It took some time to piece out the story of Dick’s accident, but Cheryl’s paragraphs of panicked, contradictory accounts and Malcolm’s steadier, shorter updates eventually provided enough information that Melly could watch the story unfold in a sort of balky flip book animation.
The basic facts were simple: Dick had been a passenger in a car that crashed into a building. The driver had been unhurt and had been arrested. But not just arrested for the accident. Cheryl reported that the car was actually stolen! Not exactly stolen, Malcolm clarified; the car had belonged to the driver’s husband. No, it was her ex-husband! Well, not ex-husband, actually; the divorce hadn’t gone through just yet. But it had almost gone through, because the way Dick had met this — well, Cheryl wouldn’t call her a lady — was that he had gone as a friend of a friend to her divorce party. This was true. The driver of the car had been celebrating her impending divorce, and on learning that Dick was a fast-car aficionado, offered to take him for a spin in her soon-to-be ex-husband’s Maserati GranTurismo, which would have been more harmless than running up huge charges on his credit cards if she hadn’t pushed the acceleration to the limit and lost control of the vehicle on a residential street. Malcolm hastened to add that there was no accusation that Dick was an accessory to a crime. He may not even have been sober enough to understand the situation.
Whatever shape he might have been in that night, Dick was in dire shape now. He’d been flown to a big hospital in Dallas where top specialists were hard at work keeping him alive, and Richard and Cheryl were packing up the car and driving up to be with him. Cheryl wasn’t exactly sure of the extent of his injuries, but she wasn’t going to leave her baby’s side, even if that meant renting an apartment in Dallas and living there until he could come home. She was going to be his nurse and his best companion. Maybe she would bring Pugsy to Dallas eventually, but this was really no place for dogs. She was going to be reading up on rehab and spinal injuries and internal bleeding and bed sores and any other term she’d gleaned from years of watching medical shows on TV. “I’ve never seen Mom so concerned about anything before,” Malcolm wrote, and Melly wondered if perhaps this was the first time Cheryl had ever been in real danger of losing something she loved.
Nanette Arceneaux rose to the occasion and bestowed all her spare sympathies on her old friend.
“Poor Cheryl,” she said, with a tender-hearted swipe across her phone’s screen. “What a pain to have to drive all the way up to Dallas. They ought to buy an airplane with all that money.”
Out of sight was out of mind for Nanette. She was sorry for Cheryl, and it was really too bad, but she had enough on her plate without getting all wrapped up in the troubles of people she hadn’t seen for years. Melly tried to suppress an image of the grave of Melusine Arceneaux, age 16, dead of indeterminate health causes after a year of failing health at Stillwater, and her mother standing before it and sighing, “Poor Melly. Well, at least she’s running in heaven now, so y’all need to settle down now and stop the fussing.”
Malcolm’s notes to Melly gave hints of how heavily responsibilities rested on him during this time. He was dragged down by the stony cold weight of guilt for an injured brother he had never loved well enough. The school demanded more of his attention, and now he had the additional charge of carrying out as many of Richard’s Stillwater duties as could be transferred to him, including the slippery task of keeping Esther within her amorphous mandate. Of all the ways he could choose to spend his limited energy, babysitting his aunt ranked lowest on his list. For her part, Esther knew when she had the field to herself. Her own boundless energy, now unfettered by Richard’s oversight, poured itself out right under Malcolm’s oblivious nose in the realization of a long-deferred dream:` a great Christmas fete, a great labor now designed to separate Stillwater’s public image from Dick’s.
Yes, Dick had a public image now. He’d not been the only person injured in the accident. The car had struck a house, and in the house had lived an elderly man, and he, like Dick, had lingered on the border of life and death. Dick still lingered on, but the old man died, and his death revived the fading news tidbit for a day or two. Dick was only a footnote to the story, and Stillwater only a footnote to Dick, but Esther was determined to bring the house out of his shadow with a blast of Christmas lights. Cheryl might cry, Richard might sigh, Malcolm might slog doggedly ahead, but Esther would act. Her karma, apparently, decreed that she was to be forever looking out for the interests of those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, look out for themselves.
In the weeks following the accident, Melly was sick with grief for the Spencer family. She passed her time in a state of penance. Each day demanded that she make a fresh commitment to sit in her classes and write her papers and talk to her sister without letting the bottomless hunger of her worry devour her from the inside out. How effortless and interesting it would be to retreat from the dreary confines of her student life to the world of her imagination, to tell herself stories about how much help she could be giving Cheryl right now, how much companionship she could give Richard, how much comfort she could give Malcolm, especially if he hadn’t yet written to Alys…
Here she would grip her desk or bite her tongue or glance at the chapel to bring herself back into reality. How cheap was it to use Malcolm’s pain as a way to worm into his affections? How could she make her friendship warm but not intrusive, gentle but not distant? She edited and refined her emails back to him, fixing phrases that were too trite and lifeless, and toning down anything that was too hysterical or grasping. For such a vulnerable reader, every word carried a charge for good or ill.
