SUCH A MURKY PEA SOUP of people. Shapes darting and bumping about in a sea of social noise. Occasionally one swam in close to study him. “I’m so sorry,” they said, one after the other. “So sorry for your loss.” Occasionally one added something else: “Elaine was so special.” Or, “Emily was such a delightful little girl.”
He just kept nodding. About ten minutes into the memorial service he’d managed to achieve something just this side of catatonia and he had no desire to leave it.
“You’ll have to excuse David,” his sister kept saying. She kept people moving along efficiently. “He just got home from the hospital a few days ago. He’s not himself yet.”
Not himself. Well. David felt that he still was who he was, for what that was worth. It was the rest of the world that was different – as if it had filled up with a heavy, translucent substance that muffled sound, blunted edges, slowed time.
The hospital had sent a calm-voiced psychiatrist who wanted him to talk about it. David didn’t see much point. He didn’t remember the actual crash or anything after it. He had no idea how he’d ended up outside that plane while his wife and daughter, still inside it, were incinerated. None of the other survivors knew either, apparently. But no one connected with the crash or its investigation had ever quite met his eyes, either.
“Dear David, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
He tensed. That honeyed diction. Those perfectly-manicured nails. Magda. “How are you holding up?” She took his hand, surrounded it with both of hers. “It must be so awful.”
He kept his eyes down. The approach of his enemy had awoken him from numbness, but she didn’t need to know that.
She got down to business. “I just want you to know that you can take as much time as you need.”
Denise swooped in. “Oh, that’s wonderful to hear. I’m David’s sister, Denise Asken. I take it you’re from the college?”
“I’m Magda Garlati, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.” She still said it with a flourish. Magda was the youngest dean the college had ever had and also the first female, but she’d taken to it as if born to the position. Which she might have been – family connections were rumored. “As I was just telling David….”
“Yes, and it’s marvelous. He may need that time, you know. This has been very difficult for him.”
Magda coughed gently. “Of course, if possible, we’d prefer to have some idea which way this is going. Whether we’ll need to hire someone to cover his classes….”
“But it’s barely July. Surely there’s time yet.”
“Academic hiring is such an involved process. I assume the airline is making David a settlement? He may not want or need to come back to work?”
Jesus. Don’t beat around the bush, Magda. Some people seemed to think that by surviving this crash he’d won the lottery or something. Of course, Magda was probably just hoping it would solve her little problem with his tenure.
“I don’t think we can make any assumptions about what he’s going to want to do at this point,” Denise said. “He’s barely out of the hospital.”
Someone poked a large hand into his field of vision. David shook it dutifully and looked up; it was his next-door neighbor. The man went on about the lawn, ending with, “So I hope you don’t mind that I put down something to kill the weeds?”
“Weeds?” David responded, so flummoxed that he broke his silence. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Denise and Magda stop their negotiations to turn and look.
“Those seeds float all over the neighborhood! Most of us treat our lawns, but you and the Carmichaels always have quite the crop, so I thought, as long as I was keeping your grass mowed for you….”
“Oh and hasn’t that been just so marvelous of you!” Denise said, turning her back on Magda. “We’re so thankful for your help! I hope you’ll let me reimburse you for the gas?”
David closed his eyes and let his sister take over. He was exhausted. He should not have been here for this ridiculous event. He should not be at all.
MOLLY HEARD DENISE GRUNT as she tried to jam more casseroles into the freezer. It looked as if everybody in the neighborhood had brought something to keep the poor widower fed – everybody except her mother, who’d just stopped on the way back from the service and bought a chocolate cake at Stop n’ Shop.
After giving up and stacking the last few trays in the refrigerator instead, Denise sank onto a kitchen stool. “I’m exhausted. I don’t know how I could have survived this without you, Molly.”
Molly smiled politely, certain she would have just hired someone else.
Denise asked, “Was your mother close to Elaine and David?”
“No, just neighbors.”
“Still, maybe she could look in on David occasionally, see how he’s getting on?”
Molly got it: She was just a teenager and no judge of such matters – which was true – a relief, even. “You could ask her,” she said, to show she didn’t mind.
“Elaine said your parents are divorced, dear?”
“Yes.” Her parents had actually separated back in ’73, just after her mother’s first big show.
“So it’s just you and your mother in the house all by yourselves?”
What she was driving at? “Yes.”
