Two Years Ago
What she would never remember: their broken screams starting with I love… and I hate…, the sudden wrenching pull, the oh-no-this-is-happening-this-can’t-be-happening feeling of falling as the SUV rocketed off the road, the horrifying downward slope of the hillside in the headlights, his hands tight over hers on the steering wheel, the smashing thunder of impact, the driver’s-side airbag exploding in her face, the rolling, the lights dying, the unforgiving rock, and then the blow to the head that undid her and wiped her clean and made her new.
The old Jane died; every version of David died. The new Jane, product of a dark night’s fury and tragedy, knew nothing more until she woke up four days later, remembering nothing, not her name, her mother’s face, the crash, what had happened to her in that hospital bed, or any of her past seventeen years. Slowly the memories began to seep back: her birthdays when she was a child, cake sweet and soft on her lips; the smoky, rich aroma of her grandfather’s pipe matched with the woolly smell of his tweed jacket with leather elbow patches; her mother’s favorite lavender soap; the notebook she’d filled with short, odd adventure stories one summer and proudly read to her dad; the faces of her teachers; the smile of the librarian during the summer reading program who’d give her stickers; the feel of her hand in her father’s palm; the faces and the laughter of her friends when they were kids.
Sometimes the memories felt immediate; sometimes they felt like something she’d seen in a film, present but distant, nothing to do with the person she was now.
Except for the past three years.
Jane was seventeen, but as the memories surged back, she was stuck at fourteen. Those last three years were gone, all the joy and all the drama of her high school life, lost in the damage and the trauma. Including those mysterious, unexplainable final hours, when she was with a boy she wasn’t supposed to be with, when she was out doing no one knows what. The girl lived and eventually limped back into the bright sunshine, and the boy died and went into the cold ground, a secret sleeping with him.
And so the world she knew turned against her.
Except someone watched, and waited, and wondered how much of that night Jane Norton really remembered.
Jane Norton wondered what it would be like to remember a single detail of the biggest moment in her life. Today was the second anniversary of the crash. She lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, as if waiting for pictures to appear. But the ceiling above her was only a screen empty of images.
She got up at six fourteen, alone, glancing at the other unoccupied bed in the dorm room—Adam had once again spent the night at his girlfriend’s. It was best to get ready before the dorm’s residents did. She put on a robe and gathered a bag of toiletries and opened the door a crack, peering down the empty hallway. She walked down to the dormitory showers in her robe, like she belonged, stood under the hot spray, and brushed her teeth. The bathroom was empty, so no odd looks from the other girls in the mirrors. Done and back in the room, she changed into the last clean set of clothes in her backpack. She would have to figure out where to wash clothes soon; too many students lingered by the machines in the basement here, trying to make conversation. She didn’t like conversation.
She went down to breakfast, selected her items, and made sure she went to the older cashier, who recognized her and smiled. She used her old student ID Adam had hacked for her to pay for the meal—it withdrew money now from his account, making it look like he was steadily burning through his meal plan. Other college students sat together, chatting amiably at the round tables. She sat alone in a corner with her scrambled eggs and bacon and coffee. Other early-rising kids who sat alone stared into their smartphones as if the answers to the world’s riddles lay there. She didn’t; she didn’t want to fill her unsteady brain with memories from looking at a screen. She looked out the window, at life, at St. Michael’s professors and students walking by, at the warming sky, at the tree branches swaying in the November breeze. She ate in silence, trying to push back the emotions of the day, then went back to Adam’s room. When the bells of St. Michael’s began to sound, she opened a window and slid out through it, leaving the window unlocked, lowering it so it was barely open.
You could go to his grave, she thought. You could take flowers.
It was a mild fall morning in Austin, the sky dotted with clouds against a bright blue vault. She walked to an American history class where the professor never seemed to notice her erratic attendance. She’d taken the same class last year, but with a different professor.
