From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate.
Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt.
What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.
Here is a character you will fall in love with, so believable and real and endearing, that she captures both the ache of loneliness and the joy of finding yourself at last. For anyone who’s ever been a hurt teenager, for every mother of a daughter who has lost her way, Faithful is a roadmap.
Alice Hoffman’s “trademark alchemy” (USA TODAY) and her ability to write about the “delicate balance between the everyday world and the extraordinary” (WBUR) make this an unforgettable story. With beautifully crafted prose, Alice Hoffman spins hope from heartbreak in this profoundly moving novel.
Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1 In February, when the snow comes down hard, little globes of light are left along Route 110, on the side of the road that slopes off when a driver least expects it. The lights are candles set inside paper bags, surrounded by sand, and they burn past midnight. They shouldn’t last for that amount of time, but that’s part of the miracle. On the second anniversary of the accident, a gang of boys creep out their windows and gather at two in the morning to see if Helene’s mother, Diana Boyd, drives along the road replacing each melting pool of wax with a fresh candle. They’re hoping to reveal a con in process and dispel the myth of a miracle, but after keeping watch for a while the boys all flee. In the early morning hours, safe in their beds, they wonder how much of the world can never be understood or explained.
The light globes are made at the high school where Helene was a senior before the accident. People who never even knew her spend all afternoon in the cafeteria filling up paper bags. The first year, the art teacher ordered special sand from Arizona and the candles glowed with red light, but now the sand is trucked in from Heyward’s Gravel Pit, and it’s pure white. It looks like diamonds when you run it through your fingers.
There are dozens of high school girls who lock themselves in their bedrooms on the anniversary night, their hands dusted with luminous sand, prayers on their lips, their hearts heavy with sorrow. Each one thanks her lucky stars she is not Helene, even though Helene was the beautiful girl who could do as she pleased, the one every boy wanted to date and every girl wanted to be like. But that was then. Now even the outcasts—the fat, the unattractive, the lonely, the sorrowful, the lost—are grateful to be who they are, at least for a single evening. Even the most selfish girls—the ones who think nothing of snubbing their less attractive and popular classmates—offer to collect the spent paper bags on their way to school on the morning after the anniversary. The wax will still be hot; the wicks give off smoke. Occasionally a candle will still be burning, so fresh it’s as though it had just been lit. Then the girls gather round in awe and solidarity, even the ones who hate each other. They close their eyes and make a wish, the same one every time: Let it never be me.
The one person who has never been included in the anniversary events, not the safe driving assembly at the school, or the candlelighting ceremony on the corner of Main Street and Route 110, or the prayer vigil at the Boyds’ house, is Shelby Richmond. Not that she’s a high school girl anymore; she graduated when Helene would have, or more correctly, the administration took pity on her and granted her a diploma after she was released from the hospital. Shelby’s mother gave her a thin gold watch that she has never worn. Shelby doesn’t want a gift and she doesn’t want anything beautiful and she certainly doesn’t want to know what time it is. She didn’t go off to college the way she and Helene had planned. She was Helene’s confidante, pretty enough, but not the beautiful one. She was the smart one, the one who often did homework for them both. For her, time has stopped. The girls had applied to NYU and were accepted, but it was too late for Helene, and as it turned out, too late for Shelby as well. Shelby’s parents paid the first semester’s tuition, but she didn’t leave on the appointed day, or the day after, or the one after that. Her suitcases sat in the front hall until her parents lost hope, until the leaves started changing. They waited so long to withdraw her they lost all that tuition money for nothing.
Shelby has not done anything with her life since the night when it happened. Two years have passed, but it might as well be a moment since Helene was injured. Everything that has happened since doesn’t matter. Hours and days are mere flashes: the ER room, the instant she slit her wrists after they stitched her up and declared her recovered from the crash and sent her home, the gray, hazy moment when she was locked into a psych ward, the sound of the door opening when her mother brought her back home. Shelby blinks her eyes and she’s right back in the car. They’d had a disagreement that night because Shelby didn’t want to go out and Helene did. Of course Helene got her way. Shelby always gave in. If she refused, Helene would find someone new to follow her around. Shelby hasn’t told anyone the truth about that night because it sounds as if she were making excuses. But truly, Helene wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was so annoyed when Shelby hesitated that she took off the matching bracelet to Shelby’s that she always wore. Helene’s bracelet had a white enameled butterfly charm; Shelby’s butterfly was black. Helene was the leader. She had a charming, forceful personality, and unlike Shelby, Helene always knew what she wanted. As it turned out, she forgot the bracelet when they went out and Shelby lost hers in the accident. The chain must have snapped when Shelby was lying on the ice, gasping for breath, bleeding through her clothes until her sweater and jeans were soaked through. She’s gone back to search for the charm, but there’s nothing in the tall weeds along the road, only some broken glass that glints blue in the sunlight.
Sometimes when Shelby turns her head too quickly she can swear Helene is there. She doesn’t trust her eyesight even though on her last eye exam her vision was twenty-twenty. Still she is convinced that something is wrong with her vision. It’s been so ever since that night. When she looked up, she saw an angel. It’s a moment that still burns inside her. He leaned over and covered her with his black coat and said she couldn’t give up. She was shivering and her soul was in her mouth, ready to escape as a puff of air, but the angel kept her on earth. She knows it’s insanity to think so. She doesn’t need a psychiatrist to tell her that. She told no one in the psychiatric hospital, not even when they asked her directly: Do you believe in demons and angels? Do you see things that aren’t there?
Why would an angel rescue her when she’s worthless and Helene, who was so much better than she could ever be, was right there, in desperate need of help? All the same, every time she sees a man in a black coat she wonders if it’s her angel, and every time she’s mistaken. She stares at these men a little too long and they get the wrong idea. Hey, wait up, these men say to her when she walks on, along the highway or Main Street. She must look desperate, like someone who would be easy to command. Come on sister, darling, babygirl. She walks faster when this happens. She knows the difference between a demon and an angel, even in the dark. She learned that in the hospital, and she’s not going back there again. On some nights she hears her mother calling her as she wanders through town. Shelby’s mom drives through the streets, searching for Shelby at two or three in the morning. Her mom pulls over and gets out of her car and shouts for her, but Shelby ducks behind the shrubbery. She never answers. She’s simply not worthy of her mother’s love.
