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book cover for Nightfall Nightfall
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen


Rebecca drove mechanically through the downpour, signaling her turn onto the Post Road even though it was past midnight and there wasn't another car in sight. It was slightly over three miles from Agnes's house to her own, and she was better than halfway home. She hiked up the volume on the radio and glanced at the speedometer. The last thing she wanted was a speeding ticket.

The rain was sheeting across the windshield, and even with the wipers going at top speed, it was hard to see. She hated driving in the rain, and the trip back from the city would have been a nightmare if Agnes hadn't been along.

Up ahead about a quarter of a mile she could see a car pulled to the side of the road. The hood was raised, and two boys were peering in at the engine while a third stepped out into the road and waved his arms at her to stop.

"Are you kidding?" she murmured, mildly alarmed. She'd have to be crazy to stop at this time of night to offer help or a ride to three teenage boys. She wouldn't have stopped for anyone, but especially not a trio of young men.

When she was about fifty feet away, the boy who'd been waving suddenly darted out in front of her. Fear leaping into her throat, she spun the wheel hard to the left, swerving to avoid hitting him. Thank God there was no oncoming traffic. Trembling, her heart racing, she swung back into the outside lane, then glanced into the rearview mirror. "Maniac!" she gasped, seeing the boy shaking his fist at her. As if she'd done something wrong, and not him. Whatever he was shouting was drowned out by the radio. Her right knee was quivering. She was doing over fifty in a thirty-mile-an-hour zone. Sweating, she eased back on the accelerator. What the hell was wrong with that kid? Her hands were wet, slippery on the steering wheel. Scared the hell out of her. Staying in the outside lane, she kept her eyes on the road ahead. Another two minutes and she'd be home. God! Was he out of his mind, doing a thing like that? The pulse in her throat was hammering painfully. She felt as if she might throw up. What if she'd hit him? He might've been killed. She longed to be home and had to stop herself from putting her foot back down hard on the accelerator.

"Bitch!" Pete yelled, shaking his fist in the air as the car went past.

"Hey, forget it, man!" Cal said, wiping his grimy hands down the sides of his jeans. "No woman's going to stop for us. You probably scared the living shit out of her, jumping in front of the car like that." He shook his head disdainfully; he couldn't believe Pete had actually pulled such a dumb stunt.

"Serve her goddamned right," Pete snapped, watching the car's right taillight flashing for a turn. "It'd like kill her to help us out?"

"I think maybe I've got it," Tim called over. "I've cleaned the sparks. Cal, get in and try it."

Cal stared at Pete a moment longer, then got behind the wheel and turned the ignition key. The starter made a grinding noise; the engine wouldn't turn over.

"Shit!" said Tim. "I guess we'll have to walk."

"My dad'll have a fit," Cal said unhappily.

"It's not like you did anything. I mean, it just died," Tim said, looking over to see Pete still watching the tail-lights of the car he'd tried to stop. "Be serious!" he said. "You're lucky she didn't run you down."

Pete pushed the wet hair out of his eyes, saying, "Yeah, right. So what's the deal here?"

"The deal is, we walk."

"It wouldn't've killed her to give us a ride," Pete said hotly. "What a bitch!"

"Forget it. Okay? I can't believe you did that. You know?" Tim looked at his watch. "Man! I'm way past curfew. My mom's going to have my ass. Come on, Cal, lock 'er up and let's go. I figure if we jog it, we can make my place in half an hour. You coming, Pete?"

"You know who that was?" Pete said excitedly, still gazing down the road. "That was Leighton, from school. Shelley had her for junior English last year."

"So?" Tim said, exchanging a look with Cal, who shrugged and turned to lock the doors. After pocketing the keys and tying his handkerchief to the antenna to let the cops know the car had broken down, Cal looked at Pete. "You just going to stand here all night in the rain or what?"

"That was her," Pete repeated, convinced that his recognizing the teacher was significant somehow.

"You coming?" Tim asked again as he and Cal moved to go.

