The day after the funeral, Jane came back to the island cemetery and sat in her car, watching the rain fall on her daughter’s grave. It had been raining seventeen days straight, according to the news. But Jane didn’t care—the rain matched her mood.
She left the ignition on, with the wipers set on delay, and she watched as the water slid down the windshield, obscuring the dreary view beyond. She kept telling herself it wasn’t true, that her Melody wasn’t really gone. But then the wipers would sweep away the rain, and she’d be looking once again at her daughter’s freshly covered grave.
Yesterday she had huddled beneath a tent, along with the small congregation of mourners, including her mother and her brother, neither of whom she could stand, and watched as the casket went down, wishing it were her inside instead of Melody. There were a few words spoken by the minister from the island church, and that was it. Her daughter was gone for good.
“A mother’s not supposed to bury her daughter.”
That’s what her own mother had said to her as they walked back to the car. And she was right, although the way she said it left Jane feeling as if her mother blamed her.
And maybe she was to blame, she thought.
A stab of guilt shot up Jane’s spine, doubling her over in agony. She chanted her sponsor’s slogan for relief: “I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t control it. I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t control it. I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t control it.”
When she was able to sit up again, she reached into the glove box and fished through the papers for the emergency pack of Virginia Slims she kept hidden there. She tapped a cigarette from the pack, fumbled the lighter lit with a shaking hand, and inhaled one long drag of calming smoke. Then she cracked the window and flicked the cigarette out into the rain.
The wipers swept the windshield clean again, and Jane nearly screamed when she saw a strange man standing over her daughter’s grave. What was he doing here? His head was bent, either in mourning or to read the freshly engraved stone, and he wore a gray coat and rain-soaked blue jeans.
Jane felt suddenly guilty, as if she were spying on a private moment between her daughter and this stranger. That would have sounded silly to Jane had she said it out loud, but it made perfect sense somehow inside her own head.
The man bent and laid something on the grave.
Did he bring flowers? she wondered.
She reached for the wiper switch to clear the windshield again, but she hit the high beams and accidentally flashed her headlights. Just as the wipers were sweeping the window clear, the man turned and looked at Jane. Never before had she been so startled and so captivated at the same time. He was young—under thirty, for sure—but the blank, almost numb expression on his face, combined with the distance in his gaze, betrayed a hidden pain of someone far beyond his age. He carried no umbrella, but he wore a baseball cap and rain poured off its brim, his eyes set in pools of shadow. As they looked at each other, her in the car, him straddling her daughter’s grave, the rain streamed down the glass and slowly melted him from her view, until just a watery silhouette was left. Then that too was washed away. Several seconds later the wipers swept across the windshield again, but the stranger was gone.
Jane was soaked by the time she walked the twenty feet from her car to the grave. She stood where the stranger had stood and looked around, but he was nowhere to be seen. When she looked down, she thought how strange it was to see the strips of grass already laid back over the grave, the edges marked by muddy stains. She knew the coming spring would see the grass take root again, sealing Melody forever beneath it in a patient world belonging only to the dead. She wanted to roll the grass back and plant her hands in the dirt and dig until she reached her daughter. She wanted to climb inside the casket and hold her in her arms, as she had when Melody was still a little girl—before the drinking, before the drugs. And why not let them come and cover the grave back up and leave them down there together? she thought. She felt dead already anyway.
The glint of something on the grass caught Jane’s eye.
She bent and picked up the coin that the stranger had left. Nothing special, just a silver dollar minted in 1973, the year Jane was born. She held the coin in her palm as if it were as fragile as a robin’s egg, and she wondered what its significance was and why the stranger had left it. Jane knew so little about her daughter, hardly having spoken with her for an entire year before she died. She longed for a connection to Melody’s life—some way to understand what had happened, a chance to make sense of the senseless, if that were even possible.
She stood a long time in the rain, looking at the coin in her hand, lost in her remembering, until she was drenched from head to toe and the coin rested beneath a pool of water in her palm. She had intended to return it to the grave where the stranger had left it, but without knowing why, she slipped the coin into her pocket and walked back to her car.
