On a mid-March afternoon as the sun drifted down over Piestewa Peak, seventy-year-old Rachel Higgins wrapped her sweater more tightly around her body and took another sip of her vodka tonic. Snowbirds might be running around dressed in Bermuda shorts, Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops, and sandals, but for Rachel—a Phoenix native and true desert dweller—mid-March still counted as winter.
Even so, she wasn’t ready to go inside, not just yet. For one thing there was nothing to go in for other than another evening of mindlessly viewing whatever empty-headed crap happened to be on TV. No, she was better off staying outside, savoring the luscious perfume of orange blossoms from the trees in the yard next door and appreciating the fact that her neighbors’ dim-bulb Chihuahua wasn’t outside barking his head off.
Rachel had long since become immune to the rumble of rush-hour traffic on State Route 51 and Highway 101 in the near distance. Back in the eighties, at the time Rachel and her husband, Rich, had bought the place on Menadota Drive, the nearby mountain, formerly known as Squaw Peak, had not yet been renamed Piestewa Peak in honor of Lori Piestewa, a young Hopi woman who during the Gulf War had become the first Native American woman ever to die while serving in the U.S. military.
When Rachel and Rich first moved to the neighborhood, both the 101 and the 51 had barely been a gleam in the eye of some crazed highway engineer. Now the name Squaw Peak was no more, and what had once been a serenely quiet desert landscape was perpetually overwhelmed by the unrelenting roar of 24/7 traffic.
This had been their dream home back then—one of the first houses to be built in a newly created subdivision. The house was a far cry from the modest bungalow off Seventh Avenue and Indian School that had been their first home. No, this one was spacious inside and out. Rich had told her at the time that a lot at the end of the cul-de-sac would be plenty big enough to accommodate a pool, and five years later they had one. At the time it had seemed as though their family life was coming to order at last. Rich had just earned an amazing promotion as an engineer at the Salt River Project, one that had made their purchase of the new place financially feasible. As for Rachel? At age thirty-six, after years of trying, a miracle had happened and she managed to get pregnant. On the day they moved into their new house, her precious son, David, was a babe in arms.
Rachel had been ecstatic with the way things were turning out. Although she’d taught school to pay the bills while Rich finished his degree, she’d never wanted to be anything but a housewife and mother. That’s why she’d majored in home ec in college. Was that major even an option these days? she wondered. Rachel didn’t know, but that’s exactly what Rich had wanted back then, too—a stay-at-home mother and housewife—and Rachel had settled into her chosen profession with enthusiasm.
Rachel’s father, Max, had been an accountant as well as a mousy little man with a propensity for letting people walk all over him. Her mother had been glad to spend his CPA earnings, all the while calling him a milquetoast behind his back. Naturally Rachel had gone looking for a different family dynamic, and Rich Higgins had turned out to be her father’s polar opposite. Even though he was five years younger than she, Rich had taken charge of their marriage, calling the shots in a “my way or the highway” fashion. That had worked fine in the beginning, but what happens when the guy calling the shots loses his bearings? What are you supposed to do then?
Once Rich got his degree in civil engineering, he became the sole breadwinner. He handled all the finances, most of the time without consulting Rachel. Since he’d been making good money, his running the financial show hadn’t been an issue—until it was. At age sixty, when given a choice between retiring early or being fired, he had opted for the former and hadn’t said a word to Rachel about it until after it was a done deal. It was several years before Rachel figured out that his having started his pension so young meant their retirement income amounted to far less than expected.
When things began getting tight, Rachel had offered to try going back to work, but Rich nixed the idea. No wife of his was going to work outside the home. They would survive on the money he brought home come hell or high water. It was what they’d agreed on to begin with, and that was the way it would be.
And what had Rachel done about that? Absolutely nothing. In her sixties she had somehow morphed into a female version of her father. She’d let Rich have his way and gone along with the program. Besides, when it came to entering the workforce after an almost forty-year absence, what could she do? Go back to teaching school? Hardly. Schools were a mess these days. Office work? Not likely. She could manage her laptop well enough to find information and send the occasional e-mail. But she was far from computer-literate, and her typing skills were limited to the hunt-and-peck variety. She could have looked for a job as a salesclerk, she supposed, but she couldn’t imagine standing behind a cash register for eight hours a day scanning other people’s groceries at Safeway or AJ’s Fine Foods.
