The applause was thunderous, and when it faded once again, the commencement began. One by one, her friends’ names were called, and blue-robed girls and boys bounded onto the stage to take their diplomas and wave to the crowd.
The audience stilled. People looked around.
Onstage, the principal cleared his throat and went on. “Andrew Clark…”
Lexi’s heart pounded. She was sure someone would point to her, yell, “There she is; there’s the girl who killed Mia.”
Zach walked woodenly up the aisle and onto the stage. He took his diploma from the principal and faced the bleachers. Slowly, he upheld a framed photograph of Mia and then leaned closer to the microphone. “She wanted to do a cartwheel today…”
A cartwheel, Lexster … that would get their attention.
Lexi sagged back against the sun-warmed concrete wall, closing her eyes. The ceremony went on, calling names and handing out diplomas, but she hardly noticed. All she could hear were memories, things Mia had said to her over the years …
She drew in a sharp breath and opened her eyes to see Zach standing in front of her. Behind them, down on the field, there was sound and color and movement, but here it was quiet and still. They were alone in an alcove beneath the bleachers. “H-how did you find me?”
“I knew you’d be here.”
She’d hoped for this moment, dreamed of it, thought of ways to make him understand how sorry she was, but she could see that he knew, that he understood. “I love you,” she said softly. It was the only thing that hadn’t changed.
“I love you, too, but…”
He shook his head, shrugged. She understood the gesture perfectly: it meant that nothing mattered anymore, their love least of all. His look was the saddest thing she’d ever seen.
“You’ll never forgive me, will you?” she said.
“It’s me I can’t forgive,” he said, and on that, his voice broke and he turned away from her. “I gotta go.”
“Wait.” She reached into her purse, burrowed past the polyester of her gown, and pulled out her worn, dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre. It was a stupid gift for a girl to give a boy, but it was all she had that mattered to her. “I want you to have this,” she said.
“It’s your favorite book. I can’t take—”
“Please. It has a happy ending.”
He reached out; for a second, they were both touching the book. “I gotta go.”
“I know. Good-bye, Zach,” she whispered, watching him walk away from her.
She pulled away from the wall and walked out beneath the bleachers. She didn’t bother to hunch her shoulders or avert her eyes. She didn’t care if people stared at her.
In the parking lot, she climbed into Eva’s old car and waited.
“Couldn’t do it, huh?” Eva said later, when she got behind the wheel.
Lexi shrugged. “Who cares? It’s just a dumb ceremony.”
“Before,” Lexi said, realizing as she said it that her whole life would now be divided into two parts: before she’d killed her best friend, and after.
* * *
Graduation was more than Jude could handle. The day had been full of ghosts, missing faces, the wrong girls …
By the time the ceremony finally ended, she felt like crumbling into a heap. She’d tried to convince Zach to go to the grad-night party with his friends. You’ll always remember it, she’d said tiredly, although they both knew it was a lie. Intellectually, she knew she should make him go, pretend that his life was still going forward on the same old track, but she couldn’t really feel that.
So they’d driven home in silence. She sat slumped against the car window, cold to the bone even though the seat’s heater was set on high. In the seat behind her, Zach drummed his fingers on the seat rest, and when they got home, he bolted out of the car and ran up the stairs. No doubt he wanted to lose himself in video games.
“Lexi was there,” Miles said later, when he and Jude were alone in the kitchen.
Jude felt a rush of anger. Whole, healthy Lexi, with just a white arm cast to mark her place in the car that night.
“That takes nerve. I hope Zach didn’t see her.”
“He did,” Miles said, looking at her. “Don’t do that, Jude. You’ll make it worse.”
“Worse? Are you kidding me? How could this possibly get worse?”
“Don’t make Zach choose between you and Lexi. He loves you; you know that. He’s always done everything he could to make you proud of him. Don’t use that against him now. He and Lexi have things to work out.”
Jude sighed heavily and headed to her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
For the next forty-eight hours all she did was lie in bed, sometimes sleeping, sometimes crying. She lay there with her eyes closed for hours, thinking come to me, Mia, talking to her daughter, but nothing happened. Not a breeze across her face that felt like a breath, not a flickering of the bedside lamp. Nothing. And she didn’t really believe that Mia could hear her.
By the time she finally crawled out of bed, she looked like a ninety-year-old homeless woman who had found a designer dress on the street and worn it for weeks. She knew Miles didn’t understand. Last night he’d made that sound—that sigh of desperation or despair—when she couldn’t change into a nightgown. He didn’t understand how fragile she felt. If she lifted her arms, they might break off.
