Shelby sees the way Maravelle is looking at her attorney. She’s shell-shocked, but she clearly trusts this man so he damn well better be worthy, otherwise he’ll have Shelby and Mrs. Diaz to deal with. Shelby goes to give Teddy a quick hug. “You can come back from this,” she tells him. “Look at me. I just about killed someone.”
Teddy shakes his head. “No you didn’t.”
The kids don’t know about Helene. Shelby wanted to tell them, but Maravelle told her it was unnecessary information. “Seriously?” Shelby had said. “It’s what defines me.”
“Only to you,” Maravelle had insisted. “It doesn’t matter to anyone who loves you.”
“Anyway, you’re a thousand times smarter than I was,” Shelby tells Teddy now. “You’ll figure it out. If you don’t think you’re worth something, no one else will either.”
“What are you? A philosopher?” Teddy says.
“Nope. Just a friend, baby. One who’s been where you are now.”
Later they drive back to Valley Stream, minus one. No one says much, not even when Dorian starts to cry again, his large hands covering his face. They just let him cry and Maravelle switches on the radio. People say that twins can feel each other’s emotions. That if you stick one with a pin the other will gasp as if wounded. Maybe the one who feels the stab of pain is the lucky one, since he’s the one who understands human needs and desires.
Shelby begins a letter to Teddy that night. She thinks about the first postcard that came to her in the hospital, how she thought the nurse had made a mistake when she shouted out Shelby’s name at mail call, how it mattered that someone, somewhere, knew how she felt deep inside. She writes to Teddy all through the rest of the week. It’s a much longer letter than she’d ever expected it to be. She writes during dinner, in between bites of reheated chicken and rice with plum sauce. She writes while the singing competition show she hates and always watches is on. The letter turns out to be ten pages long by the time she mails it on Friday. She’s written about things she’s never told anyone, not even Ben Mink, how she hated herself so much she held her hand over the flame on the stove in the hope she’d ignite. How she wished she had died on the road. How, on the night of the accident, she bit and kicked whoever tried to save her. She sends along a photo she took of Teddy and Dorian with Pablo, snapped during the week she took care of them, when she still disliked children. The brothers’ arms are thrown around one another’s shoulders and Pablo is bigger than the both of them put together. Remember who you are, she tells him. She thinks about the photograph her mother sent her, when she was little and her eyes were so bright with faith and love. What’s deep inside never changes.
The next week she writes a list of all the terrible things she’s done in her life. She wants him to know he’s not the only one with regrets. Drugs. Horrible, hurtful sex that she now realizes she thought was punishment for all she’d done wrong. She thought that was what she deserved. Betraying Ben Mink. Never letting him know that she loved him. Adultery with Harper when his wife was pregnant and nicer than he was. Stealing two dogs and one cat. Robbery at the junkyard in Queens. Being a bad daughter. Being a bad person. Stealing Helene’s life.
A few weeks later Shelby receives a postcard in the mail. It’s stuck into the metal mailbox in the building’s cluttered lobby, where people leave umbrellas and newspapers. There are circulars for food delivery and for a tattoo parlor on Broadway. At first she assumes the postcard is from her anonymous correspondent, then she remembers he doesn’t know where she lives and can only leave cards at her mom’s address. This postcard turns out to be from Teddy. She knows that’s a good sign. An SOS from somewhere near Albany. She stands in the hallway because she can’t wait to get upstairs to read it. There’s a photograph of the school on the front of the postcard, with a bright blue sky and green lawn enhanced by computer magic. On the back he’s scrawled: I still don’t believe you were that bad. Thanks for writing. He’s tagged on a smiley face after his signature, as if he were still the little boy Shelby used to babysit for, the one who never gave her any trouble and walked to school without complaint, who worried for his brother, who saw monsters on the corner while he raced by without a second look.
Shelby knows a bad sign when she sees one. Blood in the egg drop soup she had delivered from the Hunan Kitchen. Nothing good could ever come of that. There are two fortune cookies in the bottom of the bag. Shelby throws them into her container of cookies. She has the feeling they would portend doom.
“That is not blood,” the owner, Shin Mae, insists when Shelby calls the restaurant to complain. “It’s soy sauce.”
But the day after the egg drop soup, she gets a call from her father. Her dad rarely uses the telephone and he rarely calls Shelby. His conversational skills are nonexistent. Shelby has a shivery feeling. For some time she has wondered if her mom has been avoiding her. Whenever Shelby wants to visit, Sue is busy, and their plans are always disrupted. I’ll see you soon, her mother always says, and then she cancels again. It’s been going on for nearly two months.
“You’d better come home,” Shelby’s father tells her. When Shelby asks why, her father’s response is cagey. “Your mom needs you” is all he’ll say.
“Is it an emergency?” Shelby has been waiting for tragedy to strike. She’s been a bit too happy lately. Something’s got to slam her.
“I would say so,” her father says.
That’s how Shelby knows it hadn’t been soy sauce in the soup. It was blood and bad luck. She’s glad she dumped the soup down the sink. Her mother hasn’t wanted to see her because something has gone terribly wrong. Shelby wishes she could call Ben to discuss her fears, but she knows it’s over for good. She knew the minute he walked into the restaurant and looked at her with true panic.
She quickly folds some clothes into a backpack and carries the two small dogs in a tote bag. She slips on sunglasses and grabs the cane she’d bought at the Chelsea flea market so she can say Pablo is a service dog if anyone gives her a hard time on the train. Luckily, the conductor doesn’t even look at her when he punches her ticket. She takes a cab from the station to her parents’ house. Her father is waiting for her on the porch. They don’t have much to do with one another, and he never waits for her like this, so she realizes the situation is even worse than she’d imagined. Her father doesn’t even complain about the dogs. Maybe he’s not loyal, but this is his wife and it’s hard for him to get the words out, and then finally he does. Shelby’s mother has stage four lung cancer. Her parents decided to keep the news from Shelby to protect her, even though she’s a grown woman and a college graduate. They did so because they thought she was “delicate,” meaning her nervous breakdown back in the dark ages. Shelby sits down on the stoop and cries, her hands over her eyes. Her father lights a cigarette even though he quit five years ago.