The car hurtled through the darkness as the wind whipped through the open windows; a cold lash against his warm skin. Mike braced his feet on the floor and fought a rising sense of panic.
How fast are we going? He snuck a look at the speedometer. Holy shit! The needle inched toward a hundred and Brad showed no sign of slowing. Do I dare ask him to stop acting like Mario Andretti?
Mike took a deep breath. “Aren’t you afraid of getting stopped?”
Brad glanced over with a cocky grin. “Are you?”
“No big deal, man. Just thought you might want to hang on to your license.” Mike wished he had the guts to say aloud the thoughts that whirled through his head. He was scared. And he wished Brad would slow down.
“You need to chill out.” Brad took the joint out of his mouth and offered it to Mike. “This is excellent shit.”
Mike pushed his friend’s arm away.
“Hey, what’s the deal?” Brad took an angry toke. “You weren’t passing it up last year.”
“I only did it so you’d get off my case.” Mike paused to gauge Brad’s reaction. “Besides, the thrill escaped me.”
“That’s ‘cause you never gave it a chance.” Brad took another long drag. “You got to build yourself wings before you can fly.”
“Just remember this isn’t a fucking airplane.”
Brad laughed, and Mike couldn’t resist the urge to join him. That was the deal with Brad. Life was just one big joke—his reasoning for doing dope in the first place. Why shouldn’t they have a little harmless fun before they settled down to serious living? So Mike had let Brad talk him into trying the grass at Dempsy’s party last summer.
After the first hit, Mike had waited for some effect, but nothing happened. So Brad told him to take another. Deeper. Hold it longer. That time, Mike thought he’d cough a lung out before he got around to enjoying any benefits of the grass.
Mike didn’t care that Brad used dope. It was his life and his business. But now, as Brad’s red Trans Am screamed along the narrow country highway with Mike clinging white-knuckled to the ‘aw-shit’ handle, it wasn’t just Brad’s business.
The tires screeched as the car careened around a tight corner. The stench of burnt rubber blew in the open
windows, and icy fingers of fear crawled up Mike’s spine. “Why don’t you ease up,” he said.
“The gas and the goods.” Maybe if it sounded like a joke Brad would take it better.
“I got it under control.”
Mike wanted to believe him. They were friends. Brad wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. And there was hardly any traffic way out here in nothing-land. What could happen?
“Hey, what’s the record on that?”
Mike looked out the front window to see a tight curve looming at the farthest reach of the headlights. “I don’t know.” Brad had slowed, but not enough in Mike’s estimation.
“Didn’t Butcher do it at fifty?”
“Something like that.”
“Bet I can beat it.”
Panic stabbed Mike’s stomach and he glanced quickly at his friend. “Come on Brad. Don’t even try it.”
“What? You scared?”
Mike gripped the door handle as the car barreled into the curve. Even without his hands on the wheel, he felt the car slide as the rear tires lost traction. He didn’t know whether to pray or to scream.
At the precise moment Mike thought they’d careen off the edge of the road, the front wheels grabbed the asphalt. The car blasted out of the curve like a cannonball. Brad looked over with a triumphant grin. “See. I told you. Fifty-five.”
Before Mike had a chance to let out a breath of relief, a violent thump threw the car out of control. The vehicle slewed back and forth, and his head banged against the window with a painful thud. A sense of dread buffeted him like a blast of frigid air.
“What was that?” Brad asked.
It wasn’t a question that needed an answer. He watched the muscles in Brad’s arms strain to gain control of the steering wheel. What the hell had they hit? He braced one hand on the dash and the other on the seat and twisted to look out the back window. Darkness swallowed the world.
Then he heard his friend shout, “Oh, shit!”
That’s when the car went airborne.
It seemed to float, and for a fraction of a second Mike found it almost a pleasant feeling. Brad was right. They were flying, and it was fuckin’ awesome.
The thrill ended in a powerful impact amid a deafening explosion. A cacophony of screams surrounded Mike as glass shattered and metal ground against metal. He barely recognized one of the screams as his own. A terrible weight pushed into his chest . . . harder . . . and harder . . . and harder.
God it hurts!
The weight closed in on him. He couldn’t breathe. He tried to reach over to Brad but his arm wouldn’t move.
Nothing moved, except the pieces of metal twisting and gouging at him.
Make it stop!
Suddenly everything was still. Blessedly still, and Mike was glad it was over. Then a great wall of blackness rose up before him.
It moved slowly at first, then gained momentum as it enveloped the twisted interior of the car. It reached up to dissolve the shattered windshield and snuff out the pale moonlight.
In the dark void Mike felt the liquid blackness crawl up his mangled body until it covered him like a heavy blanket.
Oh, my God!
Life can change in just an instant.
That thought wove its way in and around her mind as Jenny fingered the clothes jammed along the wooden rod in the closet. His funny T-shirts promoting the likes of “Prince” and “Dilbert.” His one good shirt, only worn under duress. His leather jacket that still carried a faint aroma reminiscent of saddles and horses.
