She kept up a steady stream of dialogue, asking questions and answering them herself as she washed Izzy’s long hair and lathered and rinsed her body, and finally helped her out of the tub. She wrapped the tiny girl in a huge towel and began combing her hair. “I remember when my daughter, Natalie, was your age. No bigger than a minute. It used to make my heart ache just to look at her.” She wove Izzy’s hair into a pair of perfect French braids and finished them off with two yellow satin bows.
Dutifully, Izzy turned.
Annie dressed her in new white cotton underwear and helped her into the lavender blouse and overalls. When she was finished, she guided Izzy to the full-length mirror in the corner.
The little girl stared at herself for a long, long time. Then, very slowly, she lifted her right hand and touched the satin ribbons with her forefinger. Her rosebud mouth wobbled uncertainly. She bit down hard on her lower lip. A single tear trickled down Izzy’s flushed pink cheek. Just one.
Annie understood. It was what she’d been hoping for, at least in part. That Izzy would see herself as she used to be. “I bet you always used to look like this, didn’t you, Izzy?”
She placed a tender kiss on Izzy’s forehead. The child smelled of baby shampoo and new soap. Like little girls everywhere.
Then, Annie sat back on her heels and looked steadily in Izzy’s eyes. “You know how you share your toys with a friend, and you have more fun than if you were playing all by yourself? Sometimes that’s true of sadness, too. Sometimes if you share it, it goes away.”
Izzy didn’t respond.
Annie smiled. “Now, I could use some help in the kitchen. I’ve started dinner, but I can’t find the dishes anywhere. Maybe you could help me?”
Annie took that as a yes.
Together, they went down to the kitchen. Izzy walked dutifully toward the table and sat down. Her little feet dangled above the floor.
Annie talked the whole time she made dumplings, stirring batter and dropping it into the simmering chicken stew. “Do you know how to set the table?” she asked as she put the lid on the big metal pot.
Izzy didn’t answer.
“This isn’t going to work, you know, Miss Izzy.” Annie picked up a spoon and handed it to the girl. “Here you go—this is for you.”
Izzy used her thumb and forefinger to take hold of the spoon. She stared at it, then frowned up at Annie.
“One shake of the spoon is yes. Two shakes is no. That way we can talk . . . sort of in code, without ever having to say something out loud. Now, do you think you could show me where the plates are?”
Izzy stared unblinking at the spoon for a long, long time. Then, very slowly, she shook it once.
“Hey, Nicky, I hear Hank Bourne’s daughter is back in town.”
Nick glanced up from his drink. There was a headache pounding behind his eyes, and he couldn’t quite focus. He’d had it all day, ever since the fiasco at the Weaver place. He’d booked Chuck and thrown him in a cell, but already Sally had been to the station to make sure that no charges were leveled at her husband. Already she’d told the desk sergeant that she’d fallen down the stairs.
Nick thought that if he stopped in at Zoe’s for a quick drink—just one to steady his nerves—he’d be okay to face Annie and Izzy at home. But, like always, one drink led to another and another and another . . .
What he’d seen in Sally’s eyes opened a wound in his soul, a dark, ugly place that was bubbling with painful memories.
He closed his fingers around the glass and took another long, soothing pull of the scotch. “Whatever you say, Zoe.”
Joel Dermot scooted closer to him. “I remember Annie Bourne. Her and my daughter, Suki, used to be in Girl Scouts together.”
Nick closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think about those days, long ago, when the three of them had been best friends. When he thought of those days, he remembered how much he used to care about Annie, and then he wound up thinking about the previous night, when she’d been in his arms, nak*d and wild, fulfilling all the fantasies he’d ever had about her. The memory invariably pushed him down a long and treacherous road, a road that made him question all the choices he’d made along the way. How he’d chosen Kathy because she needed him . . . and how he’d let her down, and how loving her had ruined him. Then he’d find himself having dark, dangerous thoughts— like what would his life have been like if he’d chosen Annie, or what it could be like if she were the kind of woman who would stay in Mystic.
Another man’s wife.
Nick shot unsteadily to his feet, in a hurry to outrun that thought. Tossing a twenty-dollar bill on the bar, he turned and hurried out of the smoky tavern. He jumped into his patrol car and headed for home. By the time he pulled into his driveway, he felt as if he’d driven a thousand miles over a corrugated road. His body ached, his head hurt, and he longed for one more drink to ease the way.
What in the hell would he say to Annie now, after what had happened between them?
Slowly, he got out of the car, walked across the gravel walkway and up the sagging porch steps, and went inside.
Annie was stretched out on the sofa. When the door clicked shut behind him, she sat up and gave him a bleary-eyed smile. “Oh,” she said. “I guess I fell asleep.”
Her beauty left him momentarily speechless. He backed up a step, keeping as much floor as possible between them. He glanced away. “Sorry I’m late. I . . . meant to show up at Lurlene’s, but we had an emergency call, and, well . . .”
