The cosmos should send forth a sign when a good man approaches death, but the night Chris Altieri joined me in the gazebo to watch the sun set on Lawyers’ Bay, there was nothing. No fiery letters flaming across the wide prairie sky; no angels with bright hair beckoning from the clouds. The evening was innocent, sweet with summer dreams and the promise of life at a cottage in a season just begun. It was July 1, Canada Day. The lake was full of fish. The paint on the Muskoka chairs was crayon bright; the paddles, sticky with fresh varnish, were on their hooks in the boathouse; and the board games and croquet sets still had all their pieces. September with its tether of routine and responsibility was a thousand years away. Anything was possible, and the gentle-voiced man who dropped into the chair next to mine seemed favoured by fortune to seize the best that summer had to offer.
Bright, successful, and charming, Chris Altieri was, in E.A. Robinson’s poignant phrase, everything to make us wish that we were in his place. Yet this graceful man wouldn’t live to see the rising of the orange sun that was now plunging towards the horizon, and when I learned that he was dead, I wasn’t surprised.
I was a newcomer to the small community of Lawyers’ Bay, renting the cottage that belonged to my friend Kevin Hynd, who was spending the summer exploring the mystical Mount Kailas in Tibet. My trekking days were over. Kevin’s cottage, on a lake seventy kilometres from Regina, with good roads all the way, was adventure enough for me, as it was for my daughter Taylor, my son Angus, and his girlfriend, Leah. We’d been at Lawyers’ Bay less than a week — long enough for me to master the idiosyncrasies of the motorboat and the ancient Admiral range in the kitchen, not long enough for me to know much at all about my new neighbours, the privileged group who, until he walked away, had been Kevin’s law partners and who were still his friends. When they met twenty-five years ago in law school, they called themselves the Winners’ Circle; the name stuck, but Kevin hadn’t mentioned whether the group’s members saw it as a source of pride or irony.
So far I had met the members of the Winners’ Circle only in passing. My family and I had arrived the previous Sunday afternoon, when the partners at Falconer Shreve were just packing up to go home. I’d spoken briefly to Delia Wainberg, the sole female partner in the firm, but the others had only had time to wave and call out a welcome before they headed back to the city and the demands of a high-powered law practice.
The Canada Day party that Falconer, Shreve, Altieri, and Wainberg threw every year to celebrate our nation’s birthday was legendary in cottage country, and I had counted on it as my chance to get to know my new neighbours better. There’d been no shortage of opportunities. I’d water-skied with Falconer Shreve’s juniors and clients, kayaked with Falconer Shreve friends from the city, and played beach volleyball with the cottagers who lived on the other side of the gates that separated Falconer Shreve families from the lesser blessed. Faces glowing with the soft sheen of summer sweat, we fortunate few had spent the last twelve hours savouring the newest, the fastest, the finest, and the freshest that money could buy.
By anyone’s standards, it was one hell of a party, and there had been enough revealing glimpses of the people who were paying the bill to satisfy my curiosity. The first came in early afternoon, not long after the party started. People had donned bathing suits and were gathering along the shore to swim and water-ski. Zachary Shreve and Noah Wainberg had fired up boats and were idling offshore waiting for customers. The teenagers, mine included, were lining up when Blake Falconer’s wife, Lily, strode to the end of the dock and called out to Zack Shreve.
“Let’s go,” she said. He gave her a short wave of acknowledgement and they were away. Lily’s performance was nothing short of virtuoso. She was in her early forties, but she skied with the abandon of a sixteen-year-old who believed she was immortal. It was clear that Zack had driven the boat for her before. Periodically, he would do a shoulder check and she would give him a hand signal indicating that he should go faster. Lily took the jumps at speeds that I knew were dangerous, but she never faltered. It wasn’t long before the party guests stopped whatever they were doing just to watch her. I was standing beside Blake Falconer at the end of the dock. He followed his wife’s progress without comment, but he didn’t appear to exhale until she finally signalled to Zack to cut the motor and she sank into the water.
As Lily swam the few metres to shore, I turned to her husband. “That was astonishing,” I said.
