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“And we got through it without a meltdown-if you can believe it. But I forgot the diapers.” He could see them there. I need my job, my reputation.” She felt heat flood her cheeks, the threat of tears. She bumped the chair as she backed up, and it made a loud scraping sound on the floor. But just as she was about to go inside, she saw the exit door at the end of the hall. It had never once waned in all their years together, even in the hard times, even when they were sleeping in separate rooms. He sat in the warm interior of the car and considered driving back into town and getting a hotel room. -which might not be enough for some but were more than enough for Michael, especially given his current residence. He’d thought it would bring him some relief to see it there. Men stared, smiled; women looked down at their nails. Even in the snapshots Michael had of her, he could see it. She no longer wanted to look at him, was moving toward the safety of her house. Bethany understood; she’d felt the same way as a kid. He offered Jones something to drink, and when Jones declined, Holt squeezed himself into one of the small chintz chairs, motioning Jones over to the couch. My father was a hoarder, I guess.” There was a show about that on television, too, wasn’t there?

I did manage to get us all to the grocery store today.” He heard water running in the background, the clinking of dishes in the sink. She started to apologize again, but her throat closed up. The room was hot, and she suddenly felt too close to Mr. She stood, just wanting to be away from him, his disapproving stare, so different from his usual smile and mischievous gaze. They wouldn’t be friends after this; she could tell. When she turned the corner, she slowed and walked toward her class. “Come to bed.” Michael Holt pulled into the driveway of his childhood home and cut the engine. One of the lower-level shutters hung by a single nail, listing to the side. She was probably wondering, too, about the sign that the agency had placed in the yard today. With chestnut hair that flowed like a river around her shoulders, with those dark eyes, with her hourglass shape, she filled the room when she entered. Her beauty was something that welled up from inside her, a kind of radiant heat. Willow lies because she doesn’t feel like who she is inside is enough for her peers. Cooper had told her this in their last discussion about Willow. Michael led him through the filth to the sitting room, an oasis in a sea of garbage. In this room, in that chair, surrounded by his mother’s things, Michael seemed to be drifting, closing off.

“I’m not sure that’s a compelling argument,” said Dr. “What are the odds of your taking another bullet to the gut, especially now that you’re out to pasture? He watched for a second, couldn’t see the person in the driver’s seat. Willow wasn’t sure if Jolie knew that she, Willow, lived in one of those houses and whether Jolie was making a dig or was just ignorant. By the time he got home, he felt vaguely sick but mercifully blank. She couldn’t stand a weak handshake-from a man or from a woman. If she looked back, way back, she thought of it as the first bad sign about her ex-husband. But it lingered, even with all the other competing aromas. He thought she had a quiet energy, not unlike his own. The Hollows was originally settled as a mining town. But he wasn’t a good judge of those kinds of things. It was a story Mack had told him, a tale the old man had supposedly unearthed in his exhaustive research. He had the goofy smile men often had around her mother. Ivy’s office, blanking out on whatever small talk he and her mother were making now. Ivy with various students, accepting an award, dressed in the school-mascot costume, with the Wildcat costume’s head tucked under his arm. And then she finally understood what they’d told her, that he wasn’t her natural father, not her biological father. And probably nobody but Willow would even have noticed. She didn’t think her mother herself was aware of the expression on her face. Embarrassed-but-trying was the look she was going for. Ivy seemed to buy it, giving her a warm smile and an approving nod. And truth be told, she would much rather have had one of them with her than her father. She straightened up from the slump she’d unconsciously sunk into. She and Jolie used to have the same lunch period, but Jolie had apparently been switched after returning from suspension. Ivy had a hand in it, wanting to minimize Jolie’s influence. Without Jolie there to take the edge off, Willow was left to fixate on them. Whatever flaws they had were on the inside; no one could call those out and make them cry. When he’d returned her call, she’d asked him to come by in the early afternoon the next day. The honest people, those who obeyed the law and did the right thing, were common enough. “Am I wrong in thinking that you didn’t want anyone else in your family to know we were talking? He wouldn’t say she had that skittish self-loathing that he’d seen in so many abused women, but there was something-something tense, something anxious. I have my own money.” She stuck her chin out a little. “Don’t worry about it,” said Jones, lifting a hand. Hazy and giggling, they’d walked among the crooked tombstones looking at the faded names and sad inscriptions: ANNABELLE LENIK, BELOVED DAUGHTER, BORN 1912, DIED 1914. SAMUEL ABRAMS, DEVOTED HUSBAND, FATHER AND SON, BORN 1918, DIED 1948. And so many more-inscriptions so worn as to be unreadable, grave sites just masses of weeds. Fakebook, a place where people could project the image that they wanted, show only the things they wanted everyone to see, hiding every dark and sad thing in their hearts and in their lives. The neighbors must see the handsome Kevin going off to work every morning and coming home in the evenings, bringing in groceries or takeout, grabbing the mail from the box. They got dressed up and went out to the nicest restaurants, parties in the neighborhood, even into the city. “I know that things haven’t been great between us, Paula. ” He’d modulated his voice to sound sweet and pleading.

