Authors: Mary Mcgarry Morris
“Nora,” Stephen says, touching her hand. “You're the only person, the only adult, anyway, who knows exactly what happened. That's why we have to set the record straight now. The important thing is not to let anyone put words in your mouth. If they ask you something and you're not sure, just say that. You don't remember, that's all you have to say. And if it comes back to you later, fine, we fill in the blanks then.”
have to set the record straight?
fill in the blanks? But how can they unless she tells them about that night? “I'm trying to remember.”
“Good,” Stephen says. “That's all anyone can ask. And if you can't, that's okay, too.”
“I didn't have to keep hitting him like that,” she says to no one in particular, because this is vital, the most important thing. “It was more than him, it was everything else I wanted dead. It was me. Always being afraid of doing the wrong thing. People knowing the truth about me. It's my fault. It is. I did a terrible thing.” She sees by Ken's cold stare that he already knows. And has for a long time.
“Nora!” Stephen says. “You had no choice. I mean, my God, there you were watching a madman attacking a child and her mother, you did exactly what every one of us hopes we would do. Particularly given the very painful relationships in the situation,” he adds, though his sting of rebuke seems lost in his cousin's shock.
“What do you mean it's your fault?” Ken asks.
“Because I never did anything. I let it happen. I didn't want to know, did I, Ken? But I must've. How could I not? And then it was the same thing all over again, and that's why. That's why he came. Because there was something in me, something weak and repulsive, and he knew it then, too. I was seventeen. We were somewhere in the desert. It was dark and hot, and I'd been drinking all day in the car. It was so late when we stopped, and there was this man. I didn't even know his name. I still don't.”
“Hawkins,” Stephen says. “Eddie, right? Or at least that's what they said.”
“No, not him. The man … there was this man, he was drunk and he … pushed my head down.” She closes her eyes. Can't look at them. “He thought I was a prostitute. He even paid. Twenty dollars.”
“Nora, what in God's name're you talking about?” Ken leans closer.
“I'm telling you what happened, why he came here. Oh God, I'm so tired, I can't think straight.”
“Jesus!” Stephen sighs and stares at Ken.
“She's obviously in a state of shock,” Ken tells him.
The two cousins confer, speaking quietly, as if she's not in the room. She's not making sense. They think she's hallucinating. No way should she be talking to the police in this condition, Stephen keeps saying. Ken says he needs to talk to her alone before Bruce arrives. Stephen disagrees, thinks a third party is even more necessary now. To take notes, he says and grabs a pen from the desk. Ken insists that he leave. After all, he is still her husband.
She clings to that.
“My point exactly!” Stephen declares. “You're just way too involved.”
“That's it! Get the hell out! Now!” Ken explodes, and Stephen scurries from the room.
Even after the door closes Ken continues to stand there looking down at her. His hands open and close, gesturing helplessly. He's trying to control himself, struggling to find the right words to hold their shattered lives together. Do you see, she wants to ask. Do you finally understand what you've done?
“Nora,” he says so softly that she begins to weep. “Before Bruce gets here … we need … I have to tell them something. You've got to tell me the truth, and I know how horrible this is, how confused you are, but … this money.” He pats his breast pocket. “You paid him. Why? I don't understand. What exactly was it for? You've got to tell me, no matter how bad it is. Was it for evidence in a divorce?”
She hesitates, rubs her mouth, needing to wipe away this disdainful grin. So, it's still about her. Robin.
“No. I already told you it wasn't. I was afraid of him, afraid of people finding out what had happened, so I gave him money. And the
crazy thing is, he didn't even ask for it. I paid him to go away, that's all I wanted. But he didn't. He wouldn't. He was evil, Ken. And the sick thing is I knew he was.”
For a moment, he looks down at her, shaking his head. Pity? Contempt? Both. “Yes, you paid him all right. To get rid of Robin, Nora. And it didn't matter how, did it?”
“No! I never … I never asked him to do anything but to go away. And that's the truth. I swear it is.” But even in this, she can't be certain. In her anger and desperation is that what she really wanted, the unspoken barter, with her silence, her failure to act, allowing it to happen?
He buries his face in his hands for a moment. “I don't think we know what the truth is anymore, do we? Either one of us.” His anguish cuts through her numbness.
“You've got to believe me. Please, Ken.”
There is a light tap at the door, which Ken ignores. “These are the facts, Nora, chilling as they are.” Slapping her would hurt less than his whispered hiss. “You paid him twenty-five thousand dollars and you stood there watching. You let him beat Robin—to death, right? Or at least that's what you thought. And then what? Lyra? Was she supposed to be next? An innocent child?”