“Somehow Lily always manages to survive,” he said, then he walked to the end of the dock to offer his wife a hand.
There had been other revelations. During the swimming races, my ten-year-old daughter, Taylor, discovered to her delight that the only other children staying at Lawyers’ Bay were two girls a year older than her, and after five minutes of squealed exclamations over shared passions, the trio had bonded as effortlessly as puppies and gone off in search of food to inhale and boys to taunt. Later, there was a more poignant moment. While I was waiting for my turn to water-ski, I drifted over to watch Delia Wainberg’s husband, Noah, help parents supervise the toddlers who had decided to venture into the lake. To see him knee-deep in water reassuring a slippery three-year-old with water wings and attitude was to understand the patience of the saints. Hugging her knees to her as she squinted through the smoke from her cigarette, Delia watched from her towel on the beach. When she called out to her husband, Noah turned expectantly. “Hey,” she said in her appealing husky-squeaky voice. “They should make water wings for adults — something to keep us from sinking.”
“That’s what I’m here for, babe,” Noah said.
Her husband’s gentle gallantry sailed right past Delia. “Actually, I was thinking about Chris,” she said. “I’m worried about him.”
“I should have known,” her husband said softly, then he bent to guide the child he was holding towards the safety of her mother’s arms.
Delia Wainberg wasn’t the only partner anxious about Christopher Altieri that day. The men and women of Falconer Shreve were good hosts, laughing, chatting, urging guests to refill a glass, replenish a plate, enjoy themselves. But it was apparent Chris’s state of mind worried those who knew him best. Despite repeated attempts to draw him into the fun, Chris remained alone and unfocused, the spectre at the feast.
When Chris and I arrived simultaneously at one of the washtubs of ice and drinks that had been placed strategically along the beach, Zack Shreve seemed to appear out of nowhere. He fished soft drinks out for Chris and me. “The skiers keep on coming, Chris,” he said. “I need somebody else along in the boat. Interested?”
Chris’s smile was sweet. “Maybe ask one of the others,” he said. “I’m not too sharp today.” Then he walked away without another word of explanation.
“Something wrong there?” I said.
Zack’s eyes were still on Chris. “He just got back from Japan. Could be jet lag — at least that’s what we’re hoping.”
“Because jet lag goes away,” I said.
“Right,” Zack said absently. Suddenly, he seemed to realize I was standing there. “Hey, I’m not much of a host. Want me to open that Coke for you?”
“Thanks, but I’ve been opening my own Cokes for a few years now.”
“I have other talents,” he said. “Sit next to me at the barbecue tonight, and prepare to be dazzled.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
“Me too,” Zack said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to offer a little aid and comfort to my lugubrious friend and partner.”
Zack Shreve’s brand of aid and comfort apparently left something to be desired. When, late in the afternoon, Chris and I were matched in a tennis tournament, he suffered a meltdown. He was forty-five, ten years younger than me, and his game showed flashes of a brilliance I could only dream of. But talent without concentration had been no match for doggedness, and I was beating Chris handily when he suddenly dropped his racquet and strode off. It was an unnerving moment, made even more worrying when Chris didn’t appear at dinner. According to Zack, Chris was simply exhausted, but I was relieved when he appeared in the gazebo that night after the barbecue.
His eyes were anxious. “Your daughter told me where I could find you. I hope you don’t mind me following you out here.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
The corners of his mouth twitched towards a smile. “Your daughter said you had come to the gazebo to straighten up.”
“Taylor’s not known for her discretion,” I said. “I was suffering from too much sun and too much wine. Nobody to blame but myself.”
“So you’re not perfect,” Chris said.
“Not even close,” I said.
Chris inhaled deeply. “That makes it easier,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry I was such a jerk today.”
“It was pretty clear there was more on your mind than tennis.”
“Thanks, but absolution shouldn’t come that easily. I hope you’ll give me a chance to make amends.” He offered his hand. When I took it, I felt the thrum of connection. Apparently, Chris Altieri did too. Before he withdrew his hand, he pressed mine. “Kevin said you’d be a good person to talk to.”