She could always find a seat in the front row, and it was daring and bold to sit right under the professor’s nose. The actual students brought sleek laptops, but Jane took notes in a thick sketchbook designed for drawing, not writing. But she liked it. Once, the notebook had been the journal she was supposed to fill with her recovered memories and the events people had told her about that she didn’t remember. Her Book of Memory. It had been Dr. K’s idea, and she’d abandoned it, except for when she went to a class. Sometimes during the lectures, she doodled on the new pages. Often she drew endless mazes and ornate Gaelic patterns, labyrinths impossible to escape, and she would think of stories where interesting characters were trying to escape the mazes she’d lay out, like heroes trapped in a video game. Today she did not draw; her mind was full of David. Her hand shook a little.
The lecture today was on early New England funerary customs; she didn’t have a syllabus, of course, and she thought, Thanks, fate, and she bit her lip as the professor began a slideshow of worn tombstones from Massachusetts. So often they were for children or those who died as teenagers, angels’ wings attached to skulls. Gruesome and lovely, all at once. Twice she saw David’s name on the engravings. Her heart tightened in her chest. She blinked and David’s name was gone from the picture of the tombstone on the screen. She started to feel like she couldn’t breathe. She left halfway through the lecture, ignoring the glances and the one stray laugh that accompanied her out the door. The professor paid her no mind.
She stopped outside the building, blinking in the bright sunlight, breathing in the fresh, cool air. She fumbled in her backpack and slipped on the sunglasses her mother had given her. They had round lenses, with metal edging, ugly, but they kept out the light that sliced hard into her eyes and her brain. The sunlight was harsh today, like a judgment.
She could go back to Adam’s room, pull the curtains closed, and sleep off the rest of the day. She had some pills hidden under the mattress, pills she’d stolen from her mother when she’d left home. You couldn’t take sedatives while living on the streets, it was too dangerous to be that vulnerable. And amnesiacs often had insomnia, as if kept awake by what they couldn’t recall. But she was safe here. Pills it was.
Back at the dorm Jane walked past the front door, around the side of the building and to the window she’d left cracked, which faced onto a small, grassy area. She pulled herself into the room and fell onto the floor.
Adam walked in, freshly showered, wearing a robe. “Hey, graceful,” he said. He shut the door quickly behind him.
“Hey.” She pulled herself to her feet and turned away from him as he dressed, the way she would for a brother if she’d had one. She busied herself lowering the window shade.
“How’s Bettina?” Jane asked. She was his German graduate-student girlfriend at the University of Texas, a few miles to the north. Adam often spent the night at her apartment, which made it easier for Jane to hide out in his dorm room.
“Fine. Hey, I didn’t realize today was, you know, today. I should have been here this morning.”
“Adam, I don’t need coddling.”
“Good, as I’m hardly a coddler.”
But you let me stay here and you pay for my food and you’ve never asked for anything in return…except that I put my life back together. “I’m totally cool.”
She avoided looking at him by checking her phone, as if she regularly received calls from anyone other than Adam. One message from Mom: Are you all right today? I don’t know why I pay for this phone, you never call me. I love you, sweetheart. Let me help you. At least let me know how you are.
Jane deleted the text and collapsed on the spare bed. She wanted to go to his grave, suddenly. She had never been because she could not face it. But she missed him.
“I’m decent now,” Adam said. He collected his gear for class. He’d pulled on jeans and a T-shirt that promoted the St. Michael’s robotics team—he wrote software for the robots. “You know it’s OK not to be OK today.”
“Gag, you sound like a therapist.” Jane hated therapists. They wanted to crowbar open your brain and peer around inside, giving you false hope.
He sat next to her and he hugged her. Gently. She didn’t like that at first, but it was Adam, her pretend brother, and so she let him and then the hug felt reassuring, like she wasn’t so alone in the world. He hugged her a moment longer than she liked, his face closer to hers, and she scooted back. Then he went all brotherly tough love.
“You have to get reenrolled. If you can sit through one class, you can make it through five. But if the administration realizes you’re camping out here, they could deny you readmission forever. Not to mention the trouble I’d be in.”
“Are you kicking me out of your room?” She would have nowhere to go. Except home. That was not an option.
“I don’t mean to sound harsh, Jane.” His voice softened. “You know I only want what’s best for you.”
