If I Die Tonight, page 1
About the Book
About the Author
ABOUT THE BOOK
There was a time when Jackie Reed knew her sons better than anyone. She used to be able to tell what they were thinking, feeling, if they were lying…
But it’s as though every day, every minute even, she knows them a little less. Her boys aren’t boys anymore, they’re becoming men – men she’s not sure she recognises, men she’s not sure she can trust.
So when one of her son’s classmates is killed in suspicious circumstances, people start asking questions.
Was it really a hit and run? A car-jacking gone wrong? Or something much more sinister?
Now Jackie must separate the truth from the lies.
How did that boy end up on the road?
And where was her son that night?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alison Gaylin’s first job was as a reporter for a celebrity tabloid, which sparked a lifelong interest in writing about people committing despicable acts. More than a decade later, she wrote and published her Edgar-nominated first novel, HIDE YOUR EYES.
She’s since published nine more books, including the USA Today and international bestselling Brenna Spector suspense series, which has been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony and Thriller awards and won the Shamus award.
Her previous novel, WHAT REMAINS OF ME was an international success and received rave reviews.
She lives in upstate New York with her husband, daughter, cat and dog.
You make me proud every day.
From the Facebook page of Jacqueline Merrick Reed.
October 24 at 2:45am
By the time you read this, I’ll be dead.
This isn’t Jackie. It’s her son Wade. She doesn’t know where I am. She doesn’t even know I can get on her FB page, so don’t ask her. This isn’t her fault. I am not her fault.
I am writing to tell my mom and Connor that I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone. I wish I could tell you the truth of what happened, but it’s not my truth to tell. And anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters, what I want you both to know, is that I love you. Don’t feel sad. Everything you did was the right thing to do. I’m sorry for those things I said to you, Connor. I didn’t mean any of it.
Funny, I’m thinking about you right now, Connor. How you used to follow me around all the time when you were a little kid. How you used to copy everything I did. You probably don’t remember this but when you were about four, I taught you the middle finger, and you did it to that mean babysitter we had. What was her name, Mom? Loretta? Lurleen? Anyway, Whatever-her-name-was had some crap reality show on the TV. Real Housewives of the Seventh Circle of Hell. She wouldn’t let us watch the Mets game and called us nasty little brats and told us we had no business talking at all because children should be seen and not heard. Whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
So, Connor gets off the couch, walks up to Lurleen and flips her the bird. He was so little, he needed two hands to do it. He used the left hand to hold down the fingers on the right. Do you remember this, Mom? Because I’m pretty sure she ratted us out without explaining the context of forcing us to watch her crap TV show. You were so mad, we didn’t get dessert for two weeks.
I remember thinking how unfair the whole thing was and how quick grown-ups were to believe the lies of other grown-ups, especially when it came to their own kids. But looking back on it now, all I can remember is how red Loretta’s face got and how hard we both laughed, even with her shrieking at us. It was one of those moments. My English teacher Mrs. Crawford called them ‘memory gifts.’ You keep them in a special part of your brain and you kind of wrap them up to preserve them and tie them with a ribbon, so when you need them, when you’re feeling really bad, you can unwrap them and you remember all the details and feel the moment all over again. So thanks for that memory gift, buddy. It’s making me smile now.
I’m all alone here right now, unless you count the ghost lol. I’m writing this just after taking the pills, but I won’t post it until I start to really feel them. According to what I read, death comes pretty soon after that.
So I’m typing extra fast. Sorry about typos.
This will probably make a lot of you very happy. Good. For anybody who might be sad, sorry. But you know what? Stuff happens. Things go wrong. And the more you stick around, the wronger they get. I know I’m just 17. But I think of what life would be like if I wasn’t here. I think of the way things could have gone without me in the picture, how much better it would be. And then I know. I’m sure of it. I’ve lived too long already.
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Five days earlier
In bed late at night with her laptop, Jackie Reed sometimes forgot there were others in the house. That’s how quiet it was here, with these hushed boys of hers, always with their heads down, with their shuffling footsteps and their padded sneakers, their muttered greetings, their doors closing behind them.
When did kids get to be so quiet? When she was their age – well, Wade’s age anyway – Jackie clomped around in her Doc Martens and slammed doors. She’d blast her albums loud as they’d go – Violent Femmes and Siouxsie and Scraping Foetus off the Wheel – edging up the volume until her bones vibrated with the bass, the drums, flailing around her room, dancing as hard as she could with her parents pounding on the walls, begging her to turn it down.
Please, Jacqueline, I can’t hear myself think!
Looking back on it now, she saw it as a rite of passage, the same one her mother had gone through with her Elvis and her Lesley Gore, and her grandmother too, no doubt, cranking the Mario Lanza as though she was the only person who mattered in the cramped Brooklyn walk-up where she grew up.
