"What?" Sam asked, patiently. It was almost midnight, and they'd been on their way to bed. The house was dark except for the glass fixture above the stairwell, and the silvery strands in Sam's thick, dark hair glinted in the low light. Their chubby golden retriever, Beef, was already upstairs, looking down at them from the landing, his buttery ears falling forward.
"It's nothing, I guess." Jill started back up the stairs, but Beef swung his head toward the front of the house and gave an excited bark. His tail started to wag, and Jill turned, too, listening again.
"It's Abby!" Jill heard it for sure, this time. The cry resonated in her chest, speaking directly to her heart. She turned around and hurried for the entrance hall, and Beef scampered downstairs after her, his heavy butt getting ahead of him, like a runaway tractor-trailer.
"Abby who?" Sam called after her. "Your ex's kid?"
"Yes." Jill reached the front door, twisted the deadbolt, flicked on the porch light, and threw open the door. Abby wasn't there, and Jill didn't see her because it was so dark. There were no streetlights at this end of the block, and the rain obliterated the outlines of the houses and cars, graying out the suburban scene. Suddenly, a black SUV with only one headlight drove past, spotlighting a silhouette that Jill would know anywhere. It was Abby, but she was staggering down the sidewalk as if she'd been injured.
"Sam, call 911!" Jill bolted out of the house and into the storm, diagnosing Abby on the fly. It could have been a hit-and-run, or an aneurysm. Not a stroke, Abby was too young. Not a gunshot or stab wound, in this neighborhood.
Jill tore through the rain. Beef bounded ahead, barking in alarm. The neighbor's motion-detector went on, casting a halo of light on their front lawn. Abby stumbled off the sidewalk. Her purse slipped from her shoulder and dropped to the ground. Abby took a few more faltering steps, then collapsed, crumpling to the grass.
"Abby!" Jill screamed, sprinting to Abby's side, kneeling down.
Abby was conscious, but crying. Jill reached for her pulse and scanned her head and body for signs of injury, and there were none. Rainwater covered Abby's face, streaking her mascara and blackening her tears. Her hair stuck to her neck, and rain plastered her thin sundress to her body. Her pulse felt strong and steady, bewildering Jill. "Abby, Abby, what is it?"
"You have to . . . hold me." Abby raised her arms. "Please."
Jill gathered Abby close, shielding her from the rain. She'd held Abby so many times before, and all the times rushed back at her, as if her very body had stored the memories, until that very moment.
Jill flashed on the time Abby had fallen off her Rollerblades, breaking an ankle. Then the time Abby had gotten a C on her trig final. The time she didn't get picked for the travel soccer team. Abby had always been a sensitive little girl, but she wasn't a little girl anymore, and Jill had never seen her cry so hard.
"Abby, honey, please, tell me, and I can help."
"I can't say it . . . it's so awful." Abby sobbed, and Jill caught a distinct whiff of alcohol on her breath and came up to speed. Abby wasn't injured, she'd been drinking. Jill hadn't seen her in three years, and Abby had grown up; she'd be nineteen now. Abby sobbed harder. "Jill, Dad's dead . . . he's dead."
"What?" Jill gasped, shocked. Her ex-husband was in excellent health, still in his forties. "How?"
"Somebody . . . killed him." Abby dissolved into tears, her body going limp, clinging to Jill. "Please, you have to . . . help me. I have to find out . . . who did it."
Jill hugged her closer, feeling her grief and struggling to process what had happened. She couldn't imagine William as a murder victim, or a victim of any kind, for that matter, but her first thought was of his daughters, Abby and Victoria, and her own daughter, Megan. The news would devastate all of them, Megan included. William was her stepfather, but the only father she'd ever known. Her real father had died before she was born.
"Babe, what are you doing? Let's get her into the house!" Sam shouted, to be heard over the rain. He was kneeling on Abby's other side, though Jill didn't know when he'd gotten there.
"William's been murdered," Jill told him, sounding numb, even to herself.
"I heard. We're not calling 911, she's just drunk." Sam squinted against the brightness of the motion-detector light. Raindrops soaked his hair and dappled his polo shirt. "Let me take her arm. Lift her on one, two, three," he counted off, tugging Abby's arm.
"Okay, go." Jill took Abby's other arm, and together they hoisted her, sobbing, to her feet, gathered her purse, and half walked and half carried her toward the house, sloshing through the grass, with Beef at their heels.
Jill tried to collect her thoughts, which were in turmoil. She'd always dreamed of seeing Abby again, but not in these circumstances, and she dreaded telling Megan about William. But as agonized as she felt for the girls, Jill wouldn't shed a tear for her ex-husband. There was a reason she had divorced the man, and it was a whopper.
And evidently, not only the good died young.
Read chapter two of "Come Home" on Tuesday in the Magazine section.