Read The Last Secret Online

Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris

The Last Secret (8 page)

“Hey, Nora!” he calls from the doorway. “I didn't know you were still here. This guy called and I said you already left. I'm sorry.”

“That's okay. I'm sure he'll call back.”

“Probably. He said it was important. I tried to get his name, but all he said was Ed.”

“God. Ed Martino. He's already changed his layout three times this week,” she calls in her rush to the door.

The disorientation
of these past few weeks involves all her senses. Everything seems filmy, blurred, as if looking through water-smeared glasses. As she walks to her car she feels the breakdown starting, parts
shifting, details fading. She scans the empty lot, for a moment can't recognize the name on the parking sign. NORA T. HAMMOND. Nothing to do with her. Words, letters, her weary brain struggles to process. It takes both cold, trembling hands to fit the key into the ignition.

Two more errands left. Busywork, keep the gears turning. Checks needing Father Grewley's signature and her proposal for the
supplement for Oliver to consider while she's gone. Neither stop is necessary, but reasons enough not to go straight home. Thinking is the killer. Even now on this short drive to St. Paul's rectory, the analysis begins, sifting through the dregs of once-mundane facts and events for more lies, more betrayals. This sickening need to know everything is destroying her. And yet, how can she not? Behind every truth lurks a darker truth. Behind the simplest reality, betrayal. The black pearl bracelet last Mother's Day, pink and white roses on her birthday, the red silk robe on Valentine's Day, what were they? Guilty counterparts to the gifts he probably chose with greater care and delight for Robin? Beautiful Robin who loved jewelry and flowers and pretty things in a way Nora never had.

On impulse she pulls into Kay McBride's driveway. If asked she would have said that she and Kay have been friendly for years, though Kay considers Nora her closest friend. She doesn't deserve a friend like Kay. All the time she's spent with Robin and Bob, instead of with Kay who wasn't part of a couple, such a waste. Kay is everything Nora is not, easygoing, good-natured, honest about her feelings. Maybe that's it. With Kay she always feels a little guilty. False, for not being half the person Kay thinks she is. Nora's life has always seemed so easy in comparison. Kay's husband died of kidney failure a few years after they were married, leaving Kay with a six-month-old baby and a pittance for insurance. Kay got her broker's license, and Nora was one of her first clients. They met when she and Ken began looking for a bigger house. Nora was pregnant for the third time and their three-bedroom Cape wasn't going to be big enough. Or at least that's what she told Kay. In truth, Ken never liked the neighborhood. He wanted to live where he'd grown up, on the north side of town, nearer the club, where most of the homes couldn't even be seen from the road. With
Kay's help they found the house they still have, bright, airy, and as it turned out with Nora's miscarriage, bigger than they would need.

The only light is on upstairs, but she keeps ringing the bell.

“Nora!” Kay says, throwing open the door, still putting on her robe. “What're you doing here? Shouldn't you be packing?”

“I've been meaning to call you. All your messages … it's just been … crazy!” And suddenly she's in Kay's arms, sobbing. She can barely speak.

“Poor kid. Oh, you poor kid. Here. C'mere. Come sit down.”

Kay leads her into the small den. The love seat creaks under them.

“What's wrong?” Kay asks, and Nora can only shake her head. “Tell me. Just say it.”

“It's Ken,” Nora cries.

“What? What about him?” Kay looks stricken.

“He's been having an affair. With Robin,” she gasps, and Kay sighs. Instead of shock there is only relief in Kay's eyes. “You knew. You did, didn't you?”

“I did. Yes.” Kay's arm stiffens against her shoulder.

“How long have you known?”

“I'm not sure.”

“Who told you?”

“I don't remember. Someone in the office, I think.”

With that, Nora sits forward. “And you never told me. You never said anything.”

“Well, I … God, Nora. I mean, at first I didn't want to believe it. And then I … I couldn't bear the thought of hurting you.”

“But I am hurt. You have no idea how hurt I am. The pain I'm in.”

“Oh, Nora, I—”

“But the worst of it's knowing that you were in on it, too.” She jumps up, heading for the door.

“No! No, Nora!” Kay follows her, barefoot, into the cold, down the walk. Kay grabs her arm and holds on, almost pinning her back against the car. “I never saw them together. Never once! But I told Ken. I told him what a shithead he was. How disgusting I thought it all was. And you know what he said to me? Do you want to know?”

