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January 7, 2003, was an ordinary evening in our home. My son Neil and his girlfriend, Trista, were upstairs studying. My husband, Saul, and I were grilling hamburgers on the stove. When Neil wandered into the kitchen and picked a few cucumbers out of the salad bowl, I swatted his fingers and asked him whether Trista would want cheese on her burger. He shrugged.
“I dunno. Ask her.”
I stepped past him to call upstairs and do just that when he suddenly grabbed my arm. A knowing smile spread over his face.
“Wait. She’ll want cheese. Lots and lots of cheese.”
I had wondered when they would start to know these little things about each other. Trista was Neil’s first serious girlfriend. They were eight months into their young relationship. Everything was new and compelling. And Neil had learned this about Trista: that she liked a little burger with her cheese.
We all chatted over dinner about our evening plans. Saul was headed off to the Salvation Army gym for his Tuesday night volleyball game. I usually played too, but tonight I was
planning on meeting a friend at the Screening Room to see Bowling for Columbine. Neil and his older brother, Dan, played volleyball too, and tonight Saul tried to entice Neil and Trista to join him.
“C’mon Trista. It’ll be fun. You’ll get to see Neil in gym shorts,” my husband cajoled.
Trista laughed at the image, her bright peals filling our small kitchen. Neil just grinned. I loved when Trista ate with us. Our son, who could be a typically monosyllabic, morose teenager, brightened in her presence. The whole mood of the house changed with her there.
The kids considered his invitation but ultimately turned him down. They were hoping Trista’s mother, Mary, would let Neil spend the rest of the evening at the Zincks’ home, doubtful on a school night. Mary was a strict disciplinarian with rigid rules for her only daughter.
“I’m afraid of her,” Neil once told me about Mary.
I’d only met her a few times, dropping Neil off at her house or picking him up; at her semiformal, his prom. I could see what Neil meant. Mary projected a no-nonsense, tough-as-nails facade. But she was also quick with a laugh. She was the type of person who said what she meant and meant what she said. With Mary you always knew where you stood.
After dinner Trista sat on the footstool by the wood stove pulling on her boots. She stood and shrugged herself into her winter coat. Neil was making no move to get ready.
“Aren’t you walking Trista home?” I asked. He always did. But tonight they looked at each other and smiled. They were concocting a scheme to convince Mary to let Neil come over. They reasoned that she would be most amenable to the idea if Trista showed up at home alone and before curfew. I disagreed.
“You guys have it all wrong,” I told them. I held Neil’s coat out for him, reaching my arms up over his almost six-foot frame that now towered over me. “You have to walk her home, Neil, the chivalrous gentleman delivering the lady to her doorstep safe and sound. Then Mary will have to let you stay.”
The pair considered this for a moment. Then Trista winked and nodded, a twinkle in her eye. She gunned a finger in my direction.
“Better plan,” she concurred.
With that they were off into a clear, cold January night. I cleared supper dishes and rinsed them at the kitchen sink. Then I did what I often did when Neil walked Trista home. I dimmed the kitchen lights so the couple wouldn’t see me watching them walk down our street. I always gave them their privacy when they were in my home, making sure they heard me coming into a room they were in. In my presence they gazed at each other with obvious budding affection, but physical demonstrations of their tenderness were rare. This window surveillance was the only time I let myself watch them unobserved.
I tracked them as they turned left up Spofford Street, then crossed over to Plant Street, which would take them on to Ferry Road. The Zincks lived on Laurel Road, off Ferry. The whole route was less than a half mile and usually took the kids just fifteen minutes to get from one house to the other. They passed under the yellow glow of a street lamp, which outlined their silhouettes: two shadows holding hands.
I finished the dishes, wiped down the table and counters, and turned off the lights. The house was quiet. Logs shifted and crackled in the wood stove. In a sudden change of mind, I decided to forgo the movies in favor of a quiet evening alone. I fixed myself a cup of tea then settled at the computer to write.
Half an hour later the phone rang. Mary did not even wait for me to say hello.
“Where are the kids?” she breathed. I looked at my watch. Almost forty minutes had passed since Neil and Trista had set out.
“They should have gotten to your house by now,” I reported quietly, dully, the significance of my words only slowly sinking in even as I said them.
“Two kids were hit on Ferry Road.” And with that Mary hung up. She didn’t give me time to ask, “What kids? Our kids?” I stood there with the receiver in my hand, the line gone dead. I tried calling my husband at the Salvation Army. The Toastmasters met in a room down the hall from the gym. Maybe someone would pick up. But it just rang and rang. I pictured the phone ringing on the counter in the little kitchen, out of earshot of the players and the Toastmasters. I tried calling the police.
“We have no report of an accident on Ferry Road, Ma’am,” the officer told me. I fantasized that maybe there was no accident. Maybe Neil and Trista had stopped at a friend’s house, or stepped into the woods to kiss. Maybe it was a dog that was hit on Ferry Road, and Mary had just misunderstood.