Justin’s mother killed him, so townspeople believed, convinced by the papers and the testimony of beautiful, tearful Mae Worthington. Mae, from a respected family, reliable babysitter, model student, precocious poet, could never, ever have harmed a child in her care.
Determining the four-month-old died from suffocation, the county coroner submitted his report. The mother denied it, accused the babysitter of neglect, even outright murder. The town turned against the baby’s mother. The idea of accusing Mae Worthington of the murder of a child! She was only 13! Justin’s mother had a drug history. No one liked her or her husband. They kept to themselves, didn’t mingle with the neighbors. Drove the wrong color car.
The woman and her husband moved away. Later, they heard, she died in a car accident. The townspeople nodded to each other, muttered sagely: Ah, she was guilty after all. She turned her car into oncoming traffic. She killed herself.
Mae Worthington grew older, won scholarships, traveled with the debating team, became homecoming queen. The only sign of how the trauma of Justin’s death affected her was her poetry. Grim, baffling, disconsolate. People who knew such things said she was the next Plath or Sexton. Her father paid for expensive psychotherapy; the therapists said: write more poetry.
Until the baby’s death the popular Mae was always seen in the company of Dominique Cantini, an odd girl with few friends. People praised Mae’s willingness to befriend the underdog. What self-possession, what integrity! But after Justin’s death, the friendship soured. Mae courted new friends, other friends, Sawyer, Hollis and Annie Novak.
Mae was a girl who could do nothing but succeed, a girl everyone loved to see and talk about. She swept through high school on invincible wings, blessed, touched, they said.
Just before graduation, on a spring day when sun warmed the tawny folds of the California valley hills, when the blue sky tasted of summer heat, Mae Worthington drove her car—a graduation present from her father—onto the Santa Fe Pacific railroad tracks and waited for a train. When it came, nothing was left but crushed steel, blood, and bits of bone.
Only a woman gets that mad
My sister’s wheelchair lay on the bottom of her swimming pool, its wheels enlarged to cartoon-size by the light and water. Leaving the cool sanctuary of her grape arbor to look at it, where the beating sun found me and forked a headache between my eyes, I said, “How did that get there?”
Ivy’s voice, coarsened by decades of smoking, floated to me from the shade. “The ghost did it, Annie.”
I turned and stared at her through my sunglasses. “Ivy Novak, so that part at least is true. You are being haunted.”
The sunken wheelchair was not the most impressive manifestation I had seen since I arrived that morning at Ivy’s house, but it helped to focus this minor evidence of the ghost’s fury. Stiff and bleary from having driven 800 miles straight from cool Seattle to scorching Quantum City, a place so lacking personality it masked perfectly what really went on here, I could not at first understand what I was seeing as I turned the corner onto Juniper Street and cruised down the block toward my former home.
I pressed a finger to the place between my eyes where the fork resided. “Do you think the ghost had something to do with the accident as well?”
Ivy Novak Woolf Easton Olds, in truth my half-sister, held onto the patio table and rubbed her towel through her hair. She was five years older than my thirty-four, a fact I disliked recalling—and although we shared the same father we had vastly different mothers. Frederick Victor Novak not only traded in the old model for the new, he bought a different make every time.
Ivy picked up her cigarettes, then seemed to remember who I was, her sister Annie Novak, no-nonsense ICU nurse, and fearing my lecture, perhaps, put them down. “She’s a very nasty ghost. Did you see the wall?”
I had. Ivy walked toward the house, and I could see she was unsteady, holding onto the back of the chairs as she went, and pointed. In a place between two sets of sliding glass doors I could see the round hole the size of a dinner plate, punched through the stucco.
I glanced through the breezeway into the street. The police were still there, one of them parked on the lawn. They had blocked off the street from the east end—luckily Zoe and I had entered from the west, but even then had to park three houses away. The aid car was taking the corpse away as we followed the sidewalk toward the house, but his mangled motorcycle still lay on Ivy’s brown lawn, the ash tree he struck scarred by a blazing gash of exposed heartwood.
I hadn’t seen Hollis in years. I didn’t know why his death should depress me so, but when Ivy told me who had died on her lawn, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.