“I don’t want to talk about this today.” And she knew the way to shut him up was to focus on the accident. It was pure magic, the way it silenced everyone. Jane got up and went to the iPad he kept on the desk.
She opened up an Internet browser and typed in the address for Faceplace, a social-media site she’d used before the accident, and briefly afterward, as she tried to remember and understand the lives of her classmates at Lakehaven High School. People whose faces she saw every day but didn’t really know.
“What are you doing?” Adam said, watching the screen, realizing. “Let it alone.”
She signed in to Faceplace, pausing to remember her password—which was password. She had an unfounded terror of her amnesia suddenly robbing her of current memories, her damaged temporal lobe sabotaging her, so she went with the obvious. She had not signed in to her page for ten months. Jane’s page appeared, with its old profile picture, smiling at a Lakehaven High School football game. A few days before the accident. The last good picture of her. Her mother had claimed if she replaced it with a picture of her in the hospital, fresh from the coma, people would be nicer to her.
She had no new friend requests. Adam was pretty much it on the friend front. She went to the search field and typed in “David Hall.” The first result gave her David’s page. His parents hadn’t taken it down.
“Jane, don’t do it.” Adam leaned over her shoulder. She clicked on the result.
Many new posts were already on his page today. Flowers, photos of David throughout his life, an animated banner ribbon that read, “We Will Never Forget You.” Hundreds of likes. Posts from names she knew—people who were once her friends.
David, we will never forget you. Will love you always.
David, bro, missing you still. Thinking about you and all the good times.
The world is emptier without you, David.
Cannot believe it has been two years. Know you are at peace in the company of Our Lord.
“Don’t,” Adam repeated. But he didn’t move to shut down the iPad or take it from her.
Jane read the rest of the kind tributes to David, and was relieved no one mentioned her by name. Adam leaned into her shoulder. Then she went back to her own page. At the top was a new posting, from today, from a user name she didn’t recognize: Liv Danger. A tickle in her brain. Was that a person’s real name? On the posting it read, I know what you claim you don’t remember, Jane. I know what happened that night. And I’m going to tell. All will pay.
“Is this a joke?”
“Who is Liv Danger?” Adam asked. “Is she someone you know?”
“I have no idea.” A thought, unformed, danced at the edge of her mind. Like a memory that could never take form. Jane’s hands started to tremble. Suddenly her guts twisted. She bolted down the hallway to the bathroom. She was sick, twice. She washed her face, staring into her dark-circled eyes in the mirror. She brushed her teeth and came back to the room. Adam looked up from the iPad.
“This Liv Danger looks like a fake user. Account set up last month, friends with mostly other accounts that have huge friend numbers.”
“I haven’t approved any new friends.”
“Then someone hacked your page and approved her.”
“Your password is password, Jane.” He rolled his eyes, but his voice was calm. “But they could also buy your password off a hacker website. They get account information on thousands of users when there’s a breach on one site, so they’ll just try the same passwords on all your sites: banking, social media, online stores, and so on. Is your password ‘password’ everywhere?”
“Yes. It’s easy for me to remember,” she said defensively. “I don’t have to worry if my memory slips again.”
He softened his voice. “This is just someone trolling you, Jane. Unfriend and delete.”
She didn’t; instead she read the message again. There were people, Jane knew, who thought she should be punished for the accident. “Liv Danger,” she said. “It sounds like a joke name.”
“Google it,” Adam said.
Jane did. There were two other social-media accounts using that name—she guessed it was a play on words for “live dangerously.” These all had the feel of pseudonyms, not real names. She clicked on the “about” tab for the various accounts. One lived in California, another in New York. No one she knew here in Austin.
Jane inched down her own Faceplace page. No postings to her page from anyone for months. Then, two years ago, many posts that started with Thinking of you, Praying for you, Jane, and Get well soon, but soon devolving into memorable tidings such as YOU’RE A LIAR AND MURDERER. Written by someone she didn’t even remember from high school, because she didn’t remember high school before the crash. The accident had taken care of that.
