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All the little pieces, p.5
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       All the Little Pieces, p.5

           Jilliane Hoffman

  The rain had stopped, the band had moved through, but it was still crazy-windy – the air whistled as it forced its way through the cracked driver’s side window. She’d go in and tell the motel manager what happened and ask him to call the police. That was the right thing to do. Let the law figure out what had happened back there. But as her hand touched the door handle, her brain fired off one final question.

  What did you hit back there?

  Faith let go of the handle. Nothing. There was nothing there. All the same her hands went sweaty and her heart sped up. She looked around the lit parking lot at the cobra-head lampposts. She’d be able to see the whole car now. The thought filled her with a sense of dread.

  You have to look. You have to see. You have to know.

  She got out and slowly walked to the front of the Explorer. The wind whipped her hair and she wrapped her arms around herself. She stared at the front end. Her stomach flipped and her knees threatened to give out. She steadied herself on the hood. The bumper was lopsided and dented. Not a big one, but the dent wasn’t there yesterday. The grille was dented, too. She’d definitely hit something, there was no denying it.

  The garbage can? Maybe it was that garbage can …

  She ran her hand over a smaller dent on the lip of the hood, as if that might tell her something, like where and when it had gotten on her car.

  Maybe someone hit you at Charity’s, but you didn’t see the damage when you looked in the cane fields because it was so dark.

  She crouched down and stared at the grille. She ran her hand over the dented bumper and looked at her palm. It was wet from the rain. Even though her brain screamed at her not to do it, she tentatively ran her hand back up and under the bumper, her fingers exploring places in the twisted, cracked plastic and metal undercarriage that her eyes could not see. She looked again at her palm in the beam of the headlight. There was a dark substance on it this time. It looked red. It looked like blood. She fell back onto the wet pavement.

  It was a deer. Or a dog. It wasn’t what you’re thinking, Faith! Oh God, don’t let it be that …

  She quickly wiped her hand on her jeans and stood up. A tiny, ragged piece of fluff clung to the dented grille. She pulled it off. It was a thin, white material. Maybe from a rag.

  Or a T-shirt.

  She bit her hand and forced back the scream of horror as the tears started up again.

  What had she done? What the hell had she hit back there in those cane fields?


  The clock read 1:50. Almost forty-five minutes had passed since … Faith stared through the windshield at the glass doors of the motel.

  They’d ask questions, the police. Some she couldn’t answer.

  ‘Where were you, Mrs Saunders? What was the name of the town? We can’t send someone out to do a check if we don’t know where to go.’

  Then there were the other questions …

  ‘Mrs Saunders, when this girl was banging on your window asking for help, why didn’t you let her in?’

  ‘You’ve had an accident. You have damage to your bumper and grille. Did you call the police? That’s required by law, you know.’

  ‘There’s blood on your bumper. You obviously hit something that bleeds. Was that something human?’

  She looked desperately around the parking lot and tried to think of the right answers. I don’t know! There was nothing there.

  ‘How hard did you look? Or did you just leave?’

  She shook her head. There was nothing there.

  ‘Mrs Saunders, have you been drinking?’

  She covered the gasp with her hand. She had had a couple of glasses of wine, true. And maybe a drink – a seven and seven – but it wasn’t that strong. And those hurricanes … She tried to swallow the awful, sweet taste but it still wouldn’t go down. Yes, she had been drinking, but she hadn’t expected to drive. She’d felt fine, really. Maybe a little off when she first left Charity’s, but that’d been a couple of hours ago. She remembered her head spinning when she first got out of the car in the cane field to look at the front end. She breathed into her cupped hand. The same hand that had rubbed the … substance … off the underside of the bumper. A wave of nausea came over her and she wiped it furiously again on her pant leg, so hard and fast her palm grew raw.

  They would smell it on her breath for sure.

  ‘Mrs Saunders, please step out of the car. I’m going to need you to perform some tests for me. Can you walk a straight line, please?’

  They’d make her take a Breathalyzer.

  She could refuse, but they could arrest her even if she did. She bit her lip hard, put her forehead on the steering wheel and closed her eyes.