Nowadays Shelby sleeps most of the time, dreaming of the way it used to be, back when she didn’t think about anything, when the whole world was blue and shining, a globe no more complicated than a Christmas ball. Her diagnosis is major depression. She also has anxiety, survivor’s guilt, and post-traumatic stress. She was in the ER for only one night after the accident, but she had a three-month stay in the psych hospital soon afterward. She had stopped talking. She refused to eat. Then came the moment when she sat in the shower with a razor in her hands. She was so cold but that didn’t stop her. She cut across her wrist, where the vein was blue. Her blood was so bright. She heard the door open and her mother cry out, and she felt how cold it was when the water was turned off. Her mother was screaming for her father to call an ambulance, but she didn’t leave Shelby. She crouched beside Shelby on the shower floor and tied a towel around her wrist to stanch the flow of blood. “It’s okay, baby,” Shelby’s mom said. Someone was sobbing. Shelby’s mother wrapped herself around Shelby’s shivering, naked body.
At the hospital nobody visited except her mother. Nobody phoned. Nobody missed her. Rumors had begun in town. She was crazy. It was all her fault. She was bad luck and should be avoided at all costs. Girls who had been friends with Helene and Shelby decided they had lost both friends. It was easier that way. What was gone was gone.
A week passed, and then two, and soon Shelby stopped counting. She was disappearing inch by inch, vanishing into thin air, and then one day a postcard arrived. The nurse at the desk called Shelby’s name during mail call.
“Wake up, kiddo,” the nurse shouted when Shelby didn’t respond. Shelby was in the TV lounge dozing from the meds they gave her and listening to a talk show her mother liked featuring a group of women who argued about politics and gossiped about famous people.
“Shelby Richmond.” The nurse sounded more annoyed than usual. “Get your ass over here.”
Shelby went over to the desk, convinced it was a mistake.
“Take it,” the nurse said, so Shelby did. “Thank you,” the nurse said sarcastically, since Shelby still wasn’t talking. She hadn’t said a word since she woke up in the hospital the morning after the accident.
On the front of the postcard there was a delicate ink sketch of a family: a mother, a father, and a daughter. But the daughter had tape over her mouth, heavy packing tape. Shelby recognized herself as the girl who couldn’t speak. Her wrists and heart were painted red. Shelby hadn’t expected anyone else to know how she felt, but clearly someone did. There was no return address, no signature, only a scrawled message: Say something.
Shelby wondered if it was a message from a higher power, even though she didn’t believe in such things. She kept the postcard under her pillow. It felt precious to her. She kept it there until the linens were changed while she was in group therapy saying nothing, and while she was out of her room an aide threw it away. Shelby searched through the garbage cans in a panic until she found it. It was perfect, not folded or torn, and she accepted that as a sign as well. Now that she’s back home she’s wised up. She’s started speaking again, a few mouthfuls of words at a time, but mostly she retreats to the basement, which has become her lair, a wolf’s den, the only place she wants to be. She cuts herself in places no one can see. The soles of her feet. Her inner thigh.
Her single bed is beside boxes of books from her childhood: Andrew Lang’s fairy tales and the Misty of Chincoteague series, which turned her into a horse fanatic. She pleaded with her mom to take her to Virginia to see the wild horses in the book until Sue Richmond finally gave in and they spent the weekend scouring the dunes for the ponies that lived on the beach. Shelby can remember how happy she was, though the weather was gloomy and the horses ran from them. She thinks it may have been the happiest time of her life.
The doctors and her parents can call her condition whatever they wish; Shelby knows what’s wrong with her. She is paying her penance. She is stopping her life, matching her breathing so that it has become a counterpart of the slow intake of air of a girl in a coma. She looks at her postcard every night to remind herself of what they’ll do to her if she allows people to know how damaged she is and takes to silence again. They’ll lock her up and then she’ll disappear for good.
She hasn’t seen Helene since the night of the accident. Once, Helene’s dad, Mr. Boyd, who had always liked Shelby, sent a box of candy on her birthday, but she felt too guilty to open it and tossed it in the trash, uneaten. She’s never wanted to see the hospital bed that has been set up in Helene’s bedroom. In some sense she and Helene are still living identical lives, just as they did in high school. Shelby hasn’t even bought new clothes since it happened; she still wears the same boots she was wearing that night, a wad of newspaper stuck inside the right one because the heel is tearing away.
Of course there are differences. Helene’s hair has not been cut since the accident, while Shelby shaved her head the day she came home from the psych ward. She’s kept it that way so that when she does venture as far as the 7-Eleven for magazines and snacks, people treat her gently, as though she were a cancer patient. Whenever someone whispers, That’s the girl who was driving when Helene had the accident, it’s even worse than if she’d had cancer. The way they look at her. They all have big eyes like in those velvet paintings. They both pity her and blame her. She and Helene were always together. Two peas in a pod. Pretty girls who glided through without a care. How can she go on living after she’s ruined her best friend’s life? They cluck at the skinny, bald girl in big boots. They think she wants compassion, but all she wants is to be left alone. Shelby only goes out after dark, her hat pulled down low. She wears gloves, scarves, and a fat down jacket that makes her shapeless and anonymous. And still, everybody knows.
Shelby and Helene are no longer alike. Shelby’s eyes register images; she eats, poorly, all junk food, but it’s not the feeding tube Helene survives on. Shelby walks, she talks, she goes down to Main Street once or twice a month—on the bus—no more driving for her, that’s for damn sure—to buy weed from a guy they barely knew in high school, Ben Mink. Ben is lanky and tall, with long hair he ties back, sometimes with a shoelace when he can’t find a rubber band. He’s geeky and smart. In high school, Shelby and Helene didn’t know he was alive. They were in the popular crowd of achievers, planning their college visits, going to parties on Friday nights. He hadn’t run with the same crowd—Ben didn’t have a crowd. He used to amble around with a book under his arm, usually something by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut. He went on a Shirley Jackson kick, reading all of her books in a twenty-four-hour period, which landed him with a prescription for Prozac. Life was beautiful, everyone knew that, but it was also bitter and bleak and unfair as hell and where did that leave a person? On the outs with the rest of the world. Someone who sat alone in the cafeteria, reading, escaping from his hometown simply by turning the page. Helene joked he was related to werewolves, because he had a scruffy beard even then. Shelby and Helene both had a fear of wolves, for one was said to have escaped from a cage in someone’s basement and it had never been caught. Run, Helene would say when they walked through the woods, vowing that she heard howling.