In the end it had been easier for her to be complicit and go with the flow. She and Rich had made their bed together, and they were lying in it together as well. Except that wasn’t entirely true. They slept in separate bedrooms now. Rachel had the master, and Rich slept down the hall in the room that had once been David’s. They woke at different times and went to sleep at different times. The meals they ate together were generally consumed in silence. They were more like roommates than husband and wife. Was Rich as unhappy as Rachel was? Maybe, but it wasn’t something they discussed, because they mostly didn’t talk.
At this point Rachel was bored. She’d had a few flirtations here and there, but her outside relationships had never gone beyond that. Dealing with one man was quite enough, thank you very much! Had she thought about getting a divorce? Not really. For one thing they couldn’t afford it. For another, despite the fact that neither she nor Rich had attended Mass in years, she still regarded herself as a Catholic, meaning that divorce was out of the question. She would do the same thing her mother had done and stick it out to the bitter end.
Once Rich’s Social Security checks started coming in, those, too, were lower than they would have been had he started collecting benefits later. While Rich was still working, they’d spent (Rich said squandered) big chunks of their retirement savings sending David off to one useless rehab outfit after another. Now, though, all that missing money loomed large. As the reality of their financial situation came into focus and they were forced to cut one corner after another, Rachel didn’t dare complain, because she’d been the one who had insisted on investing so much cash in David’s drug issue. Instead she stuck to her part of what was now an increasingly bad bargain. She looked after the house, read the books she dragged home from the library each week, perused her online newspapers, watched TV, and otherwise lived the life of a hermit—or at least the life of a hermit’s wife.
The shabby cars they drove—her aging Mercedes and his Cadillac Escalade—were ten and fifteen years old respectively—but at least they still worked. Years of being parked in direct sunlight in the driveway meant that their exterior paint jobs had faded to powder, and the interiors were ragged with drooping headliners and sun-damaged upholstery. However, at this point the idea of buying a new car was totally out of the question.
As their mandatory belt-tightening continued, the social life Rachel had always taken for granted simply disappeared—restaurant meals, golf outings, casual gatherings with friends, going to movies, standing appointments at her favorite nail salon. It came as a real blow when Rachel had been forced to let her longtime cleaning lady go. They still had a yard man and a pool guy, but only because the homeowners’ association would have come after them if they’d let those slide, and Rich adamantly refused to do the work himself. He was too busy—making birdhouses!
With mourning doves cooing in the background, Rachel thought about how things had been when they’d first moved here as opposed to how things were now. The lot their house was on had been one of the first to be carved out of open desert. Shortly after moving in, Rachel had discovered that the lot’s original inhabitants were none too happy about ceding their long-held territory to a bunch of annoying interlopers.
As a toddler, David had never been allowed to play outside alone without his eagle-eyed mother watching over him. On more than one occasion, Rachel had wielded a hoe to dispatch rattlesnakes that had somehow slithered into the yard. In addition to snakes, there’d been a plethora of centipedes and scorpions, but Rachel had signed on to protect her child from all comers, and that’s exactly what she did.
When it came time for David to go to school, she had cheerfully donned her chauffeur’s hat and driven him back and forth to a small, newly established parochial school at St. Bartholomew’s Church on Shea Boulevard several miles to the south. She’d been responsible for taking him everywhere he needed to go—Boy Scout meetings, Little League games, and swim lessons—because that’s what she’d signed up for, to raise her son, to take care of him and see that he thrived. But then… She shook her head. How on earth could it all have gone so terribly wrong?
The slider was open, so when the doorbell rang inside, she could hear it out in the yard. Later Rachel would think of that sound as something her high school drama coach, Miss Reavis, would have called a “knocking within” when, at a critical juncture in a play, an offstage character announces his arrival with some kind of racket and brings with him an important piece of compelling information that will propel the story to its final conclusion. Over the next several months, Rachel finally came to realize that’s exactly what the ringing doorbell had been that day—the crucial tipping point that had turned everything in her life upside down. At the time, however, it was nothing more than an unwelcome infringement on her solitary afternoon cocktail.
There was no question about Rich emerging from his workshop long enough to answer the door. Even if he’d heard the bell, he wouldn’t have bothered bestirring himself from behind his workbench. And that was Rachel’s initial reaction, too—that she would simply ignore the ringing bell until whoever this unwelcome visitor was would finally give up and go away. After all, how important could it be?
In the old days, a caller this late in the afternoon might have been a paperboy out collecting from customers on his route, but Rich had stopped subscribing to paper-and-ink newspapers long ago. Since this was March, it might be one of the Brownies from up the street out peddling Girl Scout cookies. Or it might even be some political hack out canvassing the neighborhood, looking for votes in an upcoming municipal election.
