Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

The Last Secret (25 page)

“Lyra, it's okay, baby. It's okay. Mommy's here. Here I am.” She rushes past and scoops up the child. She sits on a step, rocking the girl in her tight embrace while he swallows against the bile searing his throat. He doesn't want to hate her like this. But it's as much a reflex as flinching from a blow. The good and the bad, love, hate, they always end the same—with this deadening reminder that innocence is false. An alluring snare, another trap set in his way.

ora and Ken
are on their way up to bed. Everything seems natural enough about their end-of-day routine. And yet there is this sting in the air, a kind of static charging their nearness with expectation, all that remains unspoken, unasked, making each acutely aware of the other. Lately at bedtime, one usually lingers behind, so the other can get under the covers first, lessening any occasion of intimacy with the awkwardness of their parallel, though bleakly separate lives. Tonight, as Ken turns out the lights and Nora locks the doors, she has been telling him about lunch today with Stephen. They were at Bollio's, and who did they run into but Annette and Thomas. Thomas? Ken asks. Thomas: from the gallery, she reminds him, her hopeful mood snagging on the memory of that difficult night. But it's a brief stab, lasting only a moment, because they have to move on, and if this is to work, she has to. Maybe even more than he does. Anyway, Stephen was absolutely beside himself to see Annette with a man. Since his cousin's stroke, Stephen's devotion has begun to border on the obsessive. He was making such a nuisance of himself at the rehab hospital, visiting at least once a day, pestering doctors and criticizing therapists, that Oliver begged Ken to tell him to stop coming so often. Ken hated to, but he did, and, now, just as he told his brother would happen, Stephen is terribly hurt. Devastated. And he blames Ken for his banishment, not Oliver.

“I'm surprised he asked you out to lunch,” Ken calls in to her.

“Actually, I asked him,” Nora calls back from the kitchen where she is pouring detergent into the dishwasher. She forgot to run it earlier. “It's the
Medical
supplement, I need his help.”

“Still, I'm surprised he went. Under the circumstances,” Ken says from the doorway. Your being my wife, he means. And this easy avowal of their union floods her with warmth. “He's such a head case.”

“Ah, but he's our head case, isn't he?” she says, and, of all things, winks as she closes the dishwasher.

“I guess,” he sighs.

It's been a pleasant evening, the first in months that they talked so much, even after dinner was over. With prodding, Chloe finally read them a few interesting passages from Max's long e-mails. That prompted Nora's recollection of her first newspaper assignment. It was supposed to be a short piece about an addition on the waste treatment plant, but with all her research and a four-hour interview with the plant manager, the story ended up being ten pages long. A term paper, her editor said, dropping it into the wastebasket. Which editor, Drew asked, scowling, thinking she meant the
Chronicle.
It was the
Lyndbury Weekly
, she was quick to tell him. The chip on Drew's shoulder swells with the least little thing. He seems so watchful lately, guarded. He was quiet tonight, but at least he stayed at the table with them. He seemed surprised when Ken suggested it was time for the next generation to start working at the paper. As what, Drew asked, uneasily. I don't know, you tell me, Ken said. Last year when he'd asked if there was something he could do there, Ken told him to go ask his uncle. Drew tried in his shy, halting way, only to have Oliver cut him off, saying he was too young, to come back in his senior year, adding, when he was a little more aggressive. Drew had been hurt. Ken's angry confrontation with his brother had surprised Nora, but Oliver was adamant. Drew just wasn't old enough. Having to babysit the publishers' nephew and son was hardly the message he wanted the staff to get. The paper might be a family-owned business, but it is no sinecure. A curious declaration, it still seems, with Oliver, Ken, Stephen, as well as herself there.

“Maybe something on sports,” Drew said.

Ken smiled. “You know what they say, if you can't do it, you can at least write about it.”

She kicked him under the table, but it was too late. “That's just a corny old newspaper thing, Drew. Dad didn't mean you. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Drew muttered as he left the table.