  They’d run her license.

  When she was a senior at the University of Florida, Faith had been arrested for DUI and leaving the scene of an accident. It was a night out with friends. They were at a party off campus. There was too much beer and too many shots. She wasn’t supposed to drive home, her sorority sister was, so she’d partied hard. She was in college – everyone partied hard. Then Regina went home with a boy and told her she’d see her in the morning. It was less than a ten-mile drive back to the dorm. It was late – no one was on the roads, anyway.

  The car had come out of nowhere. She didn’t actually remember hitting anything at the time – just looking at this sedan that was coming at her, thinking, ‘Wow, that guy is kinda close.’ So close she could see his eyes, his open mouth, his facial expression. He looked surprised. She’d made it back onto campus with a bent axle and no headlights. The other car had flipped.

  ‘Thank God the old guy was wearing his seatbelt,’ the cop who’d arrested her had said when he placed the handcuffs on her. She was standing on the lawn outside her sorority house, crying, her knee bloodied from where it had smashed against the steering column. ‘Or else this coulda been real bad, honey. Real bad.’

  They’d see the prior conviction. They’d smell the wine and hurricanes. They’d examine the dented fender and grille and take samples of the dark substance underneath the bumper.

  Faith banged her head back and forth on the steering wheel as the tears streamed down her face. Jarrod was a defense attorney; he could tell her what the police would think: If you did it once, we know you did it again.

  ‘Bond is set at one hundred thousand,’ the judge had ordered, while he stared at her over thick glasses, his ancient, oversized brow a mass of judgmental wrinkles. The young public defender who was supposedly representing her actually gasped at the amount. ‘Because you, young lady, are a person who cannot be trusted. You left that man out there to die. Left him on the side of the road. By the grace of God, he wasn’t killed. So you can’t be trusted to do the right thing and you can’t be trusted to come back to court.’ She’d done a year of probation, a hundred hours of community service, apologized, paid a huge fine and spent eight nights in jail before her disappointed mother finally bailed her out.

  She banged her head even harder. It wouldn’t matter why she’d called the police – she’d be the one going to jail tonight. No doubt about it. The tears dripped onto her lap. Oh God, what if she got arrested in front of Maggie? What would happen to her? Would they put her in foster care while they waited for Jarrod to show up? She envisioned Maggie screaming out for her as they slapped cuffs on and placed her in the back of a police car, its red-and-blue lights spinning across her little girl’s tear-stained face, like a scene from a movie. And then Jarrod – looking shocked and disappointed as he stared at her through the jail’s bullet-proof glass asking her how she could drink and drive with Maggie in the car. How could she do such an awful thing?

  Why did she drink tonight? Why did Charity make her leave when she knew she’d been drinking? Why didn’t she get a hotel? Why didn’t she listen to Jarrod and stay home? Why? Why? Why?

  A series of bad decisions – one after the other after the other. The one smart choice she thought she’d made turned out to be the worst one of all – stopping in that godfor
saken, Twilight Zone town. She looked around desperately. The windows were fogging again, blurring the motel doors. She felt trapped – cornered in this car, in this deserted parking lot, boxed in by her terrible decisions. It was so claustrophobic, she could feel her chest closing. Her eyes caught on a figure moving across the empty lobby of the motel.

  You are a person who cannot be trusted.

  I don’t have a good feeling about tonight …

  She squeezed her eyes closed. It wouldn’t matter why she’d called the police; she’d be the one going to jail tonight.

  Forty-five minutes had passed since she’d woken up in a nightmare. Since she’d seen whatever it was she’d seen. They were all long gone by now – that girl, with her tattoos and piercings and dirty hands and bare feet, and those two creepy men. It wasn’t right to judge, but, well … who … who knows why they were all out there? No one had a weapon. The girl looked tough. She wasn’t bleeding. She wasn’t bleeding! That was important.

  Faith took a deep breath, wiped her face with her sleeve and put the car in drive while her brain kept throwing around rationalizations.

  All three might’ve been on drugs; they might have robbed you.

  She pulled out of the parking lot and onto Southern Blvd.