Even when she wasn’t writing to him, she felt that this suffering united them. Her fears or fantasies only seemed to fracture her heart and isolate the pieces in cold solitary cells, but when she opened herself up to take up his suffering as her own, it forged a link between their hearts. Or rather, suffering was a not a single link between them, but a whole network of links joined together like little rings of chain mail, so that sharing Malcolm’s suffering strengthened her share in Cheryl’s suffering, and in Richard’s. She could even come to love the unloveable Dick, after a fashion, by uniting her classroom isolation to his hospital-bed isolation, and she took up her books more willingly as a way of participating in his graver trials. When Nanette’s laziness pushed her to the snapping point, she thought of Malcolm, weary on the Friday evening flight to Dallas, and the swelling of her heart helped her to bite back her sighs and not shut herself in.
Leonie, chauffeuring Melly to campus, listened with lively affection to every detail of the Spencer family trials, but the affection was for Melly rather than the Spencers. She barely remembered Cheryl; Dick, not at all. Still, she had a kindly heart, and she could feel for them in her own way. She also wasn’t shy about voicing opinions where Melly would only muse.
“And how come Malcolm has to go to Dallas every weekend?What about his sisters?” she would ask, and then cut Melly off before she could rise to their defense. “If it were my brother laying in the hospital, I’d haul ass from wherever I was to be at his side. Even if it were Marc.”
Being in Brazil was an excuse even Leonie could admit, though Melly hastened to add that Olivia did call and say that she would come back if Dick were really dying. Sophia sent flowers from her suite in New York, where she’d been spending her autumn absorbing culture. There was no reason she couldn’t come back, if she’d really wanted to. Melly believed that the city smog was creeping into her soul and corrupting all it touched.
Take Alys, for example. How long had it been since Malcolm had heard from her? Yes, he’d been too busy to make much progress with her over these last weeks, but it wasn’t as if she’d taken great pains to make herself indispensable to him, either. When had she last called him? When had she last written? Perhaps, oh perhaps she was going to give him up, leave him alone, set him free.
Or perhaps she was going to send Melly an email.
I won’t beat around the bush, because I know you sympathize with anything related to the Spencer family. And I know everyone tells you everything, as is only right. And I know I can trust you to be honest, so please, imagine that I’ve worked through all the polite preliminary nothings so that I can come right to the point. I want you to tell me: is Dick really going to die? Or how bad is he? It’s a terrible thing, terrible, and even though this is exactly the way one could have predicted he’d go into the night, it doesn’t make it any easier when it does happen. I know his death will be a blow to those who are able to feel it: his parents, certainly, and you, no doubt, and Malcolm. And now you’ve found me out. If Dick dies, Malcolm will need comfort, and he will want release, and I want to make it easy for him to turn to me for both. You’re an angel, Melly, and you obviously don’t need to exploit emotional weakness, if Ian is any indicator, but try to understand how it is. Malcolm is so cerebral that even at the most opportune moments I can’t make heads or tails of his mood, but this, this is something that has to shock him out of his restraint. If I knew how things stood with him, I might finally be able to break through his seminary training and find the man underneath. You’re the only one I can ask about this. Even if Sophia cared about Dick’s health, and even in the dubious case that she possesses a finer feeling somewhere, I couldn’t well talk to Malcolm’s sister about getting through to him. And I know you don’t judge me, you’re too sweet to judge me for my own brand of prudence. I only want us to be happy, and it strikes me that if Dick can help bring that about, it would be a nobler deed than any he ever performed in life.
And now Ian is sitting across the couch from me, staring me out of countenance with those big blue eyes until I tell you that we are more than ready at the drop of a fedora to snag his friend’s jet and pick you up and fly you to Dallas for a visit with the family. I guess he ran into Sophia, and she told him that Mrs. S can’t stop talking about you, ever, so this could be your good deed for the year. It would be good for me, for all of us, for Ian especially, to get out of town and be together again. I know you already feel your conscience tugging you toward Dallas, so be a sweetheart and let us help you give in to what you really want to do anyway.
I know you will respond so promptly that I’m already checking my email for replies before I even hit send.
If she thought too much about her reply to this, she would explode from the force of the conflicting arguments boiling inside her. She would die for a quick trip to see everyone in Dallas this weekend; she would die if she ever threw Malcolm into Alys’s clutches; she would die before she put herself in Ian’s debt. And if Alys touched Malcolm, she, Melly, would kill her dead.
No, of course she wouldn’t kill Alys. And why would she not trust Malcolm to do what was right, as she had always trusted him before? And why should she be surprised that Ian couldn’t turn off the flirting in New York when Alys was example number one of what an extended dip in that toxic atmosphere could do? But if New York was really so unhealthy, shouldn’t Melly give them any pretext to get out of town? How on earth was she supposed to answer such maddening note?
In the past, the truth had usually served her well. She applied it this time. No, she wrote, she couldn’t see her way to going to Dallas without being specifically invited by Cheryl or Richard, who, after all, would ask her to come if they needed her. As far as she knew, Dick was not going to die, so Alys could rest her mind on that score. It was even possible that he might walk again.
The rest of the letter she refused to touch. She was not going to play moral intermediary for Alys and Malcolm. Malcolm needed to answer Alys himself. Eventually they would need to decide whether their conflicting principles posed an interesting challenge or an insuperable obstacle, but that decision was one burden Melly could not lighten for him. She wouldn’t even if she could. If Malcolm was going to be a damn fool in the end, he could do it without her help. She was firm in this resolution not to interfere, lofty in her bitter solitude, until she realized that in spite of herself, her running inner monologue had been transformed from, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” to the constant supplication, “Lead him not into temptation, lead him not into temptation, please lead him not into temptation…”
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