The innocent, p.12
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       The Innocent, p.12

           Harlan Coben
 
Chapter 11

  EVERYONE SEEMS TO HAVE this terrifying dream where you are suddenly about to take the final exam in a class you haven't attended all semester. Matt did not. Instead, in a strangely similar vein, he dreamed that he was back in prison. He had no idea what he'd done to get back there. There was no memory of a crime or a trial, just the sense that he had somehow messed up and that this time he would never get out.

  He'd wake up with a start. He'd be sweating. There'd be tears in his eyes. His body would quake.

  Olivia had grown used to it. She would wrap her arms around him and whisper that it was okay, that nothing could hurt him anymore. She had bad dreams of her own, his lovely wife, but she never seemed to need or want that sort of comfort.

  He slept on the couch in the den. The upstairs guest room had a pullout queen-size bed that somehow felt too big when he was sleeping alone. Now, as he stared up in the dark, feeling more alone than he had since Olivia walked into his office, Matt actually feared sleep. He kept his eyes open. At four in the morning Marsha's car pulled into the driveway.

  When he heard the key in the door, Matt closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep on the couch. Marsha tiptoed over and kissed him on the forehead. The smell of shampoo and soap wafted from her. She had showered, wherever she had been. He wondered if she had showered alone. He wondered why he cared.

  She moved into the kitchen. Still feigning sleep, Matt slowly opened one eye. Marsha was making lunch for the boys. She spread jelly with a too-practiced hand. There were tears on her cheek. Matt kept still. He let her finish in peace and listened to her gentle footsteps pad up the stairs.

  At 7 A. M. , Cingle called him.

  "I tried your home number," she said. "You weren't there. "

  "I'm at my sister-in-law's. "

  "Oh. "

  "Just babysitting my nephews. "

  "Did I ask?"

  He rubbed his face. "So what's up?"

  "You coming into the office?"

  "Yeah, a little later. Why?"

  "I found your follower, Charles Talley. "

  He sat all the way up. "Where?"

  "Let's talk about this in person, okay?"

  "Why?"

  "I need to do a little more research. "

  "On what?"

  "On Charles Talley. I'll meet you at your office at noon, okay?"

  He had his Thursday rendezvous at the museum anyway. "Yeah, okay. "

  "And Matt?"

  "What?"

  "You said this was personal? Whatever it is with Talley?"

  "Yes. "

  "Then you're in deep doo-doo. "

  Matt was a member of the Newark Museum. He flashed his membership card but there was no need. The guards at the door knew him by now. He nodded and entered. Very few people roamed the hall this time of the morning. Matt headed to the art gallery in the west wing. He passed the museum's newest piece, a colorful canvas by Wosene Worke Kosrof, and took the steps to the second floor.

  She was the only one there.

  He could see her way down at the end of the corridor. She was standing where she always stood- in front of the painting by Edward Hopper. Her head was tilted ever so slightly to the left. She was a very attractive woman, nearing sixty, almost six feet tall, high cheekbones, the kind of blonde hair only the wealthy seem to possess. As always she looked smart and tailored and polished.

  Her name was Sonya McGrath. She was the mother of Stephen McGrath, the boy Matt had killed.

  Sonya always waited by the Hopper. The painting was called Sheridan Theater and managed to catch pure desolation and despair in a picture of a movie theater. It was amazing. There were famous images depicting the ravages of war, of death, of destruction, but there was something in this seemingly simple Hopper, something in this near-empty theater balcony that spoke to both of them in ways no other image ever had.

  Sonya McGrath heard him approach but she didn't turn away from the picture. Matt passed Stan, the security guard who always worked this floor on Thursday mornings. They exchanged a quick smile and nod. Matt wondered what Stan must think of his quiet trysts with this attractive older woman.

  He stood next to her and looked at the Hopper. It worked like a bizarre mirror. He saw them as the two isolated figures- he Hopper's usher, she the lone patron. For a long time they didn't speak. Matt glanced at Sonya McGrath's profile. He had seen a photograph of her in the paper once, the Sunday New York Times Style section. Sonya McGrath was something of a socialite. In the photograph, her smile dazzled. He had never seen that smile in person- wondered, in fact, if it could exist anywhere but on film.

