Chapter 1

Randall Jaffe let the glass door close behind him, shutting out the over-warmed air thick with the scent of funeral bouquets and floral perfume. He had been uncomfortable inside — putting his overcoat on too soon after the service, not realizing how many people would want to stop him, clasp his hand, say something hushed and uplifting. Then the heat and the muddled aromas and the silent thick carpet and low ceilings made him feel as if he were being encased in a coffin of his own. It was a relief to step out into the chill October sunlight and breathe fresh air.

He was grateful that there hadn’t been an actual funeral. He hadn’t even wanted a memorial service. There had been no coffin, no body — he had had Mandy cremated the day before — but Pegg said he at least had to have a memorial. For all of Mandy’s friends and local fans, she said. And she had been right, apparently. He had never imagined all of those people wanting to attend a service without its star. But they had, in droves. Now that it was over, he was free to move on and begin the phase of his life that he hoped would be equally free of any such future acts of obligation. After all, they had been Mandy’s friends and fans, not his.

A breeze brought an involuntary shiver, and he jostled the cheap, thin cardboard box under his left arm just enough to dent one of its fragile corners.

“Do not drop this,” he said under his breath. “Not where everyone can see you.” But a quick glance revealed that there was no one else around. The parking lot had emptied already. He looked back through the door and noticed that the funeral-home foyer had already cleared. Only the young receptionist remained, and she was at her desk, facing away from him, intent on her computer screen. His eyes lingered appreciatively there, tracing the curve of her back against her chair, the way her thin maroon sweater glowed in the moted sunlight streaming through a stained-glass side window. He committed the scene to memory. He wished he could remember the woman’s name.

 Careful not to damage the box any further, he dug out a pair of sunglasses from the right-hand pocket of his overcoat, buttoned up, and began walking the five blocks to his home.

Our home,” he corrected himself. Then: “No,” he said aloud. “My home now.” The realization was like a small valve that opened, releasing the tension that had been knotting up between his shoulders. He walked on, then, feeling more relaxed than he had been all morning.

The discovery that there now was no more “our,” only “mine,” came to him without any regret or even sadness. He knew how that sounded, what the good people of Romesburg, Ohio, would say if they knew the thoughts that had been occupying his mind all week. Not that they ever would know. There was no one in this small town he would confide such things to. A town like this, a woman like Mandy — people were dying to latch on to the slightest bit of intrigue and roll it around their tongues, worrying it down to nothing, like hard candy.

 Mandy had known that even better than he did. It had never mattered, though. She somehow found a way to love small-town life and everything that went with it, both the good and the bad. For her, Romesburg was simply home, the place where she’d been born and raised until she went off to college in Chicago, two long flat states away. That's where Randall had met her.

He was a suburban kid, growing up with sprawling malls and cineplexes, but he was much more of a city person than Mandy ever was. Cities equaled energy, excitement, the noise of thousands — even millions — of people constantly moving, constantly talking, constantly changing. Cities were where things happened. And when Mandy announced as a junior in college that she was planning to be a writer, Randall just naturally assumed she’d eventually end up in a big city. Maybe even New York, proving ground for the world. And by that time he was beginning to assume he might be accompanying her there.

They started sleeping together the summer before their senior year. Well, my senior year, Randall thought. That was the summer they were both staying on campus, earning money by working on “campus beautification.”

It was much-needed work. Randall might have come from the Chicago suburbs — Downers Grove, he liked to say, even though he was born and raised in the nearby and less-upscale bedroom community of Woodridge — but his family had no more means to help with college tuition than Mandy’s. His father coached junior-high basketball (which really meant that he taught social studies) and his mother worked in a fabric store in a strip mall. Mandy’s father was a middle-school principal; her mother didn’t work at all, apart from giving piano lessons to the children who attended the elementary school across the street from their house. So Mandy and Randall both took on part-time jobs during the school year in whatever campus departments needed help, doing whatever needed to be done. That summer of 1986 they both signed up to help repaint the dorms.