That was when she’d left Faceplace. Jane hadn’t deleted that post when she saw it, not because she thought she shouldn’t but because she thought her friends would rally. A couple of people had said, in the comments below, that nothing was proven, expressing concern for Jane. The final comment, from Adam, read, Say it to her face. Or to mine. Leave her alone.
Adam touched her shoulder. “You should delete this account. There’s nothing to be gained from keeping it except to paint a target on your back.”
Jane stared at the words:
I know what you claim you don’t remember, Jane. I know what happened that night. And I’m going to tell. All will pay.
Tell who? She wondered. Tell what? And “All Will Pay”—what did that mean? She felt cold.
Adam’s voice went soft. “You know, if the near impossible were to happen and you did remember something, anything, no matter what…you can tell me. You can tell me anything.”
Even if it’s the worst thing I could know about myself? That maybe everything they say about me is true? She shook her head. “No. Nothing to tell. But maybe someone knows something I don’t know. Someone saw something…”
“There were no witnesses to the crash. Someone would have come forward.” Adam touched Jane’s shoulder. “Forget it. Erase it. At least change your password.”
“No. I want to see if they say anything else.” She logged off Faceplace before Adam could take the tablet and start deleting. She stood up. “I keep thinking,” she said, “that whatever happened, it’s still stuck in my brain somewhere, and I just have to work it loose.”
“You know that is not how amnesia works, Jane.”
She knew he didn’t mean to sound patronizing, but he did, and she turned on him. “Adam. I live it with this every day.” She’d read it described in one amnesia memoir as “the burden of uncertainty.” It was so true. “I know what you mean. I’m saying I cannot shake the thought that I will remember this.”
“It’s been two years. Most memories, if they’re going to return, do so in six months.”
“But what we don’t know about the brain is equal to what we do know.” That was what Dr. K, her neurologist, had told her, lighting a candle of hope that never burned very brightly.
“Don’t you see how that holds you back, Jane? This pointless hope.”
She turned away from him, a flush flooding her face.
“You tell yourself the only way you get whole again is by remembering. I’m telling you, that isn’t going to happen. You better find another way to pull yourself together.”
She pressed her fists to her eyes.
Adam’s voice broke. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be a jerk; I’m just trying to help. I’ll skip class today. I’ll stay with you.”
“I love you for that,” she said, and suddenly tears, which she hated, were in her eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. “But no. Go to class. Be
Going to David’s grave. Maybe it would loosen a memory. As if being close to him would work a bit of magic on her mind. “I’m going to rest,” she lied.
“I could find out who it is,” he said. “Ask my hacker friends.”
“All right,” she said. “Let’s find out.” What scared her was the end of the posting: And I’m going to tell. All will pay. Like there was a score to be settled.
He nodded. “I’ll start after class.”
Adam gave her another hug and left.
She didn’t drive anymore, but there were the ridesharing services, and her mother let Jane use her PayPal account for payments. She didn’t use it often, because she didn’t want her mother to know where she was. She crawled out of the dorm room window and walked across the greens and the college’s parking lots toward Congress Avenue, tapping a request into the app once she was a few blocks away from the school, biting her lip, sick with nervousness at the thought of seeing David’s grave.
After granting herself a good cry as soon as she awoke, Perri Hall showered, still sobbing under the spray. When she stopped, she told herself, There, that’s done, no more. Then she felt ready to face the terrible day. She pulled chilled spoons from the freezer to ease the puffiness of her eyes, resting on the couch with the spoons curved against her eyelids, the bright chatter of the TV morning-show hosts a garble of voices in her brain. She chose to wear a modest dark top with slightly patterned gray slacks, and a silver necklace that David had picked out as a Christmas gift when he was in middle school. Perri carefully applied her makeup. She looked, she thought, somber but elegant. Now she had to be strong. For David’s memory, for everyone who expected strength from her. She watched herself in the mirror and made sure her bottom lip had stopped trembling.