When the door opened and a slight woman stepped out, he recognized her without being able to place her. And furthermore, Jolie had never been to the city and she didn’t know anything about city people. Through the trees ahead, she could see the clearing. The cat was missing, and that wasn’t really like him. “Michael Holt.” He offered his hand, and she shook it. From their initial encounter, she’d pulled her hand back smarting. She probably wouldn’t want to be called a little girl.” “You have kids? It was there-that smell of medicine and washcloth baths, antiseptic and something else, something rotting from within. She was careful; she listened, then waited a second before she spoke, absorbing, it seemed, everything that he’d said, and maybe what he hadn’t said. ” she’d asked after he told her he’d been digging up a body. There are tunnels everywhere-some of them just exploratory.” “Meaning? Michael had never been able to find anything about it in the few history books about the industry and the area. She did love us.” “She did love us,” his father said. There was a case of trophies, not for sports but for things like the chess and science clubs and the debate team, dorky stuff like that. They’d carefully explained to her over the years that he was her stepfather but it was just the same, that he couldn’t love her any more if she had been his real daughter. His love for Willow was intimately connected to his love for her mother. It was like drinking something that made you sick but liking the sickness somehow. It wasn’t something she did on purpose, like her stern look or her trying-to-be-patient look. “If you’re struggling, having a hard day, having trouble with the other kids, teachers, whatever, come see me. But he had only two tickets, and Willow’s going alone with a friend was out of the question. But when Jolie was there, Willow could handle the harpies better; they were almost funny when Jolie was around to point out their flaws: Lola had a big ass; Stacey was flat-chested; Emma was prone to breaking out. In the margin of her notebook, she’d doodled, Sticks and stones may break my bones. She’d zoned out in science lab, hadn’t done the reading, anyway. “I’ll pay you for your time, of course,” she’d said. But the genuinely good people, the innocent people like Paula Carr, the ones who thought of others and put themselves last, that was a rare breed. “I wasn’t always just a mom.” He gave her a smile, stopping short of reaching out to pat her hand, which is what he wanted to do. It’s the most important job in the world.” “Yeah, that’s what they say.” There was more than a slight edge of bitterness to her words. “Not that I don’t love being a mom.” She seemed to drift inward a moment, got that long stare. He couldn’t leave here without helping her, or at least trying. Really, that’s all I can do.” He flipped open the cover of his notebook, turned through the pages: a list for Home Depot, a license-plate number for a suspicious vehicle he’d seen on his block a couple of times, things Maggie needed from the store. At first Willow found it more sad than eerie, since on that first day it was sunny and hot. But sometimes on those nights, Kevin wouldn’t say a word, checking his Black Berry while she yammered away like an idiot over dinner. ” Her hands were shaking suddenly, so she stuffed them into her pockets. Go turn that thing off.” Her heart was pumping now, adrenaline racing through her system. She could still hear Claire crying upstairs, sounding so far away. She wanted to go to Claire, but she stayed where she was.