“C'mon, Drew, lighten up, will you?” Ken stared after him.

Three weeks,
and not a word from Eddie. With him gone she's starting to feel more like her old self again. She can think straight. She sleeps better so her concentration is more focused. She's calmer, more patient, not as quick to blow up over petty mistakes. Her own confidence along with Ken's efforts at the paper convince her they've turned a corner. He's far more organized and attentive to detail. So serious, Hilda observed the other day, adding that she'd never seen him frown until now. Some days he seems drained by the burden of it all, tense, as if he doesn't dare let up. He tries to please her, and yet she notices how easily stressed he's become. An almost constant look of concern has replaced his quick grin. His blood pressure reading is high for the first time in his life: not such a bad thing, in her guilty estimation. Instead of ribbon-cutting parties and frivolous chairmanships in which his most trying duty is the wording of plaques, he's been harnessed into the thankless reality of personnel disputes, local politics, the never-ending morass of community problems, and the public expectation of him as moral arbiter. More than capable, he's just never had the chance. And never wanted it.

Ahead of her on the stairs, his weary sigh stirs a tenderness, an ache she hasn't felt in a long time. She reaches for his hand on the railing then hesitates. She remembers loving him once. Loving him for all that he was and wasn't. Loving him simply for being lovable. For caring and being such fun to be with. For the warmth, the light he throws entering a room, the way it bounces off mirrors and window glass and glows on people's faces. For his complete and sincere acceptance of everyone, including
herself, who hasn't always been the easiest person to deal with. Her hand grazes his and her eyes sting with longing. He's hers and she wants him back. She needs both his love and to love him again.

“Oh,” he says, glancing back. “I keep meaning to tell you. The Brannigans, I ran into Reed the other day. Their party, St. Patrick's Day, they want us to come.”

“No. No, I don't want to.”

“We always go. Every year. And we always have a great time.”

“No.”

“Why?”

“You know why.” Laura Brannigan is Robin's tennis partner.

“I don't see the point.”

“You don't? You really don't?”

“What am I supposed to do, stop living?”

“Ken!” she whispers, pausing on the step, stunned. “Don't you know how uncomfortable I'd feel? Think about it.”

“Well that's your problem, then, isn't it?” he says, with a hateful-ness she hasn't heard before.

“No!” she hisses, trying to be quiet. The children are in their rooms but still awake. “It's yours, because you did this. You're the one! You did this to me!”

Trembling, he starts back down the stairs. “I don't know how the hell much more of this I can take,” he shouts.

“What does that mean? What're you saying? What're you, threatening me?” she demands, following him. He stalks outside, slamming the door in her face.

Drew charges into the kitchen in his boxers and T-shirt.

“Let him go!” he explodes, fists clenched. “If that's what he wants, the bastard. No-good son of a bitch. Let him go live with them, his other family. Who the fuck cares!”

She feels dizzy. Moments ago, such peace, to this. Her chest hurts. Her head is pounding.
His other family.

By the time Ken returns, an hour later, a tearful, shivering Chloe has finally left Nora's room, where she's been begging her mother not
to break up their family. Daddy is sorry for his mistakes; she knows, because he told her so himself.

“When?” Nora asked, stunned. “When did he tell you that?”

“I don't know, a while ago.”

“No, Chloe. When? You tell me when! Exactly when.”

“Last summer. I think.” Chloe cringed with the guilt of her secret.

“Last summer? He told you? He … what? Just came out with it?”

“I asked him. I had a feeling. So I asked him.”

What about me? You knew for months and never said anything. Why? Your own mother, why didn't you tell me? she wanted to ask, but couldn't, seeing her daughter's misery.

“He wants us to still be a family, that's all he cares about, Mom, please. Please,” Chloe sobbed.

