The Kindness of Strangers: A Novel

by Katrina Kittle

Published by William Morrow

393 pages, 2006

Buy it online



On a quiet street in the suburban Midwest, a popular, seemingly stable family keeps a terrible, dark secret behind closed doors -- a secret that will have life-changing consequences for all who know them

Powerful and poignant, The Kindness of Strangers looks at how the tragedy of a single family in a small suburban town can affect so many. Katrina Kittle has created a haunting vision of the secret lives of the people we think we know best. Through gripping and heartrending storytelling, The Kindness of Strangers shows that even after the most grave injuries, redemption is always possible.

Chapter One



Whenever Sarah thought back to that morning twelve years ago, she remembered the chick.

She cracked open an egg, but instead of a yolk, a bloody chick embryo fell into the bowl. She stared at its alien eyes and gaping mouth, and the hair rose on her arms and neck. The maimed chick felt important somehow, a sign of how bleak and bad things had become. Sarah sensed that this was an omen, but she couldn't imagine for what or how to prepare herself.

The chick -- in addition to giving Sarah second thoughts about buying free-range eggs at the local farmers' market -- made her remember the robin's nest she'd found the day before in the apple tree. There had been four eggs, pale and delicate, like the sugar-dough decorations on the wedding cakes she was known for.

Sarah looked at the chick in the bowl and wanted to make sure the robin eggs were all right. She knew that this need was irrational -- her sons were expecting breakfast, it was typical springtime in Ohio with the rain running in sheets down the window, and the robin certainly didn't require her assistance. Sarah knew she had more pressing things to focus on -- she had to cater Thai red seafood curry for twelve today, she needed to start production on a wedding cake, and she was supposed to be developing recipes for a "salads as whole meals" spread for Food & Wine, whose deadline was rapidly approaching. Sarah mentally inventoried these obligations, but she slipped out the back door anyway. She jogged across the sodden ground and stepped onto the bench under the tree. At the sight of Sarah's gigantic head, the mother robin shrieked and fluttered to a higher branch. Sarah peered down at the nest, dry and cozy even in this downpour, and the eggs that, to her relief, still sat there like jewels. Four perfect eggs. Nothing but promise and potential ahead of them.

She'd once felt that way about her own family.

The eggs and that contorted chick reminded Sarah of the sappy assignment she'd been given in her grief support group two years ago, back when Roy, her husband, died. The counselor had told her to find three things each morning for which she felt grateful. The counselor told her not to count her two children -- they were givens.

The robin screeched at her in urgent, one-note cries, and Sarah tried to think of something that inspired gratitude. Weariness and regret weighed her down, but she stubbornly shoved them away. She could do it, damn it; she could come up with three blessings. She scanned the yard, appraising it, as if it were a property she'd never seen. She looked at the old sandbox the boys used to play in and at her garden, its recently tilled earth as dark as Black Forest cake. One of these days, if the rain ever stopped, she would plant.

The mother robin hopped to a lower branch and continued the staccato warnings. Sarah felt bad prolonging the bird's worry, so she stepped down from the bench. As she did, she reached for a branch, for balance, and in a flash the robin dove at her. Sarah jerked her hand away, but not before she felt the stab of beak and the surge of adrenaline at the attack. The robin flew one more swipe at Sarah before settling defiantly back onto her nest. Sarah examined the wound. A drop of blood welled on the back of her hand but washed away in the rain. More blood rose from the tiny puncture when she clenched her fist. The entire hand throbbed, and the slight pain felt almost good. This was pain from outside, not from within. And not only did her hand ache, but she shivered, aware of how wet and cold she was, skin tight with goose bumps, nipples erect. She felt something. She was alive.

There. That was a blessing. She looked up at the tree, wanting to thank the bird for this sensation. This apple tree belonged to her younger son, Danny, who was eleven. Roy and Sarah had planted trees for both sons, in the ancient tradition that the branches from the trees would later be used for the chuppahs at their weddings. Danny used to be as sweet and cheerful as the tree's early-April bloom, but a crab apple tree might have suited him better lately. He'd changed. They'd all changed. And Sarah didn't know how to stop it, how to go back to the family they'd been before.

Sarah walked across the yard, through the rain, to Nate's dogwood tree and touched the trunk. This tree was planted nearly seventeen years ago. Now it stood taller than Nate.

Thank God, Nate's suspension from school was over -- that would be the second blessing of the day. He'd already been suspended twice this year for truancy; once more and he'd be expelled. Actually, this was the second for which he'd been caught. She knew he'd skipped more than that, because she'd seen him in the middle of a school day. Once, visiting Roy's grave at Temple Israel cemetery, she'd been outraged to see someone sitting on Roy's stone, smoking, but when she recognized Nate, she'd slunk away before he saw her. She'd never told him she'd seen him there, never scolded him for cutting class. And from the cigarette butts that accumulated at the grave, she knew he went frequently. She never mentioned the butts, for fear he'd cover his tracks, and she took comfort in knowing some small thing about his life. Plus, her approval of the visits might make him stop. Everything she said to Nate these days seemed only to insult and anger him. That's why she was making his favorite burritos this morning. She hoped they could be a peace offering. | January 2006


Copyright © 2005 Katrina Kittle


Katrina Kittle is the author of Traveling Light and Two Truths and a Lie. She helped found the All Children's Theatre in Washington Township, Ohio, and teaches theater and English to middle schoolers at the Miami Valley School in Dayton, where she lives. Chapters from this novel earned her an Ohio Arts Council grant.