Jane pulled into the small garage of her 1950s rambler and put the car in park, but she didn’t turn it off right away. She closed her eyes and let the heater blow over her face. Odors of her wet clothes mixed with pine air freshener and the lingering trace of her cigarette smoke. When she opened her eyes again, she angled the rearview mirror to see herself with the practiced motion of a woman who has checked her makeup a thousand times before a thousand boring coffee shop appointments to sell a thousand boring insurance policies. But for the first time she didn’t recognize the face staring back from the rectangular glass. And it wasn’t the lack of makeup that left her confused; it was the hopelessness in those eyes.
She reached up and pressed the garage door remote and watched as the shadow of its closing slid across the mirror, erasing her face until it retreated completely into darkness. The garage bulb had burned out long ago, and she’d been too busy to replace it—just as she’d been too busy to seek out her daughter and offer help. But she was glad for the lack of light now as she cracked the window and reclined her seat.
The car’s illuminated dashboard cast dots of light onto the upholstered ceiling, and she pretended that they were really faraway stars. She remembered reading somewhere that carbon monoxide was odorless, but she smelled the gas fumes wafting in through the cracked window. She focused on her breathing, maybe for the first time since that Lamaze class her friend had dragged her to when she was pregnant with Melody. Hard to believe that was twenty years ago now. Where does time slip away to when you’re not looking? she wondered.
People had told her that life would go by fast.
But nobody said it would go by in a flash.
She began to drift off to a comfortable place between this world and the next, surrendering her thoughts to a state where time has no hold over events and where memories unfold and mesh together with lost hopes and forgotten dreams.
She remembered, she remembered, she remembered . . .
Holding her newborn daughter.
Purple cheeks, a button nose.
The hungry cry silenced by her breast, the joy of providing nourishment for someone so perfect.
Oh, to go back!
To be there forever in that warmth.
Stay, stay, stay.
Her mind flicked forward five years to their first night in this house. She saw again her daughter’s smile when they woke to see snow outside the window. She remembered gripping the tiny, mitten-clad hand and leading Melody down the street to investigate their new neighborhood. Strange, she thought, but the little pink rubber boots Melody had worn that day were in a box somewhere in this very garage where she sat remembering.
These memories were snatched away by a shrill sound.
A persistent ringing inside the house.
After a time Jane opened her eyes in the dark and tried to guess who might be calling. She’d gotten a home phone only because it had come bundled with her Internet service, and nobody even had the number except her sponsor. Let it ring, she thought. But then she knew that she couldn’t. She knew that if she didn’t answer, Grace would come looking for her. The thought of Grace being the one to discover her body, after all that she had done for Jane, was too much to add to the guilt already heaped onto her final thoughts.
She was dizzy getting out of the car, and by the time she reached the phone, it had stopped ringing. She stood beside it with her hand on the table, waiting for Grace to call again, as she knew she would. Ten seconds later it rang, and she lifted it off the cradle and forced herself to smile as she said, “Hello.”
“Hi, Jane. It’s Grace.”
“Oh, hi, Grace.”
“I’ve been calling your cell all day. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Jane said. “Just fine.”
“Come on, J. Don’t tell me that.”
“Don’t tell you what?”
“You know what ‘fine’ stands for, don’t you?” When Jane didn’t respond, Grace answered for her. “It stands for ‘fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.’ ”
Jane couldn’t help but laugh, just a little. “Well, in that case,” she said, “I’m doing really, really fine.”
“I’m coming over,” Grace said.
Jane looked around at the mess—bedding still piled on the couch, dirty dishes stacked on the kitchen counter. She shook her head. You’d think her mother and brother could have at least cleaned up after themselves, since they had insisted on coming for the funeral but had been too cheap to stay at a motel. But no, they’d come and made it all about them and somehow managed to turn the most horrible day even worse.
“How about I come over there?” Jane suggested. “I was just heading off somewhere anyway, and I left the car running in the garage.”
Her clothes had mostly dried by the time she pulled into the parking lot of Harbor Condominiums.
Grace buzzed her in, and she took the elevator to the third floor. She had barely raised her hand to knock when Grace flung the door open and hugged her.
“Oh, dear Lord, you’re soaking wet. Come in here and sit down. I’ll make us some coffee. I’ve got Peet’s. Or would you rather have chocolate?”