“Is it rough growing up without your dad?”
“He’s only a few blocks away. I see him all the time.”
“Oh,” Denise said, apparently surprised. “That’s nice.”
“Yes.” Molly was not always enthusiastic about her father’s new life, but at least she was part of it. This was more than many kids with divorced parents could say. Besides, she blamed her mother for everything, although she was not above despising her stepmother for things like loving The Six Million Dollar Man and wanting all her bathroom accessories to match.
Denise sighed. “I can’t help thinking that if poor little Emily had survived, David would be pulling himself together a lot faster right now.”
Molly didn’t say anything. Dr. Asken’s sister presumably knew him better than she did, but it seemed to her she might be overestimating her brother’s general level of involvement in any domestic activities. Elaine had even hired her to take care of Emily when Dr. Asken was home on college breaks.
Elaine’s mother brought some dirty dishes into the kitchen and frowned absently at Molly. A large, ornate crucifix on a heavy chain rested on her ample bosom. Elaine had put on a little weight recently, but Molly couldn’t imagine her ever taking on this woman’s squat shape. If it were not for the dark hair and dark brown eyes, she was not even sure she would have noticed a family resemblance.
Mrs. DeRochemont opened a kitchen cabinet and stood there, staring at its contents, looking dissatisfied.
“Are you looking for something?” Molly asked. “I could probably tell you where it is.”
She gave Molly a sharp look. “How’s that?”
“I’m the babysitter.”
She shook her head. “I’ll never understand why Elaine felt it was so important to keep working. God knows it took long enough, but I’m sure he was finally making enough to support them both. Maybe if they’d had to count their pennies more carefully they wouldn’t have just flown down to Florida like that.”
“I think this was the first long trip after Emily was born.”
“And why they chose Florida when they could have come to San Diego, could have let us see our granddaughter for once.” Mrs. DeRochemont started crying again. “Was this hers?”
She was pointing at Emily’s most recent finger painting on the refrigerator door. “Yes,” Molly said. “Emily painted it just before they left.”
Mrs. DeRochemont sniffed and stared at it. “Elaine was so talented,” she said, and for a mad moment Molly wondered if she thought the finger painting was by Elaine, not Emily.
The older woman plucked it from the refrigerator door and walked out of the room, holding it up before her. “Frank!” she called.
Molly felt an irrational rush of possessiveness for the painting. But that was ridiculous. If anything, it was Dr. Asken’s. Besides, Molly had plenty of Emily’s pieces at home. She’d hung them around her bedroom and on the refrigerator, partly because many of them said I LOVE YOU MOLLY and partly because they made a nice contrast to her mother’s work.
She went into the living room to look for any straggling dishes. Dr. Asken was still sitting glassy-eyed on the sofa. Mrs. DeRochemont was crying again, and gesturing so wildly with Emily’s finger painting still in her grip that Molly expected it to tear. “We missed all of it!” she screamed. “All of it! And now he won’t even let us take her home!”
Mr. DeRochemont flashed Molly an embarrassed look and tried to guide his wife away. “Now, Marguerite,” he murmured.
Where the heck was Denise? Dr. Asken’s right hand was gripping a small plate of something. Cookies, Molly realized – untouched as far as she could tell, and tilted at such an angle that they might slide off at any moment.
“Are you done with that, Dr. Asken?” she asked.
He looked blankly up at her.
“Shall I take them?” she asked, trying again.
“Take them?” he said, his eyes widening in alarm.
“The cookies,” she said. “Do you want to eat them, or should I take them to the kitchen?”
“Oh,” he said. “Yes, take them.” He lifted the plate and handed it to her. At the door to the kitchen she turned back for a moment and realized he was watching her. For the first time, she could see that there was actually a person in there. She smiled uncertainly at him, then ducked into the kitchen.
A few minutes later Denise came downstairs. She passed through the kitchen, depositing a coffee mug in the sink, and went to talk to the DeRochemonts in the dining room. Mr. DeRochemont said he thought they should be going.
Denise said, “You don’t want to go through any of her things? Take something with you?”
Mrs. DeRochemont stopped sniffling. “Like what?”
Denise hesitated. “Actually, maybe we’d better ask David.”
Molly heard her calling him, then going up the stairs and calling again. Then she came down into the kitchen. She looked perplexed. “Have you seen my brother?”
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