Randall was an eager young man, almost a senior. Although he and Mandy had only begun dating toward the end of their junior year, he couldn’t help imagining what would happen if they were spending long summer days alone together in sweltering dormitory rooms. He could picture how they would first paint the walls. And then they would start painting each other. It would be all good-natured teasing and innocent play, until their clothes were drenched in color and clinging to their bodies. The teasing would turn into something else. And then he imagined their clothes sliding up, falling down, coming off. Sometimes it was pulse-building and slow; other times, they were instantly naked, as if by some magical decree — and then it happens. They go down to the floor: rolling, entwined, ecstatic and unstoppable, dripping with sweat and painting great broad strokes of Fresh Celery Green all across the black linoleum tiles with their bodies.

It never happened. Instead, they spent long, hot days working across campus from each other, meeting up, exhausted, for a cafeteria dinner, where they couldn’t stop talking about their aching arms and pointing out the errant drops of paint dotting each other’s face, neck, and hair.

They were living in separate dorm rooms then. And one tired weeknight, after they’d spent hours in her room staring at a television, too exhausted to even register what they were watching, he got up to kiss her goodnight and she’d reached out for his arm, shook her head, and said, “Don’t go.” When he didn’t, she seemed to take it as a sign, a first important step. He didn’t have the heart to tell her he was just too tired to walk the half-mile back to his own room. From then on, they were inseparable.

He assumed they would move seamlessly from one dorm room to one apartment, once they finished school. They probably wouldn’t move to New York right away. Writing was still just a dream for Mandy, not something that was actually paying the bills yet. So they’d stay close to the school, get starter jobs like so many of their friends, and see where life would take them.

Then came the argument. To this day, Randall didn’t have a clue what started it. They’d never had a real fight before — at least not one that he could remember — and he was more than a little insulted when one finally occurred; surely they were beyond that kind of thing? Apparently not. Almost before he knew it, they were seriously disagreeing about something — another detail he could not remember — and Mandy was flushed, stuttering on the verge of hysterics, and bawling. Not weeping or crying. Bawling. Shaking so badly her tears were being flung off like rain from a wet dog. Randall had never seen her so emotional before, and he didn’t like how it looked on her. Not knowing what was at the root of it all, he had no idea what to say or do to fix what was so incomprehensibly broken. And his perplexed silence apparently sent a message of its own, because that’s when everything seemed to change inside of her. She left him. He didn’t even remember her packing. She just vanished. Got in her car and drove away.

He could have tried going after her. He could have pressed her friends for any insight they might have. He could have written to her parents to see if they knew where she had gone. But he did none of those things. The truth was, once Mandy was gone, he changed inside. He realized he had always been happiest on his own. It wasn’t that he did not love Mandy. If anyone had asked, he wouldn’t have hesitated to say that, yes, he certainly did love her. Of course he did. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t live without her, that he couldn’t be happy living alone. Or that he couldn’t find someone else to love if love seemed to be what he needed. If she wanted to go — and she so clearly did — then he would let her go. That was August 1986. And they didn’t have any contact at all until she telephoned him, out of nowhere, on a gray and rainy Sunday afternoon in October, to say that she had been living with her parents in Romesburg and was taking the rest of the school year off, postponing her entire senior year.

“Will you still be around when I come back next fall?” she asked him.

Since the only plans he had ever made had revolved entirely around Mandy, he said he would.

He finished out his senior year, graduated in the top half of his class, and stayed put, waiting for Mandy’s return. And when she came back that fall, it was if she had never left. She refused to talk about their argument, her unexplained departure, or her long absence. It was as if none of it had ever happened, as if it were some bad dream that only Randall could remember. In time, eager to forget the past and turn his focus to his own work now that he was out of school, he allowed the episode to fade. Today was the first he had thought of it in years.

“Damn,” Randall said, looking down at the box under his arm. He had been so caught up in his memories, he had been squeezing the thing straight down the middle without realizing it. It now bore a marked crease. He had also stayed on Main Street too long, walking three blocks past Walnut, where he lived. Now he was at a dead stop at the corner of Main and Lawrence, waiting for a “walk” light that he shouldn’t have been anywhere near.

“Why in God’s name am I standing here,” he asked aloud, disgusted with his absent-mindedness. He looked around to see if anyone had overheard him. It was just after noon on a sunny Friday morning in downtown Romesburg, and there wasn’t another pedestrian in sight. There was barely even any traffic. Randall sighed. That was life in Romesburg.