She and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Cal met for breakfast at The Baconery, an iconic Lakehaven restaurant that served all-day breakfast and was always busy. There were always some of her friends here in the morning, after school started: community groups meeting, committees of volunteers to support football, volleyball, choir, band, robotics, science clubs, and more at Lakehaven’s schools. It was an exemplary school district, nationally ranked, and the parents volunteered many hours to support the teachers and coaches. Supporting it had once been her life. After she and Cal ordered at the counter, they walked into the dining room and, in a slow ripple across the room, heads turned. Perri took a deep breath and steadied herself for the litany: How are you (like she could ever get better), You look so lovely (did not matter), and the dreaded He’s in a better place (that doesn’t matter to me, I want him back). Perri believed they uttered those platitudes as much for themselves as for her. I’m sorry was sufficiently graceful and could never wound, could never subtly suggest that her grief made them uncomfortable or that thank goodness it wasn’t their family, their kids were alive while her handsome, smart, generous son lay in a grave.
Ronnie Gervase, a local luminary who was a fundraising powerhouse in Lakehaven, embraced them both and dropped two of the three platitudes that Perri expected.
“I’ll see you at the gala meeting next week,” Perri murmured, eager to be left alone.
“Of course,” Ronnie said. “Be strong, darling.”
They sat and ate. Cal didn’t look good, tired and worn, but he took her hand while they finished their coffee. The hand where she’d already taken off the wedding ring.
After breakfast they drove to the cemetery. Cal, a big, strong determined guy who’d played football in college and then made a fortune in business, always seemed to have trouble walking toward the grave, as if he could not bear to get close to David. He tottered on the grass. Perri tightened her grip on his hand and led him along.
At first when she said, “There’s something on the stone,” he said, “No, that’s just the light” because a tree branch did create shadow on the granite. But when they stood in front of his grave, she saw the words smeared on the tombstone, in white chalk: ALL WILL PAY.
“What is that?” she gasped. The words were small, neat, above his engraved name: David Calhoun Hall. Cal knelt.
“Chalk…” He scraped at it with his thumb. It smeared.
“What does it mean?” A cold anger stirred in her chest, eclipsing her grief.
“It’s just someone being stupid,” he said. She ran back to the car and got a water bottle and paper towels—still prepared as if she had a kid to clean up after—and washed the words into a snowy smear.
“I should have taken a picture.” He looked around. “It’s not on the other graves. Only David’s.” He embraced her and she hugged him hard.
“What does it mean?” Perri kept her voice under control.
“Thoughtless kids, probably. I’ll call the management and let them know. Let’s have our visit.” Trying to make the morning normal again.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Perri said. She laid fresh flowers on the grave, with the kind of gentleness as if she were putting a blanket on his sleeping form. She ignored the white smear. She talked to David for several minutes about what had been going on in their lives, not mentioning the pending divorce. Cal, she knew, could not do this, could not speak to David as if he were still alive. Her own mother had done it at her father’s grave and she didn’t know what else to do. Not talking, the silence was worse, the hush from her boy being gone.
She finished her monologue and Cal coughed. She reached for his hand and after a moment he took hers.
What else was there to say? The glue that kept their marriage together was buried at their feet. After a moment he let go of her hand and mopped at his eyes and his face with his handkerchief. Monogrammed, with David’s initials. Perri had gotten the linen cloths for David when he finished Cotillion, a Lakehaven tradition of dance lessons and etiquette that he had hated but endured with his usual smile. Cal had bought him video games. Her gift was better; it could still be used.
“You don’t want to be here,” she said to Cal as if he were betraying her with his hard breathing and his unsteady stance.
“I don’t think this will ever get any easier.”
“It’s not supposed to be easy.” Her voice rose.
“I know that, Perri, for heaven’s sake. Could you let me grieve how I want? Not everyone is you.”
Perri couldn’t believe he’d snapped at her, today, here, with the awful desecration of his son’s grave.
“I don’t want this divorce,” he said, his voice barely louder than the breeze.
“Not here. Not now.”
“Why not, you like to talk in front of him. Shouldn’t he hear what’s going on in our lives? Do you think this divorce is what he’d want?”
“Stop, please, Cal.” She began to hurry back toward the car. She got in. She thought she smelled a perfume different from hers, a scent of lavender, still lingering in the passenger seat, and her stomach clenched. But she had asked for the separation and then the divorce and if he found comfort with someone else—she could not complain. But she hated him a little bit, for being able to move forward.
