Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

The Last Secret (7 page)

“Like I've changed?” It's a struggle not to smile. They're all the same. A man, any man, plain and simple, that's what they want. Worse they're treated, hungrier they get. Pathetic.

“Yeah, like something's wrong. Like, really wrong.”

“I'm tired, that's all. Just kind of tired.” To keep her calm he pats her leg, forces himself to leave his hand there. She's big, and he's not as quick as he used to be.

“Let me drive, then.”

“I'm okay.”

“I wasn't trying to make you mad before. What I said back there. You know that, right?”

Barely listening, he nods, turns on the directional.

“Tolopos. Are you just turning off? Are we heading back?” she asks with some disappointment. She doesn't want the fairy tale to end.

“I don't know. Just sounds kind of … intriguing. Don't you think?”

“Yeah it does, doesn't it?” The prospect of his improving mood delights her. “Tol-oh-pos,” she says. “Tol-oh-pos, like an Indian tribe or some kind of rock band. I'll have to tell Liam. He writes all his own stuff Tol-oh-pos, Tol-oh-pos, Tol-oh-pos,” she sings, strumming an imaginary guitar, or maybe a banjo, to judge from her now accelerating rendition. “Tol-oh-pos!” She laughs, continues to strum.

Here, the road narrows.

“Look out!” she yells, pointing to the pregnant beagle waddling across the road. “Don't!” she screams and covers her face.

He gets close as he can, at the last minute jams on the brakes.

“That's not funny,” she says.

“Who's laughing?”

She turns away and looks out the side window.

Same four small houses: one-story flat roofs but now in each scrubby front yard there is a large satellite dish. This last one, his grandmother's. Where they sent him when his mother got sick. Four kids in that cramped box, him the fifth. With their own litter already jammed into one bedroom, his aunt and uncle stuck him in with Grandma Vernile. Now it's Alzheimer's, but then they said hardening of the arteries, dementia, causing her to sleep enough through the day to wail all night long while he cowered under her musty house dresses, the head of the cot jammed into the closet, the only way they could fit him in. Because it was Vernile's house, they had to do the best they could, until things got better: meaning, her death. His aunt and uncle would inherit the house, a foregone conclusion with the other daughter so long ago judged incompetent, Lydia, the one who would not be his mother.

The boy could share the room with his grandmother, the caseworker said, but with him in there, they couldn't use the outside lock to prevent her night-roaming. “Just lay there,” his uncle said, pushing aside the hanging clothes. “And don't get her riled up.” If she tried to get out he was supposed to wake them up. One night she did, during a violent electrical storm. He told them, but as usual they didn't believe him.
Hard to with a born liar, plain and simple
, his aunt complained to the caseworker.
Everything about him's twisted, opposite what it should
But what good's the truth when no one cares. Next day, the sheriff's deputy brought Vernile home, carried her into the house, so dehydrated she kept passing out. The deputy wanted to take her to the hospital, but his aunt refused. Last thing her mother would want, she said. That's when they crammed him in with the cousins, least that's how he remembers it. A few nights later, Vernile escaped again. Took a few days, but they finally found her body, down by the gulch. Nobody had to tell him they'd left the door unlocked. Even the cousins knew. Big relief, as it turned out, for everyone, the whole family. Except for him. Him, they sent back. “Just plain mean,” she said, his aunt, when the caseworker came to pick him up. “Ice in his veins. Not an ounce of feeling for anyone but himself” Real kind lady, Aunt Tina.

He continues down Lowes Road until it forks to the left along this rutted trail to the gulch.

“Where are you going?” she asks, uneasily. With every jounce, the flap of her chin jiggles up and down. She peers out the window. “What's down here?”

“I don't know. Let's see.”

“It's getting dark.”

The sky through the stunted trees is a sooty gray, the quarter moon, dull as if cut from a cloud. There used to be a clearing where his uncle dumped brush and trash, but he can't find it. POSTED. Signs nailed to the trees. NO DUMPING. All about the environment now. Preserve the pristine landscape, yeah, for the fat cats. One good thing, probably nobody comes here anymore. Even better. He smiles and pulls off the road, cuts the engine. Head back, he puts his arm over the top of her seat.

“Let's go Eddie, please? I don't like it here.”

“It's me you don't like. Admit it.” He laughs.

“No!” She looks at him. “When I said that before, about our age difference, I didn't mean that, the way it came out. I meant it as a compliment.”

Now he remembers. She had said that he didn't seem thirty years older than she was. In fact, he seemed more like someone her own age. Younger even, in a lot of ways.

“I did, really.”

“Well, thank you. I wasn't sure where you were going with it, that's all.”

His softer tone pleases her.

“This has been the greatest vacation I ever had.” She sighs and rests her head against his arm. “And I know what you said about … about taking it slow and all, but I really, really—”

He strikes, that big, soft gullet, flappy under his fingers, squeezing before she can say it, before she makes him feel more worthless. Her arms flail, her legs thrash up and down. Worst, though, is the gagging. Finally, when her bulbous eyes freeze with deadening shock, he pulls her out onto the ground, drags her by the ankles, as far into the bushy growth as he can manage. He works quickly, removing any easy means of identity, clothes and jewelry, spits on the fingers to get the rings off The second pierced earring's stuck in the lobe. He rips it out. A week, a week with the car should get him close enough, he thinks, running around gathering fallen branches to cover her with, then armloads of rubbly brush. New plates: always easy. Then, far enough away, a Goodwill bin for these clothes and the rest in her suitcase. That way, no suspicions raised. Better than a Dumpster. Pockets jingling with jewelry, brushes himself off, climbs back into the car. In the purse, almost eleven hundred cash, his now, finally on his way, past the duncolored house. They never should have done that, put a little boy in with a crazy lady. A string of pale smoke shimmers up from the stovepipe. He kept waiting for the call to come, or a letter, or his caseworker to walk into his classroom with the good news: now, with the spare room they wanted him back.

