Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

The Last Secret (10 page)

Nora slips into her robe as she looks out the window. Whoever it was is gone. The tire tracks in the new snow are from the street. The snow in front of the garage doors lies undisturbed. Ken must still be here. As she passes the guest room she notes the closed door. He usually leaves before the children realize he's slept in there, but apparently, in his rejection, he doesn't care. On her way downstairs she knows by the fizzy popping sounds from the den that Drew is playing
Band of Brothers.
Video games are allowed only on weekends, no more than two hours, whether all in one day or however he wants to break it up. As a result he is usually up first thing Saturday morning before anyone else. That way no one knows how long he's been at it. So Nora has had to set an additional rule. No games before 7 a.m. She stands in the doorway. The dark wooden blinds are still closed. The only light comes from the wide screen, flickering and harsh, making Drew seem not just small on the hassock but caught in the cross fire. As the screen explodes with gunfire, jagged light rips orangey red gashes across his splotchy face. His thumbs jig over the controls. Always harder to reach than Chloe, he has been unusually quiet these last few weeks. It's all right, she wants to say, but can't lie to him. If only she could pretend, like Ken. Parallel lives. The public face veiling the private agony. Secrets, sad to have to keep them at such a young age, sadder when you can't do anything about them. Ken used to be so sensitive when it came to his children's feelings. He couldn't bear seeing them hurt. Hadn't their humiliation even occurred to him? Especially Drew's. Clay Gendron was his best friend. She puts her hand on Drew's shoulder and kisses the top of his damp head. He smells of perspiration. If she doesn't remind him, he won't shower. Sometimes he has to be ordered to take one. Soon, she'll be wondering why he takes so many.

“How about some pancakes?” she asks, wearied by the deadness in her own voice.

“I'm good.” He leans a little with the remote as he maneuvers a tank down a narrow city street.

He dislikes sports but loves math and computers. Ken has stopped asking him to play tennis or racquetball with him. He spends too
much time in the house, Ken complains. “Look at him, how unhealthy he looks.” Drew has her pale coloring and lately his face, even the back of his neck, is mottled with angry-looking acne. Last Christmas she told him she would call a dermatologist. But then she had to cancel the appointment. Something came up. What? What could have been more important than helping Drew feel better about himself? That's the difference between the two children. Chloe would have pestered her until she made another appointment, while Drew is content to be left alone. First thing Monday she will call Dr. Rosen.

“I'm going to make some anyway. So, when you're ready.”

“I already ate.”

In the kitchen Chloe slouches over the center island, sipping coffee and watching the small television on the counter.

“For godsakes, Chloe. Cartoons?” she makes herself say, trying to care, trying to snag some emotion that will pull her back into the old life.

“The Simpsons. They're not cartoons.”

“Oh?” Nora assembles the pancake ingredients on the counter. Even if no one eats them, she needs to do this, ritual, the grounding of ordinary things. Ken wants her to accept his confession, talk to a therapist, and get on with life. What he doesn't want is fallout. She has to get back on her feet, but her way. According to her needs, for once, her timetable, not his. Nothing is more important than her children, and for their sake she needs to put the pieces back together. She can't keep falling apart. Her influence as a member of the Hammond family on behalf of Sojourn House is finally making a difference. One of the Boston television news anchors wants to come out and interview Father Grewley as part of a weeklong spotlight on domestic violence. Now, more than ever before, she enjoys her work at the paper. Until Ken's bombshell flattened her, she'd loved her life, considered herself blessed, not just with material goods but with the opportunity to help people. The Hammond name can open practically any door, and as many wallets. She is just beginning to realize her role in this. Not many people want to turn Ken Hammond's wife down, fewer still, the
powerful Oliver Hammond's sister-in-law. Having finally found a way to make a difference and help those less fortunate, she can't dribble it away in self-pity.

“I'm not hungry,” Chloe warns over
The Simpsons'
chatter as Nora breaks two eggs into the dry ingredients.

“I know.” Streaks of yoke yellow the batter as she stirs, the same color as Homer Simpson's face. Chloe never thinks she's hungry, and yet she has the best appetite in the family. “Who was that at the door?” Now, vanilla extract, a pinch of cinanamon. Upstairs a door opens and closes: Ken on his way into the bathroom.

“Some guy, he was looking for a street.” Something that Homer Simpson does makes Chloe laugh.

“What street?” She glances over at her daughter. Such a beautiful girl. So natural in her warmth, everything Nora ever envied in her own peers, growing up. Amazing that she is hers, in spite of all the trouble and worry. Now more than ever, Nora is determined that this lovely child not grow up like Robin Gendron, pampered and expecting everything to be given to her. Even someone else's husband.

“Clayborne. He said he didn't know if it was Clayborne Street or Road or Lane. Just that it was Clayborne something.”

The spoon sinks into the bowl. Nora stares, blankly. Doesn't know what to do, how to get it out. If she touches it, she'll get batter on her fingers. Ken is coming down the stairs.

“‘Not around here,’ I told him. Least I never heard of it,” Chloe says.

“Heard of what?” Ken asks, coming into the kitchen. He kisses Chloe's cheek then takes his grapefruit, mango, and peach juice from the refrigerator. The health food store blends a fresh batch for him every few days.

“Clayborne Street,” Chloe says. “Some guy. He said he'd just keep driving around. Sooner or later he'd find it.”