  They could’ve hurt Maggie. Or worse. God knows what might have happened if you had opened that door. As Jarrod once said, ‘It’s hard to appreciate the tragedy that would have been when the plot is foiled before the bomb is built.’

  She spotted the sign for Florida’s Turnpike.

  All three of them were long gone from there. And you don’t even know exactly where ‘there’ is, Faith. You’d have to retrace your steps with the police, and they wouldn’t do that with you once they’d placed you under arrest. You’d be in custody. You’d be headed to booking. Getting ready to have your mug shot taken and be fingerprinted and then strip-searched in some local Podunk jail.

  She set off, heading south. There were a few other cars on the road now. That was comforting.

  It was a deer, Faith. Deer can cause nasty damage. You weren’t going fast, so it wasn’t hurt too badly and it scampered into the cane. That’s why there was nothing there.

  It was past three when she pulled into her driveway. She looked in the back seat. Maggie was like Jarrod – she could sleep through anything. Faith leaned her head back on the headrest, feeling both intense relief at having made it home safe and overwhelming shame for the same reason. Like a character in a Grimms’ fairytale, she had left the haunted forest with all its perils and dangerous, strange inhabitants far, far behind her, and had arrived back at the castle. She took a deep breath and checked her rearview one final time. The rationalizations had worked like shoddy patchwork on a leaky roof: they’d done the job for now. It would hold, but there was no telling for how long.

  Then she hit the garage-door button and with a chilling sense of impending dread, watched it close on the night with a heavy thud.


  ‘Hey there, honey,’ Jarrod whispered, his breath warm on her cheek. ‘What time did you get in?’

  ‘’Bout three,’ Faith answered softly, her face buried in a pillow, most of her head and body burrowed under the comforter, her eyes still closed. The house was freezing; Jarrod liked to keep it like an igloo when they slept.

  ‘Why aren’t you at your sister’s?’ He sounded distracted.

  She could smell the fresh scent of soap and his Bulgari cologne; she heard the crisp rustle his jacket made when he checked his cell phone and put it into his suit pocket. Without opening her eyes, she could tell he was dressed for court and probably running late.

  ‘Long story,’ she mumbled. ‘I … I wasn’t feeling well; I didn’t want to stay.’

  ‘What?’ His hand found her forehead. ‘What’s the matter?’

  ‘My stomach … I’m OK now.’

  ‘Did you get sick?’

  ‘I didn’t feel well. It’s all right, I’m OK.’

  She could tell he was checking his cell again. ‘You must have some great stories to tell about last night.’

  Faith buried herself deeper into the pillow.

  He kissed her on the cheek. ‘Sleep in; it’s early. I got a motion in Palm Beach, so I gotta run. I’ll take Maggie to school.’

  ‘Maggie’s up?’

  ‘Up and downstairs and ready to go and, boy, is she in rare form. She actually wants to go to school today. Mrs Wackett is in for a treat. Did she sleep at all?’ he asked, his voice fading as he moved toward the bedroom door.

  ‘In the car.’

  ‘That must have been some ride home …’ he said, his voice rising on the word ‘some’ as he opened the door and headed out into the hall.

  She opened her eyes. ‘Huh?’ The room was dark but for a slice of weak light that leaked onto the carpet where the drapes didn’t meet.

  ‘Love you!’ he yelled from downstairs. She heard him hurry Maggie into the car, then his garage door opened and shut and he was gone.

  When she woke up again the bedroom was still dark. For a few blissful seconds while she lay there tuning in to the day, she forgot about the night before – the party, the fight, the storm, the girl, the strange men. But with just a few blinks, the static was gone and it all came rushing back. And along with the assorted upsetting memories came guilt, accompanied by a heavy, awful, queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach, like she had drunk a shot of glue. She looked over at the clock and sat up with a start. It was already eight thirty. She hadn’t slept that late in ages.