“I hate this town,” he muttered when the light told him to walk.

He was still heading in the wrong direction for home. But stopping at this particular corner had given him a new idea. Just across the street, past the Masonic Temple on the corner and the stationery store beside it, was Moran’s Drugstore. He suddenly realized that what this day needed, what he deserved, was a little treat. If Mandy were here, he’d joke with her that his subconscious detour must be a sign from God. And he’d say “sign from God” like he was Moses proclaiming the Ten Commandments from the top of whatever mountain that was. She’d hate that, nearly as much as she would hate the treat he had in mind.

Of course, if Mandy were here, he thought, I wouldn’t be going to Moran’s Drugstore for a treat in the first place.

The store’s door buzzed its welcome, cutting out midway through as if the tinny circuits were choking. It took Randall’s eyes a moment to adjust to the indoor lighting, overbright with low-hung fluorescents but dimmer than the outdoor sun. To Randall, Moran’s was an awkward blend of a casual, old-fashioned, family-owned establishment mixed with the over-merchandising sterility of a chain drugstore. A half-dozen aisles clogged with colorful boxes, bottles of all shapes, and hopeful, cheery signage stretched away from the front door, leading back to the pharmacy and a small waiting area — four scuffed plastic chairs, one occupied by an elderly man, a battered walker standing beside him. An uninterrupted chain of glass-fronted refrigerated cases ran the length of the wall to his left, littered with a sparse selection of sodas, off-brand sports drinks, and a few forgotten cartons of milk. Beside him, to his right, was the overstuffed checkout counter with three registers, each one accompanied by a merchandising carton of some kind, from foil-wrapped packages of energy-boosting tablets to a box of strawberry-flavored cigars that featured a cartoon bandito and the small message “You Must Be 18” printed in a font resembling primary-colored balloon animals. The shelves lining the right wall of the store highlighted the hardware of aging: fold-up walkers, portable respirators, blood-sugar monitors. In a town like Romesburg, which seemed to have outlived its own glory, it all seemed depressingly appropriate.

It had not always been like this. Mandy had often mentioned how much the store had changed since she was a girl. It had been bigger, for one thing. Once the new strip mall was built on the north side of town, the owners watched as their business disappeared almost overnight. They ended up selling off half of their space to an army recruitment center. In the process, they tore out the old-fashioned soda fountain and luncheonette booths and gave up trying to sell inexpensive watches and jewelry. For years, they held onto their film developing service, but that eventually had to go as well once the one-hour places moved in. They still carried a few disposable cameras and digital memory cards, but they were virtually out of the photo business now too. Soon, they sold off building space on the other side of the shop to what was now the stationery store. It was a slender sliver of its former self, and Randall couldn’t help wondering how long they were going to be in any business at all.

Moran’s was not alone in that regard. The entire downtown had essentially rolled over and died once the strip mall became the place to shop. So when the mall faltered right along with the town’s economy, there were few local places to shop anymore. Once folks got into the habit of driving the twenty minutes to the next largest town or heading east across the state line for a day at the big suburban Pittsburgh malls, they weren’t going to stop and consider that maybe they should stay in town to buy that special This or That. Not that Randall could blame them. He was as eager as anyone to leave the city limits.

Only not at this exact moment on this particular day. In fact, right now he felt a blush of shame to realize he was grateful for Moran’s continuing existence.

He swiveled to the right and walked the short length of the checkout counter. Clutching the box a bit tighter under his arm, he smiled briefly at the man behind the counter.

“How are you doing, Steve?” he asked.

Steve McNally was a 41-year-old former classmate of Mandy’s. Medium height, thinner than he needed to be, with a soft face outlined by long brown hair that he wore in a ponytail. His hair was still thick, without a hint of balding, but Randall couldn’t help being encouraged by Steve’s random streaks of gray. He was the archetypical Romesburg son, as far as Randall could tell. He had never left town for any significant length of time, apparently never aspired to anything beyond living and dying in this community. Mandy had mentioned that after high school, Steve worked for a couple of years at the local Pepsi bottling factory, until it went out of business. Then he sold used cars for his father at Jefferson Motors. When his dad retired and sold the business, Steve continued to drift from job to job until eventually he ended up at Moran’s. Compared with the majority of Mandy’s classmates, Steve was practically the poster boy for entrepreneurial success.