“When were you talking to Kevin?”
“Tonight when you were all having dinner.”
“He found a phone on Mount Kailas?”
Chris offered another of his disarmingly sweet smiles. “Actually, he was in Delhi. We agreed years ago that somehow we’d always make it to the Falconer Shreve Canada Day party. Kevin may have had to phone it in today, but he still gets marked present.” Chris gazed at the party across the water. “For us, this is holy ground,” he said.
The scene was seductive. A small band had been hired to smooth the transition from the barbecue to the fireworks, and the music evoked a Proustian rush of memories of other summers. People were dancing along the shoreline, and their silhouettes, thrown into sharp relief by the blaze of a bonfire, were dreamily romantic. The lights strung across the branches of the willows had been arranged so artfully that their twinkling seemed a natural phenomenon, like the pinpoint illumination of fireflies.
It was impossible not to feel the crystalline beauty of the moment. “It is lovely,” I said.
“Don’t forget the people,” Chris said. “No matter what you’ve heard, they’re the best.”
“Worthy members of the Winners’ Circle?” I asked.
He lowered his head in embarrassment. “Sophomoric, huh?”
“Kevin tells me you got together at the end of your first week in law school. Your sophomore year wasn’t that far behind you.”
young,” Chris agreed. “Zack Shreve was only twenty. He’d blazed through his undergraduate degree. He was the baby — although given what he’s become, it’s hard to believe he was ever a self-conscious kid.”
“I sat with him at the barbecue,” I said. “It was a rush meeting him face to face. Until today, he was just someone I’d seen on the news — Zachary Shreve, defender of the defenceless.”
“The media love him,” Chris said dryly. “Don Quixote in a wheelchair. But Zack doesn’t waste his time tilting at windmills. He chooses cases he can win, and when the little guy gets a big settlement, Zack gets a big cheque.”
“Big cheques benefit all the partners, don’t they?”
“Our bank accounts, yes. Our immortal souls? Not necessarily.”
“You disapprove of what Zack does.”
He shrugged. “That doesn’t mean I don’t love him. I love them all. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have cut short my trip to Japan so I could be here today.”
“That is devotion,” I said. “So what took you to Japan?”
“I was on a pilgrimage,” he said, and his voice was flat. It was impossible to tell if the comment was ironic.
“It seems to be the summer for racking up good karma,” I said. “You and Kevin both.”
“Maybe we should have inquired about a group rate,” he said.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked.
He hesitated. “No,” he said finally. Somewhere close to shore a fish jumped. “Isn’t it amazing how even when things are at their worst, there are reminders of the goodness of life?” The sentiment was celebratory, but in the sinking light, Chris’s face was haunted.
“Is it that bad for you?” I said.
Chris didn’t respond. Seemingly, he was absorbed in the lustre of the roses floating in the low bowl at the centre of the table. “I’ve always been graced,” he said. “Now the grace has been withdrawn. When I told Kevin that tonight, he said I should talk to a priest, but I can’t do that and I can’t talk to my partners.”
“So Kevin suggested you talk to me,” I said.
“If you don’t mind,” Chris said.
“I don’t mind.” I leaned towards him. “Chris, why do you think the grace has been withdrawn from your life?”
“Because I’ve sinned.” This time there was no mistaking his tone. He was clearly suffering.
I turned my attention to the roses and waited.
Christopher tented his fingers thoughtfully. “Kevin says you’re not judgemental.”
I smiled. “That must be why he gave me a break on the rent.”
“Must be.” Chris’s face grew grave. “Let’s test your limits. Has anyone you loved ever had an abortion?”
The question shattered the perfection of the evening. “No one I loved,” I said finally, “but women I was close to. My roommate in college, other friends. I know the wound goes deep.”
“Does it ever heal?” he said.
“Truthfully? I don’t know.”
Chris turned to face me. We were so close, I could smell the liquor on his breath. It hadn’t occurred to me that his confessional moment had been fuelled by alcohol. He wasn’t drunk, but he was unguarded. “I was with a woman,” he said. “She became pregnant with our child . . . with what would have been our child.”