“Coffee’s good. Thanks.”
Jane sat in an overstuffed chair and looked out the living room window at the marina below. The sailboat masts moved back and forth with a hypnotic rhythm, and the rain poured down, illuminated against the dusky sky by the orange-vapor dock lights, even though the clock on the fireplace mantel said it was only three in the afternoon.
Grace handed her a steaming mug.
“Two Splendas and a drop of cream,” she said, sitting in the chair across from Jane. “Just the way you like it.”
Jane held the mug in both hands, letting its warmth thaw her cold fingers. She took a sip and smiled at Grace to let her know that it was good. Grace sighed and leaned back in her chair and looked at Jane, but she didn’t say a thing. A long time passed with the two women just sitting there together, the only sound the faint clanking of metal sailboat riggings through the insulated glass.
“Whatever happened to your sailboat?” Jane finally asked.
“Oh, God,” Grace said. “That thing? Best day of our lives when we sold it. I thought I told you. Bob tried to pretend it was the real estate crash. But he wasn’t any more a sailor than I am. Oh, I hated that thing. Cramped as the day is long. And the day is long when you’re on the water with nothing to do.”
There was another long silence between them.
“Did I tell you about that time we took it to the islands? I didn’t? Bob made me promise, but oh hell, it’s too good not to tell. He anchored us for a romantic sunset dinner. Popped a bottle of sparkling cider and everything. Even had a red rose. Said he wanted to rekindle our sex life. Of course he fell asleep before he even got a spark going. Anyway, the tide went out while we were down below and grounded us on a sandbar. Tilted it like a toy. We woke up when we fell off the bunk. Bob sprained his wrist. And, adding insult to his injury, we had to get towed off by the Coast Guard. Lord, it was embarrassing.”
Jane smiled and sipped her coffee. She had forgotten how much better she always felt just being around Grace. But her relief was cut short when a stab of pain shot through her as she remembered that her daughter was dead. Grace must have seen it on her face because she let out a sigh and said, “I’d ask you how you’re doing, but I can’t imagine you’d even know how to answer.”
Jane fought back the tears and just shook her head.
“Is there anyone still at your house?” Grace asked.
“They left last night,” Jane said.
“Were they drinking?”
“My brother was. And my mother should’ve been. Can you believe they fought so loud that my neighbor called me to make sure everything was all right? And she’s half an acre away. The night before the funeral too. I’d be embarrassed if I even cared about anything right now. God, I hate my family, Grace. I know it’s not right to, but I hate them anyway.”
“Have you tried praying for them?” Grace asked.
“I’ve prayed for them to get what they deserve.”
“Good enough,” Grace said, with just a hint of a grin.
A gust of wind drove rain against the window, and the masts crisscrossed faster against the darkening sky.
After a while Grace stood and said, “I’m going to fix the spare bed with fresh sheets for you. And don’t even think to try and tell me no, because Bob’s on an overnight to Dallas and I could use the company. I’m too old to be spending stormy nights alone. If you’re up for it, I’ll get the umbrellas and we can walk to the pub for some chowder.”
Jane knew that any protest would be useless, so she just nodded and watched Grace walk off down the hall. When she was gone, Jane looked back out the window at the rain.
She knew it would stop someday. She knew spring would come and bring a fresh wind to blow the clouds away. And she knew the summer sun would rise again and paint the world once more with the colors she used to love. She knew it as well as she knew anything. She just didn’t believe it.
The car behind Jane’s honked its horn.
She shifted into drive and drove onto the ferry. She was in the front of a vehicle lane, behind a group of dripping cyclists clad in yellow rain gear making their workday commute. They looked miserable but determined as they stowed their bikes and filed past her car on their way up to the onboard cafeteria, their clip-on bike shoes clacking loudly on the metal stairs. A ferry worker came around and blocked her tires, the corners of his bearded mouth half attempting a smile, but giving it up when he saw the hopeless expression on her face.
For everyone else it was just another day.
