Leslie Anne Galloway was taking her morning shower when the phone rang and the world as she knew it crumbled. The short, high-pitched peals carried over the thrumming of the water, and she debated whether to answer it. She was due at a book signing in an hour and the bookstore was a good twenty minutes’ taxi ride away, which meant she was already running late. On the other hand, there might have been a last-minute scheduling change. . .
She left the water running, wrapped herself in a towel, and trotted across the hotel room to the bedside table. Shivering in the cold air that blasted from the overhead vent, she snatched up the receiver and gasped, "Hello?"
"You have to come home."
She recognized the cool, unfriendly voice as that of her father-in-law, retired surgeon Arthur Galloway. His florid, heavy-featured face flashed before her mind’s eye. Why would he, of all people, be calling? And why tell her to come home? She was still struggling to sort it out when he dropped the bomb that would change her life forever.
"Jared is dead."
For a moment, Leslie felt a shielding disconnect. What did those flat, hard, merciless words have to do with her? Too soon, understanding burst through her meager defenses. A steel vice closed around her heart, seeming to choke off every life-sustaining function. Her ears buzzed. Her vision dimmed. She fought to draw enough breath to croak,
"You heard me. My son is dead."
It was as if she were swimming upstream against a powerful current, each stroke futile, her strength waning, aware she was going to be swept away yet unwilling to acknowledge her fate. "Impossible!" she blurted. "I talked to him last night, and he was fine."
She swallowed and tried again. "What—what happened?"
"You’ll find out when you get here. Just haul your ass home." A sharp click. Silence. Then the drone of the dial tone.
Leslie’s numb fingers lost their grip on the receiver. It bounced off the bedside table and dangled downward, the earpiece grazing the carpeted floor. She sank down beside it, elbows on her knees, hands tenting her forehead, pressing, kneading, as if by sheer force she could erase those three horrible words from her consciousness: Jared is dead.
Jared. Her husband. Her love. His voice came to her, soft and warm as it had been in their last conversation. She wrapped herself in the memory, insulating herself against a reality she felt incapable of facing.
It was the first time they had spoken since Leslie’s departure on her promotional book tour two days before. She had been exhausted after a busy day: up early to be the guest of a local radio talk show personality, lunch with a feature writer from the San Diego Union-Tribune, then on to the University of California, San Diego to speak before a creative writing class. On returning to her hotel room, she saw the message light on her telephone blinking. She dialed into the message center and heard Jared’s voice asking her to call. His tone told her nothing about his state of mind. They had argued the night before her departure over the growing commitment required by her writing career, and their parting had been strained. Had her absence fueled his bitterness?
She placed the call and was relieved to hear the gentle affection in his greeting. He said, "I’ve been waiting for your call. Something happened last night. Something—well, I won’t waste time on that now. But it reminded me how destructive anger can be. And then I started thinking about our quarrel the other night."
"No, let me finish. I know I’m selfish where you’re concerned. Your writing takes you away from me, and I hate that. But I know how important it is to you. I’ll try my best to be more supportive from now on. I don’t always show it, but I truly am proud of you."
Leslie’s throat tightened with emotion. How often had she longed to hear those words? The literary critics’ most glowing accolades couldn’t begin to compensate for the one thing she wanted and had never truly felt she had—her husband’s admiration for and approval of her professional abilities.
"Thank you for that," she said softly. "It means the world to me."
"We’ll make a fresh start when you get home. I’ve made special plans to celebrate your birthday and Thanksgiving in one big blowout."
"Sounds wonderful. What? When?"
"No way. It’s a surprise."
She smiled. "You know how to pique a girl’s curiosity. How about just a tiny hint?"
"Not on your life. The sooner you get home, the sooner you’ll find out."
They had spent the next twenty minutes exchanging news and minutia relating to the past two days. His final words were, "I love you with all my heart."
Leslie wasn’t sure how long she huddled there, lost in her memories. Gradually her senses began to waken. She heard the hollow beat of the water against the fiberglass shower stall. She saw the thin band of California sunshine where it shone through a crack in the window curtains onto the opposite wall. Her skin pebbled under the cold air hissing through the overhead vent. She felt chilled to the core.