“Well, that's one way of doing it.” Ken drinks his juice. “Or get a GPS.”

“What did he look like?” she asks.

Chloe looks up from the television. “Actually, kinda cute. For an old guy, that is.” She grins, anticipating her father's question.

“How old was he?” he asks.

“Umm, same as you, I guess.”

Kenny hoists the glass. “Thank you very much!”

“He had these really, like, amazing eyes. All pale and blue, like, looking into light.”

Nora lights the burner, sprays oil on the griddle. She removes a small ladle from the stone pitcher and tries to flip the fallen spoon from the bowl into the sink. It misses, lands on the counter spattering the backsplash with batter. She squeezes out the sponge and scrubs the tiles clean.

“Mom, the griddle, it's smoking!” Chloe makes the practiced climb onto the counter to unscrew the smoke detector before it goes off.

“I got it!” Ken grabs an oven mitt and moves the griddle off the burners. “No harm, no foul.”

“Mom,” Chloe says. “Your hands … they're shaking.”

“My stomach. It's a little shaky. That's all.”

“Then sit down. Here,” Ken insists over her protests until she has no choice but to sit in the chair he has pulled out. “Chloe, get your mum some crackers or juice or something.” He stands behind her, kneading her shoulders. “It's okay. It's okay,” he keeps saying, his chest like a wall against the back of her head. “We're gonna take good care of you, don't you worry.”

ora is waiting
to see Oliver. Throughout the day people have been hurrying in and out of his office. Ken was the last one in. They can't sit on the CraneCopley story much longer, not with the grand jury meeting. Until a few years ago the company was still a small, local operation specializing in electronic equipment for home and commercial security. Now, with fear and paranoia such big business, their sensitive surveillance equipment protects government buildings, famous landmarks, huge shopping malls, and most airports. The double
C
with an eyeball in its center is a globally recognized logo. Crane is from Lyndell Crane. Copley just sounded prestigious, according to Lyndie.

He and Ken have been friends for years. Lyndie's wife, Letitia, is a Sojourn House board member. A plain, forceful woman, she wields her reputation as the no-nonsense daughter of a school janitor so effectively that her often cruel frankness is considered endearing, refreshing. A breath of fresh air, people like to say. Nora has always found her irritating, but useful. When Letitia Crane asks for contributions, donors, fearing her caustic tongue, have a hard time saying no. For the greater good to be realized many distasteful people have to be not merely endured, but stroked, Nora is learning.

She hasn't been told the details, but she does know that Lyndie Crane stands accused of rigging government contracts, as well as financial mismanagement. Oliver's door opens and Ken emerges, shaking his head. He looks drained.

“Unbelievable,” he says, gesturing for her to follow him into his office. “I mean, what was he thinking?” he says when she closes the door. “He had everything. What more did he need? I don't get it.” That he seems so personally affronted annoys her in the way imbroglios involving Ken and their friends always have. More so, now. Most of their crises seem so shallow that she long ago gave up trying to empathize. But this, as Ken is pointing out, is far different. Crane-Copley employs 350 workers locally, not to mention another 1,200 across the country. Late last night she heard him on the phone trying to talk Oliver into not “piling on Lyndie.”

“Essentially what he did was steal from his own people. That's the bottom line here,” Ken fumes, pacing back and forth. “Like that layoff last week.”

“What layoff?” So leveled by her own pain she's hardly been aware of anyone else's. War, terror bombings, plane crashes, a disastrous stock market, these occur in a dimension beyond her own.

“Seventy-eight people, and that's just the first of …”

She stops listening. Her brain fizzes with connections. Everything is personal. There are no coincidences. The man at the door asking for Clayborne Lane. Her world has been weakened. She feels vulnerable, naïve, as it occurs to her that Bob Gendron works for CraneCopley When he couldn't find a job anywhere, given his many terminations, Ken asked Lyndie to “take the poor bugger on.” Now she's remembering Ken's weary explanation for another late-night arrival, a year or so ago. He'd been at some banquet or board meeting with Lyndie and as much as he wanted to come straight home when it was over, he had to get Lyndie alone so he could ask him if he'd help Bob. The poor guy was desperate. He and Robin were living just about at poverty level. Bob hadn't worked in four months and his drinking was worse than ever. Why didn't Robin work, she asked. Wouldn't that help? Put food on the table, anyway.

“Lyra's only two,” he said incredulously.

“So? A lot of women with two-year-olds work. Especially when they have to. When they have no other choice,” she added.

“You didn't,” he said with that defensiveness she learned long ago
to overlook. After all, he and Robin were as close as brother and sister, everyone knew that.

“I had a choice, didn't I? Thanks to you, Kenny,” she added with such genuine tenderness that his quick retort confused her.

“Well, Robin doesn't have a Kenny, now, does she?” he said.

So another piece fits into place: Robin
did
have a Kenny, just not enough of him.

Ken is complaining that their story is far more sensational than it needs to be and Oliver refuses to tone it down.

“So did Bob Gendron get laid off, too?” she interrupts.

Ken looks confused. There is the slightest flush at his throat, in the soft flesh she used to love to kiss, right under his jaw.

“He works there, right? CraneCopley? You got him the job?”

“Oh. That's right. No, I think he's still there. One of the lucky ones. So far, anyway.” So smooth, so natural, his commingling of deceit and truth, insignificant tributaries trickling into one vast river.

“Because of you, Ken.” Because of the paper, she wants to add.

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