For years Ben kept his sunglasses on even at night so he didn’t have to look anyone in the eye. Because he believed in aliens and literature he was a target. People called him Ben Stink, if they bothered to call him anything at all. Shelby barely remembers him, but that was then. Now they’re comfortable with each other, if being comfortable is possible for either of them. When they meet they sit in a nearby park, mostly in silence, two loners who can barely make it through their own lives. As dusk falls they sometimes share a joint and talk about teachers they hated most. Shelby managed to get decent grades from even the toughest ones, but now she lets her true feelings out. She doesn’t have to be a good girl anymore. Whenever she talks about high school, Shelby takes out her house key and digs it into the palm of her hand until she bleeds. No miracle. That’s Helene’s business. Shelby’s blood is strictly a penance. It’s for real.
“I don’t think you should do that,” Ben said to her when he realized what she was doing, drawing her own blood while she sat beside him.
“You think?” she goaded him. “That’s a surprise. Did you know we used to think you were a werewolf?”
Shelby guessed he’d stalk away, insulted, and maybe that’s what she wanted to happen. Her aloneness, after all, is all she has. Instead Ben said, “I’m just worried about you.”
“Don’t be,” Shelby warned him.
“I wouldn’t mind being a werewolf,” he said, which only made Shelby feel guiltier about all those years they’d made fun of him.
Ben was fine as long as he didn’t talk, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. Say something, Shelby often thinks when he’s blabbing on. But not everything. Ben now asks if it’s true that touching Helene’s hand can cure an illness. That’s what people say. They say you can smell roses in her room, that she speaks to you without talking, that she can send a message to you that will reveal what you need to know about your future or your past. The first miracle happened on the day Helene’s parents brought her home. Helene’s grandmother had been unable to walk due to arthritis for more than ten years, but she got out of her wheelchair and walked straight to Helene. She never used her wheelchair again, until one day she suddenly said she needed to lie down, that she was too tired to walk. She told Helene’s mom to put her in her chair and wheel her into Helene’s room; then the old woman got into bed with Helene and passed right there, in comfort and peace.
After that, roses appeared on the dry stalks of the hedges in February, and in the spring the wisteria beside the driveway, always a faded purple, bloomed a pure white. A toddler with a scar on his face nuzzled his cheek against Helene’s pale hand and by evening his skin was without blemish. Folks come from all over, from the Midwest and Florida and New Jersey and France. Helene is famous, that’s another difference between them. There are magazine articles about the miracle of the girl in the coma. People who have been healed merely by being in her presence often give testimonials. Like Helene’s grandmother, they can walk again. The asthmatics can breathe. Babies who never slept and cried all night become calm. Jittery teenagers buckle down and become A students. The roses always bloom on the day of the accident, huge, blood-red flowers that are impervious to snow and ice. Roses in February are clearly a miracle, and they’ve been photographed and set on the front page of Newsday. Helene’s parents have been interviewed in People magazine, and this year Channel 4 sent out a news team to interview those who’ve been healed.
“Nobody with any brains would blame you for what happened to Helene,” Ben Mink says.
Shelby looks at Ben with horror, amazed he has the nerve to utter Helene’s name in her presence. She thought he was a little smarter than that. She’ll talk to him, but clearly she’s not about to discuss her feelings, not with him or anyone else. Feelings are best left concealed. They can bite you if you’re not careful. They can eat you alive. Shelby has a tremor in her left hand. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night and finds she’s shaking. As it turns out, people say Helene’s left hand is the source of the miracles. The concept that mere touch can cure you and restore your faith disturbs Shelby. Nothing can restore her. Shelby tosses Ben a desperate look. Not you too.
He immediately picks up on her contempt. “Not that I expect you to believe in that shit. I know I don’t.”
Shelby once had a beautiful smile. That’s long gone. It disappeared on that night, and at this point she doesn’t even think it’s possible for her to smile. She’s frozen into the expression of someone who expects the worst. She taps her foot constantly now, as if she were running and getting nowhere.
“I believe in tragedy,” Shelby responds coldly. “Not miracles.”
“Yeah, right. Faith is for idiots.” Ben seems relieved. “Statistics speak the truth.”
“You have to stop thinking. It’s going to drive us apart.” Shelby keeps her good hand over her tremoring hand. She can feel her brain waves shift when she smokes pot. Pseudo-coma. Drift of snow. What a relief. “Let’s not get too personal. I buy weed from you. Period.”
On the way home, Shelby realizes she’s probably spoken more to Ben Mink in the past two years than she has to anyone else. She counts the people she’s come in contact with, most of them from the psych ward. Shrink. Nurse. Pathetic members of her therapy group. Parents. Clerk at the 7-Eleven. The orderly, twice her age, who told her to keep her mouth shut as he pulled down her pants. Until then her only kisses had taken place in a closet during parties at Helene’s house. The orderly took her into a closet as well, a utility closet where there were mops and buckets and folded sheets and towels. She wasn’t speaking then. She tried to tell him no, but the word sounded like a sob.
The orderly’s name was Martin. He was holding her by one wrist as he forced his other hand into her underwear. He told her if she made any noise at all she would never get out of the hospital. The staff would think she was hallucinating if she tried to blame him for anything. The nurses would drug her and tie her to her bed. And if they did, he would still do whatever he wanted to her.
So Shelby didn’t speak. Instead, she rose out of her body. She watched the whole thing happen. She never told anyone what he did to her on a nightly basis because she was afraid of him, but also because she was worth nothing to herself. One night when they were locked in the shower room, he told her she was never getting away from him while he fucked her up against the cold, tiled wall. He said she belonged to him, a seventeen-year-old girl still bruised from her car accident who had tried to slit her wrists and was committed to this ward. He fucked her a second time on the damp floor that smelled of Lysol. It was the same cleaner her mother used, only Sue Richmond preferred the lemon scent, and Shelby cried for the first time since the accident while he held her down. Crying did something to her. It unlocked a small part of her soul. She kept seeing her mother’s face, thinking about what Sue would say if she could see what was happening, so she told her mother on her next visit. Months had passed and Shelby looked like a waif. It was impossible not to notice all the weight she’d lost, the slit across one wrist, the bruises Martin left on her. When her mother came to visit she spoke a single sentence, the first in months, the words like glass. The orderly Martin is fucking me. She and Sue were looking into each other’s eyes and Shelby thinks that in that moment her mother saw everything inside her. Sue raced down the hall, a crow, a wild woman, a scorpion ready to sting. She grabbed the first nurse she saw and informed her that Shelby was leaving. Sue told the nurse that her daughter didn’t have to pack up, all they needed was a doctor’s release. They would wait by the locked elevator until the physician on call signed Shelby out. If a release didn’t come through, there would be a lawsuit. They were in the car half an hour later, Shelby still wearing her pajamas. That night, down in the basement, Shelby took scissors and chopped at her hair. Then she used a straight razor on her scalp. She gazed at her reflection and it was clear: she wasn’t the same person anymore.