  "You don't look so good," Sonya said.

  She was not looking at him- had not, as far as he could tell, yet glanced his way- but he nodded anyway. Sonya faced him full.

  Their relationship- though the term "relationship" didn't seem to capture it- began a few years after Matt got out of prison. His phone would ring, he would pick it up, and there would be no one there. No hang-up. No words. Matt thought that maybe he could hear breathing, but mostly there was pure silence.

  Somehow Matt knew who was on the other end.

  The fifth time she called, Matt took several deep breaths before working up the courage to speak. "I'm sorry," he said.

  There was a long silence. Then Sonya replied, "Tell me what really happened. "

  "I did. In court. "

  "Tell me again. Everything. "

  He tried. He took a long time. She stayed silent. When he finished she hung up.

  The next day she called again. "I want to tell you about my son," she said without preamble.

  And she did.

  Matt now knew more than he really wanted to know about Stephen McGrath. He was no longer merely a kid who stepped into a fight, the log jammed onto the track that sent Matt Hunter's life off the rails. McGrath had two younger sisters who adored him. He loved playing guitar. He was a little hippy-ish- he got that, Sonya said with a trace of a laugh, from his mother. He was a great listener, that was what his friends always said. If they had a problem, they went to Stephen. He never needed to be the center of attention. He was content on the sidelines. He would laugh at your joke. He had gotten in trouble only once in his life- the police caught him and some buddies drinking behind the high school- but he had never gotten into a fight, not even as a kid, and seemed deathly afraid of physical violence.

  During that same phone call, Sonya asked him, "Did you know that Stephen didn't know any of the boys in the fight?"

  "Yes. "

  She started to cry then. "So why did he step in?"

  "I don't know. "

  They first met in person here at the Newark Museum three years ago. They had coffee and barely spoke. A few months later, they stayed for lunch. It became a steady thing, every other Thursday morning in front of the Hopper. Neither of them had ever missed one.

  At first they told no one. Sonya's husband and daughters would never understand. Of course neither of them understood it either. Matt could never explain why these meetings meant so much to him. Most would assume that he did it purely out of guilt, that he did it for her or for redemption or something like that. But that wasn't the case at all.

  For two hours- that's how long their meetings lasted- Matt felt strangely free because he ached and hurt and felt. He didn't know what she got out of it, but he assumed that it was something similar. They talked about that night. They talked about their lives. They talked about the tentative steps, the feeling that the ground could give way at any time. Sonya never said, "I forgive you. " She never said that it wasn't his fault, that it was an accident, that he served his time.

  Sonya started down the corridor. Matt stared at the painting another second or two and then followed. They moved back downstairs and into the museum's atrium. They grabbed coffee and sat at their usual table.

  "So," she said. "Tell me what's going on. "

  She didn't say this to be polite or as an icebreaker. This was not about how-are
-you-fine-and-you? Matt told her everything. He told this woman, Sonya McGrath, things he told no one else. He never lied to her, never fudged or edited.

  When he was done, Sonya asked, "Do you think Olivia is having an affair?"

  "The evidence seems pretty clear. "

  "But?"

  "But I've learned that evidence rarely gives you the full picture. "

  Sonya nodded. "You should call her again," she said.

  "I did. "

  "Try the hotel. "

  "I did. "

  "Not there?"

  "She wasn't registered. "

  "There are two Ritz-Carltons in Boston. "

  "I tried them both. "

  "Ah. " She sat back and put her hand on her chin. "So you know that, in some way, Olivia is not being truthful. "

  "Yes. "

  Sonya considered that. She had never met Olivia, but she knew more about Matt's relationship with her than anyone. She looked off.

  "What?" he said.

  "I'm just trying to find a plausible reason for her behavior. "

  "And?"

  "And so far I've come up with nothing. " She shrugged and took a sip of her coffee. "I've always found your relationship with Olivia an oddity. "

  "How so?"