"Fuck it!" Pete said. "You guys go on." He'd make it over to the service center on I-95, maybe score some uppers from one of the long-distance drivers. He had a twenty he'd scammed from his mother's purse that morning.

As Cal and Tim gave up, exchanging another look before taking off at a run, Pete started toward the turnpike. The rain dripping down his neck, his jeans saturated, he got more and more steamed with that bitch Leighton for leaving the three of them stranded. Jesus, it really pissed him off.


Rebecca let herself in the back door, threw off her coat in the mudroom, and went into the kitchen to pour some Stoli into a glass. She dropped in an ice cube, stirred it into the vodka with her finger, and took a long swallow. She shuddered, closed her eyes for a moment, feeling the cool burn, then put the glass down on the counter, thinking how glad she was to be home. The telephone rang. She jumped, and put a shaking hand out to pick up the receiver.

"Just wanted to be sure you made it home safely," Agnes said.

"I'm okay now," Rebecca told her, relieved to hear Agnes's low, rich voice. "Some kid jumped right in front of my car as I was coming down the Post Road. Scared the hell out of me."

"Jumped in front of you?"

"Literally. There were three boys about eighteen, and it looked as if their car had broken down. Anyway, I'm all right."

"You didn't stop, did you?"

"God, no!" Rebecca said, too readily able to imagine being attacked by a trio of sturdy young men.

"You're sure you're all right?"

"I'm fine. A little shaky, that's all."

"Good. Well, will I see you this weekend?"

"Maybe Sunday evening, if I can get through those junior essays. Let me call you."

"Of course." Agnes sighed, then said, "I am sorry about the play."

"It wasn't that bad."

"Wasn't good, either. So, my dear, I'm glad you're home safe and sound. Enjoy your evening tomorrow with Mister X, and we'll talk on Sunday."

Rebecca was tired, but still rattled by the incident on the Post Road, and by the unexpected late-night ringing of the telephone. Not that Agnes's call was out of the ordinary; Aggie usually checked to make sure she got home safely. Carrying her drink upstairs to the bedroom, she thought about how Agnes seemed to have changed in the past month or so. She'd noticed it again this evening, when Agnes had been deeply offended by an actress of almost sixty attempting to play a forty-year-old. Rebecca had agreed about the miscasting, but Agnes had appeared to take the matter as a personal affront.

"Imagine what a decent actress could do with a part like that!" she'd said. "Once upon a time, I might have played it."

"I bet you'd have been wonderful," Rebecca had said, wishing not for the first time that she could have seen Agnes perform. She must have been brilliant. It stood to reason that someone who'd made her London West End debut at the age of seventeen had to have been very special. "Didn't it kill you to give it all up?" she'd asked. Agnes rarely talked about her early life, and Rebecca had been curious.

"Apparently not any more than it did you," Agnes replied coolly.

"Aggie, all I ever did were a half-dozen television commercials and two plays miles off Broadway. But you did West End shows, and won awards. You were there."

"‘There,' my dear, is a relative term. I was an impudent child who didn't give a damn. Back then that sort of attitude was so rare it was considered rather attractive. Nowadays it's the norm. In any event, I'm far happier teaching than I ever was treading the boards. Did it kill you, Rebecca, giving up your theatrical career?"

"I moved to the city right after graduating from college, you know, convinced I'd be in a Broadway show by the time I was twenty-five," Rebecca answered, trying to stay well away from the other cars on the rain-slicked road. "For three and a half years I worked lunches waitressing, and got my Master's credits going nights to NYU. I did speaking parts in three industrial films, two voice-overs for commercials that went national and paid great residuals for two years, four on-camera commercials, and those two pretentious plays I mentioned before.

"I guess what I miss most is being constantly on the go - to dinner, plays, gallery openings, movies. And all the available men," she added meaningfully.

"I seem to recall men in London," Agnes said with a wry smile. "Go on."