“Doing good, Mr. Jaffe. Sorry I couldn’t be at the memorial today.” He nodded vaguely at the surrounding shelves. “Work, you know.”

“Sure.” He set the box down on the countertop. “Steve, you do know we’re pretty much the same age, right? You don’t have to call me ‘Mr. Jaffe.’”

Steve looked at him blankly. “Seriously?”

“Sure, call me Randall, like everyone else.”

“No, I mean. . . We’re really the same age?”

Randall frowned. “Give or take a year or two. You were in Mandy’s class; Mandy and I are the same age. Stands to reason. . . “

“Yeah. It’s just. . . I thought you were older, is all.”

Randall waited.

“Sorry.” He nodded down at the box. “Cupcakes from Bell’s Bakery?”

“What?” Randall glanced down. “Oh. Right. Bell’s cupcakes.” It was often easier to let people believe what they wanted to believe than to burden them with an embarrassing truth.

Steve patted his stomach, which age had yet to thicken. “I’d know that box anywhere. Hope they’re still in good shape, though; they should really use better boxes. So, what can I get for you?”

Randall pointed to the shelf behind the counter, where the store kept its tobacco products. Butt ends of a couple of dozen packs of cigarettes poked out. Beside them, like neat rows of tall brown soldiers, stood shrink-wrapped five-to-a-carton packages of Dutch Masters cigars. Beside them was a clear plastic box with compartments inside for holding the store’s more expensive offerings.

“Are you sure?” Steve said, his voicing rising higher than it needed to. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“I don’t, really. Used to.” Steve wrestled the plastic box from the shelf, stirring up a tiny cloud of gray dust, set it down on the counter next to Randall’s cardboard box, and lifted the lid. “Today just seemed like a cigar day to me,” Randall said.

Steve nodded, his eyes wide and sympathetic. “I get it, buddy.”

“Let me have two of the H. Upmanns. And a box of matches, if you have any.”

“Sorry,” Steve shook his head. “No matches. Terry says we need to sell the lighters.” He glanced behind him and to the left, where a row of brightly colored disposable lighters beckoned from their blister packs.

“Don’t you have a black one?”

“We have white,” Steve said, his voicing rising again. “It’s either that or one of the teenage-girl colors.”

“I’ll take fuchsia then,” Randall said. He wondered whether McNally would know what color that was.

Steve picked out the brightest fuchsia lighter he could find and set it on the counter with a grin. “If you’re going for it, go all the way, I like to say.”

Randall let out an honest chuckle, the first he’d felt in a long time. “Steve, I might just make that my new life motto.”

Steve made change and dropped the cigars and lighter in a brown paper bag.

Randall spent a moment tucking bag and box under his arm. He had just opened the front door to leave — buzz, choke — when Steve called out to him from behind the cash register.

“Oh, did you see what we did for Amanda?” he asked, his eyebrows raised expectantly.

Randall squinted at him, shrugged.

“The racks,” Steve said, pointing to a gold-metal bookrack at the end of the cold-remedy aisle. There, all four of Mandy’s paperbacks — Shades of Love, In Only Seven Days, Everything But Blue Skies and Call and Response — were given pride of place, taking up the top row. “It’s been almost impossible to keep them in stock. Which is weird, because I’d have sworn everyone in town already owned them all.”

Randall nodded his appreciation.

“I don’t know what we’ll do when A Growing Hope comes out, though. Paperbacks Terry can handle. But he said he doesn’t know why she had to go and write something in hardcover.” Steve paused then, blushed. “I didn’t mean. . . It’s just that we don’t usually sell that kind of book here. But she’s our own celebrity, you know?” A hint of pride was creeping into his voice. “Well, he’s just going to have to figure out a way to sell it, I say.”

Especially since there isn’t a single real bookstore left in town, Randall couldn’t help thinking.