She threw the blanket back and got up. Her clothes were wrinkled, and there was a network of tiny pink lines across her right cheek. “It’s no problem. Izzy and I had a good time today. I think we’re going to get along great.”
He wanted to say something that would ease his guilt and make her think well of him. He had a ridiculous urge to talk to her about what had happened today, to share with another human being that he was shaken, that something had spilled out of him today, and he didn’t know how to retrieve it, or how to put it back where it belonged. But that kind of intimacy was so alien to him that he couldn’t imagine how to begin.
She plucked her purse from the coffee table. She was careful not to look at him for too long. “If you want . . . I could make you and Izzy a nice dinner tomorrow night. I think she’d like that.”
“That would be great. I’ll be home at six o’clock.”
She edged past him but stopped at the door, turning back. “From now on . . . if you’re going to be late, I’d appreciate a phone call.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry.”
She gave him a last smile and left the house.
He stood at the window, watching her drive away. When the tiny red dots of her taillights disappeared around the bend in the road, he slowly climbed the stairs and went into the guest bedroom, the one he’d moved into eight months ago and still used when he didn’t fall asleep on the couch. Stripping out of his blue uniform, he slipped into a pair of ragged old sweats and tiredly walked down the hallway. Outside Izzy’s door, he paused for a moment, gathering his strength.
A tiny nightlight glowed from the wall next to her bed. It was Winnie-the-Pooh’s face in vibrant yellow. He picked up her favorite book— Where the Wild Things Are—and lowered himself slowly to the edge of her bed. As the mattress sagged beneath his weight, he froze. Izzy wiggled in her sleep, but didn’t waken.
He opened the book, staring down at the first page. In the old days, when he’d read to her every night before bed, she’d curled her little body so trustingly against his, and cocked her smiling face up. Daddy, what’re yah gonna read me tonight, Daddy?
He squeezed his eyes shut. It had been a long time since he’d remembered her habit of saying Daddy at the beginning and end of every sentence. He leaned down slowly, slowly, and kissed the softness of her forehead. The little-girl scent enveloped him, made him remember giving her bubble baths. . . .
He let out a long, slow breath. Now, all he did was read to her when she was asleep, just a few pages from her favorite book. He hoped the words soaked through her sleeping mind. It was a tiny, stupid way of saying he loved her; he knew that. Still, it was all he seemed to have left.
He read the book in a soft, singsong voice, and then gently placed it back on the bedside table. “Goodnight, Izzy-bear,” he whispered, placing a last kiss on her forehead.
Back downstairs, he went to the kitchen and poured himself a stiff drink. He kicked open the front door and slumped onto a chair on the porch.
It came to him then, as he’d known it would. He could recall suddenly how it had smelled at the Weaver house, of bacon and Lysol, and how a thin strip of linoleum had been peeling up from the edge of the kitchen floor. He remembered the bruise on Sally’s cheek, how it had been spreading already, seeping like a spot of blood through a bit of tissue paper.
Once, long ago, he had believed he could rescue people like Sally. He’d thought that when he put on his uniform, he would be invincible. God, he’d been such an idiot, believing in the words that meant so little today: honor, respect, justice. He’d actually thought that he could save people who had no desire to be saved.
But life had taught him a lot. Between his job and Kathy, his idealism had been hacked away, bit by bit, until now there was nothing left but rusted scraps. Without it, he didn’t know who he was.
He took a long drink and leaned back in the chair, looking up at the night sky. He was startled for a moment to realize that outside, everything was still as it should be. The lake still glittered in the moonlight. Night still fell softly across the mountaintops and through the forests. Soon, dawn would come, chasing darkness to distant corners of the globe.
Once, he’d watched such things with wonder. He’d thought in those days that his needs were simple and easily met. He’d wanted only his family, his job, his home. He’d imagined that he would grow old in this house, sitting in this chair on his porch, watching his children grow up and move on. He’d thought then that age would pull the black from his hair, and that it would take years. He hadn’t known then that grief and guilt could age a man and turn his hair silver in the span of a single season.
He drank until his head began to spin, until his vision blurred. The empty bottle slipped through his numb fingers and rolled away, clattering down the steps one by one to land silently in the grass.
The next morning, Izzy woke to the sound of her mommy’s voice. She kicked the covers away and sat up, blinking. Mommy?
At first, all she could hear was the rain. In the old days—before the bad thing—she’d loved that sound, the way it rattled on the roof. She looked out the window, disappointed to see nothing out there but pink and yellow sunlight. No rain.
There was no answer, just the creaking sound of the house. Izzy slipped on her favorite bunny slippers and crept out of her bedroom. She moved silently down the stairs, hoping not to wake her daddy. He was asleep on the couch, with one arm flung across the coffee table and his bare feet sticking out from the end of his blue blanket.