She already does: that he loved Robin and couldn't help himself.

“He said I should tell you, then. If I really believed it was true, if I was that disgusted, then maybe I should do something about it.”

“So why didn't you?” Her voice sounds small, far away.

“Because … because some things are just … just too hard. And I wasn't about to do his dirty work. That would've made it too easy for him.”

“But you did. Everyone did. It
all so easy for him. Don't you see?”

“I know, and I know why you're saying it, Nora. Because if you put all the blame on him, then you'll hate him. You'll hate him too much for anything to be salvaged. But don't push
away. Or anyone else. I'm sure I'm not the only one, the only one who … who tried. This is when you need your friends, Nora. Now more than ever.”

A relationship.
Clearly more than an affair. More than sex. A relationship, a union of emotional depth. Humiliation, Kay obviously thinks. But no—it's the utter rejection. She's always loved Ken, loved him exactly as he was, and for being everything she was not. He had brought security into her life and a lightness of being she'd never known. Before Ken she'd always felt alone. With him at her side she didn't have to be so guarded anymore. She could let down her defenses, breathe, laugh at herself He made her feel complete, but now what is she? What's left? As she drives, pressure builds in her skull. She wants to save her marriage, doesn't she? Yes. She just doesn't want to be with him. Doesn't want to go home. Doesn't want to go to Anguilla. Even thinking of him makes her skin crawl. Kay's right—she doesn't want to hate him, but she needs to do something, hurt him. Hit him. Over and over again. Not even for the pain he'd feel, but to release this ache in her chest. In her throat, her brain. Just to be able to think clearly again. Or maybe not to think. A sudden jerk of the wheel, accelerator to the floor, and this out-of-control life stops hurting. But Chloe and Drew. Her children. They haven't done anything wrong. She blinks, forces her eyes onto the narrow, winding road.

St. Paul's serves the poorer neighborhoods of Franklin. Father Grewley started Sojourn House five years ago in an abandoned tenement. At first the bulk of the work, cooking and cleaning up, was done by the young priest himself and a few parishioners. Recently, Sojourn House has been relocated in an unused school building, whose twenty-odd rooms serve as clinic, counseling rooms, offices, resource center, and temporary shelter for the abused women and their children needing to get their lives back on track. With enough publicity and the right connections, Sojourn House has become a very chic charity, supported by local businesses and industry. Among their fund-raising events are wine-tasting parties, art auctions, golf tournaments, the highlights of Franklin's social season. Because of all the media attention some people think she actually works at Sojourn House. Congressman Linzer's office has sent her a framed commendation. From the White House has come another, unframed; and everywhere she goes people take time to congratulate her.

“I think that's wonderful, feeding those poor souls,” said the supermarket checkout lady.

“Thank you.”

“There should be more people like you in this world, Mrs. Hammond,” whispered the reference librarian.

“Thank you.”

“You're all so kind. We're all so good, so kind and good. Thank you, thank you thank you, thank you! Thank you?” she shouts as the car jolts over the potholes that mark the change of neighborhoods, past crowded tenements. “For fucking what?” she yells, laughing. With the slightest acceleration the car flies along the dirty snow-banked streets, past the three-deckers and their first-floor pizza places and pawn shops, still brightly lit. Here, even the barber shops stay open late, sanctuaries where men can linger instead of going home to pain and failure. For the first time in her life, she understands. She turns up the radio until throbbing music fills the car.

“A relationship!” she cries over the drumbeat. “Oh my God, my God. Oh my God!” she moans. She's never been a good enough mother, or good enough wife, or good enough lover, or good enough
daughter, or good enough sister, or good enough friend. Never good enough. No matter where she goes, what she does, always an alone-ness, that breathless, uncontainable need to flee, her flesh crawling with this same revulsion and panic. “Don't,” she warned Ken when he first laid his hand on her stomach, beneath tightly grasped sheets of her dark, dark bedroom, needing time, that was all, time to take a deep breath, to relax, to dare feel anything, with even his breath at her flesh unbearable.

“Close your eyes and make believe I'm somebody else,” he whispered once. Somebody exciting. Somebody who's crazy about you … Eddie's face she saw. And no matter how hard she tried to make it Ken's face, it was still Eddie, with every gasp, full of him, his voice, touch, smell, so heavy with yearning she could barely keep her eyes open, even in the hard light of day, nights later, cringing in the glare of the hot pink and green light flaring over the man's sagging back as he sank across her legs, pinning her against the seat, with Eddie, running around to her side, police coming, train coming. Coming. “Wake up, honey.” Ken was shaking her. “Wake up, you're having a bad dream, that's all.”