“Oh, my God, how can you—”
“But then you stopped him. Why? It wasn't going quite as efficiently as you wanted? Not neat enough for you? Not quick enough? Or did you hear a noise? Were you afraid someone might walk in on it? One of the children? Drew, he was down here, he was in the kitchen, so you had to move fast, didn't you? You had to make sure he'd never tell anyone, didn't you?”
“And you believe that? That I could do something as … as hideous as that?”
His cold, hateful eyes are answer enough. “All I know is we have to protect our children. That's the most important thing now.”
Yes, of course. Far more so than the truth. She understands.
hey still don't
believe her. Not really. No one ever comes right out and says so, but when they look away or suddenly stop speaking with her approach, she knows. Like white noise the rumor of her complicity is a hum in the room, constant yet, in recent years, low enough to be endured. She manages, on the surface, to lead a normal life. For all those who do avoid her there are as many sympathizers who insist, given the circumstances, they might have gone out and hired a hit man themselves. Her children love her and they are good young people, which, in the end, is all that really matters. With Chloe and Drew away at school, she lives alone most of the time.
For the last year, Ken and Robin have been renovating FairWinds. After two even more damaging strokes, Oliver has been admitted to a nursing home, with little hope of returning to that enormous old house. An elevator has been installed, primarily for Robin's needs, but for some reason, whether their tenacious optimism or perhaps to salve their consciences, they tell people that it's also for Oliver so that when he does come home, he can have his own wing in the house. They hope to be able to move back in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
They were married a year ago, before 350 friends and relatives. Typical of Robin, it was a storybook wedding, an amazing fairy tale come true, a happy ending for the childhood sweethearts, kept so long apart, finally marrying, with beautiful Lyra sprinkling pink and white rose petals in her brave mother's halting path down the aisle on Clay's arm. After the ceremony hundreds of pink and white balloons and doves
were released from the church steps. Even Bob attended, well into his fourteenth month of sobriety. He sat in a back pew and was the first guest out to embrace both bride and groom in the receiving line. Nora didn't go, of course. The details came from Chloe. The wedding was originally going to be a small, private affair, but how could they possibly limit the guest list when so many people had been so kind, cooking meals for them, driving Robin back and forth to physical therapy appointments, minding Lyra whenever Robin has one of her blinding headaches. The pain, which is so debilitating that even the slightest glimmer of light is unbearable, confines her to bed rest for days at a time behind closed blinds and heavy drapes.
At those unavoidable family occasions when they must be together, such as Chloe's and Drew's graduations, Robin is always gracious, her kindness as natural as ever. Women admire her courage and men want to protect her even more now. Her unspoken forgiveness is painful for Nora. There can be no setting things straight. Life can only run its obdurate course. She still dreams the same dream, still wakes in a cold sweat, afraid of being found out, even though one demon is dead, his known homicides three women and a child but, as it turns out, not that drunken man in the desert roadhouse. The man was robbed and badly beaten, but survived. And his assailant, according to Silver Tellmine police records, was a stranger, a young man they never found. No mention of a teenage girl. Not a word.
Just as in the law she studies, whatever the truth proves in one case may little matter in another. More important than answers in an examined life are the questions. And like flames round the phoenix these continue to sustain her. Why did she pay him? What was she trying to protect? Why did she stand there doing nothing? What did she really want to happen? Evil is contagious. It thrives on blindness and denial, inevitably infecting those who are afraid to speak or act against it.
She no longer works at the
, where Ken, according to Stephen, chafes under the mantle of publisher. Instead, she is a full-time law student nearing the end of her first year. She volunteers twice a week at Sojourn House, one of those nights in the dining room where she simply visits with the families while they eat dinner. She
enjoys talking with the children, often taking the smaller ones off to play so their mothers can eat in peace, for a few minutes at least. It saddens her that some of the children are so hard to reach, their wariness having been ground into them at such a young age. Like their mothers, they are often quicker to forgive and accept than they are to trust. The women are always kind to her. And if any have heard the story, they never let on. Their own secrets are burden enough.
Mary McGarry Morris
is the author of seven novels. She was a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner finalist for her first novel,
In 1991 her novel
A Dangerous Woman
was chosen by
magazine as one of the “Five Best Novels of the Year” and was made into a motion picture. Her bestselling novel
Songs in Ordinary Time
was an Oprah Book Club selection and a CBS television movie. Also among her critically acclaimed novels are
Fiona Range, A Hole in the Universe
The Lost Mother.
She lives in Massachusetts.
Copyright © 2009 by Mary McGarry Morris
All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Morris, Mary McGarry.
The last secret: a novel/Mary McGarry Morris.
1. Adultery—Fiction. 2. Secrecy—Fiction. 3. Psychological fiction.
4. Domestic fiction. I. Title.