"Well," Rebecca said, "on my twenty-fifth birthday, instead of celebrating, I stayed home to take stock of my life. I thought about the over-forty hopefuls who invested their savings in face-lifts that left them looking grotesque and who showed up at every audition wearing too much makeup and dressed to the nines. All in the hope of that break that might still happen.

"I thought about how various people in the business had suggested I dye my hair white-blonde, maybe get a small chin implant to strengthen my profile, and have my wisdom teeth pulled to emphasize the arch of my cheekbones ... on and on." She'd smiled and glanced over to see Agnes listening soberly.

"I couldn't see the point. I mean, tinted contact lenses, bleached hair and spike heels weren't going to make much of a difference, because underneath it all I'd still be five-foot-three with black hair and blue eyes.

"And what does plastic surgery have to do with making a career, anyway? Talent counts, too, but nobody seemed to care much about that. So I decided to bail out before all I could talk about was parts I'd been that close to getting after three callbacks. I had the qualifications to teach, and the house Dad had left me. So I gave notice to the tenants, packed up the Manhattan studio, and moved back to Connecticut. That was just over eight years ago, and I don't regret it.

"Sometimes I miss the panicky excitement I'd get when my agent called to say she'd put me up for something. Maybe this would be my big break, I'd land the part that'd make me a star." She gave a self-deprecating shrug. "But I'm happy teaching, too. Of course every time one of the kids expresses any interest in an acting career, it's all I can do not to launch into an impassioned speech about the heartbreak and humiliation of it."

"Quite so," Agnes had agreed, once more recognizably herself. "It's their right to dream and to be disillusioned."

Now as she prepared for bed, Rebecca wished she could pinpoint what was wrong. The change in Agnes was so subtle she doubted that others would notice it. But she was closer to Agnes than anyone else, and there was definitely something going on.

Climbing into bed, she finished the vodka, then reached for her book on the bedside table, again saw the boy throwing himself into the path of her car, and shivered. What if she'd hit him? God! It'd been such a close call. A brief, nasty episode. But it was over. She was home, safe in bed. Nothing bad had happened. But, God! She could feel the car lurch as she spun the wheel, could see the pale blur of his features as she went past him. He had to be crazy to do a thing like that. He could've been killed.

For a second time she reached for the book. As she did, she thought of seeing Ray tomorrow and sank back against the pillows with a sigh. She'd pretty much lost interest in the man Agnes had, from the outset, referred to as Mister X, she thought tiredly. It sounded far more exciting than it really was.

The disadvantages to life in a small town were the lack of unattached men and the lack of much to do if one were unmarried and had no children. Everything shut down by ten p.m. The streets were deserted, and initially, after life in Manhattan, the silence had been particularly difficult to adjust to. Now she was so acclimated to the nighttime quiet that the slightest unusual noise instantly caught her attention. She saved up "unusual noise" stories to tell her mother on Sunday afternoons when she drove down to Greenwich to visit.

She had to admit her existence in Nortown became a lot less boring after getting involved with Ray Hastings seven months earlier. They'd met at a local nursery one Saturday afternoon. Rebecca had been buying flats of pachysandra to plant along the western side of the house, and while waiting to pay, Ray had approached to ask if she knew anything about house plants. He was attractive and, thinking it was a pity he had on a wedding ring, she'd made several suggestions. Grateful for her help, he'd asked if he could buy her lunch. After deliberating for a moment or two, she agreed to meet him at a restaurant in the nearby shopping center. What harm could come from eating lunch with the man?

While they ate their sandwiches, he explained that he was in the process of getting a divorce after twenty-two years of marriage. He'd stayed with it longer than he probably should have because of his sense of obligation to his two children and because he hoped something might reawaken his one-time affection for his wife. The children hadn't appeared to benefit from his sacrifice, and his affection for his wife had not been rekindled.

Finally, he'd told a sympathetic Rebecca, he'd been sitting one night with the Stamford Advocate, scanning the real estate ads. The next evening he went to view several apartments, and without ever having planned it, he took a lease on one. Over dinner that night he announced he was leaving.