  "The way you hooked up ten years after a one-night stand. "

  "It wasn't a one-night stand. We didn't sleep together. "

  "Which may be the point. "

  "I don't get what you mean. "

  "If you slept together, well, the spell might have been broken. People claim that making love is the most intimate thing in the world. In truth, it's probably the opposite. "

  He waited.

  "Well, this is an odd coincidence," she said.

  "Why's that?"

  "Clark is having an affair. "

  Matt didn't ask her if she was sure or how she knew. He simply said, "I'm sorry. "

  "It's not what you think. "

  He said nothing.

  "It has nothing to do with what happened to our son. "

  Matt tried to nod.

  "We like to blame Stephen's death for all our problems. He's become our big life's-not-fair card. But the reason behind Clark's affair is far more basic. "

  "That being?"

  "He's horny. "

  She smiled. Matt tried to smile back.

  "Oh, did I mention that she's young? The girl Clark is sleeping with?"

  "No. "

  "Thirty-two. We have a daughter that age. "

  "I'm sorry," Matt said again.

  "Don't be. It's the flip side of what we said before. About intimacy and sex. "

  "How so?"

  "The truth is, like most women my age, I have very little interest in sex. Yes, I know Cosmo and the like will tell you differently, what with all that nonsense about men peaking at nineteen and women in their thirties. But in reality, men are always hornier. Period. To me sex no longer has anything to do with intimacy. Clark, on the other hand, needs it. So that's all she is to him, this young girl. Sex. A release. A physical need. "

  "And that doesn't bother you?"

  "It's not about me. "

  Matt said nothing.

  "When you think about it, it's simple: Clark needs something that I have no interest in providing. So he goes elsewhere. " Sonya saw the look on his face. She sighed, put her hands on her thighs. "Let me give you an example. If Clark loved, say, poker and I didn't want to play. . . "

  "Come on, Sonya. That's not the same thing. "

  "Oh, but isn't it?"

  "Sex and poker?"

  "Okay, fine, let's keep it on the physically pleasing. A professional massage. Clark gets rubdowns at his club every week from a masseur named Gary-"

  "That's not the same thing either. "

  "But don't you see? It is. Sex with this girl isn't about intimacy. It's just a physical thing. Like a back rub or a handshake. So shouldn't it be okay with me?"

  Sonya looked up at him and waited.

  "It wouldn't be okay with me," Matt said.

  There was a small smile on her lips. Sonya liked mind games. She liked a challenge. He wondered if she meant what she said or if she was merely testing him. "So what are you going to do?" she asked him.

  "Olivia comes home tomorrow. "

  "You think you can wait till then?"

  "I'm going to try. "

  Her eyes stayed on him.

  "What?" he asked.

  "We can't escape it, can we? I thought. . . " She stopped.

  "You thought what?"

  Their eyes locked. "I know it's a terrible cliche, but it all felt like a nightmare. The news about Stephen. The trial. I kept expecting to wake up and find it was all some cruel joke, that everything was okay. "

  He'd felt the same way. He was stuck in a bad dream, waiting for the Candid Camera climax when Stephen would show up unharmed and smiling.

  "But now the world feels like the opposite, doesn't it, Matt?"

  He nodded.

  "Instead of believing the bad is a nightmare from which you'll awaken," she went on, "you think it's the good that's an illusion. And that's what this call on your camera phone did. It woke you from the good dream. "

  He could not speak.

  "I know that I'll never get past what happened," Sonya McGrath said. "It's simply not possible. But I thought. . . I hoped maybe you could. "

  Matt waited for her to say more. She did not. She rose suddenly, as if she had said too much. They headed together for the exit. Sonya kissed him on the cheek and when they hugged, they both held on longer than usual. He could, as always, feel the devastation emanating from her. Stephen's death was there, in every moment, in every gesture. He sat with them, their forever companion.

  "If you need me," she whispered, "you call. Anytime. "

  "I will. "

  He watched her walk away. He thought about what she had said, about the fine line between the good dreams and the bad, and then, when she finally disappeared around the corner, he turned away.

 

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