Corporations had been raping and pillaging the environment since the industrial revolution-spewing waste into the air and water, mowing down the rain forests, poisoning the earth. When he’d met Paula, she was young and hot, smart and vital. A couple of days later, the night before they were about to head home, he stopped back and picked it up. He could not lean upon those crutches as so many did; everyone, it seemed, had some way to protect himself against the specter of his certain end. Surely you see that spending your life fearing death is a death in and of itself.” But it seemed to him that people didn’t reflect on death at all. For all the years they’d been in this house, he’d hired someone to do this work. He was letting repair guys in, getting mail, and turning on lights when people were away, checking perimeters, keeping his guns clean and loaded. He had to get rid of that thing, a housewarming present from his mother-in-law. “The question was,” he said, “can you tell me the difference between a simile and a metaphor? But sometimes they seemed to have a mind of their own. For example, ‘Her love for him was a red, red, rose.’ ” She’d played it vampy, flirty, just to save face. She wanted all of them to know that she was different. “I was just kidding.” “Well, what do we do when we hurt or embarrass someone we care about? “Sounds like you know what to do.” “Okay,” Willow said. But then her mom said no more; Willow would have to ride out the school day no matter how miserable she was. He closed his eyes and cried for his mother, who, it turned out, wasn’t that bad after all-she’d just wanted him to eat his broccoli. “What I’m saying is that who we were before, what we were, it doesn’t exist any longer. And the things she’d learned from Eloise had far-reaching impact, the true nature of which was discovered only last year. He’d struggled for the details of the night before but found he couldn’t remember. A hard knock on the window of his truck snapped him back to the present. They said one thing but appeared to be thinking something else, wearing smiles that never reached their eyes. On the job he’d seen plenty of women abandon their children. “Yesterday you came to me out of nowhere with dire predictions about my pending doom, among other things. This was the only time she had to think, to breathe and figure out what she was going to do. For some reason, when they’d married, she hadn’t closed her savings account right away. But he’d seemed to be eager for her to go, to take the kids, stay the weekend if she wanted. He’d waved, smiling in the driveway, and she’d watched him get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. Kevin didn’t like her to spend too much time with them, even got angry when he thought she was talking to her mother on the phone too much. Paula held her breath, waiting for the cry that would herald the early end of nap time. ” “It’s not really your problem anymore if she is.” She couldn’t keep the sharp edge from her tone. The opening act was spectacular-roses and candlelight, surprise trips to Paris.

Plenty of people were hands-free talking, gesticulating in their conversations as though there were someone sitting beside them. Kevin looked into the mirror to see the guy flipping him off; the man in the Beemer was yelling, even though he must have known that no one else could hear him. This was his personal favorite, the whole organic thing. He plastered a smile on his face and pretended that he didn’t feel like his head was going to explode. “The Glock 17 fires seventeen nine-millimeter Luger rounds. Hope you never need to, but you’ll be able to protect your family with this, even without much gun experience.” The dealer, who looked to be in his twenties and had an unhealthy enthusiasm for his work, also sold him a box of ammo. He did not believe in a benevolent universe of light and love. “But there’s a point, Jones, where reflection becomes self-indulgent, even self-destructive. The neighbors had started to rely on him, enjoyed having a retired cop around while they were at work, on vacation. The ticking of the large grandfather clock in the foyer seemed especially loud. Sometimes she disappeared into her own head and the world around her faded to a buzzing white noise, only to crash back in some surprising and often embarrassing way. “I didn’t hear the question.” She felt the heat rise to her cheeks as someone in the back of the room giggled. As in ‘His eyes were blue and beckoning, like the deep, wide ocean.’ A metaphor is a figure of speech that equates one unlike thing with another. When Willow was younger, her mother used to say, Your mouth is going to get you into trouble, kid. They’d done this at the beginning of the year, and she hadn’t complained or even tried to cover it. The Hollows was a social and cultural void, populated by the petty, the small-minded, the unimaginative; here she was a freak and proud of it. She could have predicted the entire conversation verbatim. The first couple of weeks, Willow had called and begged to be picked up, and her mother had complied. But at the end of the day when the lights went down and the crowd went home, he found himself alone in a small, dark tent. It’s easier than it is to leave it behind and find a different road ahead where we have to do better.” “You think I’m wallowing.” She closed her eyes a second. A lifetime ago Maggie’s mother had visited Eloise Montgomery. ” “If that’s okay.” She gazed up at him with something like relief. That morning Michael had a terrible headache, a real killer. That’s when it started opening in him, that abyss of despair. He rolled down the window, though he didn’t want to. The people he knew-friends and acquaintances, if he could even call them that-seemed motivated by things he didn’t understand. ” “I remember that she was very sweet, a loving mother. She’d call me so that she could get out and get some exercise. Women don’t usually leave without their children.” “Unless there’s a new boyfriend, not the stepfather kind.” He tilted back in his chair a bit. Sometimes he liked to see a person get her feathers ruffled, just to see who she really was. Then she brought her cup with her to the couch, stepping over the toy truck she’d been meaning to move all day, and sat, releasing a deep breath. As she looked out the window to her backyard, she felt a twinge of guilt about it, followed by a swell of anxiety. The leaves were falling from the trees, and the sky was a flat gray. And more than that, she really wanted everyone else to think things were okay. She’d figured he would insist on going, or demand that she go alone and come back right away. They’d meet halfway between their homes, have lunch somewhere. Those icy blue eyes bored into you, seemed to see every romantic dream you ever had.

