Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

The Last Secret (2 page)

“Where you from, Nora?”

“Massachusetts.”

“You run away from home or something?”

“No. I don't know.”

“Wanna go back?”

“I don't know. I don't know what to do. Maybe I should go back, go back and help. Oh, God, he's back there. In the car. He's hurt.”

“Who? Eddie?”

“Oh my God,” she moans, covers her face.

“How old's Eddie?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Eddie's a big boy. He'll take care of it. He don't need you.”

A whoosh now, like the unsealing of a vault, as the truck slows for the ramp onto the interstate.

ne more time now,”
the photographer says. “Smile, Mrs. Hammond. You, too, Father Grewley. Don't look so grim.”

Nora shivers through a taut smile.

“Freezing,” Father Grewley says, teeth chattering.

The camera keeps clicking. The pictures are being taken on the front steps. SOJOURN HOUSE says the gold-leafed sign. Last night in his State of the Union address, the president praised, along with others, Nora and the young priest for their work on behalf of battered women. Overseen by the parish and privately funded, the house is staffed by volunteers. Every penny, loaf of bread, beds, linen, even oil for the ancient furnace is donated. They operate without state or federal money because as Father Grewley has just told the
Newsweek
reporter, their mission is “about neighbors helping neighbors.” And this way their only guidelines are their own. Nora is the new chairman of the board of directors.

“Oh boy,” she sighs as a small blue car pulls up to the curb. The magnetic sign on the opening door says THE FRANKLIN CHRONICLE. Camera in hand, Jimmy Lee tumbles out, running as if to cover a fire.

“Sorry I'm late, Mrs. Hammond,” he apologizes, taking his place beside the magazine photographer who looks tempted to turn his camera on his pony-tailed six-foot-seven counterpart.

“That's okay, Jimmy,” she calls back. “Do your thing.”

“You should have a coat, Mrs. Hammond. It's wicked cold. I could run back and get you one. Or we could go inside maybe.” Shoulders
hunched, he begins to shoot. “That's good, that's good. Father Grewley! Look up a little more, that's better, that's better. Good! Great! Great shot! Traffic was terrible,” Jimmy Lee says in the midst of his legendary balletic routine, crouching, leaning, two steps back, a spin, forward lunge, camera clicking, flashing, the entire process so bizarrely awkward that the magazine photographer and interviewer are trying not to laugh at this clown, this yokel from the local paper. “Gotta get this right,” Jimmy Lee mutters, dropping into a sudden squat. “Big story! Can't mess this one up, can we now?” he says with a grin at the magazine people as he jumps up and snaps their picture. “Bet you don't get many of yourself on the job, now do you? Gimme a card, JPEG it to you.” He runs up to Nora and hugs her. “How's that? How's that? Feel better? Any warmer now? Okay, good. Gonna run this now. See you! Bye now!” he calls. He jumps into his car and pulls away on squealing tires.

“Who was that masked man?” the magazine reporter asks.

“He works for the
Chronicle,”
Father Grewley says on their way up the stairs.

“Can you imagine what those pictures'll look like?” the photographer says.

Father Grewley holds the door for Nora who pauses before stepping inside. “So that you'll know,” she says back to them. “Jimmy Lee works for me.” The warm vestibule smells of meat loaf and onions.

“Mrs. Hammond owns the
Chronicle,”
Father Grewley informs the sheepish young men on their way into his office.

In fact, the paper is equally owned by Nora's husband, Kendall Hammond, and his brother, Oliver, with their cousin Stephen holding a 10 percent share. Always a family enterprise, it was originally named the
Hammond Chronicle
, until 1897 when a more civically sensitive Hammond relative, a woman actually, widow of the late and profligate Cecil Hammond, Ken and Oliver's great-grandfather, changed the masthead to the
Franklin Chronicle.

The reporter is asking Father Grewley about Sojourn House's volunteers. Mostly women, he says. Some men. They usually handle bigger projects, like the new gutters and downspouts they installed last
summer. The furnace cleanout, that's always done by the same man. Tom Hollister. “That's H-o-l-l-i-s-t-e-r,” the priest spells. “Now, the new cedar fence, those men're Leo Ross, Jack—”

“That's okay.” The reporter closes his notebook. Sojourn House is part of a larger story, he explains. Probably just a sentence or two will even get in.

A rare look of disappointment clouds the priest's face. “Well, maybe one of the guests would talk to you. Get their perspective. You know, to give you a better feel for the place. Alice. Don't you think?” he asks Nora.

Nora doesn't know what to say. The whole point of Sojourn House is anonymity for the women seeking protection here. Not only is Alice one of their newer guests, but the poor thing can barely make eye contact, much less speak to anyone.