Steve’s voice dropped to something like a hush. “Do you know when the next one is coming out?” he asked tentatively, as if he were still trying to decide what was appropriate conversation on the day a man says goodbye to his wife of 15 years.

“Officially? I think she said March 2008. So, you’ve got a few months, I guess.”

“No, not Growing Hope. I mean the one after that.”

“After that?”

“Yeah, there was a post on her Web site about something called Lost Time. Nonfiction.”

Nonfiction? Mandy? He vaguely remembered hearing her talking about something with Pegg, her assistant. He knew he didn’t keep close tabs on her work anymore, but —

Steve groaned. “Oh, man, I’m sorry. Now that. . . well. . . It’s probably not going to happen after all, is it?”

“No,” Randall shook his head, “probably not.”

My God, he thought, I’m going to have to know this kind of thing, really know it. People are going to expect Amanda Jaffe’s husband to at least read her Web site and God knows what else she put out there. He hadn’t paid attention to such details before. It wasn’t his business. Not anymore. He had stopped caring about her work once he realized Mandy was writing genre fiction — “suspenseful romance” novels, whatever they were. In the beginning, he’d tried. She would show him drafts or read passages she was struggling with, and he did his best to offer encouragement and helpful advice. But the look on her face — and the fact that most of his suggestions never ended up in the final books — made him realize it just wasn’t working. After Everything But Blue Skies, which he thought was number three, he’d seen that it wouldn’t help either of them if he were to comment on it. He didn’t think Mandy minded that he was so uninvolved. After all, it wasn’t as if he could have offered romance advice. And since it was simply genre fiction, any other advice he might provide would have been beside the point. So he was truly relieved once it became clear that their creative worlds never had to meet. Once it became clear that her books paid the bills, he was more than happy to let Mandy be Amanda Jaffe, romance writer.

“That’s really too bad.” Steve swallowed. “I haven’t heard too much about it yet, just a little I’ve picked up from the Web, but it sounded like it was going to be something really different.”

 “You’ve read Mandy’s books?”

“Every one, at least three times.”

I would have sworn you were straight, Randall thought. “Good for you,” he said. For the last few minutes he’d been standing in the doorway, stalled, waiting. He pulled the door open a bit wider, hoping Steve would get the message. “Tell Terry I think he’s got some time yet to figure out the merchandising issue.”

Steve squinted at him. “Oh, right. Where to put the books.”

“Where to put the books,” Randall said, gratefully pulling the door shut behind him, a muffled buzz-choke sounding in the background. Once out on the sidewalk, he turned left and headed home, already mentally savoring the aroma of the cigars and the peaceful stillness that can only come to a solitary man in an empty house.

 

# #

 

Pegg was waiting for him. The minute he locked the heavy oak front door behind him, she was there in the foyer with her spiked “blonde” hair tipped, today, with crimson, and her 22-year-old, 5’4” featureless stick-figure frame pulsing with pent-up adrenalin. Her eyes were red and watery behind the usual thick black outlining. She was shoving small squares of paper at him, the “recycled” page-a-day calendar sheets that Mandy liked to turn over and use for a scratch pad.

“Your phone must have been turned off,” she said, her voice flat and accusatory.

“My phone?” She had caught him off-guard. “I must have forgotten it.” He absently took the papers and set them down on the foyer table, along with the box, the bag from Moran’s, and his keys.

Pegg glanced down at the box. “What happened? You didn’t drop it, did you?”

“What? No, nothing happened. Why were you talking about the phone?”

“People keep calling and saying it’s urgent. And you forgot your phone.”

“Does it really matter? I’d have hardly answered it, even if I had had it with me.” He paused. “I was burying my wife today, Pegg.”

“Well, technically speaking, you weren’t. You were at a memorial service and you were picking up her ashes.”

“You could have been there, you know,” he said as they entered the living room. Pegg collapsed on a leather sofa and looked away, her jaw tight. “I know,” he said gently. “You didn’t have to come in today. Without Mandy. . . I’m happy to pay you through the end of the month. But there’s no reason why you have to keep coming in to work if you’d rather not. Without the writer, there’s no need for the writer’s assistant.”

