You never really know what goes on in another person’s mind...
Or in their marriage...
Alison, Julie, Sarah, Heather. Four friends living the suburban ideal. Their jobs are steady, their kids are healthy. They’re as beautiful as their houses. But each of them has a dirty little secret, and hidden behind the veneer of their perfect lives is a crime and a mystery that will consume them all.
Just Between Us
Funerals for murder victims are distinguished from other services by the curiosity seekers. Those who come even though they have no real relationship with the victim, but have been fooled by the publicity surrounding the death into thinking that they had a personal connection.
We watched them, these sobbing and wild-eyed men and women, and endured the long service in stiff pews, part of the much smaller crowd of the truly bereaved. We were very aware, in the way the others weren’t, of two guests who didn’t pass by the casket, men standing at the back of the chapel in forgettable suits, watching us with gimlet eyes.
They waited until we stood, stiff-legged, and followed the coffin, which rose and fell on the shoulders of the pallbearers like a small ship at sea. They waited until we’d stepped into the cold chill of that morning, blinking in the hard light, wind whipping the corners of our coats as we grabbed the hands of our children and loaded into our cars. They waited as we queued up to follow the body to its final resting place, high on a hill on the outskirts of town. And then they got into their nondescript sedan and joined our procession slowly wending its way through slush-covered streets toward the gravesite.
Sometimes I play the what-if game and wonder, what if we hadn’t moved to Sewickley when I got pregnant, and what if I hadn’t gone into labor in early August, and what if Lucy hadn’t slipped, wet and wailing, into this world a full three weeks early? If my oldest child had been born on her due date or after, then she wouldn’t have been eligible for school a full year earlier than expected, and I wouldn’t have met the women who became my closest friends, and what happened to us might never have happened at all.
So much in life hinges on chance—this date or that time, the myriad small, statistical variations which social scientists like to measure.
What if I hadn’t been the one handing Heather her cup of coffee that crisp fall morning? And what if the sleeve of her knit shirt hadn’t slid back just a little as she reached to take it, and what if I hadn’t happened to look down and see what the sleeves had been meant to hide, and what if I hadn’t asked, “How did you get such a nasty bruise?”
A throwaway question at first.
I distributed the other cups to Julie and Sarah, barely paying attention but turning in time to see Heather startle, a tiny movement, before jerking down her sleeve to cover that large purple-yellow mark. “It’s nothing,” she said. “I must have bumped it on something.”
Alison tends to be hypersensitive. She always sees the worst in people. If I focused on the bad and the ugly, I’d never get anything done. I’d certainly never sell another house. Look for the good in everything and you’re sure to find it—I read that somewhere a long time ago and I liked it enough to scribble it down. I carry it around on a little laminated note card that I keep in my purse. It’s helpful just to hold it tight when I’m dealing with a difficult client or a hard to sell property. Or moments like now. I’m not going to go asking questions about someone else’s marriage, no matter what I saw. Wouldn’t she be offended? I’d be offended. I don’t want to risk our friendship. It’s too valuable.
Valuing a friendship doesn’t mean your have to love everything about it. Truthfully, I think part of what annoys me about my friends is that Alison and Julie act as though they have more in common because they’d both chosen to keep their careers while raising their kids and I hadn’t. It’s not that I’m ashamed of being a Stay at Home Mom. I love being home with my kids and I place great value on my time with them—but I feel defensive about having to justify my choice. That’s why I was initially happy when Heather joined us. It made me feel like I didn’t have to apologize for choosing my kids over my career. Although if people asked Heather what she did, sometimes she’d say, “Nothing,” which I really disliked. Being a mother is not nothing—not at all. Granted, it’s not like being a model, which was Heather’s past life, or even a lawyer, IT consultant, or real-estate agent. You can’t put “Mom” on your résumé—but it’s not nothing.
But maybe that’s the way Viktor treated it? Treated her?
I haven’t told my friends, but I think they might suspect. It’s hard to make too many excuses without my absence raising questions. Sometimes when Viktor’s at work I take one of the large suitcases out of the closet in the guest room and open it on our bed. I bring out my clothes from the walk-in closet, folding them carefully, stacking them in as tightly as possible. I plan as I pack: I will take all the jewelry that he’s given me, the necklaces that weren’t my taste, and the rings he chose because he liked the stones. I will take the emergency cash that he keeps in a drawer in his desk and the money that he’s left for the cleaning people. I will call for a taxi and have them drive me to the bus station.
I think about leaving all the time, but where would I go? Back to West Virginia and coal country? Back to living at my mother’s house as if I’m fifteen again and not thirty-two? He’ll follow me there; he’s said he would. He likes to tell me that now that he’s got me he’s never letting go.
In Just Between Us, Heather reveals a dark secret about her marriage. Have you ever been asked to keep a friend’s secret? Would you keep a secret if you thought your friend’s life was in danger?
Heather asks her friends not to tell anybody about the problems in her marriage, not even their own husbands. What do you think about keeping secrets from your spouse? Is it wrong not to share everything with your husband/wife?
Just Between Us explores the special bond shared by a small group of female friends. Do you think women have closer friendships than men? Or are the friendships different?
Alison initially believes that nothing bad can happen in the safe, beautiful town of Sewickley. Is there such a thing as an idyllic community or do you think crime happens everywhere?
Alison and Julie are juggling paid careers along with parenting, while Sarah and Heather are stay-at-home moms (SAHMs). What do you think about the different choices the women made? Do you think women are criticized more often than men for their parenting choices?
Alison’s personal history makes her quick to assume that Heather is being abused. How often do you think we jump to conclusions about other people’s lives because of our own experiences? Does Alison’s mistake make her responsible for what happens to the women?
Heather won’t leave her marriage because she doesn’t want to lose her financial security. Should people stay in unhappy marriages? What do you think about Heather’s assessment of her own choices? Were her options as limited as she thought?
Domestic violence is an under-reported crime. Have you ever suspected that someone you know is a victim of abuse? Is there a thin line between BDSM relationships and abuse?
Alison, Julie, and Sarah decide to help Heather, even though it puts them at risk. How far would you go to help a friend? Are there limits to what friends should ask of one another?
Julie’s up-beat personality contributes to her reluctance to accept that Heather is being abused. Is it possible to be overly positive? Do you think her refusal to see the dark side makes her superficial?
Sarah’s secret alcohol consumption becomes worse over the course of the novel. How common do you think addiction is among stay-at-home parents?
The friends in Just Between Us have different parenting styles and at times they’re critical of each other’s behavior. Are you a parent more like laissez-faire Julie or Martha Stewart-like Sarah? Have you experienced competitive parenting?
Alison, Julie, Sarah, and Heather have very different backgrounds and perspectives. While the crime at the core of Just Between Us pushes them apart, is that separation inevitable because of their differences?
Alison initially disagrees with her brother’s opinion that “anyone is capable of anything given the right set of circumstances,” but by the end of the novel her perspective has changed. Do you agree with this assessment of human nature? Is everyone capable of violent and/or criminal behavior? Do you think that every crime can be forgiven?