“She had an abortion,” I said.
“She had an abortion because of me,” he corrected.
“You forced her?”
Pain flickered across his face. “I gave her no option.”
“But afterwards you had second thoughts,” I said.
“It was beyond that. I was mourning something . . .” He extended his hands palms up in a gesture of helplessness. “I just wasn’t sure what it was.”
“And that’s why you went on the pilgrimage.”
He nodded. “I’d joined this chat room on the Internet. It was for people like me who couldn’t deal with how they felt after an abortion. One night someone mentioned an article in an old New York Times Magazine
by a woman who’d suffered a miscarriage while she was in Tokyo. She went through hell, but finally she found an answer. She discovered the Japanese have a name for a child that’s lost before birth. They call it mizuko
, ‘water child,’ because it’s a being who is still flowing into our world.”
“A beautiful image,” I said.
“And an acknowledgement that what was lost was real,” Chris said quietly. “There’s an enlightened being, Jizo, who watches over the mizukos. The article mentioned a Buddhist temple in Tokyo where they performed Jizo rituals.”
“And you went there.”
Chris’s face grew soft with memory. “It was incredible, Joanne. Rows and rows of tiny stone statues of mizukos. Their features were so perfect. Most of them were wearing little red caps that their mothers had crocheted for them. They’d left presents for their unborn children too — toys and bags of candy. The article said gifts were the custom, so I left a little truck for my mizuko with his statue.” Chris’s voice broke. “I said a prayer, then I left a letter telling him I was sorry and that I hoped he’d find another pathway into being.”
The warm summer air was vibrating with the hum of crickets and the wishing star had appeared in the darkening sky. Canada Day. But in that moment, Chris Altieri and I were half a world away in an ancient shrine that offered comfort and hope to those who grieved, but from which he’d come away empty-handed.
“The ritual didn’t work for you,” I said.
“I didn’t deserve to have it work.”
“The woman who wrote the article had a miscarriage, and a miscarriage is no one’s fault. What I did was unforgivable.”
“Nothing is unforgivable,” I said.
Out of nowhere, a voice, peremptory and loud, called out to us. “There you are. I was concerned.”
Chris slumped. “My law partner,” he said, “come to deliver me from temptation. You must have scared them, Joanne. They sent in the big guns.”
When I turned in the direction of Chris’s gaze, I saw Zack Shreve coming down the path. Seeing that he’d caught our attention, Zack waved jauntily.
I touched Chris’s hand. “We can go back to my cottage if you want to talk,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “But I shouldn’t draw anyone else into this.”
In the silence I could hear the wheels of Zack’s chair grind inexorably through the pebbles on the walk. Nothing could stop him.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” I said. “It’s only human.”
Chris’s smile was bleak. “I don’t feel human,” he said. “I feel like my mizuko — as if I don’t belong anywhere.” He left the gazebo and sprinted up the path that led back to the party. As he passed Zack, he bent and kissed the top of his head. It was an extraordinary gesture, but apparently it didn’t touch Zack’s heart. The senior partner of Falconer Shreve rolled up the ramp that made the gazebo, like all the buildings at Lawyers’ Bay, accessible.
“So did our lugubrious friend open up to you?” he asked amiably.
In the enclosed space of the gazebo, I was struck by Zack’s physical presence. As a result of an accident, he had been paraplegic since childhood, and as if to compensate for lower limbs that stubbornly refused to respond to his will, the upper half of his body was a coiled spring. His torso and arms were heavily muscled, reflecting the power of a man who quite literally pushed himself for seventeen hours a day; his head was large and his features were those of a successful actor, memorably drawn and compelling.
He flicked the switch that turned on the gazebo’s overhead light, dimmed it, then wheeled past me to the window that looked onto the lake. When he turned and beckoned me to join him, his voice was silky. “It’s a good night to be alive, isn’t it?”
