Rachel stood by the tall windows and looked out onto the river in the late twilight. On this winter evening the river would remain grey as the sky until nightfall when it would shine black as the wet pelt of a mink. Tonight the water would bear no streaking reflections from the red and blue lights of pleasure boats that lit the water on summer nights and no flickering orange and gold from fishermans’ fires that dotted the banks in spring and autumn. The river was alone and silent now and its flow, though constant and perceptible, seemed pointless – an escape from darkness into darkness.
She stared at the river, longing for its solitude. She had come here tonight, to this last of the restaurants and clubs that once lined the riverbank in the town of Walhonde, at the invitation of Rhonda Pauley, a friend who had not informed her that David Dunnigan would be in attendance at this gathering. She had not confronted her about that. It was possible but not likely that Rhonda may not have known that he would be there. But if she had known, it was certainly wrong of her not to tell Rachel. This friend, of all friends, knew the story between David and Rachel in every detail and knew of Rachel’s continuing resolve to stay clear of the man forever.
When she had decided to walk away from Jacob Eaton, David Dunnigan was a convenient means of doing so. It was David Dunnigan, two years her senior and then home from college, who was there at Rhonda’s graduation party and who played the role of whisking her away that night. Her doing. No doubt about that. In fact, she had never denied it, even to herself. What had happened that night had happened according to her plan. This was her way of sending the message to Jacob that their time together, brief and formless as it had been, was over. What she had come to realize through the years was that her treatment of Jacob – leaving him alone at the party with only the most perfunctory of good-byes, was simply unconscionable. She was young then, but she knew better. She could have been fairer to him. She could have talked it out with him. He deserved at least that much. She had not been ignorant or naive. Instead, she had been lazy and fearful and selfish.
What she had not planned on was what had happened between Jacob and David after that. Jacob had gotten her message, loud and clear, and had held his temper and grief like a man. She had only one more encounter with Jacob – the senior prom. They had agreed to go there together some weeks before and that being the last and highest ritual of the world they lived in then, an event that involved the purchase of a dress and the plans of many of their other friends, rather than a mere date that could simply be broken, they went on together in terrible tension, neither of them speaking of the elephant in the room.
When she and Jacob left the dance that evening, they saw the hubcaps of his father’s car lying on the pavement beside each wheel. They also saw that all of the lug nuts had been removed from the wheels of his father’s car. And there she was, standing on the asphalt lot in formal wear and heels at midnight with rain coming on. As fate would have it – so she believed in the moment – David Dunnigan happened to be driving by just then and offered to take her home, out of the rain. This time she got Jacob’s okay on the matter – what else could he possibly have said – and on the way home she heard a rattle in the back of David’s car and looked around to see the twenty lug nuts from Jacob’s father’s car in the floor of the back seat.
When they came to the stop sign at the bottom of Rachel’s street, she bolted from the car and walked the remaining block, heels, formal gown and all in the now pouring rain. David Dunnigan stayed beside her, creeping in the car, begging her to get back in, telling her that he could explain, but she turned her face away.
Where things otherwise might have gone between Rachel and David no one knows, but once she saw the lug nuts it was the end of the line for him. Not only had he humiliated a young man for whom she had genuine admiration, even a kind of love, he had made her complicit in the crime. She never accepted another phone call from Dunnigan though he telephoned her house every night until his summer job took him back out of town. She never spoke of the matter to Jacob. How could she have credibly parsed through what parts of the multiple injuries inflicted on Jacob were her responsibility and which were not. And how, exactly, was what happened prom night any different from what she had deliberately done a week before. Yes, there were distinctions, but they were difficult to articulate, and in terms of the emotional hurt to Jacob, meaningless.
Her break with Jacob, that she had before that night hoped would eventually soften and heal, was now absolute. She never knew how much he might have learned or what he may have surmised about her own part in the scheme.
The outrage and shame she felt that night had never abated. She had never sought forgiveness or attempted to explain. She had hoped that she would never see David Dunnigan again.
But there he was, across the long banquet room, standing, drink in hand, flashing his thousand-dollar watch and seventy-dollar shoes, chatting and laughing with a trio of his old high-school buddies. It had been so long now that she could not really tell whether his relaxed joy in that conversation was unfeigned or if it was, as it had so often been before, his deliberate attempt to show himself, once again, as one at ease and comfortable in the world, one who had long forgotten old failures and mistakes, one who had no regrets and whose triumphs in life had given him complete confidence in his own strength and wisdom.
To avoid him tonight would require more effort than it was worth and she stayed there by the window, watching his reflection in the glass as he approached.
“Hey, Rachel. Man, it’s great to see you. You look absolutely fantastic.”
“You know I didn’t hear about John till just a few weeks ago. Well, a couple of months, really. I’m never in town anymore and I don’t get the paper. I don’t know why nobody told me before. Anyway, I am sorry. I knew John. He was good guy. A good husband, I’m sure.”
“Thank you. Yes, he was.”
David Dunnigan waited for her to say more, but she only continued to watch the river flow.
“I heard that you’re thinking about buying that old house.”
“I was in that old place one time. It was a church for a
while, you know.”
“But I wasn’t there to go to church.” He grinned.
He waited again. She continued her silent stare.
“You know, I’ve got some experience with that kind of thing. I bought an old place on Jekyll Island a couple of years ago. Right after I sold my funeral homes. You ever been on Jekyll?”
“Well, it’s a beautiful place. Absolutely beautiful. They’ve got building codes there. The whole island. There’s not a place on it under a million bucks. All of it plantation or Victorian. The Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers built the place up a hundred and fifty years ago and it’s been maintained and restored beautifully. I sold my house there, but I’m still a member of the Island Club. Here, let me show you the house after I fixed it up.”
He pulled his phone from the pocket of his sport jacket and thumbed the screen till he found the photo and then held the phone in front of her.
She nodded. “Oh. That’s very nice.”
“Well, it is nice. The whole island is nice. And you’ve got to come there and take a look around. Some of us – all the old crowd – we’re going to spend a week there in February. I think Rhonda and Bill may be coming. Weather is great then. And if you like old houses, this is the place for you. I’ve got a whole floor of the club reserved for us. Might change your mind about that old Phillips place.”
“No. It wouldn’t.”
“Rachel, you could be making a mistake. I wouldn’t want to see you do that. When I did that house on Jekyll I sold it for twice what I had in it. You couldn’t do that here. You’d never get back half of what you’ll have to put into it. You couldn’t get a hundred-thousand bucks for the Taj Mahal in this town. Anybody with any money is looking to leave.”
“I know that. You ever think about why everybody wants to leave? How much of the disintegration here might be our fault?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m sure you don’t. You should, but you don’t.”