Sometime soon she’d have to clean out the closet. Isn’t that what usually happens?
Tears burned her eyes and she turned away. She didn’t know what was supposed to happen. No one had ever told her. And a multitude of questions swam through her mind like restless minnows in a pond.
There were books on choosing a college. Books on how to plan a wedding or how to help your child find a job. But no one had ever written one on what to do when your son dies.
In that moment of truth, the weight of the pain overcame her. It was like being smothered under a huge quilt. Gasping for breath in between sobs, Jenny ran from the room, slamming the door.
Her chest heaving, Jenny stopped halfway down the hall.
I’ve got to get control.
She wiped the trail of tears from her cheeks, then ran her fingers through the tumble of hair that persisted in falling across her forehead.
The door to Scott’s room opened, and he cautiously poked his head out. “You okay, Mom?”
Jenny nodded, not trusting her voice to words.
Her younger son stepped into the hall, all angles and oversized joints common to fifteen-year-old boys. In a flash, she saw Michael as he’d been at that age, muscles just starting to form under the softness of childhood skin, a rakish smile on a face squaring away to that of a man, a tousle of dark brown hair so much like her own.
The pain of remembering was like being gut-shot, and she crumbled like a doe in hunting season.
Scott closed the distance quickly, and his arms went around her in an awkward hold that was as much embrace as support.
Silent messages of mutual reassurance passed between them like fragments of electrical current. Jenny could smell the muskiness of night sweat on his shirt and heard the muted thump of his heart. And for a fraction of a second all was okay in the comfort of their embrace.
Jenny pulled away and saw a mirror image of her own pain reflected in the murky depths of her son’s eyes. They were so dark they were nearly black and defined the adage, “windows to the soul.”
Scott wouldn’t like it if he knew she could see so much. He thinks he’s such an expert at hiding beneath layers of loud music or sullen remoteness. But he’s always there, just waiting to be discovered.
She wanted to say something. Ease his pain. But he broke contact before she could formulate appropriate words.
Again, Jenny didn’t know what to do. She was the mother. She was supposed to know. She was supposed to take care of this child. That child. If only she hadn’t let Michael go camping that weekend. If only. God, how perfect the world would be if we could go back and change things.
The agony of loss cut so deep she turned away from Scott for a moment to gulp in air. Was it always going to be so hard? And who was supposed to take care of her while she was trying to take care of what was left of her family?
She felt a light touch on her arm. “It’ll be okay, Mom.”
God. She wanted to scream. It was not going to be okay. Nothing was okay. But she had to pretend. If not for herself, for Scott. She forced the anger into a far corner of her heart.
“Did I wake you?” she asked.
“No.” He shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“I couldn’t either.” She tried a tentative smile, and her emotional burden shifted ever so slightly.
She reached up and touched Scott’s face, feeling the soft stubble of immature beard. “You need a shave,” she said. But the message was, ‘we’ll be okay.’
Though Scott pulled away, his eyes said, ‘thank you.’
“Jenny?” a voice called from down the hall.
Giving him another brief smile, she hurried into the living room and almost collided with Carol.
“There you are.”
The naked anguish on her friend’s face scraped against Jenny’s emotions. “Where else would I be?”
The slight woman froze, her brown eyes wide and pain-filled, and Jenny immediately regretted snapping. She seemed to have so little control over her reactions since The Phone Call last night. That’s what it’ll always be, she thought in some weird twist of mind. The Phone Call. Forever in capital letters.
The words had played endlessly in her mind ever since. “Mrs. Jasick . . . Your son, Michael has been in an accident . . . He’s been taken to North Texas Medical Center . . .”
They wouldn’t tell her over the phone whether he was okay or not, but somewhere deep inside she’d known. A mother always knows. She drove her ailing Ford Taurus toward the hospital while the awful dread grew from a kernel of apprehension into a grotesque monster that gnawed on her heart.
By the time she’d arrived at the ER, some coping instinct had mercifully kicked in and she’d numbly received the news that Michael was dead. Nothing else was clear in her mind or memory. She didn’t know how her mother had known to come. Or who she was supposed to call about arrangements and when. Or was someone supposed to call her?
“Oh, God . . .” Carol’s voice brought Jenny back to the present. “I’d do anything . . .”
“I know.” Jenny kept her voice soft in an attempt to hold her friend’s emotions at bay. Grief hung like a pall throughout the house, crowding out any other feeling; and Jenny was sure one more tear would break her fragile hold on sanity.
Carol wiped the smear of moisture from her face. “I hope you don’t mind that I just walked in?”
“Of course not. Mi Casa your casa.”
Carol forced a small smile. “Someday we’re going to have to learn that other Spanish word.”