The view from the glass-walled gazebo was panoramic. Lawyers’ Bay was an almost perfect horseshoe, and the gazebo had been built on the tip of the horseshoe’s west arm. Lights twinkled from the distant shores that enclosed the lake and across the bay the party was in full swing.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a good night to be alive.”
Zack sighed contentedly. “That raises the question that brought me here. On this night of nights, why is Chris Altieri so miserable?”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Because I’m interested in your opinion. Chris’s tête-à-tête with you lasted ten minutes.” Zack checked his watch. “Actually, it was shade less than ten minutes. Still, time enough for a man to reveal his darkest secrets.”
I stood. “I’m going back to the party,” I said.
“I’ll come with you.”
“Be my guest,” I said. “But you’ll be wasting your time. This is between Chris and me.”
“No longer an option,” he said pleasantly. “The moment you came through those gates at the entrance, you were part of all our lives.”
“I don’t remember taking a blood oath,” I said.
Zack waved his hand dismissively. “Nothing that dramatic,” he said. “We’re not the Cosa Nostra, just five friends from a provincial law school who enjoy one another’s company and take our obligations to one another seriously.”
“I take my obligations seriously too,” I said. “And it’s time I went back and handled them.”
“You’re going to talk to Chris.”
“If he wants to talk to me.”
“You might want to rethink that decision.”
“Meaning . . . ?”
“Meaning you’re part of our little community now. Kevin invited you in. Except for those who’ve joined us through marriage, you’re the first outsider to become part of life at Lawyers’ Bay.” He plucked a perfect rosebud from the bowl on the table and handed it to me. “As you’ve no doubt noticed, ours is not a hardscrabble existence,” he said.
“I’ve noticed,” I said.
“And your family has noticed too. It was a real stroke of luck that your son and his girlfriend got that job running the Point Store.”
“You had something to do with that?”
Zack shrugged. “We just got the ball rolling. Kevin said the kids were having trouble getting summer jobs, so we arranged for them to meet old Stan Gardiner, the owner. Angus and his girlfriend did the rest. Stan said they were the only couple he interviewed who knew shit from shinola.”
A mosquito landed on my hand, and I swatted it. “Any more surprises?” I asked.
“Lily Falconer’s nanny has been given a handsome raise to keep an eye on your daughter this summer,” he said. “There, I’ve emptied my bag. No more secrets.”
“Why would you do all this?”
“We wanted to make sure you enjoyed your holiday,” Zack said.
My late husband had been a lawyer, so I knew the value of keeping my lip buttoned. I twirled the perfect rose and listened to the crickets.
“Ah,” Zack said. “The significant silence, forcing your opponent to say more than he intended to.”
“Somehow I doubt that a charter member of the Winners’ Circle would fall into a trap that easily,” I said.
“You’re scornful of our group?”
“Not of the people,” I said. “Just the concept. I’m not a huge fan of elitist clubs.”
Zack’s laugh was robust. “The Circle was hardly elitist. It was just a group of law students who came together because they were scared and smart and socially inept. It was good for all of us. When I was invited to join, I was like a drunk discovering Jesus. Dazzled. Born again.”
Despite everything, I found myself responding to Zack’s candour. I taught at a university, and I’d seen my share of twenty-year-olds who hid their insecurities behind a carapace of brash egotism. “Undergraduate life can be brutal,” I said.
Zack’s profile had the chiselled authority of a king’s on a coin. “I wasn’t trying to elicit sympathy, Joanne. I’ve made a career out of defending lumps of foul deformity. I’ve never seen myself as one of them. Not that the temptation wasn’t there.”
“Because of what happened to you.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Accidents happen. Smart people make the most of them. And smart people don’t take no for an answer.”
“You don’t give up, do you?”
“Not when the stakes are this high.”
“Well, if you’re not going to give up, why don’t you fill me in?”
Zack beamed. “All I ever asked for was a fair hearing. So, some context. Guilt is a powerful force, Joanne. It plays havoc with the judicial system. People are always confessing to big things because they’re tortured with guilt about little things.”
“And you think that’s what Chris did here tonight.”
