It’s 2:00 p.m. on a freakishly warm afternoon in January. Susannah Gilbert reluctantly looks up from her laptop. Standing in the doorway of her home office is her husband, Charlie. “Have you seen what it’s doing outside?” he asks. She nods, attention drifting back to the screen. “It’s sixty-nine degrees.”
“The January thaw, right?” She’s read about this some place, though she can’t recall where. “Whatever. We should take advantage of it, though. Let’s go for a bike ride before the kids get home.”
“I wish I could.” She turns to him. At six foot three, he’s lanky and lean. Ginger hair, great smile and under his shirt, a constellation of freckles dotting his shoulders and upper back. Forty-three, yet still so boyish. “But I’ve got a deadline.”
“One afternoon is not going to make or break you. Not even an afternoon. An hour and a half, max. Carpe diem and all that.”
She smiles at him. “I really can’t. But you go.”
“It’ll be more fun with you.”
“Next time,” she says. “I promise.”
He sighs and Susannah turns back to her work. But Charlie remains standing in the doorway.
“What?” she says, trying to conceal her impatience.
“Are you sure?”
She hesitates. But the chapter, the deadline, the meal she’ll need to prepare in a few hours—the perpetually revolving domestic wheel keeps her rooted to her chair.
“All right.” He sounds a bit deflated but finally heads toward the stairs. Susannah barely registers his leaving. She wants to get back to the novel she’s writing, a novel in which a minor English noblewoman has become ensnared in a dangerous court intrigue. Tapping on her keypad, Susannah follows Lady Whitmore along vast, tapestry-lined corridors and up curving flights of steep, stone steps. Now Lady Whitmore enters the bedchamber of the young and essentially powerless queen and closes the heavy, oak door behind her.
Will she be able to help the sovereign outsmart the cunning noblemen who want her out of the way, making room for an even more pliant pawn?
Some time after three o’ clock, Susannah registers her son Jack’s arrival home, and a short time later, her daughter Cally’s. Leaving Lady Whitmore, Susannah switches off the computer, and goes downstairs. Time to start dinner.
As the sky darkens—despite the warmth, it is still winter, and dusk comes early—she moves around the narrow but cozy kitchen of her Park Slope brownstone, getting the meal together.
Charlie built this room almost single-handedly when they moved in nearly twenty years ago. The wood for the counter tops was reclaimed from the bar of an old Irish pub that was going out of business, the floor tile was a manufacturer’s overstock that he’d bought for next to nothing. That was so like Charlie—he could see possibilities in the most unlikely of places, and he was a consummate craftsman, able to turn his vision into a reality.
Susannah checks the clock on the stove. Charlie had said an hour and a half and it’s been more than three hours. He must have gotten sidetracked. She pictures him peddling up the hill on his green bicycle, exertion making his cheeks glow pink. He’ll be all excited about his outing, and eager to tell her where he’s been, what he’s seen. He really is a big kid. Four days a week, he teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan; on Fridays, he works at home. His current project is a picture book about inter-galactic travel and the preliminary drawings of the spacecraft—sleek and silvery blue—are pinned up around his studio.
She likes having him home on a day when the children are not here; sometimes she fixes them a special lunch or sometimes they go upstairs for what Charlie loves best: daytime sex. “I’m an artist,” he always said. “And for an artist, there’s no light like daylight.”
As Susannah bastes the chicken, she feels a small tug of guilt. Maybe she should have gone with him today. She’ll make it up to him, she decides. She’ll work extra hard this week and next Friday, she’ll take the whole day off. She’ll bring him breakfast in bed and then climb back in with him. He’ll like that. So will she.
“Where’s Dad?” Cally walks into the kitchen and begins setting the table.
“He went for a bike ride; he should be home soon.” It’s almost six o’ clock, the time they usually eat dinner. The roast chicken is ready and Susannah debates whether to keep it in the oven or take it out; does she want it dry or does she want it cold?
“He’s on Dad time,” Cally says. But she’s smiling. They all know Charlie is dreamy and easily distracted: by the sight of a splashy sunset that tinges the clouds with gold, by an old buddy who wants him to stop for a beer, by a picture he just has to take with his iPhone. Jack, who has just walked in, goes over to the cutlery drawer and is now handing silverware to his sister; they are a good team. “Well, I hope he gets here soon. I’m starved.”