In the parking lot, he’d stashed everything under the passenger seat. People were not paying attention-not to life, not to death, not to one another. Really.” Those were the last words she’d said to him this morning before she headed off to see her first patient. It was amazing, really, how these tasks could fill his days. Then people started dropping off gifts-a bottle of scotch, a gift certificate to Grillmarks, a fancy steakhouse in town. “Well, should I find myself on the banks of a river, chasing a body, I’ll be sure to stay on solid ground,” he said, allowing her to pass and following her to the door. “I guess it depended on the circumstances,” he said. The woman was obviously mentally ill; she belonged in a hospital, not walking around free. She still didn’t turn to look at him, just bowed her head. But, honestly, he just found the whole situation preposterous. And if not right precisely, then as they should be. I used to torture myself, trying to figure out where and when and if things might happen. She moved through the door and let the screen close behind her. She rifled through the backpack and found her cell phone. “It sucks.” She leaned heavily against her locker and watched the sea of morons wash down the hallway. “Even after all that, I just wanted to come home.” “You’re always home, because I’m always with you,” the storybook mom said. And if you can’t help me to do that…” She let the sentence trail with a sad shake of her head. She passed through the kitchen, and he heard her walk slowly up the stairs. He managed to heft himself up from the table, move down the hallway, and stand at the stairs. He didn’t know how to use them to express his inner life. Maggie sat beside him, looking small and pale in her white nightgown. But obviously she’d unsettled him more than he would have been willing to admit. He’d decided to sleep on the couch tonight and give her the bed rather than continue to wake up to notice her absence, to lie awake and wonder why she didn’t want to sleep beside him. “I saw him pull into the driveway.” Jones sat up and turned on the lamp beside the couch, grabbed the remote control, and turned off the television. “The name is vaguely familiar.” “You were still in graduate school at the time.” Maggie had left for New York City right after high school, earning her undergraduate degree at New York University and then going on to Columbia for her master’s in family and adolescent psychology. He remembered riding his bike through the quiet streets. The world was in a fearful rush; he’d never been able to keep the pace. “Our time is up.” The doctor shut his notebook with a satisfied slap. We’ll pick up here next week.” But they hadn’t revisited the topic. Probably Abigail would have left him if she weren’t so afraid of being alone, if she’d had anywhere at all to go. ” “I told you.” “But that was only one reason.” He’d give her points for intuition. I’m wondering what your racket is.” She didn’t say anything, just held his eyes with that neutral gaze she had. Later that day the Hollows PD asks me to consult on a cold case to which it turns out you and Ray Muldune are connected. She kept meaning to take care of it, but then she just forgot. Or did some small part of her think it was a good idea to have a place, however small, that he didn’t know about? More than anyone else, Janie knew that something was not right with Paula. ” she’d ask at the end of their weekly conversations. When she was with her parents, she remembered what it was like to be loved and respected. She expanded, stretched out her limbs from the box she’d been living in. She’d wept at Janie’s funeral, couldn’t hide her sadness even though Cameron had his head on her lap and Claire slept on her shoulder. And so am I.” She started to tell her mother that everything was fine, that she was worried for nothing, that Kevin was just a difficult man to understand but that he was good to them and all was well. She told her mother about the account that was in her maiden name. “No one needs to be unhappy anymore, Paula.” Her mother said it in a whisper, looking down at the table between them. And if someone is making you unhappy, you have a right to leave. She had always thought of her parents as being well suited, having a good marriage. It muddled your brain with floods of hormones and sleep deprivation, kept you constantly busy tending to a million needs, had you forever thinking about the care of others. It wasn’t until they’d been married awhile, after she’d had the two children he’d demanded they have (two was the perfect number) and she was a slave to the house and the kids she loved more than her own life, that things started to get really bad. Usually he’d snap back and the conversation would turn into an alley fight, dirty and mean, ending abruptly. But he surprised her this time, by waiting a beat before answering.