There was such power in loud music, such teenage energy and rebellion and soaring possibility. Who’d have thought, back then, that it would all go extinct within just one generation? These days, teens plugged themselves into devices, headphone wires spooling out of their ears like antennae. They kept their music to themselves, kept everything to themselves and their devices and the friends they talked to on those devices, all of whom you couldn’t hear, couldn’t see unless you swiped their phones away mid-conversation to read the screen and who wanted to do that? Who wanted to be that mom?
They shut you out. Your children shut you out of their heads, their lives. And that was a form of rebellion so much more chilling than blasting music or yelling. They made it so you couldn’t know them anymore. They made it so you couldn’t help.
Just yesterday, she’d been making breakfast when Wade’s phone had gone off like a bomb on the kitchen counter. That incoming text tone of his, literally like a bomb, the
The phone’s case was missing – an accident waiting to happen, the latest broken screen of so many broken screens in this house. Why didn’t her boys take better care of their things?
Moving it back from the edge of the counter, Jackie had looked. The text had been from someone he’d nicknamed simply ‘T’: Leave me alone.
The gut-punch of those words, the intimacy of the single initial. Who was this person? A girl? How could she say that to Wade? What has he done? All those questions looping through her mind. And here, a day later, Jackie still didn’t know the answer to a single one of them.
Once Wade had retrieved his phone and left for school, she’d checked his long-abandoned Facebook page for cryptic posts from friends with T names and dusted his room for evidence of a girlfriend – but not too deeply. She couldn’t bear to hack his laptop or go through his drawers. She wasn’t that mom.
Casually, in the car on the way to his guitar lesson, she’d asked Connor, ‘Do you know if Wade has been fighting with any of his friends?’
Connor had shaken his head and replied quietly, saying it to the car floor in his cracking, changing thirteen-year-old voice, ‘I don’t really know too many of Wade’s friends, Mom.’
Jackie sighed. She and Wade needed to talk. But not now. It was nearly midnight and his third and final chance at the SATs was tomorrow and he needed his sleep. Wade was looking so tired lately, she wondered if he ever really slept at all.
Jackie felt a chill at her back, cold night air pressing against her bedroom window, against the thin walls, creeping through cracks in the plaster. Her house was so drafty, even now in mid-October. She hated thinking about what the winter would be like. A lifetime ago, Jackie had lived in sunny Southern California. The Hollywood Experiment, she and her ex-husband Bill had called it, when they were still young and childless – not even married yet, Bill with his screenplay, Jackie with her half-finished novel, driving out to LA to follow their dreams. It had only lasted a year, the Hollywood Experiment coming to a crashing close when Jackie had gotten pregnant with Wade and they’d moved back to Havenkill, where they both were assured real jobs. But what a warm year it had been, in every way. Those breath-hot Santa Ana winds on the back of her neck, the camellias blooming bright, all the way into Christmas. In twelve months, Jackie hadn’t needed to unpack a single pair of socks and they’d slept nude, crisp sheets against their skin …
Jackie pulled the comforter tighter around her and focused on her laptop screen – the scrolling Facebook feed with its lurid shots of five-star dinners, vacations in St. Bart’s, Miami, the Mexican Riviera, perfect cocktails brightened up with exotically named filters. Perpetua, Valencia, Clarendon.
So many selfies, too. One caught Jackie’s eye: her friend Helen Davies, who worked with her at the Potter Bloom real estate agency and had gone to high school with her thirty years ago in this very town. Helen with her chunky gold earrings and her Mona Lisa smile, head tilted down, ducking the camera in the same way Jackie did, that middle-aged female way, hoping for low light. But Helen looked so much livelier than Jackie, so much more satisfied, her peachy-skinned, seventeen-year-old daughter Stacy thrust in front of her like the lovely feature she was.
Girls’ day in the city, the caption read. Shopping at Saks!
Jackie looked at Stacy’s bright smile and felt a stab of jealousy. Did they know their children better than she did, these mothers of daughters? Were they as happy as they looked?
Stupid question. Nobody was as happy as they looked on Facebook – even Jackie knew that. She reached for her glass of Chardonnay and took a long swallow, feeling the comforting tartness of it at the back of her tongue, the warmth as it slid down her throat. She glanced down at the corner of the screen: 11:27 pm. Time to sleep. Or try to. Why did her brain do this to her every night? She’d wander through her whole day exhausted, and then as soon as it was time to go to bed, all of the worries and misgivings she’d successfully buried during the past sixteen hours would pop out of their shallow graves, one by one, and parade through her brain, keeping her awake. Memories, too. Like the time she was showing her very first house and the couple got the time wrong and she wound up half an hour late at Wade’s preschool to find him sitting on the bench in the parking lot, his little face pinched red, teacher dabbing at his tears.
Mommy, where were you? Did you forget about me?
Jackie slid open her nightstand drawer, found her bottle of Xanax. She took half a pill – just half, washed down with the rest of the Chardonnay. By the time she’d quit out of Facebook, closed the laptop screen and flicked off her light, her breathing had slowed and she felt herself sinking into a velvety half-sleep, her muscles relaxing. Jackie closed her eyes and drifted off, drowsy and warm with the knowledge that everything in life was temporary, life included. And really, when it all came down to it, nothing was worth the effort it took to worry.