Her daughter's message is clear, keeping them whole is up to Nora. It all rests on her. All her responsibility and, somehow, her fault should the marriage end. So, even they knew before she did, her own children, conspirators in their silence, their conflicted loyalty. And that, for her, is unforgivable. His last betrayal. The rupture is complete. Deadening, and oddly painless. Ken doesn't come upstairs. He sleeps in the study. She hears Drew's door open, the creak of floorboards. She slips out of bed and listens from the top of the stairs. She can barely hear them. Ken seems to be repeating a litany of denials.

“I don't believe you,” Drew keeps saying. Then, finally: “You're a liar!”

You all are, she realizes. Every one of you.

They're too loose,
Nora thinks, turning the rings on her finger. Hard to keep weight on without an appetite.

“The baby's better,” the young woman says, coming into the conference room and sitting down. “One of those GI things.”

Nora looks up blankly. And then remembers. Their last visit ended when one of the staff knocked on the door with Alice's feverish child in her arms. Father Grewley is worried about Alice. Something's going on with her, he said in his call.

“That's good,” Nora says. She can't remember if it's a boy or girl. Like so much else, pointless to ask, and besides, as if entering a confessional, the young woman needs no prodding. She knows why she's here, to recount what misery has brought her to Sojourn House. If she wants their help, this is the price she pays, the shocking, painful truth, no secrets, no privacy or pride, her story repeated so many times now, the facts by rote, to caseworkers, therapists, mentors, volunteers, potential donors, that it might as well be someone else's. Emotionless. Worn down until there's nothing left, Nora thinks, twirling her rings easily over the first knuckle, then down again. She shouldn't wear them like this, she's going to lose them, as if it matters, as if anyone cares.

“Every time, it was money,” the young woman says, and Nora glances up. Is that a dig? She means her, doesn't she, the platinum-set diamond rings, the cashmere sweater set, and alligator purse. Of course she does. She's thinking how she could pay two or three months' rent with what that purse alone cost.

Nora moves the purse onto the floor next to her tapping foot. Can't stop fidgeting. Hard to concentrate. Or even sit still. She feels like she's going to climb out of her own prickly skin. Anxiety, the doctor said, but the medicine makes her even more tired. Weak-willed. Instead of relying on pills, she needs to deal with this herself Strength and determination, the way her mother held it all together. One step at a time. Doing her best, all she can do, her best, her very pathetic best. At home she goes through the motions. Easier this way. Three hang-ups the other night. Eddie is still in the area. Kay swears she saw him leaving Stop and Shop with a cart full of groceries. Why does that bother her, and who is this mysterious Eddie, Kay keeps asking. Things are as tense at work as at home. Oliver is making progress in physical therapy, but no one dares tell him about problems at the paper. Ken and Stephen had a terrible row during Friday's editorial meeting. Stephen had just found out that Ken covered up Bob Gendron's accident. Even though it happened weeks ago, he wants it reported. Old news or not, Stephen railed, it's fair journalism. The
Chronicle
has never lowered its standards, and it won't start now, no matter whose personal interests are at stake. Stephen has always been critical of Ken's lackadaisical
approach to the family business, but now to have Ken in charge is more than he can stand, even if it means a crack in Oliver's carefully managed family façade. Details of the shouting match have filtered down through the staff Their quick glances gleam with schadenfreude, but she finds it too hard to care. Can't muster the energy. She doesn't look a bit healthy, Hilda told her today. Skin and bones, circles under her eyes. What is it? Kay kept asking through lunch. Work, was all she'd say. What about Ken, Kay asked uneasily, how were things on that front? Better, she lied. Kay wants the miserable details so she can gloat. She was always jealous of Robin and Nora's friendship. So, there's no one left for Nora to tell how lost she feels and, on top of everything now, how paralyzed by Eddie's nearness. She couldn't even tell her sister. She aches for Carol, not this distant, troubled woman, though, who keeps calling with new twisted memories, but the Carol of old who helped her grow up. Robin, she thinks with a stab of painful longing, lost to her, the one person she would have gone to. That's why, why it's so hard, more than the loss of friendship, it's a death almost, the loss of such intimacy.
Because I loved her, too
, Nora thinks, and the realization stuns her.

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