And now, all of a sudden, it was up to the individual to save the planet-by paying twice as much for “green” products, thereby increasing the profit margin of the very companies that were responsible for global warming, the almost-total depletion of natural resources, not to mention obesity and all its related diseases. At the gleaming row of cash registers, the young, pretty girl was free, thumbing through the pages of some celebrity rag. He didn’t have his glasses on, so he couldn’t read her name tag. Now she was a mom at Disney, two full sizes bigger. Kevin could hardly believe that he was able to walk out of the shop with a gun and bullets, carried in a small canvas bag. Everyone appeared to be walking around oblivious to the looming end-spending hours on Facebook, talking on cell phones while driving through Starbucks, reclining on the couch for hours watching some mindless crap on television. Jones was raking leaves; the great oaks in his yard had started their yearly shed. But since his retirement, almost a year ago now, he’d decided to manage the tasks of homeownership himself-mowing the lawn, maintaining the landscaping, skimming the pool, washing the windows, now raking the leaves, eventually shoveling the snow from the driveway. The situation annoyed Maggie initially-the neighbors calling and dropping by, asking for this and that-especially since he wouldn’t accept payment, even from people he didn’t really know. Did he really need to hear the passing of the minutes of his life? Montgomery,” he said, “I don’t think you’re well.” “I’m not, Mr. I’m not well at all.” She got up from the table, to his great relief, and started moving toward the door. I doubt it.” She rested her hand on the knob of the front door but neither pulled it open nor turned around. And, finally, who was in the water.” Why was he even bothering to have this conversation? I think that’s what you need to know.” For someone as obsessed with death as Jones knew himself to be, he should have been clutching his heart with terror. I see, and I tell the people I need to tell to make things right. As if she were a teacher who wouldn’t bother with a lesson that her student could never understand. She wasn’t a freak in New York City, where she’d lived all her life until her exile to The Hollows six months ago. When he opened his eyes, it was all a dream and he was safe in his bed, his mom leaning in to give him a kiss on his forehead. He told her about the lions and the clown and the flying trapeze. We need to move forward as who we are now, find a new us, a new life-without Ricky living in our house, without you as the town cop, without you carrying this secret burden. Let him help us.” “Okay.” She got up and walked away from the table. But an odd inertia held him back, made his limbs and his heart feel so heavy. The television filled the dark room with its flickering light. Already the dream was slipping away from his consciousness. He hadn’t told Maggie about Eloise Montgomery’s visit or her premonition. She didn’t want to deal with how it made her feel, so she was asking him about his feelings. Jones slid in closer to his wife, dropped an arm around her shoulder, and she molded herself against him. He was supposed to spend the night at a friend’s house, but once there he’d wanted to come home. You know that.” His father had turned then, and the man looked as though he’d aged ten years since Michael saw him the day before. The people he didn’t know, those he observed, were what he liked to call busy-addicted, engaged in one task but paying attention to something else-grocery shopping while talking on their cell phones, driving their cars while sending texts. When did it become a badge of honor to be too busy, to have too much to do? You could probably find out anything you wanted to about him.” It took everything Jones had not to leap over the coffee table and start pummeling the guy. Babies left at the police station, mothers sneaking out of the maternity ward at the hospital, once a baby left in an open locker at the bus station. Maggie was always accusing him of trying to get a rise out of people. You told me, too, that I was getting a reputation, that people were going to start coming to me for more things. The rest of the day raced by in a blur of caregiving-breakfast, nursing, dropping off, grocery shopping, nursing, peekaboo, cleaning, nursing, starting dinner, picking up Cameron, snack, bath time, stories, on and on. At the time there was only a little money in there, just under a thousand dollars. And once she was with them for a while, in their home without Kevin, she understood why. But she didn’t tell her mother the truth, not the whole truth. Paula just said she was very unhappy and didn’t know what to do, but that the money would help her decide. But then she heard the baby sigh, her breathing return to its deep sleep rhythm. It was a funny, impossible little trap of nature, motherhood. She couldn’t quite see it from the house, but she could hear it if the television was off, if she was listening for it. It crept in against her will, a thug pulling a switchblade, not afraid to use it. In spite of the mild temperatures, he was sweating from the raking. He could see her from where he stood at the counter. She hadn’t taken