I killed my ex-husband on my thirty-second birthday, a Friday, mid-July, a sweltering day. The official report logged Adam’s time of death at two twenty-two in the afternoon, but it’s wrong.
Based on Newton’s first law of motion, loosely defined as an object set in motion remains in motion until interrupted, according to my phone log Adam’s initial time of death was one thirty-three.
The interruption of motion, a hundred-year-old oak tree.
The catalyst of motion, a text from me.
“There’s a Sergeant Thacker to see you.” My assistant stood in my office doorway. Her flushed face vacillated between curiosity and concern.
“I don’t know anyone by that name.” I grabbed my purse. “I’m late. Ask Melinda to help him.”
“He’s a uniformed police officer. And he’s asking for Owen Landers’ mother.”
Black squiggly lines swam in my periphery. I gripped my desk and braced for an inevitable hit, the way I might at a stoplight if the car behind me raced forward too fast.
Justine stepped aside, and a man in a dark blue uniform ducked through the opening. His shoulders drooped as if posture was the last thing on his mind, but his eyes held remnants of dread.
I hemorrhaged fear. “Owen?”
“Yes. It’s about Owen, but your son’s not hurt.” He waved a palm roughly the size of Owen’s catcher’s mitt toward my desk chair. “Why don’t you sit?”
A warning voice sounded in my head. My mother’s voice. This is bad. I slid down. My body sagged, drained as if seeping blood and oozing bone and marrow and teeth.
“Where’s my son?”
“In the hospital.”
The black squiggly lines reappeared. My head spun like I was half-drunk or fighting a bad case of the flu.
He tilted forward, stretched his arm across my desk as if to catch me. “The hospital’s just a precaution. He only suffered a few scratches. No broken bones. No stitches.” He clasped my hand in his, patted it the way my grandmother had turned a pinch of dough into a biscuit. Three quick taps. “A bystander pulled your son from the Porsche in time.”
The room hushed, as if the air and the lights and the officer hung in suspension waiting for further explanation. “In time for what?”
“Your husband.” He released my hand. “Adam Landers. He died at the scene. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Ex-husband." The words escaped my lips before I could grab them back. "We’re divorced.” I pressed my hand to my mouth. My mind felt pushed, compressed. “Adam’s dead?” I should cry. I wanted to cry. To weep for Adam’s life cut short. But I had no tears left for him. Still, the officer’s news emptied me. Owen would be devastated. “Which hospital?” I ached to touch my son. See him. Hold him. Comfort him.
He handed me a card. “Your son’s at the Children’s Hospital. Can someone drive you?”
I must’ve walked out of Morgan Stanley and climbed into the passenger seat of my car, but I didn’t remember taking those steps. When my mind resurfaced, Justine was driving. Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital loomed dead ahead.
Questions bounced in my brain.
Where was the accident?
Did Adam die on impact or did he linger in pain?
Did Adam’s sister Vivienne know?
How fast was Adam driving?
Who pulled Owen from the wreckage?
I wanted to kiss that person’s feet.
Then I remembered my text message threatening to haul Adam back to court. My stomach lurched, and the bitter taste of bile coated my tongue.
Justine parked the Hummer, the only valuable asset Adam asked for in the divorce and didn't get. She grabbed our purses in one hand and my arm in the other.
“The Police Officer said he wasn’t hurt,” I said. “He’ll be in the Emergency Room.” I ran through the lobby, down the hall, and stared at the receptionist with beautiful silver hair and pink lipstick the exact color of her smock. “My son—” An uncontrollable tremble shook my body.
Justine arrived out of breath. She threw our purses on the counter and wrapped her arm around my waist. “Hang on, Kate.” She spoke to the receptionist. “Ms. Landers’ son was in a car accident this afternoon. His name’s Owen Landers. An ambulance brought him here.”
The pink lady nodded and typed something on her keyboard. “He’s been admitted. Second floor, room two-nineteen. But there’s a note—.”
Owen’s room was in front of the nurse's station. Inside, the only light came from a small lamp on the table beside his bed. And Owen slept. He wore a blue striped hospital gown, a white sheet folded across his chest and a light blue blanket spread over his legs. And on his forehead a small bandage, the only sign he’d survived a fatal accident.
A nurse in green scrubs followed me in. “Are either of you the mother?” She looked from me to Justine.
“I’m his mother.” I smoothed curls from Owen’s forehead, ran my hand over his chest and across his shoulders. My fingers lingered on a scratch above his elbow, not bandaged.
“Dr. Sanderson is on rounds, but she’ll be here soon. You need to go downstairs to admitting, sign forms and give them insurance information.” The nurse rushed her words, clearly in control, but not in an unkind way. She had what my mother would call a no-nonsense tone. It was one I recognized and often used with my customers.
“I’ll go later. I’m not leaving my son.” I eased the sheet and blanket off Owen’s legs, ran my fingertips over his feet, counted his toes.
A few minutes later an admitting clerk arrived with a laptop, and I answered endless questions, provided ID and insurance cards. She finally left.
I repositioned a chair close to the bed, sat and held Owen’s hand, determined to be the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes.
A young woman charged into the room as if responding to a code blue. She stopped at the sink and washed her hands. “I’m Dr. Sanderson.” She wore her knee-length white coat unbuttoned and looked to be in her early thirties. Her blonde ponytail and short black skirt might’ve swayed my impression. She dried her hands, walked to the far side of the bed and lifted one of Owen’s eyelids. She seemed satisfied and plucked the clipboard from the end of his bed. “I’ve scheduled a child psychologist to examine Owen. I’ll have to consult with him before he can be released.”