The doorbell rang again, but still Rachel didn’t move. After a minute or so, it rang a third time. Obviously whoever was at the door wasn’t giving up or going away. They probably assumed that, with two cars parked out front, someone had to be home. Only then did Rachel finally get up to go to the door. In the front entry, she paused long enough to peer through the peephole. What she saw on the front porch was a heavily tattooed young woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt and holding a banker’s box. She was a twenty-something from the looks of it, so she was most definitely not out hawking Girl Scout cookies.
Once Rachel unlatched the dead bolt and security chain, she swung the door open. “Yes?”
“Are you Mrs. Higgins?”
“I am,” Rachel responded.
“David Higgins’s mother?”
“Yes,” Rachel replied. “I’m David’s mother. Who are you, and what do you want?”
“My name’s Tonya Bounds,” the young woman said. “My dad was Jake Bounds, and I came to give you this.”
She held out the box, but Rachel made no move to accept it.
“Who’s Jake Bounds?” she asked.
“After my folks divorced, my father took in boarders for a while,” Tonya answered. “I’m guessing your son must have rented a room from him at one time or another. My father died a couple of months ago. My boyfriend and I have been helping Mom get the house ready to sell. The place was a mess. We found this box in a corner of the garage with your son’s name on it. Inside was a copy of his obituary. I found your address, but when I tried calling, the phone had been disconnected.”
“Yes,” Rachel said, “we gave up having a landline years ago.”
“I didn’t know if you still lived at the same address, but since it’s on my way home, I decided to take a chance and try dropping by.”
“What’s in the box?” Rachel asked.
Tonya shrugged. “Not much, just a few things David left behind. I’m not sure why my dad bothered saving it. There’s a comb and brush, some clothing, and a pair of shoes, along with some other odds and ends—a class ring, a picture from Disneyland, and a school yearbook. Just random stuff, I guess.”
Relenting, Rachel reached out and took the box. When she did so, she found it to be far lighter than she’d expected.
“Thank you for going to the trouble of tracking us down to deliver it.”
“You’re welcome,” Tonya said with a smile. “Like I said. Your address is on my way. I live just south of the Scottsdale city limits in Tempe.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what did your father die of?”
Tonya’s smile faded and she shrugged. “An overdose,” she answered bleakly. “What else? That’s what caused Mom and Dad to split up in the first place. Dad was in and out of rehab time and again. He lasted longer than anyone thought he would, but still…” She paused for a moment before adding, “But then I’m guessing you know that drill.”
Rachel nodded. “I guess I do,” she agreed, “and it’s no fun. So sorry for your loss.”
Tonya turned to go. Rachel remained on the front porch long enough to watch the young woman drive off before going back inside, closing and latching the door behind her. Initially she started toward the kitchen with the box before changing her mind and heading for her bedroom instead.
David’s untimely death was what had plunged Rich into his pit of despair in the first place. To this day even the mention of their son’s name was enough to provoke a quarrel. Rather than leaving the box out in the open, Rachel tucked it into the back corner of her closet and shut the door. When she returned to the kitchen, she was surprised to find Rich there, making himself a bologna sandwich.
The way things were these days, Rachel no longer bothered with cooking nutritious meals. Chances were, Rich wouldn’t be interested in eating them in any case. Instead they subsisted on a steady diet of cold cereal and sandwiches. Rachel’s natural metabolism still served her in good stead. Rich’s didn’t. In the past seven years, he’d gained at least fifty pounds, probably more. She hadn’t said anything about it, though. If he didn’t care, why should she?
“Who was that at the door?” he asked.
She wanted to say, Why didn’t you answer the damned door yourself?—but she didn’t. “Magazine salesman,” she replied, lying to him without the slightest hesitation. “I told him we didn’t want any.”
“Good,” he said. “We don’t.”
With that, Rich collected his sandwich along with a bottle of Bud Light and returned to the garage without bothering to clean up his mess. Rachel did so because that’s what she always did—clean up after him. Then, rather than making herself a sandwich, she poured another vodka tonic. Before she would be able to face the contents of David’s box, she’d need some of what her mother had always referred to as “Dutch courage.”
It wasn’t until much later that night, after Rich had retreated to his room without a word to Rachel and after his TV set was blaring behind his closed door, that Rachel, more than slightly drunk, finally meandered down the hall to her own room, where she closed the door, pulled the banker’s box out of the closet, and moved it to her bed.