“Just take me back,” she said as he got into the car.
“I hoped we could spend the day together,” he said quietly. “I didn’t want to be alone.”
The lavender tells me you’re not alone, she thought, but today was not the day. “I just need some time alone. I’m sorry.” Why am I apologizing? she thought. She had nothing to be sorry for. The shock of the graffiti turned to a primal rage.
All Will Pay? There was only one who needed to pay: Jane Norton.
She tried not to think of that girl, ever. But to pretend Jane Norton no longer existed was impossible: the Nortons lived next door.
Well, Laurel Norton still did. Jane was gone into the wind, supposedly sinking into insanity, living on the streets of south Austin, according to the Lakehaven gossip chain, a communications network unrivaled in both speed and inaccuracy. Perri had heard several wild rumors about Jane’s current situation. Laurel could not seem to bring her home. Jane’s dad, Brent, had died three years ago, a year before the car crash, so there was no other family to help. Laurel Norton rattled alone in that big house she refused to sell. Now Perri would rattle alone in hers, next door.
Once, both families had been so happy, so whole…now, both houses felt haunted by their losses. Somewhere today that reckless little bitch was breathing, she was walking, the sun on her face, not lying cold in a grave that could be desecrated.
“Perri.” Cal hadn’t started the car. “I am so sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry.” He had his face in his hands. Not crying, but barely keeping tears at bay.
“You don’t need to…”
“I didn’t keep our boy safe. I moved us back to Lakehaven. If we’d stayed in San Francisco; if we hadn’t come back here; if I had put him in private school; if I’d just—”
“You can’t blame yourself. No one knew she would try and hurt him.”
“I know. But I feel I failed him.”
“I used to imagine the worst,” she said slowly. He turned to face her. “The worst. That he would be caught in a fire, or an accident, or come down with some horrible disease. And you see, I believed, really believed, that because I imagined these terrible things, they would never happen; my thoughts were a shield for David. I never could have imagined to keep him safe from someone who decides to kill herself and him along with her.”
He stared at her, his expression softening. He still loves you, she thought. He loves you and you’re pushing him away. You lost your son and now you’re handing off your husband. But there was nothing left to feel. This had ended her heart. She looked toward the grave. Her anchor, her compass.
Perri said, “I’d like to go get my car. Come over and have dinner about six, will that work?”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “I think I’m going to set up a mentorship program in David’s name. Something to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds get into the software business.” He had been the CEO of two software start-ups, one that had succeeded and one that had failed, but he had recovered quickly from that business setback. She had been scared they’d lose the house, but Cal quickly found a new calling. Now Cal worked independently, did private venture-capital investments across the country. He said that was where the real money was. If David had lived, his father’s solo investment practice could have been his. She looked out the window again. So much squandered, so much gone.
“That’s a lovely way to remember him.” She told herself not to cry.
He pulled up next to her Lexus in the Baconery parking lot. “I’ll see you at six. I’ll bring some wine.”
“That sounds fine.” She leaned over and hugged him. She hoped he wouldn’t see it as encouragement for more. He didn’t really hug back. Then she got into her car and waited for him to drive off.
She didn’t drive back to the house they’d once shared.
She stopped at a store to buy cleaning supplies and then drove back to the cemetery.
She returned to David’s grave and knelt on the cool grass. She sprayed cleaner onto the stone and began to scrub away at the smear left by the unwanted words.
“Baby,” she whispered to David as she cleaned. “I miss you so much. What is this, this garbage written on your stone? Who did this?”
She felt better with the stone clean. Perri spoke quietly to the grave, about her days, about what his friends were doing—although she heard a bit now and then about Kamala Grayson and Trevor Blinn and a few others, she found if she thought too much about the joys of their ongoing lives in college, the knot in her heart started to tighten.
She heard the car approaching, resenting its intrusion, then she glanced up. A sedan drove on the road that lay parallel to David’s grave on the right, slowing, then speeding up, and in the backseat window she saw Jane Norton staring back at her.» Buy “Blame” and read more now!