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Her mother had been in the kitchen, fixing macaroni and cheese, which had been Shelby’s favorite meal. When she came downstairs and saw what Shelby had done, she sat on the basement stairs and wept. “How could you?” Shelby’s mother said. “How could you do this to yourself?”
Shelby wanted to say it was easy to do if you hated yourself, but she just went to sit beside her mother on a stair, and let her mother hug her, and the truth was she felt something crack inside her while she was in her mother’s arms. All the same, she didn’t talk much after that. They went out to the yard to lie on their backs on the picnic table and look at stars, but they didn’t speak about anything, even on the nights when they held hands. In terms of conversation, both in the hospital and afterward, Ben Mink won by a long shot. They talk for hours at a time. They talk about things that matter and things that don’t.
“I believe in tragedy, too,” he told her that night, as if she cared what anyone else thought. She was terrified that he was going to try to embrace her so she shifted away, but he was too smart for that. He formally shook her hand. Even though they were both wearing gloves, she could feel the heat of his hand.
February is hard. Those globes of light. The ice on the street. All of those high school girls who never knew Helene crying over her. Shelby is now nineteen, but she might as well be ninety. What happened to being young, to having her whole life ahead of her? She still doesn’t like to eat, even though her mom makes nutritious meals for her every night. Sue Richmond has left her job as a librarian at the elementary school so she can focus on Shelby. She spends hours fixing meat loaf, chicken stew, macaroni, pudding. Shelby never takes more than a few bites. She stays in the basement. It’s quiet and dark. She likes it there, if like was a word that could apply to anything in Shelby’s life. The couch is lumpy, and the floor is linoleum, like a skating rink. She and Helene used to sneak down here so they could have some privacy. Helene was more daring. She brought cigarettes and beer, and once or twice she invited her boyfriend, Chris, and his entire group of friends down to Shelby’s basement to goof around. Sometimes, late at night, when Shelby has smoked more weed than she should, she thinks she spies Helene on the stairs. She’s got that big grin on her face and her hair is clipped up with barrettes and she wears the jacket she was wearing on the day they bought their matching bracelets at the Walt Whitman Mall. Helene bought a blue dress, perfect for going to the prom with Chris, but it was a dress she never wore. Chris broke up with her that same day. On the phone. He had applied to Cornell, and once he was there he wanted to be free. That’s what set Helene off. That was the beginning of the end.
She only went out that night because Helene threw a fit and called her a baby and she finally gave in and said she would drive. It sounds like a corny, lame excuse; it feels like a lie, even to herself. All the same, it’s true. By now, Shelby is so confused, all she can remember is stepping on the brake after the car hit a patch of ice and spinning around and ­Helene laughing, like they were in a Tilt-A-Whirl car, and then the crunch of metal against metal.
Helene wanted to throw a rock through Chris’s window. She could be vindictive sometimes. She wasn’t as pure as people thought. She was lazy and had Shelby do her homework. She gossiped. That night they had collected paving stones from the driveway before they set off, dug them up with their hands so there was frozen earth under their fingernails. Shelby has walked past Chris Wilson’s house a few times since the accident. Chris did go to Cornell and he doesn’t come home to visit. Once Mrs. Wilson ventured onto the porch to call out as Shelby was slinking by. She must have seen Shelby from the bay window in her living room; maybe she had trouble sleeping too. She was probably kindhearted, worried about the crazy, stoned-out girl on the road, but Shelby ran away, heart pounding. Off the road and into the woods. The crunch of twigs beneath her boots reminded her of metal against metal. Anything breaking reminds her of what happened. She went back to her basement, back to bed, and couldn’t be woken for the next eighteen hours, not until her mother grew so worried she spilled a cup of cold water over Shelby.
Don’t was all Shelby said. She didn’t even shift in her sopping, freezing bed. She didn’t leap up and shout What have you done!
Shelby’s mother sat on the edge of the bed. She sang “Over the Rainbow,” the song that would comfort Shelby when she was a baby and couldn’t sleep. It used to sound hopeful, but now it sounded so sad that Shelby felt her broken heart break all over again.
One day Sue Richmond is driving home from the market when she makes a right turn on Lewiston for no reason, something she’s always avoided before. Because Sue was the librarian at the local elementary school before the accident, she knows most people in town. She’s checked out books for decades of children, all grown up now, the ones who succeeded and the ones who failed. She loved her job, but then Shelby needed her. She couldn’t read books to second graders when her own daughter was locked in a basement. She keeps going on Lewiston until she reaches Helene’s house. Anyone would know which one it is because of the crowd outside, the line of people waiting patiently in the driveway, most of them out-of-towners, many of them carrying red roses, said to be Helene’s favorite flower.
Sue has bags of groceries in the backseat, including containers of frozen yogurt, already melting, but she parks and gets out anyway. Something inside her is aching. All of a sudden she feels vulnerable in some odd way. She stands in the street crying, staring at the Boyds’ yellow ranch house, the way the paint is peeling, the bouquets of roses left on the porch. Sue isn’t the only one to be overwhelmed and brought to tears. Lots of people are doing it, just standing there crying. They’re letting it all out, their sorrow, their desperation, their hope, right there, right now, in the presence of Helene’s shrine, for that is what the house has become. There are dozens of lit candles and scores of teddy bears. Sue notices two of her neighbors, Pat Harrington and Liz Howard, and they wave to her. Sue isn’t particularly friendly, she’s always afraid people will say How’s Shelby? But now she finds herself walking over to the other women. They hug her, maybe because she’s crying, or because they pity her for having a daughter like Shelby, or maybe because they remember the scene Sue made on the night of the accident, before they knew which girl was critically injured and which one had nothing more than a hairline fracture underneath all the blood and bruises. Sue hit a cop who tried to hold her back. She rode in the ambulance praying when she didn’t even know she knew how to pray.