off her pilled houndstooth coat, was still clutching her bag. “You wish I would go.” He put down the mugs he was taking from the cabinet, banging them without meaning to. He had an appointment with his shrink in a few hours, something he dreaded. Jolie said that the old-timers called the acres and acres of trees the Black Forest, even though that wasn’t the real name. He always accompanied his questions with a hopeful, inquiring lift of his jet-black brows. The kid who handed him his sack had black-painted fingernails and a face full of piercings-nose, ears, eyebrows, and tongue. She pulled a twenty out of her pocket and handed it to him. Todd was eavesdropping, she thought, hovering near the sink with nothing apparent to do. He removed his glasses and used the bottom of his sweatshirt to rub the lenses. ) sat on the end table, beneath a lamp she’d cherished, with its blue-and-white flowers painted on porcelain. For some reason that only made her feel worse about it. It turned to something cold and black inside her, and she let herself sink into it. “Well,” Bethany said, slapping her palms lightly on her thighs. When she gave her mother a hug good-bye and headed off to advanced calculus, she was sure she’d meant every word she said. She didn’t invite the three-point appraisal: face, breasts, ass-not necessarily in that order. Maybe because it was just that she was so young and pretty, so trusting of him. He hadn’t realized how anxious he felt on the days that he had nothing to do, how the emptiness of the house and the list of mundane tasks weighed down upon him sometimes. He gave Willow a smile; she knew it was just for her. Out of the corner of her eye, Willow saw the other girl slump a little. The idea of this made her think she should go back to school and get on the bus home. But for some reason, uncomfortable phone conversations notwithstanding, Jones felt closer to Ricky now that he was away at school than he ever had when they’d lived under the same roof. Jones interpreted this to mean: IS THE RIDE READY, DAD? In the kitchen he sat at the table where she motioned for him to do so. A dismissive, condescending sound, Maggie would accuse. But more than that, she wasn’t sure what he was capable of, what he might do to her, the kids, even her parents. She couldn’t leave Cole alone with Kevin to bear the fallout of their leaving. She felt something under the passenger seat and pulled out a black canvas bag. She smiled at him, told him she wanted the Super Wash, and asked him how long it would take. Still smiling, she walked inside and paid the clerk. Why hadn’t she left that Monday when he went to work? What she found so odd about the situation she was in was that on the surface they must seem so normal. He does not experience guilt or remorse, love or empathy. When confronted or discovered, they will always try to make you feel sorry for them in order to control you. It reminded him that he still needed to lose those twenty-five pounds his doctor had been nagging him about for years. When he finally gazed back over at her, she was regarding him with a wan smile. “Your wife and mother-in-law offer more respect.” “Respect is earned.” He poured the coffee. But the Germans who had settled the town had stories; it was the forest of every fairy tale ever told-filled with witches’ cottages and gingerbread houses and big bad wolves. Jones offered a shrug, took a sip from the coffee he’d carried in with him. Jones dropped his change in the scratched plastic tip cup. For some reason his friendly smile and chipper attitude left Jones unsettled, as if he were being subtly mocked. That’s what kids think it means to be grown up, that no one ever tells you what to do. “I’ll take this gentleman’s check as well.” “That’s not necessary,” Michael said quickly. “I insist.” He looked like he was about to offer more protest, but then he was wearing that grin again. When Todd handed Bethany her change and she was getting ready to say good-bye, Michael pointed toward his table. ” She sensed that he was just being polite, that he expected her to decline the offer. She’d half expected to see her daughter lurking outside the picture window, peering inside. The toddler at the far table issued a little shriek of delight over something. It had shocked him when he returned from his father’s hospital room to find this oasis in the center of chaos, this eye in the storm. She’d felt it the first time she realized that her father was gone and that he wasn’t coming back. “I feel like we’ve accomplished something.” Lies, good lies, were about more than words. More than any of that, though, you had to believe the lie yourself. Her first lie had been about a Britney Spears concert. At least in that moment, she wanted to be someone they could both be proud of. But by the end of the day, she was sinking back into that funk. Jolie chewed at her cuticle, looked at her with glittering green eyes through lashes caked with dark mascara. She was a mom, with a stylish short cut to her brown hair but wearing very little makeup other than a light gloss on her lips. ” “Well, first of all, I don’t want Cole to feel he’s not welcome here. “And Kevin…” She let the sentence trail with a shake of her head, as if she didn’t know how to finish. Kevin cares