When she lifted the lid, the first thing she saw, of course, was the obituary and the printed program from the funeral home—the one that had been handed out to people attending the service. That meant Tonya’s father had been enough of a friend that he’d actually gone to the funeral, but Rachel had been in so much pain at the time that she had no real recollection of that day—not of the service itself or of the small number of people who’d bothered showing up. Jake Bounds might have lived and died a druggie, but he’d been kind enough to preserve David’s paltry collection of belongings, and Rachel was grateful for that.
Just under the yellowed newspaper clipping and funeral program was David’s moth-eaten letterman’s jacket from Scottsdale’s St. Francis High School. David had been an outstanding athlete. He’d lettered in basketball and swimming all four years. He’d played point guard on both the JV and varsity basketball teams and had been captain of the swim team his senior year when St. Francis had walked away with the state championship. He’d been smart, too. He should have gone on to college, but he hadn’t. Rachel had never understood why David had simply turned his back on the idea of continuing his education, although Rich claimed it was because he was too much of a “mama’s boy.” The night David had told them once and for all that he was done with school, father and son had gotten into a terrible row.
“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” a livid Rich had demanded. “Don’t you care anything about your future?”
“No,” David had replied. “I don’t.”
He packed up his things that very night and moved out of the house. As far as Rachel knew, he’d never again stepped inside a classroom. He’d held a series of menial jobs, but mostly he’d hung out and done drugs, drifting deeper and deeper into that world until there was no coming back. A heartbroken Rachel had tried reaching out to him from time to time, insisting that they help with rehab. Rich had stayed clear. Once David was dead, Rachel had the advantage of having already processed some of her grief. Rich, on the other hand, had been utterly broken. Paralyzed with guilt and unable to cope at work or at home, he’d fallen into an endless downward spiral and had been stuck there ever since.
Rachel unfolded the jacket and held it up to her face, hoping that some trace of David’s scent might linger in the fabric. It did not. All she smelled was dust with just a hint of motor oil in the background. Laying the jacket aside, she returned to the box. Next up were a few shirts, two worn pairs of Levi’s, and a broken-down pair of Nikes. At the bottom of the box, she found the odds and ends Tonya had mentioned.
The first of those was the photo from Disneyland. Rachel picked it up and studied it for a long while. David had been seven at the time—the perfect age to go to Disneyland—and the trip really had been one of their best ever. The photo featured David and Rachel standing together, posed in front of the iconic entrance to the Magic Kingdom. All these years later, Rachel was struck by the fact that his happy grin was marred by his missing front teeth.
Her eyes filling with tears, Rachel returned to the box. All that remained were the class ring and a copy of the 2001 St. Francis High School yearbook, The Clarion.
Two thousand one had been David’s senior year, and the swim team had been the center of his existence. Since St. Francis had won the state swimming competition title that year, it was hardly surprising that when Rachel held the book in her hand, it opened almost of its own accord to a page featuring the swim team in the sports section near the back of the book. The shock of what she saw there took Rachel’s breath away. There was a full-page photo of the ten members of the team along with their coach, Father Paul Needham. The boys, grinning for the camera, all wore their swim trunks. As for the priest? He was fully dressed, but above his white dog collar every feature of his face had been blacked out with a Sharpie.
In that instant and despite all the vodka Rachel had consumed, she found herself stone-cold sober, because for the first time in so many years she finally had some inkling of the reality of what had happened to her beloved son. And that’s when the tears came.
She and Rich had always wanted only the best for their David. That was why he had attended parochial schools. That’s why they had coughed up the tuition to let him attend St. Francis High, and yet all their good intentions had backfired on them. In wanting to give David everything, they’d given him worse than nothing. Rich and Rachel had failed their son, and the Catholic Church had failed the whole family. In 2010, nine years after graduating from high school, a drug-addicted David Higgins was declared dead at age twenty-six. Ever since, Rachel had agonized over wondering why.
Years after David’s death, there’d been a huge scandal when Needham was arrested as a pedophile. She had recognized Father Needham’s name, of course, and remembered that he’d been David’s swim-team coach, but not once had it ever occurred to her that David might have been one of Needham’s victims. If he had been, wouldn’t he have mentioned it to his own mother?
She’d been mystified when, during his last two years in high school, her once happy-go-lucky son had pulled away from her and turned into a difficult, brooding teenager who hid out in his room in much the same way his father currently hung out in his garage. David had shut her out, and now she knew why.
The storm of fury that followed rocked Rachel to her core. At last, spent with weeping, she dried her tears, repacked the banker’s box with David’s things, and then steeled herself for the grim task ahead. One way or another, she would have her revenge. Someone needed to be held responsible for David’s death, and if God wouldn’t smite them, she would.