With the ferry under way, Jane sat in her car and watched the dark rain clouds drift across Elliott Bay. The ferry vibrated under the thrust of its engines and her pine-tree air freshener bounced on its string from the mirror where it was hung. She watched as a seagull flew in front of the ferry, riding the wake of air thrown from its bow. Jane hadn’t been to the city in a long time. Too long, she thought. If only she’d gone looking for her daughter, offered her more help, maybe Melody would still be alive. She knew Grace would remind her that she’d done all she could, all anyone could—that she’d paid for five treatment centers and given Melody all the support possible, until it was time to release her with love.
She remembered what the counselor at the last treatment center had said: “You can throw her a rope, but you’ve got to make her climb up it herself.” And she had thrown her a rope, hadn’t she? She had offered to take Melody home, with only one ironclad rule: she had to stay clean and sober. But Melody had turned the offer down and slipped away once more to be wasted with that junk she sought night in and night out, surfing the city from couch to couch.
The ferry blew its foghorn, startling Jane back from her thoughts. She hit her wipers to clear a spray of rain that had been driven by wind onto the ferry deck, and she watched as the Seattle skyline developed on the canvas of white fog ahead. She had lived in the city herself when she was young, attending the University of Washington, working toward a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies. But then she had met Bruce and fallen in love, or so she had thought. She was five months pregnant when Bruce took off, leaving her alone to prepare for her new baby, just another college dropout cliché. She had thought Bainbridge Island would be the perfect place to raise Melody—quiet and peaceful, a small-town island with great schools. And it was, for a while. But it seemed no place was immune from the influence of teenage drinking and drugs, especially when you were born predisposed to abuse them. Alcoholism surely ran in Jane’s family. She suspected it ran in Melody’s father’s family too.
The ferry docked and the bikers mounted up and pedaled away into the rain. Jane followed them off and drove through town up toward Capitol Hill.
As she passed familiar places, she wondered if her daughter had discovered them as well. Maybe Melody had even felt her ghost there in the old café, her head bent over schoolbooks. Or perhaps her daughter had seen her fingerprints on a shelf in the neighborhood bookstore that hadn’t changed or likely even been dusted since Melody was born. Or had their eyes met across twenty years’ worth of wax on the bar in the Steampipe Lounge, where a cute girl could always hustle a Friday night drink or two if she had a fake ID? God, was I young and stupid, Jane thought. But she had to admit that it had been fun too.
When she arrived at the apartment building, she double-checked the address, just to be sure. It was an old, rundown, three-story craftsman that had been converted long ago into walk-up apartments. But despite the peeling paint and sagging roofline, the address numbers on the curb were freshly painted and clear. So this was where her daughter had lived. This was where her daughter had died.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle, and Jane sat in her car and looked out the water-specked window, letting her eyes walk up the exterior stairs to the red third-floor door that her daughter had entered for the last time just ten days before. Had she known? Jane wondered. Had she stopped to drink in one last view of the city? Had the clouds cleared to present one final sunset to see her off ? Had she had second thoughts? Or was she bent on getting inside for her fix, seeing nothing but the waiting oblivion she so craved? Jane only half wished she could understand.
They were the hardest climb Jane had ever had to make.
She knocked on the door and waited.
She knocked again.
“Keep your damn panties on,” a female voice yelled from inside. “I’m coming, already.”
Soon a series of locks unlatched, and the door opened six inches on its chain, revealing a girl’s pale face pressed to the narrow opening.
“I told the lady on the phone I wasn’t agreeing to no damn inspection,” the pale face said. “Besides, I haven’t even had my kid since December, thanks to his asshole father.”
“I’m sorry,” Jane said. “I think you have me mixed up with someone else.”
The girl leaned closer to the opening and looked her over. “Oh, shit! You’re Melody’s mom. I’m sorry.”
“I thought I’d finally come by for her things.”
The girl’s face disappeared as she turned to look into the apartment. When she looked back, Jane assumed she’d unchain the door and invite her in, but she didn’t.
“Wait here,” she said instead. “I’ll get it together for you. It’ll just take a minute.”
Then she shut the door and locked it again.
Jane stood on the step and waited. She looked down on the street below and wondered what path her daughter had walked home that day and from where. The neighborhood reminded her of places she had lived herself once she had escaped her childhood home at seventeen and set out on her own. A tomcat pawed at the contents of an overturned garbage can; a kid kicked a soccer ball down an alley and back again, deftly dodging puddles; a lowered car cruised by with bass music pumping behind tinted glass; and a couple loudly argued in the open window of an apartment across the way.
