“It was just a little gathering at the house before they moved. Patti made all the refreshments. They probably didn’t want to upset you by inviting you. You know, your mother came here to see Helene once a week. For a while she brought Buddy over every day.”
“She said Helene was like another daughter. Helene had spent so much time at your house growing up, and she always loved when your mom came by. Her whole face would light up. Sue was such a kind person. Kindness like that radiates, and Helene could feel it.”
“I know I should have come to see Helene before this,” Shelby says. “I’ve thought about her every day since it happened.”
“We’ve had plenty of visitors. So I’m sure Helene hasn’t minded.”
As they head down the hall, Shelby can hear the pumping of the oxygen machine. Her heart is beating too fast and she tries to slow it to an even rhythm. There is the same wallpaper Helene chose when she was thirteen, with rosebuds that have never bloomed. Another volunteer is sitting beside Helene’s bed knitting, an elderly lady in a gray suit.
“Mrs. Campbell, this is Helene’s old friend, Shelby,” Diana says to the volunteer. “Sue Richmond’s daughter.”
“Well, isn’t this a good day with an old friend here to visit,” Mrs. Campbell says to Helene. “Don’t be afraid to talk to her,” she tells Shelby. “She loves when you do.”
Shelby can hear the thud of her own pulse. Helene is in bed beneath the white sheets. She was such a skinny, coltish girl, but now she’s heavier. Her hair is still beautiful, masses of thick auburn. Helene is facing the wall, staring at it. There are patterns of sunlight coming through the window. A shadow that looks like a rabbit, one that’s a square, another that looks like a garland of leaves. Shelby stands at the foot of the bed. For the first time in years she is not stuck in that moment inside the snow globe. She is right here.
“Helene,” she says. “It’s Shelby.”
“She knows you’re here,” Diana Boyd assures Shelby. “She definitely does.”
Shelby can hear the dogs barking in the backyard. Helene shudders.
“She never did like dogs,” Diana remarks. “Even as a little girl.”
But she did, Shelby thinks. She wanted a little Westie and cut out pictures from a magazine. “I think about you every day,” Shelby tells Helene.
“She appreciates that,” Diana says.
“I wish it had happened to me,” Shelby says. A broken sob escapes. Helene shudders again.
“She doesn’t like it when people are upset,” the volunteer warns Shelby. The volunteer who never even knew the real Helene.
“You know what’s best? If you just brush her hair. That calms her down.” Shelby looks at Mrs. Boyd. She’s afraid to touch Helene. Mrs. Boyd urges her on. “It’s fine, Shelby, really.”
Shelby goes closer. She can smell the faint oily odor of shit from the bag attached to Helene and the scent of lavender powder. Shelby takes the hairbrush and gently begins to brush Helene’s hair. Diana is right. The motion seems to settle her. Is this when a miracle can happen? The room is darker than before, the roses on the wallpaper are more deeply red than Shelby had remembered them.
“It’s me,” Shelby whispers. All she can hear is the rhythm of the oxygen machine. She thought she would be more upset than she is. It’s peaceful in this room. And yet, Shelby doesn’t feel as if she’s with Helene. She’s with someone, but the Helene Shelby thinks about every day isn’t in this bed. Mr. Boyd is right about that. And it’s equally true that the girl Shelby once was isn’t here either. If she were, Shelby would want to put her arms around herself and tell the Shelby she used to be that she has a good heart and that the person who will punish her most in this world is herself.
“You’re good at this,” Diana tells Shelby as she brushes Helene’s hair. “You’re a natural caregiver.”
Good enough for Shelby to be left alone with Helene while Mrs. Boyd and Mrs. Campbell go to the kitchen to fix lunch. Shelby pulls a chair closer to the bed.
“Helene,” she says.
What Shelby wants is the most difficult miracle of all. She wants to be forgiven. She takes Helene’s hand in hers, and though it is impossible for Helene’s brain to dictate what she should do, her hand responds, perhaps involuntarily, perhaps not. She holds Shelby’s hand, and then lets go. It is the exact moment Shelby has waited for. She couldn’t leave without it.
Out in the yard, Mr. Boyd is still throwing the tennis ball for the dogs, but only the General is interested. The other dogs lie in the grass, exhausted. Shelby has said her good-byes to Mrs. Boyd and now comes to stand beside him.
“It’s a good thing you tired them out,” she tells Mr. Boyd. “They have a long ride ahead of them.”
“I was right, wasn’t I? It’s not Helene.”
“Not the same Helene. No.”
James has arrived with Coop, walking from his mom’s house, and he’s packing his belongings into the 4Runner. He honks the horn and waves at Mr. Boyd.
“Jimmyboy,” Mr. Boyd calls.
James comes into the yard with his dog. “Hey, Bill,” he says warmly. The men shake hands. When Shelby gives James a look, he shrugs. “Small town.”
“I’ve known Jimmy since before he was born,” Bill Boyd says. “I’m going to help his mom out with her yard work after you leave, unless I hitch a ride to California.”
“You wouldn’t trust my driving,” Shelby says.
“No one could have done any different, Shelby. It could have happened to anyone.” He gives her a brief, heartfelt hug. “I’m glad you made it, kiddo.”
James loops an arm around her. “She was always going to make it.”
Neither of the men asks where she’s going when Shelby crosses the lawn. She stands at Helene’s window. She looks inside, and then she lets herself move forward into whatever fortune awaits.
They stop at the beach in Northport one last time. The rocks here are mossy and green. It’s low tide, and the scent of salt is bitter. James gets out and walks along the shore. He leaves his black coat on the rocks. Later, when the tide comes in, it will float out to sea, like a dark flower, but they’ll be gone by then. Shelby knows they won’t get through New Jersey until the evening, but she doesn’t mind. She thinks of the way angels arrive, when you least expect them, when the road is dark, when you’re bleeding and alone and hopeless, when you’re sleeping in a basement, convinced that no one knows you’re there.