about what he cares about, and that’s it. And he doesn’t seem to care much about what happened to Robin.” He cares about what he cares about, and that’s it. They said you were a retired cop who did some private investigating now.” He heard the baby murmur on the monitor in the kitchen. “But mainly I just look after people’s houses while they’re on vacation, feed pets, let in the repairman.” But she didn’t hear the second part, or didn’t care to hear it. Or maybe Maggie was right about his not being able to resist a damsel in distress. I’ll write down what I have.” She got up quickly from the table and moved from the room. For the first time in a year, maybe longer, he actually felt happy. Maybe it was just all the different ways they could communicate now. The first thing he noticed was the row of medications on the windowsill. But there were too many of them, maybe ten little plastic tubes of varying size with green caps. She went over to the window and watched the car get lathered and rinsed, sprayed with wax, and buffed. She was chitchatting with people at school when she dropped off Cammy and picked him up. Mourning doves made flimsy nests, were lazy enough to even settle in the abandoned nests of other birds. “You can build your nest anywhere else,” he said, sweeping his arm over the property. ” She looked nervously around, and Jones followed her eyes, to the falling leaves, the clear blue sky. As she climbed the steps without invitation and stood at the door, he thought about how, with enough time and patience, a blade of grass could push its way through concrete. While she was staring up, she started to notice something she’d been hearing in the distance for a while. “An old house like ours requires quite a bit of maintenance.” He paused, but the doctor didn’t say anything. “My neighbors have been relying on me a lot lately-watching their homes while they’re away, checking mail, helping some of the older people with jobs around the yard. “And use it to make your life what you want it to be.” Jones looked away, embarrassed by the other man’s obvious passion. She took another sip of her coffee, looked back at the door instinctively. He looked real, solid, earthy, like The Hollows itself. He remembered the first time she’d unfurled it before him, took it down from the bun it had been in and let it cascade around her shoulders. Dahl.” She folded the towel again, still didn’t lift her eyes. “I know,” said Chuck when he caught sight of Jones. He still kept that ring of hair around his ears, though, like a friar. The hallway was lined on both sides with piles of newspapers that reached to the ceiling, narrowing the passage by more than a foot on either side. Ivy that I’d work harder.” “So call your mom and tell her you’re going to stay and study at the library. Willow liked Jolie; Willow felt relaxed and easy when she was around, didn’t have that need to make things up to feel better about herself. They tried to look studious with their books open, passing notes back and forth, while they waited for Bethany to call and check up-which she did, predictably, fifteen minutes later. There was an hour and a half until the late bus; she had that long to be herself. And instead of saying what she should have said, she said, “I remember where it is. There’s time.” She started walking, and the other two followed her into the woods. He could not figure out how to use the keys on the phone to create a message or how to send it. Happy at school, happy to be coming home for the weekend. Jones thought it was an accomplishment to be a happy person, a choice. Lately he and the good doctor had been talking a lot about Abigail, Jones’s mother, who had been dead more than twenty years now. He would have expected her to keep him on the porch. He stepped over the threshold; it seemed colder inside than out. Just as he imagined it-but somehow not, somehow more run-down, more staid than he expected. People had to pay a fortune to connect with the dead, to answer the questions no one else had been able to answer for them. As he did, he noticed the shabby condition of the house-the chipped baseboards, hairline cracks in the wall, flooring in the kitchen coming up, a water stain in the ceiling. Michael was old enough to take care of himself after school. She was going to tell them everything, the whole truth about the man she’d married. She knew that her husband’s moods were growing darker. He’d been visiting ugly, hard-core porn sites, guns-and-ammo sites. So the garage must have seemed like a perfect residence for them, offering protection from predators. “Just not there.” They seemed to listen, both of them craning their necks as he spoke. He expected her to pull open the screen and walk inside, but she waited. ” He walked over with the coffee cups and sat across from her. A kind of rhythmic thumping, something so soft and steady it had taken a while to leak into her consciousness. He felt heat in his cheeks, a strong desire to leave and not come back. He knew that his voice sounded cold and professional, nearly sarcastic for its lack of feeling. But the other man couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice. When he gazed back up at her, something on his face sent a shock through her. “I mean, you said yourself that