"The kids nodded and went on eating," he'd said, "and Marla said, ‘If you think I'm giving up this house, you're crazy.' I said that wouldn't be necessary, and that was pretty well that." A week later he was installed in his furnished apartment. He'd been living there for close to nine months when Rebecca met him.

There were problems with the affair almost from the start. Not only did Ray commute into the city to his job as commercial claims director for an insurance company, which meant he left early and got home late, but he also traveled extensively for the company. So he was rarely able to see Rebecca more than once a week, and sometimes not even that. At first she hadn't minded, thinking it was better to see someone infrequently than not at all. And after more than a year of celibacy, it was good to be sexually active again.

Lately, though, despite Ray's passionate declarations of love, she was feeling increasingly like "the other woman" and hated the idea that she was in a clichéd situation. She also could no longer ignore the nagging suspicion that Ray was happy to keep things just as they were. If she had to explain this, she knew it would sound lame. After all, she was involved with an attractive man who claimed to love her. There were plenty of women who'd jump at the chance to have him around, regardless of what was going on in his life. She wasn't one of them. She'd already compromised her primary rule never to date married or separated men by dating him in the first place.

Matters were further complicated by the fact that Ray's son was a student at the high school and in Aggie's senior English class. Ray assured her that neither of his kids nor his wife knew of his involvement with her. "For the time being, it's better if we both keep a low profile," he said. "I'd hate to get you messed up in the divorce, or put your job in jeopardy." That had made sense, and she'd resisted the fleeting impulse to ask Aggie to point the boy out to her. Knowing what he looked like wouldn't improve her relationship with Ray, or speed up the divorce. So what was the point?

At last she turned out the light, anxious to go to sleep. But her brain kept relentlessly ticking over. In the morning there was the grocery shopping to be done; in the afternoon the junior essays had to be marked; then there was dinner to prepare for Ray. And after dinner he'd want to make love. That was the usual pattern. She could summon up very little anticipation, the surest sign that the relationship was in trouble. At the outset she'd been very optimistic, wanting to believe things would be different this time. Well, they were different all right, but not better. The time had come to end the affair. It was admittedly cowardly, but she kept stalling, hating the idea of a scene. And somehow you couldn't announce you wanted to break up without there being one.

She sighed again. These things happened. She'd enjoyed life well enough before Ray came along; she'd enjoy it again after he was gone. It was sad when things didn't work out, but she should never have broken her rule and become involved with someone in the midst of a divorce.

It was better by far to be a little lonely than locked into a go-nowhere romance. On the plus side, she had a good job. The hours were terrible, the pay scale barely adequate, but the kids were terrific, and she treasured her friendship with Agnes. She admired Agnes's striking good looks, enjoyed her eccentricities, her wicked sense of humor, her generosity, and her theatrical flair. They shared a compatibility Rebecca had never known with any other friend. Continuing the credit side of this mental balance sheet, she owned her own home; she was independent and entirely self-reliant. She had a wonderful mother, and friends among the other teachers. She had some savings, and a car she owned outright.

On the minus side, Agnes was acting a bit peculiar, forgetting some things and overreacting to others, and Rebecca found this worrisome. As well, she was going to have to break up with Ray, which was bound to be unpleasant. And to top everything off, she couldn't get to sleep. Perfect, she thought, shifting over to her left side. Instead of going to sleep, she was busy running down the pros and cons of her life.

She'd concentrate on relaxing her body, an old exercise from her acting classes. The rain drummed down on the skylight overhead. The wind whipped through the branches of the old copper beech outside. She breathed slowly, deeply, starting to descend, the blackness spreading. Then suddenly she was back in the Jetta, swerving to avoid the figure that leaped into her path. At once overheated and upset, she turned over again, trying physically to get away from that frightening incident.

It was hours before she finally fell into an exhausted sleep.

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