Strident sounds issued from the dangling telephone receiver. She picked it up, pushed to her feet, and placed it in its cradle. She went into the bathroom to turn off the water, then discarded the damp towel, pulled her silk robe from the hook behind the door, and put it on. Her mind was a jumbled chaos of half-formed thoughts and burning questions. In the midst of her confusion, one name surfaced, sure and steady as a rock in a raging sea: Pen.
Pen, who had first recognized and then nurtured Leslie’s writing talent. Who had counseled and comforted, challenged and guided, encouraged and then rejoiced in her success. Her best and now perhaps her only true friend.
Somehow she managed to place the call, punching in the code from her calling card followed by the familiar numbers she was accustomed to dialing several times a week. Pen picked up on the second ring. At the sound of her throaty contralto voice, something stabilized inside Leslie, and she said with surprising calm,
"It’s me, Pen. I need to talk to you. I’ve just had some bad news."
A split second’s hesitation. Then, "Oh, you poor dear. I already heard. I saw Herb Wendt at the grocery store a little while ago. His brother-in-law’s on the police force, and he told me the whole story."
The last flicker of hope died. "Then it’s true."
"Apparently so. I’m so sorry."
"Pen, what happened?"
"Didn’t they tell you?"
"Arthur said I’d find out when I got home."
Leslie felt her friend’s anger across the two thousand miles separating them, and it brought a small wave of solace. Pen understood Leslie’s unique position within the Galloway family—that of captive outsider bound by the expectations inherent in sharing their name yet never breaching the circle of emotional warmth that set the rest of them apart. She alone could appreciate the depth of cruelty with which Leslie had been informed of her husband’s death.
In a tone gentled by compassion, Pen continued, "It was an accident, dear. A crazy, senseless accident." An uncomfortable pause. "Apparently he’d been drinking."
"No!" Jared Galloway was a recovering alcoholic who had not taken a drink for over ten years. "He wouldn’t. There must be some mistake!"
"If there is, I’m sure they’ll catch it when they run his blood alcohol. But they found an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the table beside his chair."
"Table? What table? I thought you said it was a car accident."
"No, no. It was an accident, but it happened at home. He lit the gas fire without opening the flue. He must have passed out, and the house filled with carbon monoxide."
Leslie bowed her head, gripped by sudden nausea. Such a simple oversight. She had done it herself any number of times, but she had always been alerted by the resultant gassy odor. An odor that would not penetrate a drunken stupor.
"When did it happen?"
"Sometime last night, apparently. When he didn’t show up for a scheduled surgery this morning. . ." Her voice trailed off.
Leslie could imagine the scene. Patient prepped and sedated, operating room set up, anesthesiologist waiting. . .and no surgeon. The ensuing panic had to have been palpable.
"Who found him?"
"I’m not sure. The police will have all the details. Do you know when you’ll be getting in?"
"No, I—I’ll have to see how soon I can get a flight."
"Let me know, and I’ll pick you up at the airport."
"Thanks. I’ll get back to you."
Leslie sat with the dead receiver in her hand, her mind slowly stirring. She goaded herself to focus on the scenario Pen had just painted: Jared drunk and unconscious while his life slipped away in a cloud of carbon monoxide from an unvented gas fire. No matter which way she looked at it, questions arose.
To begin with, she had never known Jared to light the fireplace. She was the one who cherished the cozy ambiance of a flickering fire in the evening. Jared was usually oblivious, either deep in one of his medical journals or snoozing in front of the television, clicker in hand. And what about the bottle of Jack Daniels? He had always told her his drink of choice used to be vodka. Even if he had switched to whiskey, it made no sense that he would have fallen off the wagon on that particular night. He had told her he planned to spend the evening with a newcomer to AA, a man who wanted to stay sober but was experiencing massive doses of temptation. Would he have come home from such a meeting and started drinking?
The skin on the back of her neck prickled, a sensation that had nothing to do with the air conditioning. Beneath her shock and grief, a grim certainty began to form. Something about Jared’s death was terribly wrong.