“I’ve caught his act before,” Zack said acidly. His face softened. “Chris is a thoroughly decent man, but at the moment he can’t be trusted. He’s hit a bad patch in his life. He was forced to do something that was necessary but morally repugnant. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s fucking him up. For his sake, for all our sakes, forget everything he said to you.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Just like that?” Zack said.
“Just like that,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going on. If I involve myself, I could do more harm than good, and Chris said he didn’t want to draw anyone else in.”
Zack’s head shot around. “Did he explain what he meant?”
“And you didn’t push it. You surprise me,” he said. “But you also make me understand why Kevin was willing to trust you.” He gestured gracefully at the ramp to the gazebo. “Shall we rejoin the festivities?”
“Sure,” I said. “When it comes to fireworks, there are no second chances.”
By the time we got back, the party was rocking. The bonfire was burning hot and high, the music was pounding, and the dancers’ movements had taken on a shank-of-the-evening abandon. My son Angus and his girlfriend, Leah, were on a bench near the fire. Hair still wet from swimming and hands gripping cans of beer, they were huddled under a beach towel, laughing at some private joke. When he spotted Zack and me, Angus waved and pointed at Taylor and her new friends, Gracie Falconer and Isobel Wainberg. The girls were up to their ankles in the lake, giggling and shrieking as the water splashed their shorts. Rose Lavallee, the tiny ageless woman who was Gracie’s nanny, had planted a folding chair at the water’s edge and was eyeing them fixedly.
“Everybody’s happy. Everybody’s safe,” Zack said. “Now why don’t we get a drink and join the others.”
There were perhaps eighty people at the Canada Day party. No one appeared to be in charge of seating arrangements, yet as the first rocket spiralled into the sky and rained down its shower of fiery stars, my kids and I found ourselves alone with the Falconer Shreve families in what was, indisputably, the choicest location on the beach. It was an exercise in self-selection that would have interested a sociologist. Taylor wasn’t a sociologist, but she was a keen observer. “How come no one’s here but us?” she asked.
“Because it’s our party,” Zack Shreve said. “And that means we get the best of everything.”
Maybe so, but as I looked at the faces around me, it seemed that getting the best of everything didn’t bring happiness.
Dressed in a black T-shirt, slacks, and sandals, Delia Wainberg was a striking figure: sapling thin, with pale, pale skin, piercing cobalt-blue eyes, and wiry black hair so wild it seemed electrically charged. When I’d driven through the gates to Lawyers’ Bay for the first time, it had been Delia who had waved me over to welcome me. It was hard to imagine a less likely representative of cottage life. She was painfully intense — even jumpy — but she had a Cheshire cat grin that was infectious.
That night the Cheshire cat grin was nowhere in evidence. As she surveyed the world through the screen of blue smoke that drifted from her cigarette, Delia clearly didn’t like what she saw. As soon as Chris Altieri walked onto the beach, the root of her preoccupation was obvious. She went to him immediately, and when her efforts to engage him in conversation failed, she ground out her cigarette and slid her arms around his waist. It was as if she believed that if she held on tight enough, she could keep him safe.
A stone’s throw away, Noah Wainberg tended the bonfire and listened as his daughter and her friends fizzed with gossip and dreams. Kevin had told me Noah was the unofficial handyman of Lawyers’ Bay, the one to call in the middle of the night if the toilet wouldn’t stop filling or if the new flat-screen tv short-circuited the wiring. In a world fuelled by high-powered, high-paid talent, Noah had made himself indispensable. He was the fix-it man.
He was also an artist. The grounds of every home at Lawyers’ Bay were blessed with Noah’s wood carvings. Large and roughly hewn, these images of animals, real and fanciful, surprised you by their power. To look at his work was to feel, for an instant, the deep and numbing love that can drive a man to make art. His love for his wife also appeared to be deep and numbing. That night, as he piled logs on the bonfire while she obsessed over another man, it was impossible to read the feelings that lay behind his fire-reflecting eyes.