Such is life. This silence a relief A blessing. Like this, he thinks, later in the day, driving through waves of cold rain thickening to sleet, moments when he feels the pure magnetism of his destiny. Pulling him closer. His spirit soars. So near is he that his throat constricts and tears well in his eyes. It used to be money he desired, and women, or at least the release they provided. But now it is far less clear. A place, he thinks. Yes, someplace where he will belong. Where he can feel finally safe in his own skin.

The president commended her and her priest for their faith-based initiatives. He thinks about this as the huge double rigs bear down, but he refuses to yield. It's true. No matter what happens, he must have faith, in himself and in all that awaits him. The journey may be painful, even demeaning at times, but as long as he persists, it will end well. That's all he's ever wanted. Not even happiness, but peace.

he beginning of
the week has been spent preparing for their trip. Not packing, for that would make too real what she's not sure she can do. Instead, she concentrates on leaving no loose ends at home, at work, no detail overlooked. Order is paramount now, more than ever in this new fragile existence. In the past year the paper has published five supplements,
Holiday, Garden, Automotive, Downtown Franklin
, and
, each filled with advertising. Six this year with the new
supplement. Her assistant is Hilda Baxter, recently widowed mother of three adult children, who is now plowing all her energies, ideas, and wisdom into her job. Of the many applicants Nora interviewed, Hilda was the only one who had never worked before. What impressed her most was Hilda's fierce determination to finally have a career, and her confident warmth. But lately, her hovering gets on Nora's nerves. Always watching, listening, she senses something's wrong, clearly wants to help, but isn't sure how.

Seven thirty at night and Nora is still in her office, doing nothing, staring. Folders and papers cover her desk. With the tap at the opening door, she grabs a folder.

“Now you're running on downtime,” Hilda says, peering in. “This is when people make their most mistakes.”

“I'm almost finished,” she says dully, eyes shaded. “Go ahead. I'll see you tomorrow.”

“I feel guilty leaving you here,” Hilda says, stepping into the office.

“Well, don't.” She looks up, as rankled by the intrusion as by the concern in Hilda's round, earnest face. She is a nurturer, but one compelled to fill every space, emotional and physical. Her once spare outer office is now lush with jungly plants. Clippings of her favorite sayings are taped to the walls. On her desk she keeps a basket of seasonal sachets made from her own herbs to give to people. Every Monday she brings in a new coffee cake she's baked. She thumbtacked crepe paper pumpkins on the doors for Halloween and glittery snowflakes for Christmas. What Nora has enjoyed as Hilda's motherly touch now feels suffocating and manipulative, a way of taking control. “One more to go, then I'm done,” she says, picking up another folder.

“I already did that one.” Hilda angles around the side of the desk for a better look. “Chiropractors. That's done!” She seizes the folder. “Now, you just pack up, missy, and head for—”

“Give me that!” Nora snaps, and Hilda recoils, face red, suddenly awkward, comical looking in her pin-striped gray suit, her need to look professional, trying to fit into a man's world, trying to belong, after all those years of aprons.
Oh God, how pathetic, because that's what happened, so blinded by my own self-importance that I never saw what was going on, instead was flattered by Robin's attention, touched by all her fussing, cherry pie because it was my favorite, hand-painted clay pots, her own sweetly scented soaps, when it was never about me. Never.

“I'm sorry,” Hilda gasps. “I didn't mean—”

“No, I know. I know you didn't. It's me, I'm just … tired.” Oh God, oh God, she thinks, hating herself even more.

“Then let me help!” Hilda cries, touching her shoulder.

Nora can only stare up at her. How? but can't ask. Because in order to take she would have to give. And the giving, like every intimacy, is far too much of a risk. Especially now. “I'm almost done,” she says.

She stares at the closing door, knees jammed painfully up into the desk edge, drawing deep, measured breaths, counts on each to twenty. Doesn't move. Listening for footsteps, presses humming, electricity crackling through cables, endless reams of paper being readied for print, the pulse beat of a manageable life, where problems can be
solved and decisions made unhindered by malice or despair. If you do A and B, C inevitably follows. All she has left of stability.

She doesn't want to leave this desk. Doesn't want to go to Anguilla tomorrow. Doesn't want to be alone with Ken. Not now. If she stops, she will come apart. Better to keep busy, keep moving. That's how she's gotten through this week, almost every waking hour spent here. Chloe is just getting over the flu. Drew has been moody and short-tempered, but she clings to this grueling schedule, leaving by seven, not getting home until nine or ten at night. Slow down, Ken warns, before she ends up sick like Chloe and won't be able to go on the trip. But she knows he's grateful to be out from under the crush of her misery. It's pure survival. Work keeps her afloat. It's all she has, the only time in the day she doesn't hear the screaming, that rage in her head, her own mad wail.

She takes the back stairs, instead of the elevator. She doesn't dare talk to anyone right now. A smile, a pat on the back, and she'll come undone. On her right is the composing room where printers are working on tomorrow's edition, but the door is closed. Next is the brightly lit newsroom, though there are only three reporters at their desks, one flipping through a magazine, one typing, one asleep, tilted back in his chair. As she hurries past, the reporter stops typing and calls to her, but she pretends not to have heard.

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