Her mother had been in the kitchen, fixing macaroni and cheese, which had been Shelby’s favorite meal. When she came downstairs and saw what Shelby had done, she sat on the basement stairs and wept. “How could you?” Shelby’s mother said. “How could you do this to yourself?”
Shelby wanted to say it was easy to do if you hated yourself, but she just went to sit beside her mother on a stair, and let her mother hug her, and the truth was she felt something crack inside her while she was in her mother’s arms. All the same, she didn’t talk much after that. They went out to the yard to lie on their backs on the picnic table and look at stars, but they didn’t speak about anything, even on the nights when they held hands. In terms of conversation, both in the hospital and afterward, Ben Mink won by a long shot. They talk for hours at a time. They talk about things that matter and things that don’t.
“I believe in tragedy, too,” he told her that night, as if she cared what anyone else thought. She was terrified that he was going to try to embrace her so she shifted away, but he was too smart for that. He formally shook her hand. Even though they were both wearing gloves, she could feel the heat of his hand.
February is hard. Those globes of light. The ice on the street. All of those high school girls who never knew Helene crying over her. Shelby is now nineteen, but she might as well be ninety. What happened to being young, to having her whole life ahead of her? She still doesn’t like to eat, even though her mom makes nutritious meals for her every night. Sue Richmond has left her job as a librarian at the elementary school so she can focus on Shelby. She spends hours fixing meat loaf, chicken stew, macaroni, pudding. Shelby never takes more than a few bites. She stays in the basement. It’s quiet and dark. She likes it there, if like was a word that could apply to anything in Shelby’s life. The couch is lumpy, and the floor is linoleum, like a skating rink. She and Helene used to sneak down here so they could have some privacy. Helene was more daring. She brought cigarettes and beer, and once or twice she invited her boyfriend, Chris, and his entire group of friends down to Shelby’s basement to goof around. Sometimes, late at night, when Shelby has smoked more weed than she should, she thinks she spies Helene on the stairs. She’s got that big grin on her face and her hair is clipped up with barrettes and she wears the jacket she was wearing on the day they bought their matching bracelets at the Walt Whitman Mall. Helene bought a blue dress, perfect for going to the prom with Chris, but it was a dress she never wore. Chris broke up with her that same day. On the phone. He had applied to Cornell, and once he was there he wanted to be free. That’s what set Helene off. That was the beginning of the end.
She only went out that night because Helene threw a fit and called her a baby and she finally gave in and said she would drive. It sounds like a corny, lame excuse; it feels like a lie, even to herself. All the same, it’s true. By now, Shelby is so confused, all she can remember is stepping on the brake after the car hit a patch of ice and spinning around and Helene laughing, like they were in a Tilt-A-Whirl car, and then the crunch of metal against metal.
Helene wanted to throw a rock through Chris’s window. She could be vindictive sometimes. She wasn’t as pure as people thought. She was lazy and had Shelby do her homework. She gossiped. That night they had collected paving stones from the driveway before they set off, dug them up with their hands so there was frozen earth under their fingernails. Shelby has walked past Chris Wilson’s house a few times since the accident. Chris did go to Cornell and he doesn’t come home to visit. Once Mrs. Wilson ventured onto the porch to call out as Shelby was slinking by. She must have seen Shelby from the bay window in her living room; maybe she had trouble sleeping too. She was probably kindhearted, worried about the crazy, stoned-out girl on the road, but Shelby ran away, heart pounding. Off the road and into the woods. The crunch of twigs beneath her boots reminded her of metal against metal. Anything breaking reminds her of what happened. She went back to her basement, back to bed, and couldn’t be woken for the next eighteen hours, not until her mother grew so worried she spilled a cup of cold water over Shelby.
Don’t was all Shelby said. She didn’t even shift in her sopping, freezing bed. She didn’t leap up and shout What have you done!
Shelby’s mother sat on the edge of the bed. She sang “Over the Rainbow,” the song that would comfort Shelby when she was a baby and couldn’t sleep. It used to sound hopeful, but now it sounded so sad that Shelby felt her broken heart break all over again.
One day Sue Richmond is driving home from the market when she makes a right turn on Lewiston for no reason, something she’s always avoided before. Because Sue was the librarian at the local elementary school before the accident, she knows most people in town. She’s checked out books for decades of children, all grown up now, the ones who succeeded and the ones who failed. She loved her job, but then Shelby needed her. She couldn’t read books to second graders when her own daughter was locked in a basement. She keeps going on Lewiston until she reaches Helene’s house. Anyone would know which one it is because of the crowd outside, the line of people waiting patiently in the driveway, most of them out-of-towners, many of them carrying red roses, said to be Helene’s favorite flower.
Sue has bags of groceries in the backseat, including containers of frozen yogurt, already melting, but she parks and gets out anyway. Something inside her is aching. All of a sudden she feels vulnerable in some odd way. She stands in the street crying, staring at the Boyds’ yellow ranch house, the way the paint is peeling, the bouquets of roses left on the porch. Sue isn’t the only one to be overwhelmed and brought to tears. Lots of people are doing it, just standing there crying. They’re letting it all out, their sorrow, their desperation, their hope, right there, right now, in the presence of Helene’s shrine, for that is what the house has become. There are dozens of lit candles and scores of teddy bears. Sue notices two of her neighbors, Pat Harrington and Liz Howard, and they wave to her. Sue isn’t particularly friendly, she’s always afraid people will say How’s Shelby? But now she finds herself walking over to the other women. They hug her, maybe because she’s crying, or because they pity her for having a daughter like Shelby, or maybe because they remember the scene Sue made on the night of the accident, before they knew which girl was critically injured and which one had nothing more than a hairline fracture underneath all the blood and bruises. Sue hit a cop who tried to hold her back. She rode in the ambulance praying when she didn’t even know she knew how to pray.
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.
“Mrs. Harrington,” Shelby calls. “Hi.”
It takes a while for Mrs. Harrington to recognize the odd person approaching her. When she does she visibly relaxes. “Oh, Shelby, it’s you.”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Shelby walks alongside Mrs. Harrington. “You help out with Helene, right?”
“There’s a whole bunch of us who are regulars. She’s a darling girl.” Mrs. Harrington has her keys in her hands. Shelby doesn’t tell this nice woman that Helene always hated Kelsey Harrington. She’d thought Kelsey was a snob.