Their daughter, Isobel, was her mother in miniature, tightly wound and passionate. At eleven, she was already a worrier, her young brow knit in a permanent frown. I’d noticed at dinner that she had a number of tics: a need to align her knife, fork, and napkin just so; an obsession with keeping her clothes and her person spotless, and her hair, electric like her mother’s, tightly braided. Despite all this, she was good company: intelligent, articulate, and sensitive.
While Isobel crackled with fretful intensity, her best friend, Gracie Falconer, loped through life with a bounce and a grin. She was, in every sense, her father’s child, big-boned, auburn-haired, ruddily freckled, and effortlessly charming. Like her father, she seemed able to shrug off the slings and arrows without breaking a sweat.
It was a gift Blake Falconer must have been grateful for that night because his wife was clearly and publicly furious with him. At some point between Lily’s water-skiing tour de force and dinner, the Falconers had apparently quarrelled, and their simmering war had drawn furtive glances all evening. Blake’s efforts at peacemaking now were greeted with stony silence, and when he tried an offhanded hug, Lily removed his hand from her bronze shoulder with icy distaste. “I said I’d handle this, and I will,” she said, and she looped her long black hair into a knot and stalked off to join Rose Lavallee.
Gracie watched her mother walk away, then wandered over to her father. Together, they tilted their heads to follow the trajectory of a pink and purple rocket. It was so spectacular that Gracie reached out exuberantly to hug her father.
“Cool,” they said in unison; then laughed at the moment.
“Why can’t she ever just see how nice everything is?” Gracie asked.
Blake shrugged and gave his daughter a rueful smile. “That,” he said, “is a question I’ve asked myself for years.”
As always, the fireworks were over too soon. The last star arced across the sky, the last lovely parabola of light faded, and the night was suddenly dark and cheerless. For a beat, we stood uncertainly, breathing in air wisped with smoke and pungent with bug spray. Then people began to fold blankets, collapse chairs, and say their goodbyes.
“Why does it have to be over so soon?” Taylor asked plaintively.
“Do you like riddles?” Chris Altieri’s voice startled me. I had no idea he’d slipped away from Delia and joined us. He’d caught Taylor by surprise, too.
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
“I wanted to stand where I could get the best view of the big finish,” he said.
“It was neat, eh?” Taylor said.
“Very neat,” Chris said. “But you didn’t answer my question. Do you like riddles?”
“Sure — as soon as someone tells me the answer,” Taylor said. “My brother’s a lot better at stuff like that than I am.”
“Okay,” Chris said. “Here’s one to try on your brother. What three words can make you sad when you’re happy and happy when you’re sad?”
Taylor scrunched her forehead, gave it her best shot, and abandoned hope. The entire process was accomplished in less than a minute. “I give up,” she said.
“I give up,” Chris repeated thoughtfully. “Nope, those are not the three words I had in mind.”
Taylor rewarded him with a laugh. “So what is the answer?”
Chris dropped to his knees so he could look at my daughter face to face. “The three words are ‘Nothing lasts forever.’ Pretty good, huh?”
“Yeah,” Taylor said. “I bet even Angus won’t be able to figure that one out.” Suddenly her interest was diverted. She leaned close to Chris so she could see his face more clearly. “You’ve got a cut,” she said. She extended her finger tentatively, touched his eyebrow, then examined her fingertip. “It’s blood.”
Chris touched his eyebrow and checked his finger. “So it is,” he said.
“What happened?” Taylor asked.
“I walked into a fist,” Chris said.
Scuffles that ended in a bruise or a cut were not outside Taylor’s realm of experience. “Well, you should clean it up and put some Polysporin on it,” she said. “It makes it heal faster.”
“Sounds like good advice,” Chris said. “Thanks.” He turned to me. “Are you an early riser?”
“My dog is. He and I run on the beach at five-thirty.”
“Mind if I join you?”
“I’d like that,” I said. I stepped closer. “Despite that accidental walking into a fist, you seem to be doing better.”
Chris grinned and shrugged. “Nothing lasts forever. Remember?”