Jenny tried to match the smile but was afraid her face would crack under the effort. She figured Carol would understand. They had learned to understand a lot since sharing the tragedies of high school that paled compared to what happened in the real world.
“Some of the neighbors have called . . . to help. Bring food. Whatever . . .”
Not now. She couldn’t see people. Talk to people. Not until she figured out how she was expected to act. Thank God Mitchell hadn’t asked too many questions when she’d called to tell him the shop would be closed today. After she’d told him why, there was an abrupt silence on the other end of the phone. Then a cough and his voice assuring her that he would help in any way. She knew she could count on him or Jeffrey, didn’t she?
Jenny looked at her watch. Just after eight-thirty. “Later,” she said. “Could they come later? I’m just not . . .”
“Sure.” Carol hesitated a moment. “You want anything? Or I could just go. Or I could fix some coffee.”
Jenny rubbed her throbbing temples. It was too much. Too fast. Almost as if she sensed this, Carol asked, “You want me to leave?”
Jenny shook her head. “I just need to be alone for a moment.”
“Okay.” Carol touched Jenny’s shoulder in a small gesture of understanding. “I’ll go see if the kids want anything.”
Carol strode toward the hallway, purpose straightening her spine.
If only it could be that easy for me. Find something to do and everything’ll be okay. Jenny looked around the living room. The laundry she hadn’t finished folding was strewn in a jumbled mess across the overstuffed sofa. The coffee table overflowed with a scattering of magazines and notebook paper from someone’s forgotten homework. A week’s worth of newspapers made a haphazard pile on the floor next to the recliner.
If people were coming over, she should try for some semblance of order. She picked up the newspapers and, for one crazy moment, had no idea of what to do with them.
The shrill ring of the phone made her heart thump and her arms weak. She dropped the papers and stood inert; amazed that the simple act of answering her own phone terrified her. She stared at the instrument on the little side-table. It isn’t a monster. Just go pick up the receiver.
On the sixth ring, she did.
“Mrs. Jasick?” a pleasant male voice inquired. “This is Fred Hobkins with Canfield & Sons Funeral Services. The hospital called us.”
In the midst of all the horror that had been last night, Jenny vaguely recalled the decisions she’d been asked to make when she couldn’t even think. She’d told the nurse who was filling out the paperwork to just pick a funeral parlor, and have them contact her. But she didn’t expect the call so soon.
“First,” the man said, “let me offer my sincere condolences for your loss.”
Jenny assumed she was to insert some word of thanks into his silence, but she’d rather scream. She clamped her lips against the urge.
“Unfortunately, we do need to take care of some details.” Again he paused and Jenny knew she should say something. Anything. But her mouth refused to obey. She heard him clear his throat, then speak again. “I wondered when would be a good time to come over and make arrangements.”
“I don’t know.” Her throat was so tight she could hardly push the words out.
“Well,” Hobkins continued in that soft, well-modulated tone. “There’s never a good time. Perhaps we could try in, say, an hour?”
Jenny replaced the receiver and stood immobile. God. How am I going to do this?
Carol walked in, one arm draped over a still drowsy Alicia. Scott trailed behind.
“It was a man from the funeral parlor,” Jenny said in response to the question on her friend’s face.
“Oh, Mommy!” Alicia broke from Carol’s side and ran to her mother’s arms. Jenny held her tight, burying her face in her daughter’s long hair that carried the sweet little-girl smell of sleep.
“It’s okay,” Jenny murmured. “We’re going to get through this.”
“Is he coming over?” Carol asked.
Jenny looked over the top of Alicia’s head and nodded. “In about an hour.”
“Well, you, uh, go get yourself ready,” Carol said. “I’ll fix something for the kids to eat.”
Jenny released her daughter and wiped the tears from the girl’s flushed cheeks. “You okay?”
Alicia gave a slight nod, belying the sadness brimming in her amber eyes. Such a unique color. In Jenny’s estimation the only good thing that her ex-husband had left her. That’s not true. He left you three children, and like it or not, there’s a piece of him in each of them.
Jenny gave Alicia a kiss. “You go on with Aunt Carol. I’ll be out in a jiff.”
Carol put her arm around the girl and reached for Scott, but he pulled back from the contact. Jenny understood. Touching might break the fragile wall of strength.
In her room, Jenny was struck by the absurdity of what she was doing. Choosing an outfit to meet with the man who would bury her son. Does one dress up or down for an occasion like this? Make-up? Jewelry?
Sudden, manic laughter overtook her.
Thus begins what is a mother’s worst nightmare, the loss of a child. For most women, that loss would hold them in a grief so pervasive they couldn’t function, but Jenny Jasik doesn’t give in to the paralysis. After discovering how rampant drugs are in her rural Texas town, she bullies her way onto a Drug Task Force and works as a confidential informant to help bring down the main distributor. This isn’t done without considerable risk, not only to her safety but to her sanity and to the sanctity of her family.