“Does she ever come to consciousness?” Shelby’s voice sounds shaky and thin. Mrs. Harrington throws her a look, clearly confused. “Helene,” Shelby says. “Does she ever say something or dictate something? Like a postcard?”
“Shelby.” Mrs. Harrington reaches for her hand, but Shelby backs away before she can touch her. “No, honey.” Mrs. Harrington shakes her head sadly. “She never does anything like that.”
Shelby has secretly been harboring the hope that Helene has been pretending, that she isn’t really brain-injured and in fact rises from her bed each night to walk through her house, pilfering snacks from the cupboards, watching TV, gazing into the mirror as she brushes her long hair.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t miracles,” Mrs. Harrington says.
“Yeah. I’ll bet.” Shelby runs off without another word. She must seem crazy to ask if a person who has no brain activity could be writing postcards.
Shelby calls Ben Mink to ask that he meet her in the park. Her hope that Helene will come back has faded into ash. Helene is gone. Shelby’s old life is gone with her. Shelby is so jittery she can barely sit still. She despises winter and herself. All she wants to do is get stoned and check out, and Ben can provide her with her ticket to do so. Or so she thinks.
“No weed,” he says sadly. “There’s some FBI activity in the Bahamas. Dealers are getting busted and it’s filtering up to the States. My go-to guys in Huntington and in Northport both got busted. Call me back at the end of the week.”
“How can you be out?” Shelby is beside herself. “I depend on you.”
“Yeah, right.” He actually laughs. He thinks she’s kidding.
“You’re my go-to guy,” she insists. “I need you.”
“That’s a mistake, Shelby,” Ben says. “I let people down.”
“Don’t make me sit through reality,” Shelby moans. The tremor in her hand is already worsening. “I don’t know if I can do it. People with their petty desires and their TV shows. Everyone wants to be famous.”
She was famous for a while, at least in the local Pennysaver and in Newsday. There was even an article in The New York Times about teenagers and car accidents and she was referred to twice. They got it wrong, as usual, and printed that she was currently under psychiatric care, when she was already out of the nuthouse, ensconced in her parents’ basement.
“Lie down and close your eyes,” Ben suggests. “Breathe deep. Imagine you’re in Bali. Or on a beach in the Hamptons. Life’s easier to get through that way.”
“I would never be in the Hamptons.” Shelby paces the basement. There are mice down here, but she knows they’re afraid of her. She once stumbled upon three baby mice that froze until she hid behind the stairs, giving them the courage to run away. She happens to catch sight of herself in an old stand-up mirror. She has to get rid of that thing. Frankly, she’s completely shocked by her own appearance. She looks like the kind of girl people back away from on the street, someone who begs for spare change while she curses the world.
“Do I seem different to you than I did in high school?” she asks.
“Sure,” Ben says. “You’re bald.”
“I mean in some definitive way, asshole.”
“That’s definitive. Bald makes a statement. You’re completely different.”
“No I’m not.” Shelby has a crack in her voice. “That would mean I’m subhuman.”
“No. You’re like the weird fucked-up sister of yourself, Shelby. Whereas I’m just an extension of my loser self that anyone could have foreseen. I have followed the path set out before me. You veered.”
He means crashed and she knows it, so she hangs up on him. All he is to her is a drug dealer, anyway. He’s become less geeky and is now good-looking, in a rangy, off-center way, better than anyone would have guessed back in high school. He’s handsome, really, but so what? She doesn’t care about his philosophy. Without getting stoned, it’s harder to sleep fourteen hours at a time. She can feel something coursing through her. She sneaks upstairs to look through her parents’ medicine cabinet. Ativan. That might work. She hadn’t realized her mother was anxious enough to need a prescription like that. There’s also tramadol, which she was given at the hospital. It’s a muscle relaxer that they added to her Valium and lithium. She grabs that as well.
Shelby’s father is sitting in the living room. She usually manages to avoid him. Lately he has kind of a looming presence. Dan Richmond used to be a man who could charm a roomful of people at a party, but he’s changed. Now he goes to work at the men’s shop he inherited from his father and he comes home at six. That’s his life. He watches a lot of TV and doesn’t talk much.
“What are you doing here?” he says when he sees his daughter. If pressed, he wouldn’t be able to remember the last time she’s come upstairs.
“I came to get some milk,” she tells him. That sounds all-American. She goes to the fridge. “Where’s Mom?”
“Nowhere,” Dan says.
Shelby pours herself a glass of milk. She notices her dad is watching the same show she always tunes in to, so she sits down on the couch.
“That guy’s crap,” she says of the contestant she despises. He sings country-western sometimes, and eighties rock sometimes. He has no center, as far as Shelby is concerned.
“Yeah, well, he’s there in Hollywood and you’re here.”
“I don’t want to be in Hollywood,” Shelby is quick to respond. She tries to sound casual, but her father’s remark stings. It’s just another way of saying she’s a nothing. As if she didn’t know that.
They watch together for a while. Shelby is tapping her foot the way she did when she was upset before the hospital, and her father is trying his best not to mention it or even notice it. Thump against the floor. Against the couch. Like she’s wound up.
“I’ll bet she went over to the Boyds’,” Shelby finally says. “Didn’t she? I told her it was stupid and vile and disgusting. I told her not to go.”
“Maybe there’s some truth in what people say. It doesn’t hurt to see.”
“Don’t make me vomit.”
“You’d have to be alive to do that. Living the way you do isn’t being alive.”
Shelby stares at her father. He looks older. He’s a big, unhappy man who clearly wishes he were elsewhere.
“If I wanted to be dead, I would be,” Shelby informs him.
“That’s comforting,” her dad says.
“It is to me,” Shelby says.
She goes back to the basement. She takes two Ativan, then slips on her coat and goes out through the cellar door. She sits down on the picnic table, even though it’s cold outside. The air is like crystals; it hurts just to breathe.
Her mother’s car pulls up and parks. The headlights turn everything yellow, but when they’re cut off the night becomes pitch. All the same, Sue spies her daughter perched on the picnic table. She heads across the yard. “It’s freezing,” Sue says.
“I’m counting stars. That should keep me busy.”
Sue and Shelby lie down on the wooden table. They both look up.
“It’s not the way you think it is,” Sue says. “It’s peaceful over at the Boyds’. She’s peaceful. She means something to the people who come to see her, Shelby.” No one could count all the stars. There are far too many. What’s above them is endless. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
Shelby makes a sound that she hadn’t expected to be a sob. She doesn’t even know who she is anymore.