A sound jolted Jackie awake; she wasn’t sure what. She’d been dreaming she was in a rowboat in the middle of choppy waters and the oars wouldn’t reach, and when she woke, she felt queasy from something, either the dream or the Chardonnay. It took her several seconds to blink the cobwebs out of her brain and focus on the sound, which was coming from across the hall – a scuffling, the clink of metal. She reached for her phone; 911, she thought. Call 911. No. No, breathe first. Listen. Could be the wind. Could be anything.
Jackie breathed. Three deep breaths, what Helen called cleansing breaths, Helen and her yoga classes, out with the bad energy, in with the good. She tried to focus on the scuffling, really hear it. She exhaled again, hard; air tumbling out of her. Listened.
Arnie. Connor’s pet hamster, racing around his cage. Nocturnal or not, that animal slept all the time … What woke him up?
From down the hall, near the front door, Jackie heard the creak of floorboards. A thump. She bolted up to sitting. Looked at the digital clock on her nightstand: 1:48 am.
Heart pounding up into her throat, Jackie grabbed her phone, crept toward the bedroom door, bare feet on the hardwood floor, heel to toe, heel to toe, breath soft and shallow, arms straight out like a tightrope walker … Don’t make a sound.
She pressed 911 on her phone, her finger hovering over the send button. If she saw anything, anyone … She cracked the door. Don’t hurt my boys, she thought. As though they were smaller than her. You hurt my boys, I’ll kill you.
Jackie peered into the darkened hallway.
Behind Connor’s closed door, Arnie squeaked and shuffled in his cage.
Jackie kept a baseball bat by her bedroom door. Left over from Wade’s long-forgotten Little League days. She took the bat in hand, the cool metal against her palm calming her.
She moved into the hallway. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Anyone there?’
Jackie flipped the hall light on. She glided across the hall to Connor’s room, bat and phone in the same hand. With the other, she cracked the door. The room was warm, pitch-dark, heavy with the sound of her son’s sleep-breathing, Arnie’s insistent squeaks. Her eyes adjusted. No one in here but the two of them.
She lowered the bat, her heartbeat slowing as the last shards of sleep fell away and everything grew clear. Okay, she thought. This is what’s going on. She backed out of Connor’s room. Softly closed his door.
Wade’s door was ajar, and she knew without looking that the bed would be empty, that the thumps she’d heard earlier had been the sound of someone leaving the house, not breaking in. From where she was standing, she could see him through the long window next to the front door, the shadow of him in the porch light. A few steps closer and she saw him in full. Wade. His back to the house, the glow of his cigarette. Watching the stars. When did he get so tall?
Jackie should stop him, she knew. He needed to sleep. He shouldn’t be smoking. She knew all of that. But she couldn’t.
Let him hav
Jackie slipped back into her own room, slid open her nightstand drawer and took the other half-Xanax, this time with nothing. She pulled the comforter up to her chin and closed her eyes, waiting for the calm. As she started to drift, she found herself thinking of Wade. How smiley and talkative he’d been when he was little, so eager to please. He was different now. A different boy, a sad boy …
No, sad was the wrong word. Sad was something she understood.
Pearl Maze was on the phone with the drunk’s wife when the rain started.
‘I’m sorry, ma’am,’ Pearl was saying, eyes on the drunk, headache starting to blossom. ‘But we can’t just hold him here indefinitely.’
‘Isn’t that what they’re for?’ the wife said. ‘Holding cells? I mean, Jesus. It’s nearly three in the morning. Why should I have to suffer for his idiocy?’
‘We don’t have a holding cell, ma’am,’ she said. ‘We’re too small for a holding cell. We just have a holding bench.’
The drunk was cuffed to the bench. His head lolled to one side and his eyes were half-closed and his mouth open, drool trickling out the side of his clean-shaven face and into the collar of his pink-and-white-striped, Oxford-cloth shirt. The drunk did have a name, though Pearl didn’t see the point in remembering it, him losing consciousness and all. She’d typed it into the computer and fingerprinted him after Tally and Udel had brought him in, kicking and screaming that he’d committed no crime, that he hadn’t been driving, he’d been enjoying the evening for chrissakes and looking up at the stars and what the hell did they mean, disturbing the peace, disturbing the peace was his God-given right as an American, you’re all worse than my wife, you know that?
The drunk wasn’t from around here – he was visiting from New York City. A leaf peeper, staying at the Pine Hollow B & B with his incredibly put-out-sounding wife. Pearl was over and done with the both of them. Go back to New York City. I’ll pay for your train tickets. The whole booking room stunk of him now – whiskey and stale cigarettes and whatever else he’d rolled around in between consuming eleven Jamesons and a beer chaser at the Red Door Tavern and sitting cross-legged in the middle of Merchant Street, yelling obscenities at the flashing traffic light. The smell wasn’t doing anything to relieve her headache. Pearl shut her eyes and squeezed the bridge of her nose. She needed a glass of water, two cups of coffee, three Advil.