She changed into an old pair of sweats. Not bothering to shower or brush her teeth, she made her way out of the bedroom, drawn forward by the scent of Starbucks coffee.
Miles was in the kitchen, sitting at the granite counter, sipping coffee. At her entrance, he sat up straighter, gave her a smile of relief that should have warmed her broken heart.
The television was on. Before Jude could say anything, she heard the newscaster say, “… killed her best friend in a drunk-driving incident only a week before graduation.”
Jude shouldn’t have looked at the screen, but she did. The twisted, ruined Mustang with the windshield shattered made her almost violently ill. She hadn’t seen that image before … and then Lexi’s face was on-screen, smiling brightly. “Local MADD president Norma—”
Miles hit the remote, and the screen went black.
Jude felt that new anger rising in her again; it drowned out everything else. She heard Miles talking to her, but she couldn’t hear anything except this roaring white noise in her head. She poured herself a cup of coffee and walked out of the kitchen.
How would she survive this? How could she see Lexi again on the street someday and not just fall to her knees?
Lexi, who could go on with her life …
Jude stood in the great room, trembling, wondering what to do. Should she go back to bed?
She closed her eyes, trying to clear her mind of the image she’d just seen of Zach’s car …
At first, she thought she heard her heart beating, and she thought: that’s odd, and then she realized someone was knocking on the front door. Wiping her eyes, she went to the door, expecting to see a friend with a casserole, saying, I’m so sorry, but it was a stranger who stood there, a tall, elegant-looking, gray-haired man in a pinstriped blue suit.
“Hello, Mrs. Farraday. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Dennis Uslan. I’m the prosecuting attorney assigned to your case. My niece, Helen, graduated with Zachary.”
Jude’s breath released in a rush. She hadn’t even realized she’d been holding it. “Yes, Dennis. Of course I remember you. You helped with construction of the new ball field at Rotary Park.”
“Yes, that’s right. I’m sorry to simply stop by, but your phone seems to be off the hook.”
“Reporters,” she said, stepping back. “They call constantly asking for a ‘comment on our tragedy.’ Come in.” She led him into the great room, where sunlight shone through the giant windows. The view over the Sound was spectacular on this crystalline day.
Dennis had just taken a seat when Miles walked into the room, dressed in shorts for running.
“Miles,” Jude said. “This is Dennis Uslan. He’s the prosecuting attorney for our case.”
Miles looked at Dennis. “I wasn’t aware we had a case.”
Dennis rose from his seat. “That’s what I wanted to speak to you about. I’m getting a lot of pressure from MADD and the community to charge Alexa Baill with DUI vehicular homicide. Obviously a trial can be a lengthy and heartbreaking undertaking, and I wanted to know where you stand on the idea.”
“What would happen to Lexi?” Miles asked.
“If convicted, she could face more than fifteen years in prison, although, admittedly, that outcome is extreme. She could also be found not guilty or plea bargain to something lesser. Any way you go, though, it’s tough on the victim’s family.”
Jude flinched at the word victim.
“I don’t think it will help anyone if Lexi goes to prison,” Miles said. “We need to forgive her, not punish her. Maybe other kids could learn from her mistake? She could—”
“Forgive her?” Jude couldn’t believe what her husband had just said.
“Mrs. Farraday,” Dennis asked, “what do you want?”
Jude knew the right answer, knew what she would have said before all of this, what she would have believed: that Miles was right. Only forgiveness could ease Jude’s pain.
But she wasn’t that woman anymore. “Justice,” she said at last, seeing Miles’s disappointment in her. “What mother wouldn’t want that?”
* * *
In the nine days since high school graduation, Lexi had become a lost soul. On Monday morning, she’d shown up bright and early for work at the ice cream shop, only to be told (kindly, but told just the same) that she’d been fired. Try and understand, Mrs. Solter had said, there’s a lot of anger against you in town right now. It would be bad for business to have you working here.
After that Lexi had stayed home, reading one book after another. For the first time in years, she turned to Jane Eyre for comfort. She was reading it again when someone knocked on her door.
“Your lawyer is here.”
Lexi put down her book and went out to the living room.
“They filed charges against you,” Scot said before Lexi even sat down. “DUI vehicular homicide and assault. Your arraignment is Wednesday. We’ll plead not guilty and get a court date.”
“Not guilty?” Lexi said, trying to process it all. She didn’t even know what she felt anymore.
“The question is not whether you were driving or whether Mia died. It’s about legal responsibility. You had an accident. You didn’t commit a crime. So our plan is…”
Lexi didn’t hear anything past “responsibility.” Suddenly, she was her own mother, trying to run away from what she’d done. “No,” she said sharply.