  Her head throbbed and her body ached. Physically, she felt like she’d been hit by a truck. Emotionally she felt just as drained, like the mornings after she and Jarrod had had an argument and she’d spent most of the night crying. After she’d put Maggie to bed last night she’d finally had that cigarette, along with a generous shot of Stoli, out on the back patio. That was probably a bad idea in hindsight, but she could not sleep when she first got home. She could not calm down. She couldn’t turn her brain off. She had reached for the phone a few times, only to put it back down before even punching a number. More than three hours had passed since she’d seen what she’d seen. Then it was four. With every slip of the minute hand, the sense of urgency seemed to wane. Nine-one-one. What is your emergency? Well, I guess it’s not really an emergency any more, Operator, now is it? I’m back home and those people are long gone back into the woods. Where, you ask? I don’t have a clue. Make a left at the cane stalk and then drive around in circles for a long time. The same fear-stoked rationalizations popped back into her head, fighting off the guilt, aided and abetted by the boozy effects of the vodka, which finally worked its magic. She’d gone upstairs somewhere around five, staring at the shadows of the palm fronds that violently danced on her ceiling, courtesy of the patio light that she had forgotten to turn off outside.

  She got out of bed now, moved over to the drapes and hesitated, looking at the nondescript light slice on the carpet, her hand on the cord. What’s behind curtain number two, Bob? Show us what she’s won!

  Faith hoped it would be sunny and beautiful outside – a normal, enviable Florida day. Bright blue skies, puffy white clouds. She hoped it would look nothing like the day before. A do-over – a symbolic fresh start. But when she opened the drapes her heart sank: it was gloomy and rainy. In fact, it looked exactly as it had when she’d pulled out of her driveway yesterday. The glue shot churned in her stomach. She scanned the backyard below. Everything looked the same as it had twenty-four hours earlier – same lounge cushion in the pool, same pink impatiens in the garden, same swingset in the corner, same toppled-over umbrella.

  Everything looked the same. Everything was completely different.

  She turned on the TV, raising the volume so she could hear it in the bathroom as she showered. The local morning news was over, so she clicked on Headline News. The DOW was up. So were oil prices. A child murder from 1957 was finally solved. Another corporate swindler was indicted. The polar ice sheets were mel
ting faster than scientists had predicted.

  No missing persons in Florida. No dead girls found in sugar cane fields.

  Downstairs she put on a pot of coffee and scanned the Sun-Sentinel – even the sports section, in case the girl from last night was some high school track star who hadn’t shown up for practice. There was no mention of any missing girls, in Florida or anywhere else. She felt a tiny bit better, although she knew something that had happened in the middle of the night would not make the morning paper. It might make the TV news, though, and there was nothing there, either. She’d have to keep checking the paper and the Internet and watching the news over the next couple of days. If there was still nothing by Wednesday or Thursday, then there was obviously nothing to worry about. She could officially breathe a sigh of relief and chalk up whatever had happened last night to some weird, unfortunate experience that she hoped never to go through again.

  She popped three Advil for the headache that wouldn’t go away and downed them with a long gulp of coffee. She still couldn’t shake the unsettling, off-kilter feeling. It was a feeling that something was … wrong. Amiss. Out of place. Not right. She looked around the kitchen. The milk was on the counter, cereal bowls left in the sink, the toaster was out. But it wasn’t the mess leftover from breakfast or the lounge cushion still floating in the pool that was bothering her. Like in her bedroom, everything looked exactly as she had left it before she’d headed to Charity’s yesterday. The hand-painted canisters she’d gotten on vacation in New Orleans were displayed neatly next to her collection of olive oils and a decorative tin of amaretto cookies. Maggie’s artwork covered the fridge: circles made with glued-on buttons, crayoned stick figures, Jackson Pollock-esque finger paintings. Jarrod’s shoes and jacket were sitting on a seat, waiting for someone to take them upstairs and put them away. Maggie’s toys were spread out all over the family room. Like the backyard, everything looked the same, but it was all completely different. It made her think of Maggie’s favorite story, The Cat in the Hat. It felt like, while she was away yesterday at Charity’s, strangers had come in, partied on her furniture and done crazy stuff with her house, then gone and cleaned up and put everything back in its proper place moments before she’d stepped through the door. Everything looked the same … but it wasn’t.

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