“I think I lost my soul,” she says.
“That can’t happen,” Sue tells her.
“You have no idea what can happen, Mom.”
Shelby takes out a cigarette and some matches. She used to be so against smoking she would go up to complete strangers to ask if they knew what they were doing to their lungs when they lit up. She was so sure of how to set the world right.
Now she goes back into the basement and phones Ben Mink. She tries not to think of her mother all alone in the backyard, counting stars. Sometime after the accident, her parents stopped talking to each other unless they needed to discuss a household chore or a doctor’s appointment. It’s true, tragedy can bring you closer or drive you apart.
“I’m desperate,” Shelby tells Ben. “Beam me out of here.”
He says he’s managed to score some pot from a guy he used to know in school. He’ll meet her on Main Street at nine. His parents live a few blocks from town. He rents an apartment with a bunch of guys, but he also spends nights at his parents’. They always give him a good meal and ask what he plans to do with his life. If he eats and shrugs it’s all pretty painless.
Shelby hates to leave the house, but she pulls on extra socks and her old boots, then gloves and a hat. The TV is still on; the blue light from the window falls across the lawn and out into the road. Ice. Crystals. Trees without leaves. Real things. Shelby walks toward Main Street. Everything is closed except the pizza place, where a few high school kids are hanging out. Shelby wraps her scarf around her head, then loops it around her neck and keeps going. She can hear herself breathing because the inhalations are sharp, sob-like things. She can hardly catch her breath. All that smoking and the cold air and how fast she walked here. It all adds up. It makes her want to cry.
Ben Mink is standing outside the Book Revue, a regular meeting place for them. He spent a lot of time in the science fiction section in high school. He read entire books while crouched down on the floor. Now he has his hands in his pockets; he’s freezing. When Shelby arrives he peers into her cloaked face. Hat, scarf, big eyes, bald. She looks like an orphan in a comic book.
“Damn it’s cold,” he says. “That is you in there, right?”
“Who else would meet you, Ben? As I recall, you don’t have any friends. Oh, the guy you got the pot from.”
“He’s more of an enemy,” Ben says. “You’re my friend.”
“Yeah, right.” Shelby gets her money from stealing from her parents; very grown-up to paw around in her mother’s purse and her father’s wallet. She is well aware that they pretend not to know. Shelby gives Ben the cash, and he hands her a plastic baggie that she slips into her pocket. “Okay,” Shelby says. “We’re friends.”
“I’ve brought something else for you.” Ben presents her with a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. “This will blow you away,” he says. “Some guy is covered with living tattoos. Each one tells a story.”
“You don’t have to give me anything.” All the same, Shelby takes the book.
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to be around much longer,” Ben says.
“Really? Leaping from a bridge?”
“Don’t laugh when I tell you. Promise?”
Their breath comes out like clouds. They’re the only ones on the street. Ben is wearing old Doc Martens boots that crunch into the snow when they start to walk. The crunch echoes up and sounds like steel.
“I’ve been taking classes at Empire State College. It’s independent study. An accelerated program. I started classes when I was in high school.”
“A program for what?” It’s so cold that Shelby thinks her fingers inside her gloves are turning blue. Maybe they’ll turn to sugar candy and break off and there’ll be a fairy-tale ending when one taste of her sugar-stick fingers will cure Helene.
Ben shrugs, somewhat embarrassed to have succeeded at something. “I have a BS in science.”
“What does that stand for? Bullshit?”
“I didn’t mention it, because I wasn’t sure I would graduate. But I did and now I’ve decided to go to pharmacy school. I’ve already been accepted. I got a four thirty on the PCAT admission test.” Shelby doubles over with laughter at this news. Ben grins as he watches her. She looks so pretty when she laughs. “So I’m smart,” he says. “So what?”
“It’s a perfect career path for you,” Shelby says. “Considering your interests.”
“Seriously, pharmacists can make a hundred grand a year.”
“Oh, yeah, what are you going to do with all that money? Buy drugs?”
“Weren’t you in the Straight and Narrow Club at school?”
The antidrug contingent that put up posters in the hallways and made a vow not to use drugs. She was so narrow-minded back then. If she met herself then the way she is now, she would have crossed over to the other side of the street to avoid such a creep.
“Fuck you,” Shelby says. She can’t stand the other her, the girl who thought she would always be one of the fortunate ones: good grades, good looks, good future.
“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I just like you better now. That’s all.”
Shelby glances at him through the slit between her scarf and her hat.
“Where do you think your soul goes when you lose it?” she asks him. He’s been to college after all, maybe he’s smart enough to know the answer.
“Around the corner and down the street.”
They both laugh. They are at that very moment turning the corner and going down the street. There’s nothing there.
“I told you it was gone,” Shelby says.
“Let’s go find it,” Ben suggests.
They stop long enough for Ben to take a joint from his pocket. Shelby holds her hands around it so the match won’t blow out.
“Let’s just walk by her house,” Ben says.
“That’s it? Just pass by it? Not stop or anything?”
Ben offers her a hit. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
They head toward the Boyds’ house. It’s easy really. Shelby has been here a thousand times before. She remembers a time when Ben said something to her in high school and she pretended not to hear and walked right by. She’s curious about what he said and questions him. He probably thought she was an uptight snob, and she probably was. Ben swears he doesn’t remember, but there’s a smirk on his face. He remembers all right. He’d said, Do you know where the music room is? His mother had insisted he take saxophone lessons. He’d actually wanted to say, I’ll pay you a hundred bucks if I can kiss you.
“You didn’t like me in high school,” Shelby says.
“Well, I didn’t like anyone, so don’t think you were special.”
They laugh again and lean closer for warmth.
“You were popular and you followed the rules. I always hated those girls,” Ben tells her.
“Right. You liked the ugly, unpopular ones.”
“I liked the smart ones. I just didn’t know you were one of them. You kind of hid it.”
Shelby thinks that over. She’s shivering as they approach Helene’s. There’s no one at the Boyds’, no lines in the driveway, no miracle seekers, just a darkened house with peeling paint. The bushes all look black. Sparrows rustle in the leaves, but everything else is silent.
“Come on,” Ben says. He grabs Shelby by the sleeve and they wheel across the yard.
“Hey,” Shelby says. “Wait a minute.” They’re headed toward Helene’s window. “I thought we were just passing by.”
“This is her room,” Ben says. “I’ve been here before. I was kind of a Peeping Tom in high school.”