if we’re not compatible, I should find someone else,” he said into the silence that hung between them. “I look like shit.” Jones had always really liked Chuck, was glad that the post he’d resigned as head detective at Hollows PD had been given to the other man. He might be the last of the real cops, someone who didn’t come to the job because of a crime show he’d seen on television. He gave Chuck a hearty slap on the shoulder as they shook hands. Jones thought he should shave it, grow a goatee, make it work for him. Michael had to flatten himself and turn to make his way sideways down the hall, to avoid touching the wall of newsprint, heading toward the only habitable room in the house. Vance speaks very highly of her, her advanced comprehension and her creative writing. Then she’d go home and try to be what everyone else wanted her to be. “I don’t know.” The wind picked up, and she thought about her mother again and about the promises Willow had made. Jones was always getting text messages from his son on the cell phone that Maggie had bought and made him carry. So he usually just wound up calling his son back and talking to him, which was always awkward for reasons Jones didn’t really understand. He couldn’t say he’d accomplished the same thing in his own life yet. The smell of cigarette smoke could resurrect her; he could still hear her voice in his head. Possibly those were the last words she’d spoken to him. By that time he’d been so worn down by her incessant litany of problems, her endless list of symptoms and issues, her ever-increasing visits to doctors, that he’d barely registered the complaint-or the comment that followed his inadequate response. If he’d been her friend, her neighbor, or if he’d been taking care of her house while she was away, he’d offer to do the repairs or mention something that might have been beyond his abilities, suggest that she have it looked at. “It was a lot easier to disappear in 1987 than it would be in 2011.” “What do you remember? Some of this Jones remembered, some of it had come back to him as he read his own notes. Then she was going to take the children and go far away. Maybe he could find Cole’s mother and Paula could call her, implore her to come back for Cole. She’d guessed at his password and logged in to his home computer and had been shocked by the things she’d found there. He’d been visiting sites about postpartum psychosis. And then Paula found an e-mail correspondence between him and another woman. The messages were filled with lies about Paula, that she didn’t take care of the kids, that she was having an affair, that she was mentally unstable, an alcoholic. She didn’t seem to notice him standing there in the middle of his yard. All this according to her pot-smoking, suspended friend, whose family had lived in The Hollows for four generations, her German ancestors actually members of the original settlement. She felt that jolt of curiosity, that itch to know something. He observed squirrels and finches, mice and robins with studied indifference. It was rare for her, a true smile, true affection for another. “I really appreciate this.” She dropped the phone into her bag. His father, a geology professor, had a pet interest in the area mines and their history. How long did he just sit listening to his father’s rattling breath? “I know you’ve been having a hard time adjusting to the move and the new school. Of course, your friend Jolie was suspended last week for cutting school. On the other hand, her mother would make her life a homeschooling hell. They rocked out to the new CD and danced around the kitchen, using spatulas for microphones. ” Willow buried her head beneath her pillow against the crescendo of their voices. Just as she was drifting off to sleep, she heard the front door slam and her mother start to cry. Somehow, in doing this, Willow felt a little less desperately sad, as though she’d taken back something that had been taken from her. In telling her lies that day, she felt a kind of rare power. She didn’t know, couldn’t have known, that that first little lie would grow and grow. Maggie said, “You never could resist a damsel in distress.” “What makes you think she’s in distress? Then, “Kevin said that there had been a lot of different men over the last few years. And he said his mother had had a few dates here and there, but nothing serious. His birthday was last week-no card, no call.” She didn’t bother to try to stop the tears this time, just let them fall. “It’s haunted,” Jolie had told her on their last visit. Willow waited for the mischievous grin to erupt on her face, but it didn’t. For example, no one knew or even suspected that Paula and her children had become a burden, an inconvenience to Kevin and the fantasy he was creating in his mind about his new girlfriend. She looked at the clock and saw that an hour had passed. When she turned to go upstairs, she saw him standing there. “Cole’s out with friends.” She hated the sound of her own voice, so falsely light; the smile she kept plastered on her face actually ached. And Cammy’s still at school.” Kevin glanced at the clock. Once upon a time, before they were married, she used to look at him and think how lucky she was. But one of her friends, one of her mom friends, had made a comment.