Gina went very still. The cigarette sagged in her black-painted lips. “No way,” she said, but this time there wasn’t much conviction in her voice.
“We couldn’t afford to pay rent—that’s another thing addiction does. It takes your money, fast, then your will and your pride. Pretty soon you don’t care that you live in an old Chevy Impala and that your son has no winter coat. All you care about is getting high or drunk. You’ll sleep under a sheet of newspaper on a park bench and not even know you’re freezing or that some time in the middle of the night you threw up all over yourself.”
“You’re trying to scare me.”
“You’re damn right I am. The road you’re on leads three places, Gina—to a park bench or a jail cell or a coffin. You think about it.”
She slowly lifted her gaze to his. He could see that she was scared. For a split second, he thought she was going to reach out for help.
Come on, Gina, he thought. You can do it. He pulled a business card from his pocket and handed it to her. “Call me. Anytime.”
“Hey, Gino, what’re you doin’ talkin’ to that jerk in blue?”
Gina drew back as if stung and lurched to her feet. The white business card fluttered to the gray stone steps at her feet. She turned and waved at the green-haired boy who was bounding up the courthouse steps. Chains jangled from his ears and pockets, and a thin silver hoop glittered in his eyebrow. He slipped an arm around Gina and pulled her close. Taking the cigarette from her mouth, he took a long drag and exhaled slowly. “You’re here to send Gino to lockup, aren’t you?”
Nick stared at the boy, Drew Doro. A bad seed who’d first come into contact with the law at age ten, when he’d burned down his family garage. Two years ago, his parents had quietly, and with broken hearts, given up on him. It was only a matter of time before this kid was doing time in Monroe. He was Gina’s first boyfriend.
“I’m here to give the family court judge my opinion, Drew. That’s all. It’s not a trial.” He glanced at Gina. “Not yet, anyway.”
Gina took a step toward Nick. The uncertainty in her eyes reminded Nick that underneath all that black mascara and attitude, she was still just a kid, scared and trying to find her way in a confusing world. “What are you gonna tell the judge?”
He wished he could lie to her right now, tell her what she wanted to hear. “I’m going to tell her that you present a threat to yourself and others. You left me no choice.”
The uncertainty was replaced by a flash of pure hatred. “Screw you, Delacroix. It wasn’t my coke.”
Slowly, Nick stood. “If you need help, Gina . . . you know where to find me.”
“Why in the hell would she need your help?” Drew laughed. “She’s got tons of friends who really care about her. You’re just a low-rent cop in this backwater dump of a town. All you’re good for is getting cats outta trees. Come on, Gina.”
Nick watched them walk away. He hadn’t expected Gina to listen to him. Hoped, perhaps—it was that uncontrollable surge of hope that had chewed viciously through his life. He couldn’t seem to completely walk away from it.
He’d had the same talk with a dozen teens over the years and none of them ever listened. None of them ever changed. Most of them died young and violently and far away from the families who loved them.
Just once, he thought dully. It would be nice to actually protect and serve. Just once.
He saw Gina, loitering outside the front door, finishing her cigarette.
“You remember that park bench,” he called out.
Gina’s answer was an all-too-familiar hand gesture.
By the time Nick finally got home from work—late, as usual—Annie was exhausted. She drove home and stumbled into bed. Almost immediately, she fell into a deep sleep, but sometime in the middle of the night she awoke and reached out for Blake.
Once awake, she couldn’t fall back asleep again. It was an unfortunate symptom of her depression that she was tired all the time, but she rarely slept well.
As usual, she spent the hours until dawn trying not to think about the big empty house on the Pacific, and the man who had been a part of her life for so long. The man who’d said, I love her, Annie.
She went into the kitchen and ate a bowl of cereal, then she picked up the phone and called Natalie—an unscheduled call. She listened to her daughter’s stories about London for several minutes, and then quietly told her about the move to Mystic. To see Hank and help out an old friend, she’d said.
Natalie had asked only one question: “What does Daddy say?”
Annie had forced a fluttery laugh that sounded false to her own ears. “You know Dad, he just wants me to be happy.”
It made Annie feel inestimably old, that single, simple question that seemed to know too much. After that, they’d talked for almost an hour, until Annie could feel bits and pieces of herself returning. It anchored her to talk to her daughter, reminded her that she hadn’t failed at everything in her life.
At the end of the conversation, she made sure Natalie had Hank’s phone number in case of an emergency, and then she hung up.
For the next hour, Annie lay in her lonely bed, staring out the window, watching the darkness until, at last, the sun came to brush away the bruising night.
It was thoughts of Izzy that gave Annie the strength to get up, get dressed, and eat something. The child had become her lifeline. Izzy touched something deep and elemental in Annie, and it didn’t take a two-hundred-dollar-an-hour psychiatrist to understand why. When Annie looked down into Izzy’s frightened brown eyes, she saw a reflection of herself.
