"… I didn't," he finished.
I knew maybe I shouldn't ask. But I did anyway. "Why not?"
"I liked it," he said with a shrug. "I wanted to hang on to it."
It was the picture I was holding that afternoon when I finally got up the nerve to call Andrea Thomlinson, the woman whose card Emily had given me. I left a message on her voice mail, and she called back within ten minutes. Emily was right: She was nice. We talked for forty-five minutes. And when she asked if I'd come to the courthouse the next day, in case they needed me, even though I knew what it meant to do so, I agreed. As soon as we hung up, I called Owen.
"Good for you," he said when I told him what I'd done. His voice was warm, pleased, and I pressed the receiver closer, letting it fill my ear. "You did the right thing."
"Yeah," I said. "I know. But now I have to get up in front of people…"
"You can do it," he said, and when I sighed, not at all sure of this, he said, "You can. Look, if you're nervous about tomorrow—"
"If?" I said.
"—then I'll go with you. If you want."
"You'd do that," I said.
"Sure," he replied. So easily, no question. "Just tell me where and when."
We arranged to meet at the fountain in front of the courthouse, just before nine. I knew that even without him, I still wouldn't be alone. But it was nice to have options.
Now, I took one last look at the picture, then slid it into my bedside-table drawer.
On my way to the living room, where my family was gathered, I stopped to look at the photo in the foyer. As always, my eyes were drawn to my own face first, then those of my sisters, and finally my mother, looking so small between us. But I saw it differently now.
When that picture was taken, we were all gathered around my mother, sheltering her. But that was just one day, one shot. In the time since, we had arranged and rearranged ourselves so many times. We'd all gathered around Whitney, even when she didn't want us to, and Kirsten and I had gotten closer when she pushed us both away. We were still in flux, as had been clear at the table that night as I watched my mother and sisters come together again. Then, I'd been convinced I was on the outside, but really, I'd always been within arm's reach. All I had to do was ask, and I, too, would be easily brought back, surrounded and immersed, finding myself safe, somewhere in between.
I walked across the living room to where my family was gathered around the TV. No one saw me at first, and I just stood there for a second, looking at them all together. Finally, my mom turned her head, and I took in a breath, knowing that whatever I saw in her face, I could do this. I had to.
"Annabel," she said. Then she smiled before moving over to make a place for me beside her. "Come join us."
For a moment I hesitated, but then I looked at Whitney. She was watching me, her expression serious, and I thought of that night a year ago, when I'd pushed open a door and flipped a switch, exposing her to the light. What had happened to her had scared me to death, but she'd survived it. So I kept my eyes on her as I crossed the space between and took my seat.
My mother smiled at me again, and I felt a wave of sadness and fear come over me, knowing what I was about to do. You about ready? she'd asked me earlier, and then, I hadn't been. Maybe I never would be. But there was no way around it now. So as I got ready to tell my story again, I did what Owen had done for me so many times: I reached out a hand, to my mother and my family. And this time, I pulled them through with me.
When I first got into the courtroom, I could only see Will Cash in glimpses. The back of his head here, the arm of his suit there, a profile, fleeting. At first this was frustrating and made me even more nervous, but as the time grew closer to when I'd be called, I began to think this was a good thing. Pieces and parts were always easier to process. The full picture, the entire story, was another thing entirely. But you just never knew. Sometimes, people could surprise you.
Telling my family had been harder, in the end, than telling Owen. But I did it. Even through the hard parts, even when I heard my mother catch her breath, could feel my father's eyes narrowing, felt Kirsten shaking beside me, I kept on. And when I felt myself really wavering, I looked at Whitney, who never flinched. She was strongest of us all, and I kept my eyes on her, all the way to the end.
My mother had surprised me most. She had not fallen apart, or crumpled, although I knew hearing what had happened to me was not easy for her. Instead, while Kirsten cried, and Whitney helped my dad find Andrea Thomlinson's card in my room so he could call her for more details, my mother sat
356 O Sarah Dessen beside me, her arm around my shoulder, just smoothing her hand over my head, again and again.
That morning, on the way to the courthouse, I'd sat in the backseat between my sisters, watching my parents. Every once in a while my mother's shoulder would move, and I knew she was reaching over to pat my father's hand, as he had done to her on another drive, on another day when secrets had begun to come out, not so long ago.
All my life, I realized, I'd only seen my parents one way, as if it was the only way they could be. One weak, one strong. One scared, one bold. I was beginning to understand, though, that there were no such things as absolutes, not in life or in people. Like Owen said, it was day by day, if not moment by moment. All you could do was take on as much weight as you can bear. And if you're lucky, there's someone close enough by to shoulder the rest.
When we walked up to the courthouse it was just before eight forty-five, and I scanned the crowd in the square around the fountain, looking for Owen. He wasn't there. Not then, and not after my mother and I met with Andrea Thomlinson in a nearby office to go over my story again. Not even when the courtroom opened and we filed inside, taking our seats just down the row from Emily and her mom. I kept looking for him, thinking he would slide in at the last minute, just in time, but he didn't. It was so not like him, and it worried me.
An hour and a half later, the prosecutor called my name. I stood up, my palm slick on the bench in front of me as I slid my hand along its back, walking past my sisters to the end of the row. Then I stepped out into the aisle and was on my own.
As I crossed the floor I finally had a clear view of everything—the crowd, the judge, the prosecutors and defense attorneys—and I made a point of focusing only on the bailiff, who was waiting for me by the witness stand. I took my seat, feeling my heart pounding as I answered his questions and the judge turned, nodding at me. It was only after the prosecutor stood and started toward me that I finally let myself look at Will Cash.