“Me too.” Cally straightens a place mat.
“He will,” says Susannah, though she is pricked by annoyance. She takes the chicken out of the oven. Cold is fixable. Dry is not. Both Cally and Jack have washed their hands and are sitting down, waiting. Everything is ready, everyone is here. Except her husband. She picks up her phone, and as she could have predicted, the call goes straight to voicemail; Charlie routinely turns off the ringer on his phone. But it is now four hours since he left. Couldn’t he have at least called to say he was going to be late? “Where the hell is he?” She does not actually mean to say this aloud.
“Don’t curse at Daddy!” Cally scolds.
“I’m not cursing at him.” Susannah is instantly contrite. “I’m just…cursing.”
“Well, you shouldn’t!”
“You’re right, sweet pea. He probably stopped to get something.” Charlie is apt to do that—tulips for the table, or an extravagant dessert. “Remember last week when he brought home that salted caramel pie?”
“Don’t even talk about pie!” says Jack.
Then the bell rings. Oh good—Charlie’s home. Obviously he forgot his keys—he does that a lot—and she hurries to let him in. But instead of Charlie, apologizing profusely, leaning down to kiss her, pressing his offering into her arms, she finds two police officers standing at the door. One has a blond crew cut showing from under his blue hat; the other is a dark skinned woman. “Mrs. Miller?” She flashes her badge. “May we come in?” Susannah tenses but steps aside. “Your husband, Charles–”
“My husband isn’t Charles. He’s Charlie.” Susannah seizes on their mistake; whatever they think their mission here is, they have gotten it all wrong. And she isn’t Mrs. Miller anyway. She kept Gilmore, her maiden name, the one her grandfather Isaac Goldblatt decided would help him move more easily through the world.
“There’s been an accident. It was in Queens and–”
“What kind of accident?” Susannah is aware that Cally and Jack are standing close behind her.
“Bicycle.” The word is delivered by the young blond officer. “Your husband was thrown off. He sustained a serious head injury.”
“Queens? What would he be doing in Queens?” Charlie barely knows where Queens is; they joke about this occasionally. But the words “head injury” send her panicked glance over to the row of hooks by the door. Suspended from one of them is the expensive, glitter-flecked helmet she bought Charlie for his last birthday, the one he swears up and down that he’ll wear—and then almost never does.
The two officers look at each other, and in that look, Susannah knows everything. She will not let herself believe it; still, her gaze is pulled almost magnetically back to the helmet. Charlie thinks it is an encumbrance; he only wears it when she reminds him. But today she didn’t remind him. Today she’d been busy and wanted to get back to work.
“I think maybe you should sit down,” says the female cop.
There is a sickening numbness gathering around her, a horrible, this-can’t-be-real feeling that she desperately wants to swat away. But Susannah allows herself to be led to the table. Cally and Jack silently follow. “How bad is he?”
The officer shakes her head. “I’m sorry. The injury was fatal. By the time the ambulance got there, he was already gone.” There is a pause before she adds, in a low voice, “We’ll need you to identify the body.”
Jack starts sobbing. Cally emits a single, strangled sound. But Susannah cannot speak. Identify the body? Charlie’s body? It’s just not possible. He was standing there, in her office, mere hours ago. “It’ll be more fun with you,” he had said. Why hadn’t she gone with him? Why?
Jack is crying noisily but Cally marches over to the row of hooks, takes down the helmet and thrusts it in front of her mother. “He wasn’t wearing it.”
“No,” says Susannah. “He wasn’t.” The helmet has a reinforced safety strap and an impervious, mocking gleam. She turns her head away so she doesn’t have to see it any more.
“You didn’t remind him.” There is recrimination in her words. Also, a cold, adult-sounding fury. “It’s your fault. You let Daddy get killed!” And with that, she bolts from the room. The officers stand with their heads bowed, and Jack continues to sob. Susannah cannot move and the sounds of Jack’s continued weeping, the blond officer’s abashed cough, recede. All she can hear, in a relentless, repetitive loop, are her husband’s last words: Are you sure?