Night Road Page 2

Lexi followed her aunt across a gravel path and up to the front door. Inside, the mobile home was neat as a pin. A small, L-shaped kitchen sidled up to a dining area that held a yellow speckled Formica and chrome table with four chairs. In the living room, a plaid loveseat and two blue vinyl La-Z-Boys faced a TV on a metal stand. On the end table there were two pictures—one of an old woman with horn-rimmed glasses and one of Elvis. The air smelled like cigarette smoke and fake flowers. There were purple air fresheners hanging from almost every knob in the kitchen.

“Sorry if the place kinda smells. I quit smoking last week—when I found out about you,” Aunt Eva said, turning to look at Lexi. “Secondhand smoke and kids is a bad mix, right?”

A strange feeling overtook Lexi; it was birdlike, fluttery, and so foreign she didn’t recognize the emotion right away.


This stranger, this aunt, had quit smoking for her. And she’d taken Lexi in when obviously money was tight. She looked at the woman, wanting to say something, but nothing came out. She was afraid she might jinx everything with the wrong word.

“I’m kinda outta my depth here, Lexi,” Aunt Eva finally said. “Oscar and me—he was my husband—we never had kids. Tried, just din’t. So, I don’t know about raising kids. If you’re gonna be—”

“I’ll be good. I swear it.” Don’t change your mind. Please. “If you keep me, you won’t be sorry.”

“If I keep you?” Aunt Eva pursed her thin lips, gave a little frown. “Your momma sure did a number on you. Can’t say I’m surprised. She broke my sister’s heart, too.”

“She was good at hurting people,” Lexi said quietly.

“We’re family,” Eva said.

“I don’t really know what that means.”

Aunt Eva smiled, but it was sad, that smile, and it wounded Lexi, reminded her that she was a little broken. Life with Momma had left its mark. “It means you’re staying here with me. And I guess you’d best just call me Eva from now on, ’cause that Aunt bit is gonna get old fast.” She started to turn away.

Lexi grabbed her aunt’s thin wrist, feeling the velvety-soft skin wrinkle in her grasp. She hadn’t meant to do it, shouldn’t have done it, but it was too late now.

“What is it, Lexi?”

Lexi could hardly form the two small words; they felt like a pair of stones in her tight throat. But she had to say them. Had to. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes stinging. “I won’t cause you any trouble. I swear it.”

“You probably will,” Eva said, and finally, she smiled. “You’re a teenager, right? But it’s okay, Lexi. It’s okay. I’ve been alone a long time. I’m glad you’re here.”

Lexi could only nod. She’d been alone a long time, too.

* * *

Jude Farraday hadn’t slept at all last night. Finally, just before dawn, she gave up even trying. Peeling back the summer-weight comforter, taking care not to wake her sleeping husband, she got out of bed and left her bedroom. Opening the French doors quietly, she stepped outside.

In the emergent light, her backyard glistened with dew; lush green grass sloped gently down to a sandy gray-pebbled beach. Beyond it, the Sound was a series of charcoal-colored waves that rolled and rolled, their peaks painted orange by the dawn. On the opposite shore, the Olympic mountain range was a jagged line of pink and lavender.

She stepped into the plastic gardening clogs that were always by the door and went into her garden.

This patch of land was more than just her pride and joy. It was her sanctuary. Here, hunkered down in the rich black earth, she planted and replanted, divided and pruned. Within these low stone walls, she had created a world that was wholly defined by beauty and order. The things she planted in this ground stayed where she put them; they sent out roots that ran deep into this land. No matter how cold and bitter the winter or how driving the rainstorms, her beloved plants came back to life, returning with the seasons.

“You’re up early.”

She turned. Her husband stood on the stone patio, just outside their bedroom door. In a pair of black boxer shorts, with his too long, graying-blond hair still tangled from sleep, he looked like some sexy classics professor or a just-past-his-prime rock star. No wonder she’d fallen in love with him at first sight, more than twenty-four years ago.

She kicked off the orange clogs and walked along the stone path from the garden to the patio. “I couldn’t sleep,” she confessed.

He took her in his arms. “It’s the first day of school.”

And there it was, the thing that had crept into her sleep like a burglar and ruined her peace. “I can’t believe they’re starting high school. They were just in kindergarten a second ago.”

“It’s going to be an interesting ride, seeing who they become in the next four years.”

“Interesting for you,” she said. “You’re in the stands, watching the game. I’m down on the field, taking the hits. I’m terrified something will go wrong.”

“What can go wrong? They’re smart, curious, loving kids. They’ve got everything going for them.”

“What can go wrong? Are you kidding? It’s … dangerous out there, Miles. We’ve been able to keep them safe up until now, but high school is different.”

“You’re going to have to let up a little, you know.”