She rubbed her forehead. “I know that. Don’t you think I know that? But it seemed wrong to just, I don’t know, abandon her. And there are still files to sort, papers to box up, notes to put in order. I don’t want to leave everything so unfinished.”

Randall sat down beside her, still wearing his overcoat. “Fine. Stay through the end of the month, then. I’ve still got paperwork to sort out, people to talk to. And I could use your help handling the phones and the mail.”

“And answering e-mails and turning Mandy’s Web site into a memorial site and the cooking and the cleaning. . .” She allowed herself a smile.

“And don’t forget the laundry.”

She punched him playfully in the arm.

“Hey,” he said, “I may not be your official employer, but I’m pretty sure I can still fire you.”

Pegg’s smile vanished and she suddenly looked like she was going to cry. Randall looked at her, feeling embarrassed.

“Between answering all of your phone calls this morning, I’ve been working upstairs, cleaning out Mandy’s office like you asked,” Pegg reported. “I’ve emptied the filing cabinets she used to archive all of the material for her published books, boxed up all of those files — just research notes and drafts, mostly — and labeled everything so you can go through it later. I’ve only been here for the last two books, but I know she liked to keep a file active and open until the book was published. So the Growing Hope stuff is still in its vertical file. And, of course, I haven’t done anything with the Lost Time stuff.”

“Because it’s pretty much a moot point now, I guess.”

“And because it’s all locked up.”

Randall looked up. “Locked? Is that typical?”

“It is not typical. But Mandy told me that it wasn’t because she didn’t trust me; she just said that she wanted to keep it under lock and key as long as she could. ‘Literally and figuratively,’ was how she put it.”

“Yeah,” Randall muttered, “you wouldn’t want all those romance secrets to slip into the wrong hands.”

“Oh. My. God.” Pegg was shaking her head.

“What?”

“Mandy wasn’t kidding,” she said slowly. “You really don’t have a clue what she’s working on, do you?”

Randall looked wounded.

“She didn’t mean it bad or anything. It was like a joke. Like she was free to put all of your private sex details into her books because she knew you’d never see them.”

Randall’s eyes widened.

“It was our joke!” Pegg said loudly. “She wasn’t serious. God. Chill, why don’t you.”

“Okay,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and steady, “so tell me what she was working on. What’s so different or special or secret about Lost Time?”

Pegg shook her head. “Hell if I know.”

“Weren’t you helping her with the research? Typing up her notes? Whatever it is you two did up there?”

“For Growing Hope, yes. But when she started working on Lost Time, she said she needed to handle it herself, that it was private. Which seems really odd for something that probably millions of people are going to end up reading. But she didn’t want anybody to know what she was working on until she’d talked to her editor and after she talked to you.”

“She said that? That she wanted to talk to me first?”

“Well, second, actually. But, yeah, that’s what she said. Absolutely all I know is that she’d e-mailed her editor the first half of the manuscript on Monday morning.”

“Monday morning? Of this week?” That was the day of the accident.

Pegg nodded. “Judging from the time stamp on the e-mail and her flight time, I’m guessing it was the last thing she did before she packed up her laptop and headed to the airport.”

“Maybe it’s just everything hitting me right now,” Randall said, shaking his head, “but why bother e-mailing the editor your manuscript when you’re going to be meeting with her in person in about two hours. Or am I missing something?”

“The only thing you’re missing is that Mandy wasn’t going to New York. She had me book a flight to St. Louis, Missouri, for Monday and a rental car once she got there. And that’s absolutely all I know about it. Oh, and that the trip had something to do with Lost Time. But I don’t know what.”

They sat in silence for several moments.

“Steve McNally said he heard Lost Time was nonfiction.”

“Steve the drugstore geek? Wouldn’t have picked him as a fan.” She shrugged. “But he’s right. It was going to be her first nonfiction book. She did say that much on her Web site. But she didn’t post any other information. She didn’t even blog about it, which she’d done for all of her other books, in one form or another. But, seriously, I don’t know anything more than that.”

“You keep saying that, and then you keep adding more details.” Randall laughed.

Pegg laughed with him. He liked the sound of that laugh.

At that moment, it dawned on Randall that he and Pegg were alone in the house.

