Faithful Page 1

Author: Alice Hoffman

Genres: Historical

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.