The cottage we were staying in was at the tip of the east arm of the horseshoe that was Lawyers’ Bay. Built in the 1950s by Kevin Hynd’s parents, Harriet and Russell, it was a dwelling with a thousand charms, and that night after Angus headed for his room above the boathouse and Leah and Taylor had gone to bed, I entered my bedroom with a sense of homecoming. I slept in the bed Harriet and Russell had shared, surrounded by photos of other summers at the lake and shelves of books containing their personal favourites: Virginia Woolf for her, Louis L’Amour for him. Everything I could wish for, yet that night as I slipped between the sun-fresh sheets, I couldn’t sleep. The windows were open, but no breeze stirred the filmy curtains. Oppressed by heavy air and sharp-edged memories, I tossed, turned, and finally picked up my pillow and headed for the screened porch.
Rectangles of light from the other cottages around the bay pierced the darkness. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one struggling with sleeplessness. The opening notes of Bill Evans’s incandescent “Waltz for Debbie” drifted from Zack Shreve’s cottage. As I listened, I took the measure of my neighbours’ blessings: money, success, health, and for troubled nights, a law partner who played piano with fluid beauty. Yet somehow this wasn’t enough. I carried my pillow to the couch, lay down, closed my eyes, and pondered the universal truth that lay behind Gracie Falconer’s question to her father: Why couldn’t people just see how nice everything was?
I don’t know how long I slept before I was jerked awake by a beam of light and the screech of tires peeling along the gravel road that led past our cottage to the boat launch. My first thought was that some kids had fuelled their Canada Day celebrations with one too many kegs, but the explanation didn’t wash. Lawyers’ Bay was a gated community. Nobody got in but us.
My heart pounded as I waited for a sign that the wayward car had headed home. But I heard nothing. When the splash came, there was no mistaking its significance. The car hit the water with a dull thud, and life moved into fast-forward. I jumped up and headed for the lake. It wasn’t long before Angus caught up with me. Standing on the road in his jockey shorts, my son didn’t look like a hero, but he had a hero’s coolness. “I called 911, Mum, but it’s going to take them a while to get out here. You and I will just have to do what we can.”
The red roof of the car was still visible when Angus and I arrived on the scene.
“That looks like Chris Altieri’s mgb,” Angus said. There was no time to check out his assessment. The vehicle had apparently built up enough momentum to sail through the air before it hit. There was a sharp drop in the level of the lake bottom about ten metres from shore. The car had reached that point, and the dark waters were greedily swallowing their prize.
Before I could stop him, Angus dove off the dock and swam towards the spot where the car had gone under. In a heartbeat, he vanished too. Frozen with fear, I stared at the place where he’d disappeared.
When — finally — he surfaced, I could hear the panic in his voice. “I can’t get to him, Mum.”
“Is it Chris?” I asked.
“I guess so. I don’t know. I need help. I can’t open the door. Maybe if you spell me off . . .”
I didn’t hesitate. I threw off my robe and dove in. The water had a familiar fishy-weedy smell, and in one of those synaptic leaps that fracture logic, I remembered another lake in another time when my friend Sally Love and I, poised on the cusp of adolescence, would go skinny-dipping, thrilled as cold water surrounded the new contours of our changing bodies.
That night, the only thrill was of terror. The world below was murky, and I could find my way only by touch. When a weed slithered against my leg, my fear was primal. Finally, my hand found metal. Blindly, I sought a handle. Like a beginner learning Braille, I kept moving my fingers hoping to unlock the mystery. All I could feel was impenetrable steel. Finally, lungs on fire, I shot to the surface, and Angus went under again. We alternated dives until, exhausted and frustrated, I faced the truth. When Angus ducked to go back under, I grabbed his shoulder. “No,” I said. “No more. It’s over.”
We swam to shore and clambered up the boat launch to the dubious safety of dry land. Shivering and breathless, we gulped air and stared ahead. In the distance a siren’s shriek pierced the night. Help was on its way. I inched closer to my son.
Above us the uncaring moon moved through the sky, drawing a bright ribbon of light across the smooth expanse of water that covered all that remained of Christopher Altieri. The man of water had gone home.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Last Good Day by Gail Bowen. Copyright © 2004 by Gail Bowen. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.