Suddenly he was more intrigued than offended by her outlandish hair color, her extra helping of attitude, her unwavering devotion to his wife. Sure, she was an underfed, overly cynical, bright young woman who chain-smoked Merit Menthols on his front porch, was addicted to some group called My Chemical Romance on her iPod, and who was young enough to be his daughter.

But somehow, none of that made any difference.

Because in that same moment, it dawned on him that he was now a single man again — a well-off, maybe even wealthy, man, thanks to Mandy’s recent book deals. Because of his new status, there would be . . .well, opportunities now, circumstances and possibilities that he wouldn’t have dared to even dream about just one week ago. After all, they didn’t have to be just two people sharing a couch. She had made him laugh. And he had made her laugh in return. Pegg’s laugh. Suddenly it seemed a wonderful thing that should be treasured, nurtured. It was honest and raw in a way he had never noticed before. He remembered all of the other women he had been with who had entranced him with their husky voices and unabashed openness. It was only natural for him to wonder what Pegg’s laughter would sound like under different circumstances, low and gentle in his ear maybe, or how it would sound soft and drowsy in the middle of the night or in the hours of the early morning, while the rest of the house was still and waiting. So it was only natural for him to wonder what it would sound like if Pegg, like so many others before her, were to throw off every ounce of self-consciousness and apprehension and scream out in full-throated laughter in the midst of her own rising — 

Randall stopped himself. What the hell am I doing? This is Pegg.

In the midst of his daydream, he had shut his eyes tight. Now, he was back, and Pegg was gone.

Randall sighed, relieved.

He heard her walking around upstairs now. Then the muffled squeal of a filing-cabinet drawer being abruptly pushed closed.

How long have I been sitting here, daydreaming? he wondered.

Reluctantly, he stood, hung his overcoat in the front closet, and gathered up Pegg’s crumpled phone messages from the foyer table. He glanced through them: one from their accountant, one from Mandy’s agent. It was already after one o’clock. They could all wait until he ate something.

“By the way,” Pegg shouted from upstairs. “Call your accountant back before you get lunch!”

Randall walked through the house to the foot of the stairs. “And why is that?” he shouted up.

“I think he said something about it being urgent.”

“You think?”

Pegg came to the top of the stairs and looked down at him. “I’ve been a little distracted today, you know?” She brushed her dusty palms across her jeans and let out a long, measured breath. “Before you do anything else,” she said, her voice falling, “please do something with Mandy.”

He squinted up at her.

“Please. Don’t leave her ashes just sitting on the mail table.”

He nodded absently. “Right.”

Pegg disappeared, and Randall found himself walking back toward the front door.

It occurred to him then that he had no plan for Mandy’s remains. He’d planned the cremation part, of course. Within a year of moving to this town, he knew he didn’t want her trapped forever in a Romesburg grave; she knew he had no roots in this town. Since then, he had naturally assumed that whoever were to go first would be cremated. But what was Step Two? What came next? Because he was not a sentimental man. He didn’t see himself keeping his wife’s ashes in a vase on display. Yet it didn’t seem right, somehow, just to throw them away. He needed to do something appropriate with them. But what was appropriate?

Sprinkling seemed to be what people did. But where? To leave her ashes anywhere near Romesburg. . . well, he might as well have had her buried here, if here was where she was going to stay. No. It needed to be someplace special.

Randall found himself shaking his head. He wished they had taken the time to talk about this, to hammer out some of the details of death. It had never occurred to either of them. After all, there were no heirs or other family to consider; it was just the two of them. And they had so many years left to live.

He was picking up the box of ashes when the perfect solution occurred to him. New York City. Her agent and their publishers were there, so they’d both made multiple trips to Manhattan. True, she wasn’t the city’s biggest fan. The traffic and crowds overwhelmed; the people seemed so intense and quick-tempered. But that was precisely what Randall loved about New York: the energy alive on every street, the never-ending mélange of sounds and scents and scenery. And if you found yourself needing a respite from the city’s sensory overload, there were parks galore where you could simply sit, watch, and relax for hours.

Problem solved, Randall thought. I’ll take Mandy to Central Park.

He loved Central Park.

 

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