She knew the hand Izzy had been dealt. There was nothing harder than losing a mother, no matter what age you were, but to a child, a girl especially, it changed everything about your world. In the years since her mom’s death, Annie had learned to talk about the loss almost conversationally, the way you would remark upon the weather. My mother died when I was young . . . passed away . . . passed on . . . deceased . . . an accident . . . I really don’t remember her. . . . Sometimes, it didn’t hurt to say those things—and sometimes the pain stunned her. Sometimes, she smelled a whiff of perfume, or the vanilla-rich scent of baking sugar cookies, or heard the tail end of a Beatles song on the radio, and she would stand in the middle of her living room, a woman full grown, and cry like a little girl.
Two small words, and yet within them lay a bottomless well of pain and loss, a ceaseless mourning for touches that were never received and words of wisdom that were never spoken. No single word was big enough to adequately describe the loss of your mother. Not in Annie’s vocabulary, and certainly not in Izzy’s. No wonder the girl had chosen silence.
Annie wanted to say all of this to Nick, to make him understand all that Izzy must be feeling, but every time she started to speak, she had an overwhelming sense of her own presumptuousness. When she looked into Nick’s pale blue eyes, or at his grief-whitened hair, she knew that he understood all too well.
They were still awkward around each other. Uncertain. For Annie, at least, the memory of their passion underscored every look, every movement, and if she spoke to him too intimately, she found that it was difficult to breathe evenly. He seemed equally unnerved around her; and so they circled each other, outfitted more often than not with false smiles and pointless conversations.
But slowly, things had begun to improve. Yesterday, they had spent ten minutes together, standing at the kitchen counter, sipping coffee while Izzy ate breakfast. Their conversation crept along the perimeter of their old friendship, dipping now and then into the shared well of their memories. In the end, they had both smiled.
It had given Annie a new strength, that single moment of renewed friendship, and so, today, she pulled into the driveway a half hour early. Grabbing the bag of croissants she’d picked up from the bakery and the bag of surprises she’d bought for Izzy, she climbed out of her car and went to the front door, knocking loudly.
It took a long time, but finally Nick answered, wearing a pair of ragged gray sweatpants. Swaying slightly, he stared down at her through bloodshot eyes.
She held up the bag. “I thought you might like some breakfast.”
He stepped back to let her in, and she noticed that he moved unsteadily. “I don’t eat breakfast, but thanks.”
She followed him into the house. He disappeared into the bathroom and came out a few minutes later, dressed in his policeman’s uniform. He looked sick and shaky, with his silvery hair slicked back from his face. The lines under his eyes were deeply etched, as if they’d been painted on.
Without thinking, she reached for him, touched his forehead. “Maybe you should stay home . . .”
He froze, and she could see that he was startled by the intimacy of her touch. She yanked her hand back, feeling the heat of embarrassment on her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t—”
“Don’t,” he said softly. “I have trouble sleeping, is all.”
She almost went to him then, almost started a conversation that wasn’t for her to begin. Instead, she changed the subject. That was always the safest thing—to keep it strictly about Izzy. “Will you be home for dinner?”
He turned away, and she knew he was thinking about the last two nights. He’d been too late for dinner both nights. “My schedule—”
“It would mean a lot to Izzy.”
“You think I don’t know that?” He turned to her, and in his eyes was a bleak desperation that wrapped around her heart. “I’m sorry—”
He shook his head, held a hand up, as if to ward her off. “I’ll be home,” he said, then he pushed past her and left the house.
Their days together followed a comfortable routine. Annie arrived early and spent the day with Izzy, playing, reading, walking around the forest. In the early evening, she made a hot dinner for the two of them, and afterward, they played board games or watched videos until bedtime.
Every night, Annie tucked Izzy into bed and kissed her good night.
Nick consistently missed dinner, forgot to call, and showed up around nine o’clock, smelling of smoke and booze. Even when he promised to be home, as he did almost every night, he didn’t make it.
She was tired of making excuses for him. Once again, it was bedtime and this beautiful child was going to have to go to bed without a kiss from her father.
She glanced at Izzy, who stood now at the big picture window, staring out at the falling night. She’d been stationed there for almost thirty minutes, no doubt listening for the quiet purr of her dad’s patrol car.
She went to Izzy and knelt beside her on the hardwood floor. She chose her words with care. “When I was a little girl, my mom died. It made my daddy and me very quiet for a long time. When my dad saw me, all he could think about was my mama, and the hurt made him stop looking at me.”
Izzy’s brown eyes filled with tears. Her lower lip trembled and she bit down on it.
Annie reached up and caught a single tear on the tip of her finger. “My daddy came back to me, though. It took a while, but he came back because he loved me. Just like your daddy loves you.”