Excerpted from The Hours Count: A Novel by Jillian Cantor.
On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe.The humidity clings to my skin, my face wet with sweat, or maybe tears. It is hard to tell the difference. To understand one thing from another anymore. It’s as if the world were ending the way I always imagined it would. And yet I’m still here. Still driving. Still breathing, somehow, despite the heavy air, despite what I have done. The sky is on the edge of dusk. No mushroom cloud. No bodies turned to dust.
I’m driving Ed’s Fleetmaster up Route 9, the road to Ossining, along the sweltering Hudson. There are a lot of cars, all headed the way I am, slowing me down. I push anxiously on the gas, wanting the miles to speed along, wanting to get there before it’s too late. I hope the car will make it, that I haven’t damaged anything that will cause it to stall now at the worst possible time.
I wish I could’ve left earlier, but I had to wait until I was able to take Ed’s car. I suppose you even might say I’ve stolen the car, but Ed and I are still married legally. And can a wife really steal a car from her own legal husband?
So much has already been stolen from me, from all of us. From
Ethel. And that’s why I’m driving now.
My stomach turns at the thought of what might happen to me when I tell the truth at last. And I glance in the rearview mirror at the backseat. For so long, I have taken David with me everywhere, and it takes me a moment to remember he’s not here. It’s just me in the car and David’s gone.
But Jake will be there, at Sing Sing, I remind myself. He has to be. And if I can just see him one last time, one more moment, then it will make everything else I am about to do, everything I have lost and am losing by doing this, all worth it.
I think now about the curve of Jake’s neck, the way it smelled of pipe smoke and pine trees, just the way the cabin on Esopus Creek smelled. I inhale, wanting him to be here, to be real and in front of me again. But instead my lungs fill with that thick air, the dank smell of the Hudson, a humid summer afternoon turned almost evening. A few fireflies begin to gather just outside my window, their bodies glowing, a little early. It’s not quite dark. Not yet the Sabbath. I’m almost there, so close, and I will the darkness to hold off. Just a little longer.
Up ahead, there are dozens of red taillights and I realize that traffic has come to a standstill. I stop and put my head out the window. Farther up the road, it looks like there are barricades set up. Police with flashlights, though I’m hoping FBI, too. I switch on the radio and listen anxiously, wanting so badly for there to be good news. A last-minute stay. A decision to halt things until after the
Sabbath has passed. More time.
I switch the stations, anxious for something. Anything. But all I get is music: Ella Fitzgerald singing “Guilty.” It feels like a cruel joke, and I switch again. At last I find news, but it’s not good. President Eisenhower has denied a stay of execution, saying Ethel and Julie have condemned tens of millions of people to death all around the world. No. Ethel and Julie are still set to die at eight p.m. An hour from now.
I switch the radio off, pull the car to the side of the road, and kill the engine. I take a cigarette from my purse and light it with shaking hands. I inhale the smoke and for a moment consider not getting out of the car but just waiting here in the line of traffic. But I know I can’t.
I push open my door and step out into the steamy air. I stomp out the cigarette with my worn heel. I stare at the back window and picture David there on the other side, staring back at me, his round brown eyes like the pennies he so loved to stack. “Come on now,” I would tell him if he were here. “We have to hurry if we’re going to find Dr. Jake.”
His mouth would twitch slightly at the mention of Jake’s name, and I’d wonder if maybe it might even be a little smile.
Jake’s here, I tell myself instead. All I have to do is find Jake.
And I shut the car door and begin running up the road.
Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 Jillian Cantor.
Jillian Cantor has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. She is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults, including, most recently, the critically acclaimed The Lost Letter, The Hours Count, and Margot. Born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Cantor currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.