“Are you kidding?” Shelby is shocked. “That is so vile. No wonder I never spoke to you.”
“I only saw her naked once.”
Shelby glares at him. “Only once? Like that’s nothing? Once is a violation. You really were a creep.”
There’s a rattle somewhere, a garbage can perhaps, but unsettling. Ben and Shelby crouch down beside the house so no one will see them. But there’s no one around. A cat crossing the street. The sparrows in the bushes. Ben is shaking under his puffy jacket. He’s had a guilty conscience all this time, and he didn’t even know how bad he felt until he makes his confession. He’d been a pervert and now he has a pervert’s remorse.
“I was only a kid,” he says.
He sounds like he’s going to crack and get all emotional, something Shelby can’t stand. “Pull yourself together,” she tells him. “So you spied on her. You were probably too young to know it was wrong.”
“I was crazy about her.”
“Helene?” Again, Shelby is stunned.
They start laughing, muffled, choked giggles.
“Insane,” Shelby agrees.
“Did I ever have a chance?”
“Never. Not in a million years. She was in love with that guy Chris. Truthfully, Ben? It would have never been you.”
It’s kind of a relief for Ben to hear this, as if a cord binding him to his past has been cut. He feels oddly grateful. He doesn’t have to be loyal to Helene.
“Do you want to look?” he asks.
They’re leaning into each other, but they can’t feel one another. Coats. Gloves. Protection from the elements.
“You,” Shelby says.
So Ben steps onto a ledge Shelby hadn’t known was there. It’s part of a window well cover that allows him to step up, then haul himself upward so he can look into Helene’s window. Clearly he’s done this before. Shelby stays where she is, knees pulled to her chest, head spinning, her hands covering her eyes. She thinks about the anonymous postcards that she keeps in her childhood jewelry box. Every day she waits even though sometimes there are months in between their arrivals. When she sees one in the mailbox she feels a thrumming inside her. She’s always excited to read them, no matter the message. Be something, with a hive of bees made of gold ink and a girl who’s been stung running into a dark wood. Feel something. A heart held in the palm of a hand. Inside the heart are words written in red ink: Faith, sorrow, shame, hope. Someone is watching over her. Someone knows what she needs.
Ben is silent as he peers into the window.
“What’s it like in there?” Shelby asks.
“Her room looks the same.”
Ben gets off the ledge and sinks back down next to Shelby, close, so their shoulders touch. Shelby uncovers her eyes. “How is she?”
Ben’s beard is patchy, and he smells like smoke and dirty laundry.
“She looks like somebody in a fairy tale. She’s peaceful.”
“Really?” That’s exactly what her mother said.
“She was beautiful back then, but you had more personality. You had a great laugh. I could hear it down the hall in school and know it was you. Actually I was in love with you both.”
“Yeah, well, that person is gone. I’ve become my own evil sister. You said so yourself.”
“I didn’t say evil. And I like you better this way. Really. But I’m freezing my ass off.”
They’re sitting in a frozen patch of ivy that has broken into shards beneath their weight.
“My ass is numb,” Shelby says. But she doesn’t get up. She sends a silent message to Helene. Say something. Call my name and I’ll rescue you.
“When I get my first job, I’m getting a Volvo. Ever see their safety records? Man, nothing can hurt you in one of those. A truck can hit you and you walk out of there in one piece, every limb intact. You’d be safe with me.”
“Are you coming on to me?” The realization that he is dawns on Shelby all at once. She swears a lightbulb goes off in her head, but her skull is so cold she thinks it might shatter.
“I’m sitting in the fucking ivy with you,” Ben says. “It goes way beyond that.”
Shelby moves closer. She’s not interested in Ben, but she’s comfortable with him. Maybe that’s enough for now. When she whispers her breath is damp and hot. “Should I look?”
“You can if you want to. I’ll tell you one thing—that’s not her in there. So I don’t recommend it.”
Shelby thinks over all he’s said. “How long did you stalk her?”
“It wasn’t stalking her. I told you, I was crazy about her.”
“Did you stalk me?”
“What do you think I’m doing right now? Maybe you’re not as smart as I think you are. It’s like twelve degrees and I’m out here on the Boyds’ lawn with you.”
Shelby starts out laughing and then it becomes something else. Ben covers her mouth with his gloved hand so that Helene’s parents won’t hear anything. “Shelby,” he says.
Shelby hears the way he says her name and she knows that somehow he’s fallen in love with her. She’s so stunned she stops crying.
Ben says, “Okay?”
Shelby nods and he lets go.
“I really am freezing,” Shelby tells him.
Ben stands and helps her up. Shelby could have looked in the window. She could have stepped up and held her gloved hand to the glass; she could have climbed into the room, gotten down on her knees, touched Helene’s warm hand, and begged for forgiveness, the way people do on a regular basis, greedy for a miracle. Helene might have blessed her, she might have changed everything that is about to happen and released her from the punishment of being herself. Instead, Shelby follows Ben across the lawn. They go back the way they came, conscious of the sound of their boots in the snow. Crunch. It’s like a tree being chopped down, like a heart beating. The sky is black. There’s the scent of hyacinths cutting through the cold. That was Helene’s favorite flower, not roses.
“I need something hot to drink,” Shelby says.
“Being bald probably lowers your total body temperature,” Ben remarks. He’s taken every science course available at college, and yet he knows nothing about human emotions. Love is a mystery. It’s like an alien abduction. You think you’re on earth, and there you are among the stars.
Shelby doubles her scarf around her head. “Being an idiot probably lowers yours,” she shoots back.
She smiles, or at least Ben thinks she does. He would do anything she asked. Even something stupid like robbing a convenience store. He’d leave everything behind and follow her to some far-off destination. He’d look for a miracle if he could.
“Probably,” he agrees. “I bet it does.”
But he hadn’t been enough of an idiot to actually open his eyes when he was at Helene’s window. He thought about those times he’d stalked her. Even then it was Shelby he wanted. He was just too afraid of what she’d do if he got caught spying on her. Helene was simpler. One night while he watched, Helene was on her bed, chatting on the phone. She was undressed, lying on her back, one bare leg thrown over the other. All she had on was a bracelet. She was almost too beautiful to be real. His eyes are closed now, and he imagines her as she was. He hears the echo of her voice as she talked on the phone to Shelby, cooking up some plans for the weekend. Her skin was snow-white; her hair was the color of roses. That’s the way she’ll always be to him. Some things are best remembered the way you want to remember them, like this road, these stars, this girl right beside him as they walk into the center of the cold night, looking straight ahead.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for Faithful includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alice Hoffman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this profoundly moving novel, bestselling author Alice Hoffman introduces a tale of redemption, survivor’s guilt, and the power of love, family, and fate.