Jane was about to head down to her car for a quick drag on a cigarette—just one to calm her nerves—when the door opened and the girl thrust a box into her arms.
“Is this all there is?” Jane asked, a little surprised.
The girl shrugged. She had run a comb through her hair and her breath smelled of cough drops when she spoke. “There was some other stuff, but we shared it. I’m sure you know how it is.”
Jane nodded, understanding what she meant.
“I was kinda surprised when you called,” the girl said, “because Melody never mentioned nothing about having any family around here.”
Jane felt tears well up in her eyes. She stood holding the box while one ran down her cheek.
“Shit,” the girl said. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m sorry.”
“Was it you who found her?” Jane asked.
The girl shook her head. “Nah. I was at my boyfriend’s all weekend. Candace was the one who came by that morning.” She paused to look down and then added in a quiet voice, “Sometimes I wonder if I’d only been home, you know?”
Jane knew the feeling all too well, but she didn’t say so. Instead, she changed the subject.
“Is there anything you can tell me about her? I mean, what she was up to or how she was doing?”
The girl sighed and tossed up a hand. “I wish I could tell you something. But it’s not like we were close or nothing. She only moved in a few months ago.”
“Do you have any idea where she spent her time?”
“I dunno,” the girl said. “You might try the Devil’s Cup. They called and said they had a final check for her there.”
“Melody had a job?”
“Oh, yeah,” she replied. “She’d been at the Devil’s Cup on Pike since maybe a week after moving in here. Said she was gonna enroll in beauty school too, now that I think about it. Even had the forms all printed out. It wasn’t like you think. She just had a little setback, you know. Guess that’s all it takes sometimes, though. One bad day, one bad rig. Anyway, enough from my ass about that. I gotta run and get ready.”
Jane thanked her and turned to leave. She’d made it two steps down the stairs with her box when the girl called to her.
“Hey! I hate to mention it. You know. With everything. But Melody did owe me some rent.”
Jane stopped and set the box down on the step and fished through her purse for her checkbook. “How much did she owe you?”
“One fifty,” the girl said.
“Who should I make the check out to?”
“You don’t have any cash?”
Jane opened her wallet and counted her cash. “I’ve only got eighty-five dollars.”
“I’ll just take that and call it even,” the girl said.
Jane held the money out but stayed on the second step and made her come out into the light to get it. She saw the dark circles under her eyes, the red track marks on her arms, and she almost pulled the money back but didn’t. The girl snatched the bills, thanked her, then quickly retreated into the apartment again and shut the door and locked it.
Jane drove to the Devil’s Cup and circled the block three times until she found a parking spot near enough to walk. The coffee shop was small and tight, only a few stools surrounding a window counter, and filled with eclectic neighborhood kids with their faces buried in their iPhones. Jane got in line and listened as the people in front of her ordered their caffeine fixes to go—“caffè breve,” “short drip,” “latte macchiato.”
When it was her turn, the girl behind the register pulled a pink sucker from her mouth and asked, “What’ll it be, lady?”
She had red hair and a ring through her eyebrow. Face piercings must be in style, Jane thought, because her daughter had had a small diamond stud in her nose when she arrived at the mortuary. She still wondered sometimes if she had made the right decision to have them leave it in, despite her strong feelings otherwise. She guessed that she had.
“I’m Melody McKinney’s mother,” Jane said.
“I’m sure she’s very proud,” the girl replied, popping the sucker back into her mouth and talking with it in her cheek. “What can we craft you to drink today?”
“Did you know Melody?”
“Should I?” the girl asked.
“I was told she worked here.”
“Oh,” the girl said, looking suddenly mortified. “You’re that Melody’s mother. Sorry. I’m filling in from our Belltown location. Hold on a sec.”
She disappeared into the back room and came out a minute later with an envelope.
“This is her final check,” she said. Then she looked down at the counter and quickly added, “Sorry. That sounded bad.”
Jane tucked the envelope into her purse.
“I was actually hoping that I might be able to talk with someone who worked with Melody. Someone who knew her.”
“You should come back during the week,” the girl said. “Lewis works then and he’d be the best person to talk to.”
