Pat Harrington and Liz Howard run errands for the Boyds. They’re in a group of local women who do the food shopping and help with the laundry and hand out inspirational pamphlets for the people who come for a miracle. Pat gives a healing pamphlet to Sue now. There are two printed photographs of Helene, the way she used to be—a bright, glimmering teenager—and the way she is now, lying in her bed, eyes closed peacefully. The printer has encircled the second photograph with a wreath of roses.
When Sue gets home, she goes downstairs, even though she tries to avoid the basement. She can hardly bear to see what’s become of Shelby. When the state police told her that her daughter was the one who was alive, Sue knelt in the snow and thanked God. Now she isn’t so sure Shelby has survived. Sue’s eyes adjust to the thin light. There’s Shelby dozing. The basement is smoky and the odor is foul. Like old fruit, perhaps apple cores, and there’s a burning smell that makes her think of sulfur and grief. Had this been a few years ago Sue would have been suspicious that Shelby was in bad company, some trampy girls from high school or a boy who wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. She would have called out, Are you smoking down here? The truth is, Helene was always the troublemaker. She had that bad-girl twinkle in her eye, and she always dragged Shelby along, whether it was the time they were caught shoplifting makeup at the Walt Whitman Mall or the time they took the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan and didn’t come home till two a.m. Now she wishes Shelby did have someone with her, anyone would do. She wishes Shelby was getting into trouble, kissing someone, being alive. Sue treads through the dim room, careful not to trip over stray clothing tossed about; she perches on the arm of the couch. Shelby is hunkered down in her single bed, under a blanket, staring at the TV. The light in the room is blue and wavering. It reminds Sue of a night-light. Shelby looks much the way she had as a baby, bald, with those big dark eyes.
“Mom?” Shelby seems confused. No one ever comes downstairs. “What’s up?”
There’s a talent show on TV where young people are singing their hearts out. Everyone looks the same to Sue, hopeful and young. The TV itself is old, with a flickering picture and bad sound.
“You like this show?” It doesn’t seem like something the old Shelby would have spent ten minutes on. She’d been very discriminating back then.
“It relaxes me,” Shelby says.
Paralyzes her is more like it. Even as she speaks, she’s staring at the screen. It’s all dots to her, blue and white, like snow.
“I think there are miracles happening at the Boyds’,” Sue says.
“Watch this guy.” Shelby gestures to the contestant taking the stage. “He’s crap. I don’t know how he made it through the first audition. People seem to love him even though he’s terrible. Maybe it’s his wavy hair.”
“Did you hear what I said?” Sue asks.
Shelby looks at her mother. “The Boyds.” She glances away. She’s pretty sure she doesn’t have any body language, like a zombie. “Let me guess. There are angels on the roof.”
“We should go together. You should see her.”
“Really? You think so?” There is a quiver in Shelby’s voice, the same one that was there before she stopped talking and went into the hospital. A recurrence of Shelby’s depression is what Sue Richmond fears more than anything in the world. A crack-up she supposes they call it. A breakdown. You don’t know how to mourn something like that. You don’t know what to think.
Shelby lifts herself up on one elbow. It takes all of her energy just to do that. Her voice is thick. The quiver is like a wrong note. “You think it’s just fine that they prop Helene up in bed and have strangers come in there and kiss her hand and beg her for whatever they want? You think Helene would be happy with that? People standing around while she moans and drools? She wouldn’t even sneeze in public. She’d rather have blown her brains out holding back a sneeze than embarrass herself and have to blow her nose, and now they have lines of people going into her bedroom while she craps into a plastic bag. You think we should go to that? Is that what Helene would have wanted?”
Shelby throws herself sideways in her bed, deeper under the blanket, her back to her mother.
“Maybe she likes the fact that she’s helping people,” Sue says softly. “Maybe that’s the miracle. That her life is worthwhile even now.”
“Don’t you think I know what she would have liked? I knew her better than anyone!”
“You’re wrong, Shelby. She’s different now. You don’t know her anymore.”
Shelby turns to glare at her mother. Deep down, she’s been afraid of that exact thing. “I know more than you do. Just like I know this guy’s going to be voted off this week,” she says of the singer on TV.
“She wouldn’t know you either.” Sue shakes her head. There’s a certain tenderness in her voice, almost as if she were crying. “You’re nothing like you were. You’re not the same person.”
“Good,” Shelby declares, to hurt both her mother and herself. “Because I hated myself.”
Later that same week a second postcard arrives in the mailbox. She’s been waiting for another card ever since she left the hospital. Two years have passed, so she’d just about given up. Now here it is. It’s a photograph of Shelby’s house that has been laminated onto a blank card. The message on the back is Do something. Her mom brings it down to the basement. It’s addressed to Shelby, but there’s no stamp, no return address. “Who would send this?” her mother asks. Shelby shrugs. She acts like she’s not excited to have gotten mail, but she is. She feels a little chill of expectation down her spine. There is someone, somewhere, who knows she’s alive. “Somebody writes to me, Mom,” Shelby tries to explain. “They think they know me. Maybe they read about me in the paper.”
Sue fetches the magnifying glass she uses to read ingredients on food labels and make certain there’s no red dye or MSG involved. “I think that’s you sitting there inside the house.” Sue taps on the card. “Look in the basement window. There’s definitely a little person on the couch.”
Shelby keeps the postcards in a jewelry box her mother bought her when they went on their trip to Chincoteague Island. There’s a horse painted on the box; the inside lining is blue velvet. Maybe the most recent card is a message from the great beyond. Shelby can’t stop thinking it might have been sent by Helene. She knows this is impossible; all the same, soon afterward she finds herself headed to Lewiston Street, where the Boyds live. She stands on the corner, but she can’t bring herself to go any closer than that. She looks through the dark. She recognizes Mrs. Harrington, who is leaving. Shelby went to school with her daughter, Kelsey, a pretty redhead who excelled at everything and is currently a junior at Brown University.