It was the sort of thing he said to her all the time. A lot of people gave her the same advice, actually, and had for years. She’d been criticized for holding the reins of parenthood too tightly, of controlling her children too completely, but she didn’t know how to let go. From the moment she’d first decided to become a mother, it had been an epic battle. She had suffered through three miscarriages before the twins. And there had been month after month when the arrival of her period had sent her into a gray and hazy depression. Then, a miracle: she’d conceived again. The pregnancy had been difficult, always tenuous, and she’d been sentenced to almost six months of bed rest. Every day as she’d lain in that bed, imagining her babies, she’d pictured it as a war, a battle of wills. She’d held on with all her heart. “Not yet,” she finally said. “They’re only fourteen.”

“Jude,” he said, sighing. “Just a little. That’s all I’m saying. You check their homework every day and chaperone every dance and organize every school function. You make them breakfast and drive them everywhere they need to go. You clean their rooms and wash their clothes. If they forget to do their chores, you make excuses and do it all yourself. They’re not spotted owls. Let them loose a little.”

“What should I give up? If I stop checking homework, Mia will stop doing it. Or maybe I should quit calling their friends’ parents to make sure the kids are going where they say they’re going? When I was in high school we had keggers every weekend, and two of my girlfriends got pregnant. I need to keep better track of them now, trust me. So many things can go wrong in the next four years. I need to protect them. Once they go to college, I’ll relax. I promise.”

“The right college,” he teased, but they both knew it wasn’t really a joke. The twins were freshmen in high school and Jude had already begun to research colleges.

She looked up at him, wanting him to understand. He thought she was too invested in their children, and she understood his concern, but she was a mother, and she didn’t know how to be casual about it. She couldn’t stand the thought that her children would grow up as she had, feeling unloved.

“You’re nothing like her, Jude,” he said quietly, and she loved him for saying it. She rested against him; together they watched the day brighten, and Miles finally said, “Well, I better get going. I have a surgery at ten.”

She kissed him deeply, then followed him back into the house. After a quick shower, she dried her shoulder-length blond hair, put on a thin layer of makeup, and dressed in jeans and a boatnecked cashmere sweater and faded jeans. Opening her dresser drawer, she withdrew two small wrapped packages; one for each of her children. Taking them with her, she walked out of her bedroom, down the wide slate hallway. With morning sunlight streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows, this house, constructed mostly of glass and stone and exotic woods, seemed to glow from within. On this main floor, every viewpoint boasted some decorating treasure. Jude had spent four years huddled with architects and designers to make this home spectacular, and her every dream for it had been realized.

Upstairs, it was a different story. Here, at the top of a floating stone and copper stairway, it was kidland. A giant media room, complete with big-screen TV and a pool table, dominated the east side of the house. Additionally there were two large bedrooms, each with their own en suite bathroom.

At Mia’s bedroom door, she knocked perfunctorily and went inside.

As expected, she found her fourteen-year-old daughter sprawled on top of the blankets in her four-postered bed, asleep. There were clothes everywhere, like shrapnel from some mythic explosion, heaped and piled and kicked aside. Mia was actively engaged in a search for identity, and each new attempt required a radical clothing change.

Jude sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked the soft blond hair that fell across Mia’s cheek. For a moment, time fell away; suddenly she was a young mother again, looking down at a cherubic girl with corn-silk hair and a gummy grin who’d followed her twin brother around like his shadow. They’d been like puppies, scrambling over each other in their exuberant play, chattering nonstop in their secret language, laughing, tumbling off sofa and steps and laps. From the very start, Zach had been the leader of this pair. He’d spoken first and most often. Mia hadn’t uttered a real word until after her fourth birthday. She hadn’t needed to; her brother was there for her. Then and now.

Mia rolled over sleepily and opened her eyes, blinking slowly. Her pale, heart-shaped face, with its gorgeous bone structure—inherited from her father—was an acne battlefield that no amount of care had yet been able to clear. Multicolored rubberbands looped through her braces. “Hola, Madre.”

“It’s the first day of high school.”

Mia grimaced. “Shoot me. Really.”

“It’ll be better than middle school. You’ll see.”

“Says you. Can’t you homeschool me?”

“Remember sixth grade? When I tried to help you with your math homework?”

“Disaster,” Mia said glumly. “It could be better now, though. I wouldn’t get so mad at you.”

Jude stroked her daughter’s soft hair. “You can’t hide out from life, Poppet.”

“I don’t want to hide out from life. Just from high school. It’s like swimming with sharks, Mom. Honest. I could lose a foot.”

Jude couldn’t help smiling. “See? You have a great sense of humor.”

“That’s what they say when they’re trying to set up an ugly girl. Thanks, Madre. And who cares, anyway? It’s not like I have friends.”

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