“Yeah. He’s the manager. You can’t miss him. Looks like a cross between a My Little Pony and the Statue of Liberty.”
Jane stepped outside and took a deep breath of cool, damp air. She had felt the walls closing in on her in the small coffee shop, perhaps because she had kept picturing Melody standing behind the counter smiling at her instead of the rude redhead. If only she’d been here two weeks ago. It seemed a cruel lottery how some lives were cut short while others went on.
As she walked up the block toward her car, she heard a lonely guitar melody carried on the breeze, accompanied by an even lonelier voice. The song was nothing she had ever heard before, but it was beautiful, and it matched her mood.
She followed the music around the corner and found its source standing in a doorway. He was wearing a grungy ball cap and his head was bent over the guitar so that Jane couldn’t see his face. His guitar case was open on the sidewalk in front of him, sprinkled with a few dollar bills and a few coins. Jane was so moved by the song he was playing that she stopped to dig in her purse for something to leave him, but she had given the last of her money to Melody’s roommate. All she came up with was the silver dollar that the stranger had left on Melody’s grave, and she didn’t dare part with that.
She waited for the song to finish so she might ask the man how long he’d be there if she returned with a donation, but when he finally struck the last chord and raised his head, she was struck speechless by his eyes. It was him—the man from the cemetery, the stranger in the rain. The glimpse she’d had through her windshield had been seared into her mind. She would recognize those eyes anywhere, anytime.
Jane thought she saw a flash of recognition in his face too, but it quickly disappeared, replaced by a broad smile as he said, “Got any requests?”
“That was really good,” she said, deciding on the spot not to mention having seen him before. “I mean, really good.”
He dipped his chin.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Did you write it?”
“Well,” he said, suddenly looking shy, “I haven’t actually written it down anywhere yet, as I’m still working on it in my head, but the melody and the words are my own, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s really amazing,” Jane said.
“I’m glad you like it. Usually folks prefer the old stuff that they know. Nostalgia, I guess. But as great a song as it is, I can only sing ‘Hallelujah’ so many times in a day.”
She studied his face while he spoke.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”
He took off his ball cap and clawed his hand through his long dark hair. He sighed.
“Well, if they told me the truth about the day I was born, and if I don’t die, I’ll be twenty-five this July.”
“You’re not yet twenty-five and you wrote a song like that? Have you been writing music your whole life?”
“I couldn’t say for sure.” He shrugged. “I haven’t lived my whole life yet.” Then he smiled at her again and changed the subject. “Is there something you’d like to hear?”
Jane was so drawn by the fleck of green burning in his sad eyes that she leaned in to get a closer look.
“What’s your name?”
“Not to be rude, lady, but this is how I make my living. Now, is there a song you’d like to hear? ’Cause if not, I’ve got to be moving on.”
“But I want to talk with you.”
“You’ve got the wrong guy.”
He lifted his guitar over his head, squatted to scoop the change from its case, then closed the guitar up inside.
“I just want to ask you a few questions.”
“There must be fifty guys down on First and Pine who’ll talk your ear off for the price of a pint. I’m not one of them.”
He pinched the brim of his cap as if to say good-bye and picked up his case and walked off with it.
“I saw you at the cemetery,” Jane said to his back.
He stopped and slowly turned around.
“I was in the car watching you. Melody must have meant a lot to you, for you to show up in the rain like that.”
Jane opened her purse. “Here. You left this coin.”
“Was she your sister?” he asked.
“No, I’m her mother.”
A sad expression washed like a storm cloud across his face and his eyes flashed with grief. For a moment Jane thought he might cry. But he dropped his gaze to the sidewalk and said,“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Then he turned and walked away.
No explanation, no good-bye.
Jane stood and watched him go.
No sooner had he disappeared around the corner than a raindrop splashed on the sidewalk in front of her where he had stood, as if his shadow were still there crying.
Alone on the sidewalk, Jane felt her own tears come.
Then a curtain of rain fell at once and Jane slumped down in the covered doorway where he had been playing, wrapped her arms around her knees, and watched the drops beat against the pavement—his melody replaced by the lonesome splash of water beneath the tires of anonymous cars rolling past.