yet one emotion still remained unchecked inside me: fear that I was failing my daughter.
Grace stood between Sam and me in the picture, smiling, and only someone very observant might notice how she leaned toward Sam and away from me. He’d left me alone with a child I didn’t know how to mother. A child I longed to know, but who wouldn’t let me in. A child who blamed me for everything.
He left me alone with the stranger upstairs.
Noelle’s junker of a car sat in her driveway and I pulled in behind it. The light was fading, but I could still read all of her bumper stickers. Coexist, No Wetlands=No Seafood, Cape Fear River Watch, Got Tofu?, Bring Back My Midwives! Noelle’s passions–and she had plenty–were spelled out across the dented rear of her car for all the world to see. Good ol’ boys would pull up next to her at stoplights and pretend to shoot her with their cocked fingers, and she’d give them her one-fingered salute in return. That was Noelle for you.
She’d given up midwifery a year or so ago when she decided to focus on the babies program, even though it meant she’d have to live on her savings. At the same time, the OB-GYN offices in the area were making noise about letting their midwives go, so Noelle figured it was time to get out, though it must have felt like she was hacking off her right arm. Noelle needed ten lives to do all the things she wanted to do. She would never be able to fix the world to her liking with just one.
Ted and I had stopped charging her rent for the house even though between the teetering economy and the start-up costs of Hot!, we weren’t exactly ready to put a kid through college. Ted had bought the dilapidated 1940’s craftsman bungalow shortly before we were married. I’d thought it was a lame-brained idea, even though the seller was practically giving it away. It looked like no one had taken care of the place since 1940, except to fill the front yard with a broken grill, a couple of bicycle tires, a toilet and a few other odds and ends. Ted was a Realtor, though, and his crystal ball told him that Sunset Park was on the brink of a renaissance. The ball had been right. . . eventually. The area was finally turning around, although Noelle’s bungalow was still a pretty sorry sight. The grill and toilet were gone, but the shrubs were near death’s door. We’d have to do a major overhaul on the place if she ever moved out, but we’d make a good profit at that point, so letting her live there for the cost of her utilities wasn’t that much of a hardship.
Ted wasn’t thrilled about the “no-rent for Noelle” idea in the beginning. He was feeding money into my café at the time and we were both biting our nails over that. I’d wanted to open a café for years. I fantasized about people lining up for my cooking and baking the way some women fantasized about finding Matthew McConaughey in their beds. The good news was that Hot! was already holding its own. I had a following among the locals downtown and even had to hire extra help during the tourist season. So Ted had come around, both about the café and Noelle’s rent-free existence on our property.
From Noelle’s weedy driveway, I could see the left-hand corner of the backyard where she’d planted her garden. She wasn’t much for fixing up the house and the rest of the landscaping was in ruins, but years ago she’d surprised us by planting a small masterpiece of a garden in that one corner. It became one of her many obsessions. She researched the plants so that something was blooming nearly year round. A sculptor friend of hers made the birdbath that stood in the center of the garden and it was like something out of a museum. It was your typical stone birdbath, but next to it, a little barefoot girl in bronze stood on her tiptoes to reach over the lip and touch the water. Her dress and hair fanned out behind her as if she’d been caught in a breeze. People knew about the birdbath. A couple of reporters wanted to take pictures of it and write articles about the sculptor, but Noelle never let them. She was afraid someone would try to steal it. Noelle would give away everything she owned to help someone else, but she didn’t want anyone messing with her garden. She watered and mulched and pruned and loved that little piece of land. She took care of it the way other women took care of their kids and husbands.
The bungalow was a peeling, faded blue, like the knees of your oldest pair of jeans, and the color looked a little sick in the red glow of the sunset. As I walked up the crumbling sidewalk to the front porch, I saw a couple of envelopes sticking out of the mailbox next to the door and even though the air was warm, a chill ran up my spine. Something wasn’t right. Noelle was supposed to come over for dinner the night before and bring fabric for Jenny, who was actually sewing blankets for the babies’ program, much to my shock. That wasn’t the sort of thing Noelle would forget to do. It bothered me that she hadn’t answered my messages. I’d left her one the night before saying, “We’re going to go ahead and eat. I’ll keep a plate warm for you.” I left the next one around ten: “Just checking on you. I thought you were coming over but I must have misunderstood. Let me know you’re okay.” And finally, one more this morning: “Noelle? I haven’t heard back from you. Is everything all right? Love you.” She hadn’t gotten back to me, and as I climbed the steps to the porch, I couldn’t shake a sense of dread.