“Yeah, well, maybe if there's a follow-up. Sometimes that happens. You know,” the reporter says to Nora as if she will understand, being in the same business, after all. Actually, she has nothing to do with news stories anymore. Thanks to her brother-in-law, editing special supplements is what she does now. Reporting was her first job after college. She worked for a small paper on the south shore before being hired by the
Chronicle.
Two years later, she and Ken, the publisher's son, were married. After Chloe's birth she retired, not returning until Drew started middle school. Ken didn't want her to go back to work. In fact, it caused one of their worst disagreements. They certainly didn't need the money, but the children
did
need her at home, Ken insisted; a weak argument now that they were older, especially since she could schedule the job around their activities. He finally understood that she
needed
to work. There was only so much to be done around the house. She'd never been particularly domestic, anyway, didn't enjoy crafts like her friend Robin, and she wanted more than just volunteer work, which, like her status as Ken Hammond's wife, still seems more derivative of his success than hers. Tennis and golf weren't fulfilling the way they were for so many of their friends. Even Robin had stopped playing. Only because of the baby, Lyra, Ken pointed out.

Robin and Bob Gendron's second child was a shock, born when
both parents were in their forties. The two families don't see as much of each other as they once did, but Nora still values her friendship with Robin, secretly envying her looks, joie de vivre, and unflagging energy. Even her unexpected pregnancy seemed a lark. Lately though, life seems to be taking its toll. Poor Robin has her hands full now between Bob's chronic drinking and trying to keep up with a small child and a teenager.

It was Oliver who finally talked his brother into Nora's return to the paper. They needed a supplements editor, and who better? She was smart, unflappable, well respected, and most important, could be trusted. Loyalty matters to Oliver, sometimes to a fault. When it comes to running the paper, Oliver usually prevails.

“This could be such a boost,” the young priest says after the magazine reporters leave. Something in his tone irritates her. What? His eagerness, his delight in the attention? Let him have his moment, she reminds herself uneasily. Ken's words; he can't understand her need to always bring people back down to earth. Solid ground. Reality, where life should be lived. The safest place, for her, anyway. Happiness so often trails a long shadow: another of her mother's bracing maxims. She knows Ken's right. He's been after her for years to “stop and smell the roses instead of being such a slave to the clock and other people's rules.” And she has been trying, but lately he only seems annoyed. Last Friday, seeing his agitation after a meeting with Oliver, she suggested they hop in the car and drive to New York for the weekend the way they used to. Find a nice hotel room, then wander around the city for two days, just the two of them. “C'mon!” she teased, flipping him the car keys. They landed on the floor. “Why?” he asked with such bewilderment that she felt foolish.

Father Grewley's telephone rings. “Hello!” he answers, beaming at Nora. The calls have been coming in all day, well-wishers, new people wanting to jump aboard. “Wonderful! He is? Yes, of course. We'd be honored! Oh … well, actually, they just left.” Congressman Linzer's office, he says, hanging up. He laughs. “His assistant said they're going to try and get the reporters back. See if they need coverage of the congressman looking the place over.”

“God, he's such a publicity hound!”

“But useful to the cause,” Father Grewley laughs.

Like herself, she thinks. A cog. Like the volunteers in the dining room setting the dinner tables. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy tonight, the priest announces with the clatter of plates and flatware. He invites her to stay and eat with him and the “guests.” Alice would love spending more time with her, he says. Nora's been such a good mentor to her. She wishes she could, she says, squirming. Actually, she can't stand eating here. She'll do anything to help Father Grewley and these unfortunate women. She painted the kitchen walls and helped clean out the verminous cellar, but the thought of actually sitting down and sharing a meal here makes her queasy. Another unsettling truth about herself that demands compensation, longer hours, harder work, and more money.

e's already passed
two shelters. The best one is on the other side of the city. Fastidious in appearance, he puts a high price on quality. The irony of his rattish slither close to the buildings isn't lost on him as he tries to avoid the downpour from the roof edges. Crossing the street, he runs. The rain pelts him in blinding sheets. He ducks into a brightly lit drugstore. His shoes squish loudly on his way to the back. His wet clothes are plastered to his trim frame. He aches with humiliation. He can't get into his room. In addition to back rent, the landlady says he owes her $440. The computer's a piece of junk, and she wants her money back. The woman's a bald-faced liar, claiming it's stolen, because her nephew traced the serial numbers. There are no serial numbers. He removed them before he sold it to her. It was working fine until she let her kids play with it. People are always trying to take advantage. Disrespect. There's only so much he can take.

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