In front of the small rectory, she turns off the engine, wets her finger, and rubs away smeared eyeliner. The minute she steps into the brisk night air, heels scraping the gritty brick walk, she can think clearly again. She rings the doorbell, takes deep breaths as she waits, noting the scroll of newspaper frozen into the front lawn, and she knows why she's come here so late at night to deliver three paltry checks she's already held for days and as easily could have mailed. She needs help.

The door squeals open and the slight young priest with round, rimless glasses and thinning hair smiles out at her. “Mrs. Hammond! Nora. What a surprise.” He wears a baggy blue sweater over his black pants. And soft leather Indian moccasins, beaded like a child's.

“I have these checks,” she says, fumbling them from her briefcase. One flutters to the floor and she and the priest almost bump heads as they bend to get it. “They came to the paper. Ken and I are leaving tomorrow.”

“Oh. Thank you. But you didn't have to come out so late. I could have—”

“No!” she interrupts. “I wanted to. Besides, I … I was out, I mean, out this way anyway.” With her faltering voice he peers over his glasses.

“Well, come on in, then. Come inside.” He steps back. From the parlor doorway to the right comes the violet wash from a television screen and voices, then laughter. “Father Connelly and I were just watching a movie,” he explains.

She sees the old priest's stocking feet draw back as if to stand up. “I can't, but thanks. I'm running late,” she calls as she starts back down the steps.

“You have a good trip now,” Father Grewley calls, waving the checks.

Thank God. Thank God, she thinks, shocked at how close she came again to losing it. Her face flushes at the thought of pouring out her misery to the wide-eyed young priest. He's heard more than his share of troubles in his ministry, but not from Nora Hammond. She is supposed to be strong. Control is the key. She has to take charge of her pain and confusion and wrestle it into manageable shape. No one else can do that for her. The first time she went to pieces at home, Ken suggested a counselor. He has the name and telephone number of a good one. But she can't. Not now. Not yet. It would be like trying to tweeze out dirt and grit from an oozing wound.

“So, what do we do? What do you want? What're our choices?” he said, trying to hide his annoyance, when she refused. “Or do we just keep on like this?”

It isn't the smooth passage that he expected. He doesn't know what he wants except for her to move step by step through some mad formula that begins with betrayal and debasement, and hopefully, logically, if the proper methods are utilized, will end with … with what? Happiness? Coexistence? He has no idea how many choices she has. So many, she can barely keep them straight. There is murder and suicide and slashing and nervous breakdowns and arson and anonymous letters, the gouging with her own ragged nails of Robin Gendron's flawless glowing cheeks from her darkly lashed blue eyes to her delicate dimpled chin.

She turns down Fairway Road, past the club, up the slight rise, then the long, winding driveway to FairWinds, Oliver's home. She drives slowly, careful to keep to the middle. Once covered with white marble chips so that on a moonlit night the driveway meandered along the dark hillside like a pale river, now it is rutted and stone-humped. The Hammonds built this three-story brick manor with its oak-paneled hallways and high-ceilinged rooms at the turn of the century. It was here that Ken brought her to meet his parents and Oliver, newly married and quickly divorced, who had temporarily moved back to Fair-Winds. At first glance she thought Oliver was Ken's uncle, like their mother, calling him Kenny. Ten years older than Ken, he still seems more avuncular than brotherly. Oliver lives here alone, the lovely old living room, its deep windows overlooking the town, now, for all intents and purposes, his bedroom. It contains no bed, but a huge leather recliner that adjusts into twelve different positions (all but the missionary, Ken likes to joke) and Oliver's clothes, the few he has. She hopes Annette Roseman isn't visiting, though she's only run into her here a few times. For years the remote, elegant woman has been Oliver's companion. Annette and her disabled son live in town with her mother, who was one of old Mrs. Hammond's housekeepers. No one knows if Annette has ever been married or who the father of her son is, though few suspect Oliver. The boy, a young man now, is too dark, his features favoring his mother's race. Ken said Annette's baby was born in New York City when she was in college. Her return to Franklin coincided with Oliver's return to FairWinds. Annette is a highly regarded portrait artist, whose commissions run into the thousands.

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