I rang the bell and heard the sound of it coming through the thin glass of the window panes. I knocked, then tried the door, but it was locked. I had a key for the house somewhere at home but hadn’t thought to bring it with me.
I walked down the steps and followed the walkway through the skinny side yard to the backdoor. Her back porch light was on and I tried the door. Also locked. Through the window next to the door, I saw Noelle’s purse on the battered old kitchen table. She was never without that purse. It was enormous, one of those shapeless reddish brown leather shoulder bags you could cram half your life into. I remembered Noelle pulling toys from it for Jenny back when she was still a toddler–that’s how long she’d had it. Noelle and that bag were always together. Auburn hair, auburn bag. If the purse was here, Noelle was here.
I knocked hard on the window. “Noelle!”
I turned to see a girl, maybe ten years old, walking across the yard toward me. We were losing daylight fast, and it took me a minute to see the cat in her arms.
“Are you…?” I glanced at the house next door. An African American family lived there with three or four kids. I’d met them all but I was terrible with names.
“I’m Libby,” the girl said. “Are you lookin’ for Miss Noelle, ’cause she had to go away all of a sudden last night.”
I smiled with relief. She’d gone away. It made no sense that her purse and car were there, but I’d figure that out eventually. Libby had put one foot on the porch step and the light fell on the calico cat in her arms. I leaned closer. “Is that Patches?” I asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Miss Noelle asked me to take care of her at my house this time.”
“Where did she go?”
“She didn’t say and Mama says it was wrong for her not to tell me.” She scratched the top of Patches’ head. “I take care of Patches sometimes but always in Miss Noelle’s house. So Mama thinks this time Miss Noelle meant she was going away for a long time like she does sometimes, but it was wrong she didn’t say when she was coming back and she ain’t answering her cell phone.”
What the hell was going on?
“Do you have a key to the house, Libby?” I asked.
“I ain’t got one, ma’am, but I know where she keeps it. I’m the only one that knows.”
“Show me, please.”
Libby led me across the lawn toward the little garden, our shadows stretching long and skinny in front of us. She walked straight to the birdbath and bent down to pick up a rock near the little bronze girl’s feet.
“She keeps it under this rock,” Libby whispered, handing me the key.
“Thanks,” I said, and we headed back to the door. At the steps, I stopped. Inside, I’d find a clue to where Noelle had gone. Something that would tell me why she hadn’t taken her giant bag with her. Or her car. That ominous feeling I’d had earlier was filling me up again and I turned to the girl. “You go home, honey,” I said. “Take Patches back to your house, please. I’ll try to figure out what’s going on and come tell you, all right?”
“Okay.” She turned on her heel, slowly, as though she wasn’t sure she should trust me with the key. I watched her walk across the yard to her own house.
The key was caked with dirt and I wiped it off on my t-shirt, a sure sign I didn’t care about a thing except finding out what was going on with Noelle. I unlocked the door and walked into the kitchen. “Noelle?” I shut the door behind me, turning the lock because I was starting to feel paranoid. Her purse lay like a floppy pile of leather on the table and her car keys were on the counter between the sink and the stove. Patches’ food and water bowls were upside down on the counter on top of a dishtowel. The sink was clean and empty. The kitchen was way too neat. Noelle could mess up a room just by passing through it.
I walked into the postage stamp of a living room, past the crammed bookshelves and the old TV Tara and Sam had given her a few years ago when they bought their big screen. Past the threadbare brown sofa. A couple of strollers sat on the floor in front of the TV and three car seats were piled on top of some cartons, which were most likely filled with baby things. More boxes teetered on top of an armchair. I was definitely in Noelle’s world. On the wall above the sofa were framed pictures of Jenny and Grace, along with an old black and white photo of Noelle’s mother standing in front of a garden gate. Seeing the photographs of the children next to the one of her mother always touched me, knowing that Noelle considered Tara’s and my girls as her family.
I walked past the first of the two bedrooms, the one she used as her office. Like the living room, it was bursting with boxes and bags and her desk was littered with papers and books . . . and a big salad bowl filled with lettuce and tomatoes.
“Noelle?” The silence in the house was creeping me out. A slip in the shower? But why would she have told Libby to take care of Patches? I reached her bedroom and through the open door, I saw her. She lay on her back, her hands folded across her ribcage, still and quiet as though she were meditating, but her waxen face and the line of pill bottles on the night table told me something different. My breath caught somewhere behind my breastbone and I couldn’t move. I wasn’t getting it. I refused to get it. Impossible, I thought. This is impossible.