After surviving a traumatic car accident that takes the life of her best friend Helene, Shelby Richmond finds herself wayward, lost, and alone. In the years following Helene’s death, Shelby takes up relationships with less than savory men, turns to drugs as a way to escape, and loses all self-love. But through the angels around her—their faith, hope, and support—Shelby finally discovers her calling and sets forth on a path toward a better life.
Faithful is a novel about the burden of guilt, the power of humanity, and resilience—with a character who will resonate with anyone who has ever lost a loved one or lost their way.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. As a group, listen to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” After you’ve completed the song, discuss why Alice Hoffman opened Faithful with the following lyrics: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” How do you think this connects to the novel? To Shelby?
2. Love manifests in a few strong ways: the love between a mother and daughter (Shelby and Sue, Maravelle and Jasmine); the love between partners (Ben and Shelby; Sue and Dan); friendship (Shelby and Maravelle). Which love brings the characters the most faith or hope? Is there a sort of love in the novel that you find destructive to the characters?
3. Discuss the title, Faithful. In which ways do the characters show their faith? How does this faith differentiate from religious faith? At what point do you think Shelby finally begins to have faith and hope again? Is there another title you and your group members would have selected for the novel?
4. Over the course of the novel, Shelby rescues three dogs, a cat, and steals a poodle for her mother. Discuss the different caretakers that appear in the novel. What compels Shelby to save these animals? What compels Ben to care for Shelby? Shelby for Maravelle?
5. Discuss Shelby’s relationship with Ben. In what ways is this relationship a healthy next step for Shelby? Do you think he has a positive or negative affect on her life? Why or why not?
6. While browsing books in the Strand Book Store, a young boy says to Shelby, “That’s why the best heroes used to be villains and vice versa” (page 222). Consider this quote in relation to Shelby’s survivor’s guilt and redemption by the end of the novel. Does she forgive herself for Helene’s death? Why or why not?
7. In the first chapter, Shelby says, “I believe in tragedy . . . not miracles” (page 11). Does her opinion change by the novel’s end? What miracles does she experience?
8. The theme of trust is prevalent in Faithful. Discuss the characters who struggle most with trust. Consider the level of trust Maravelle puts in Shelby to watch her kids, Shelby’s father’s infidelity, Shelby’s lack of self-trust, and others who appear in the novel. Where does the lack of trust or ability to trust stem from for the various characters in the novel?
9. On page 201, James says to Shelby, “What they say about saving a life is true . . . You’re responsible for that person forever.” Discuss what James means here and the different ways Shelby’s, or another character’s, life is saved in Faithful. Do you agree with James? Why or why not?
10. To further the question above, discuss Shelby’s visit with Helene toward the novel’s end. What “miracle” do you think she experiences during the visit? What kept her away for so long?
11. As a group, compare the various sayings on all the postcards James left for Shelby throughout the years, as well as when they appear in Shelby’s life. What would your reaction be to these notes? Do you think James knew where Shelby was, both physically and mentally, at the time he was writing them?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Consider volunteering as a group at a local animal shelter or ASPCA. After spending time with the animals and helping around the shelter, ask the staff about the animals’ stories. Discuss as a group whether you would feel compelled to rescue animals off the street the way Shelby did.
2. Consider reading one of Alice Hoffman’s historical novels in contrast to this novel or her memoir, Survival Lessons. What do these works have in common? Can you trace any similar themes in their plots or lessons the characters learn by the end of the novels?
3. Connect with Alice Hoffman on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or her website. Create a hashtag for your book club and tag her in the photos you upload of your group’s reactions to the work.
4. Spend an afternoon making fortune cookies and the enclosed fortunes as a group. Discuss some of your favorite fortunes you’ve ever found and come up with some fortunes you think Shelby may have responded to positively.
5. Consider reading Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man as your next book club pick. Discuss how the novel speaks to Shelby, Ben, and James in Faithful.
A Conversation with Alice Hoffman
You start the novel with a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Why did you decide to start the novel with these lyrics?
I am a huge fan of Leonard Cohen's music and poetry, and I think Shelby would be also. The lyric speaks to the idea that what is broken in us is also what makes us human and what defines us. So often we are ashamed of what we see as our flaws, our past histories, our sorrows, but these are what give us compassion and wisdom. Nothing is whole, nothing is perfect, and we can’t expect that of ourselves or of anyone else.
Many of your novels are deeply rooted in history. Faithful, however, is set in contemporary New York City. What research, if any, did you need to do to feel satisfied with Faithful? Do you find the process of writing contemporary fiction different from writing historical fiction?
Writing a historical novel is a huge undertaking in terms of research, but all novels require emotional investigation. Faithful happened to take ten years to write—I wrote between writing other novels—and so I really got to know Shelby in a deep way. I lived with her for a long time.
When you’ve finished writing a book, do you ever wish you could revisit a character you’ve focused on? Do you think your characters reappear in any novels? Do you think you’ll consider writing a sequel to Faithful or do you think Shelby’s story is complete for readers?
I always feel that when a novel ends, the future of the characters belong to the reader. Because the reader and writer share the novel, we all experience it in our imaginations. I have written a sequel to a novel called Green Angel, and enjoyed it. But for me, Shelby’s story ends on the last page of the novel. The rest is up to the reader.
You were born in New York City and grew up on Long Island. Did you spend time in New York City as a twentysomething like Shelby did? Is her hometown similar to yours?
I grew up in Valley Stream, where Maravelle buys her house, and spent much of my twenties in Chelsea in New York City, where Shelby lives with Ben and later by herself. Many of the places Shelby loves are places I love—Strand Book Store, the Half King, Union Square, the Hudson River. I wanted her to be in real places and to give her a map that I knew well.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what readers can look for next?
I’m at work on a prequel to my novel Practical Magic. The Rules of Magic is set in New York City in the sixties and tells the story of the aunts, Frances and Jet, when they were young. It’s great to be writing about the Owens family again and to see another side of these characters that I loved.
Alice Hoffman is the author of more than thirty works of fiction, including The Book of Magic, Magic Lessons, The World That We Knew, Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic (a Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick), the Oprah’s Book Club Selection Here on Earth, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers, The Museum of Extraordinary Things, The Marriage of Opposites, and Faithful. She lives near Boston.