My heart banged in my chest like an unlatched screen door in a storm.
“When your son arrived he was inconsolable.” Dr. Sanderson made a note on the chart and put it back in place. “Owen’s state of agitation required sedation.” She must’ve noticed my shock because her hazel eyes filled with compassion. “It’s not unusual. Owen witnessed his father trapped inside a burning vehicle. It must’ve been a gruesome scene. Three seasoned paramedics were still visibly shaken when they brought your son to the ER.”
“Oh my God.” I gripped the side of the bed and slid into a chair.
The no-nonsense nurse handed me a glass of orange juice. A whiff of antiseptic followed her hands. “Sip this. You’ll feel better.”
It was an absurd statement. I wouldn’t feel better until Owen was awake, in my arms, laughing and spouting off one of his goofy knock-knock jokes.
Dr. Sanderson touched my shoulder. “I’m going to keep your son tonight for observation. I’ll review Dr. Cooper’s report, he’s the psychologist, and we’ll decide from there when Owen can be released.”
I set the juice on the side table and held Owen’s hand. “Sweetheart. It’s Mommy. I’m here, baby. Mommy’s here.” I ran my fingers through his curls, kissed his forehead, his eyelids, his cheek.
The doctor and nurse left.
“I’m going to step down the hall and grab a bottle of water,” Justine said. “Can I bring you anything?”
“No. I’m fine.” I had no clear idea of the time. I’m going to stay with Owen tonight. You can drive my car home. But I should call my Mom.”
“I’ve already called Roslyn. She’ll be here by nine o’clock.” Justine removed a five-dollar bill from her wallet. “And the nurse said Adam’s sister Vivienne called to check on Owen, so she knows. Is there anyone else I should contact?”
Reality knocked me back a step. Owen would have to attend his father’s funeral. “No. There’s no one else I need to call.” I gripped my son’s hand and kissed his fingers. Tears welled in my eyes. I let them flow.
Mom arrived. She slipped into the room and mimicked the same rituals I’d gone through to ensure Owen was okay. She kissed his cheek and then turned her worried gaze on me. She handed me her tote bag. “I stopped downstairs and bought you a Diet Coke. It’s in the bag. I brought a few things you might need, a toothbrush, a comb.”
Justine hugged Mom and whispered something I didn’t catch, then gripped both my hands. “I’m leaving, but I’m only a phone call away.”
Mom folded me into her arms.
I clung to her and blubbered through a new wave of tears. “Adam burned to death, and Owen witnessed it.” Even during the worst of our marriage battles, when I hated Adam to the core of my being, I hadn’t wished him dead. The muscles in my thighs trembled, and I had an overwhelming desire to sit down. “We’ll be okay,” I said it more to myself than to Mom.
She held me at arm’s length. “You should come home.”
A quick bolt of anger swept through the dark layers wrapped around my brain, took me by surprise. I pulled away. “Orlando is my home.” I leaned against the bed frame for support. “The doctor said Owen was distraught when he arrived. She had to sedate him. A psychologist has to examine him before they release him.”
“After the funeral, come back to Savannah, let me help you through this.”
“Let’s don’t do this now, Mom.”
“You have two beautiful homes sitting empty. There’s no reason to stay in Florida now.” Roslyn the fixer. She saw a problem and swooped in with a solution.
“The Barry House is Calvin’s.” My voice had a subdued, bruised note, and the space between my eyebrows and down my nose tingled. Any minute the tears would start to flow again. “Once Cal calms down, he’ll want it back.”
“Then spend the rest of the summer in Shell Hammock, at Spartina.”
She opened the tote bag and handed me the Diet Coke. “Spartina’s the perfect environment for Owen after this nightmare.”
Mom paused, and I sensed her expectations growing. Roslyn wasn’t a we’ll-cross-that-bridge-later kind of woman. She planned. She argued. She usually won. “You’re a single parent and traveling three weeks out of four is no longer an option.”
Her trump card pierced and struck the intended mark. My gaze locked on Owen. “I could transfer to another department.” But at my management level, no positions offered flexible forty-hour workweeks.
“You’ve run the family trust and worked full-time at the bank for the last three years,” she said. “You need to slow down.”
It was an ongoing conversation that Mom and I had at least once a week.
“Spartina’s kitchen renovation is almost complete.” Her voice laced in hope. “And the river’s a magical place in the summer.”
Memories of our family’s summer home, afternoon breezes on the water, horseback riding, kayaking trips to the island, played like a film in my mind. “Owen’s been begging for a horse.” I had the means now, thanks to my grandfather’s passing, to offer my perfect and peaceful childhood to my son. No bad memories. Nothing to remind Owen of the horrors of today.
Vivienne swept into the room with two nurses in her wake. “Don’t give me a lecture on visiting hours. I’m his aunt—” She spotted Mom, and her face froze, but then she zeroed in on Owen and rushed to his side. “Owen.” She leaned over the bed and spoke into his ear. “Aunt Viv’s here.”
I watched to see which Vivienne was in evidence.
The kind sweet girl I’d known in high school kissed Owen’s check. But inside that toned petite body lurked another woman with a malicious heart and a mouth of venom.
Vivienne shook Owen’s shoulder. “Honey, Aunt Viv’s here. Wake up.”
I leaned over the bed and gripped her hand. “Viv, Owen’s sedated. The doctor wants him to sleep. Don’t wake him.”
She ran a loving hand down his arm and kissed his forehead. Then she faced me. Her beautiful pixy face contorted into gargoyle ugly. “You.” She stabbed her blood-red fingernail in my face. “You killed my brother.