“Noelle?” I took one tiny step into the room as if I were testing the temperature of water in a pool. Then reality hit me all at once and I rushed forward. I grabbed her shoulder and shook her hard. Her hair spilled over my hand like it was alive, but it was the only living thing about her. “No, no, no!” I shouted. “Noelle! No! Don’t do this! Please!”
I grabbed one of the empty pill bottles but none of the words on the label registered in my mind. I wanted to kill that bottle. I threw it across the room, then dropped to my knees at the side of the bed. I pressed Noelle’s cold hand between mine.
“Noelle,” I whispered. “Why?”
It’s amazing what you can miss when you’re an emotional wreck. The note was right next to me on her night table. I’d had to reach past it to use her cell phone to call for help. The phone had been inches from her hands. She could have called me or Tara. Could have said, “I just did something stupid. Come and save me.” But she didn’t. She hadn’t wanted to be saved.
The police and emergency team poured into the room, taking up all the air and space and blurring into a sea of blue and gray in front of me. I sat on the straight back chair someone had brought in from the kitchen, still holding Noelle’s hand as the EMTs pronounced her dead and we waited for the medical examiner to arrive. I answered the questions volleyed at me by the police. I knew Officer Whittaker personally. He came into Hot! early every morning. He was the raspberry cream cheese croissant and banana walnut muffin, heated. I’d fill his mug with my strongest coffee, then watch him dump five packets of sugar into it.
“Did you call your husband, ma’am?” he asked. He always called me ma’am, no matter how many times I asked him to call me Emerson. He moved around Noelle’s claustrophobic bedroom, touching another framed photograph of her mother on the wall, touching the spine of a book on the small bookcase beneath the window, and studying the pin cushion on her dresser as though it might give him an answer to what had happened here.
“I did.” I’d called Ted before everyone had arrived. He was showing a property and I had to leave a message. He hadn’t received it yet. If he had, he would have called the second he heard me stumbling over my words as if I were having a stroke.
“Who’s her next of kin?” he asked.
Oh no. I thought of Noelle’s mother. Ted would have to call her for me. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t and neither could Tara. “Her mother,” I whispered. “She’s in her eighties and. . . frail. She lives in an assisted living community in Charlotte.”
“Did you see this?” Officer Whittaker picked up the small piece of paper from Noelle’s night table with gloved fingers. He held it out for me to read.
Emerson and Tara, I’m sorry. Please look after my garden for me and make sure my mother is cared for. I love all of you.
“Oh.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “Oh no.” The note made it real. Until that second, I’d managed to avoid thinking the word suicide. Now there it was, the letters a mile high inside my head.
“Is it her handwriting?” Officer Whittaker asked.
I opened my eyes to slits as if I couldn’t stand to see the entire note again, all at once. The sloppy slope of the letters would be nearly illegible to someone else, but I knew it well. I nodded.
“Was she depressed, ma’am? Did you have any idea?”
I shook my head. “No. Not at all.” I looked up at him. “She loved her work. She would never have. . . Could she have been sick and not told us? Or could someone have killed her and made it look like suicide?” I looked at the note again. At all the pill bottles. I could see Noelle’s name on the labels. One of the EMTs noticed that some of the prescriptions had been filled the month before, but others dated back many years. Had she been stockpiling them?
“Did she talk about her health lately?” Officer Whittaker asked. “Doctors’ appointments?”
I rubbed my forehead, trying to wake up my memory. “She injured her back in a car accident a long time ago, but she hasn’t complained about pain from it in years,” I said. We’d worried about all the medication she was taking back then, but that had been so long ago. “She would have told us if something was wrong.” I sounded sure of myself, and Officer Whittaker rested a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“Sometimes people keep things bottled inside them, ma’am,” he said.
“Even the people we’re closest to. We can never really know them.”
I looked at Noelle’s face. So beautiful, but an empty shell. Noelle was no longer there and I felt as though I’d already forgotten her smile. This makes no sense, I thought. She’d had so much she still wanted to do. Something was very off about this whole situation.
I needed to call Tara. I couldn’t handle this alone. Tara and I would figure out what to do. We’d piece together what had happened. Between us, we knew everything there was to know about Noelle.
Yet in front of me lay the evidence-our gone-forever friend–that we really knew nothing at all.