Joe stood up. Gently, he placed a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “I won’t accept it.”
“It’s killing me, Joe,” he said softly.
“I’ll agree to a vacation—for as long as you need. I know what you’re going through, and you don’t have to do it alone. But you do have to stop drinking.”
Nick sighed. Everyone said that. I know what you’re going through. But they didn’t know; how could they? None of them had come home to his blood-spattered bedroom. Even Joe, who had been a full-blown alcoholic before his eighteenth birthday, and who had grown up in the blackened, marshy shadow of a drunken father. Even Joe couldn’t completely understand. “You’re wrong, Joe. In the end, we’re all alone.”
“It’s that kind of thinking that got you into this mess. Believe me, I know the alcoholic-kid’s code: don’t tell, don’t trust. But you’ve got to trust someone, Nicholas. There’s a whole town here that cares about you, and you have a little girl who thinks you hung the moon. Stop thinking about what you’ve lost, and think about what you have left. You want to end up like your mother, half starved on a park bench, waiting to be killed? Or maybe you want to be like me—a man with two beautiful daughters who moved to the East Coast to get away from their drunken father.” He pulled a business card out of his pocket and handed it to Nick. “When you’re ready to sober up, here’s the number for you to call. I’ll help you—all of us will—but you have to take the first step by yourself.”
“You look like warmed-over shit soup.”
Nick didn’t even look at Annie. “Nice language. They teach you that at Stanford?”
“No, but they did teach me not to drink and drive.”
He glanced around, ran a shaking hand through his dirty, tangled hair. “Where’s Izzy?”
“Ah, so you do remember her.”
“Goddamn it, Annie—”
“We—your daughter and I—were worried about you last night. But you don’t care about that, do you?”
Suddenly he was tired, so tired he didn’t think he could stand up much longer. He pushed past her and stumbled out of the building. Her Mustang was parked in the loading zone in front of the electronic glass doors. Half falling, he grabbed onto the cold metal door handle and stood there, his eyes closed, concentrating on each breath.
He heard her walk past him. Her tennis shoes made a soft scuffing sound on the cement. She wrenched her car door open, got inside, and slammed the door shut. He wondered dully if she had any idea how loud it sounded to a man whose head was ticking like a bomb ready to go off.
She honked the horn, and the sound sliced painfully through his eardrums. He opened the door and collapsed onto the red vinyl seat with a haggard sigh.
The car lurched onto the rutted road. She sped up at every bump and pothole in the road, Nick was sure of it. He clung to the door handle for dear life, his knuckles white and sweaty.
“I spoke with your police captain, Mr. Nation, while you were getting dressed. He told me you were taking some time off from the force. And he mentioned your blackout.”
She made a low, whistling sound. “And what’s that on your shirt front? Vomit? Yes, yes, what a high time you must have had yourself. God knows, it’s better than being at home with your daughter.”
He winced and closed his eyes, feeling shame sink deep into his gut. Joe’s words came back to him. You want to end up like your mother? Or maybe you want to be like me? He thought about Izzy, and how she would remember him, and where she would go when she had the chance . . . he thought about what it would be like if she left him.
He slanted a look at Annie. She was sitting perfectly erect, her hands precisely placed at the ten o’clock and two o’clock positions on the steering wheel, her gaze focused on the empty road in front of them. “Would you do me a favor, Annie?”
“Take me to the Hideaway Motel on Route Seven,” he said quietly. “And watch Izzy for a few days.”
She frowned. “The Hideaway? It’s a dump, and why—”
He felt as if he were treading water in the deep end of a swimming pool full of dark, murky water. He couldn’t handle an argument; not now. “Please don’t argue with me. I need some . . . time.”
She cast a quick, worried look at him, then turned back to the road. “But Izzy—”
“Please?” The word came out soft and swollen, unmanly, but he couldn’t help it. “Could you please stay with her while I get my act together? I know it’s a lot to ask . . .”
She didn’t answer, and for once the silence was uncomfortable. After a mile she flicked on her signal and turned off the highway. Within minutes, she had pulled into the parking lot at the Hideaway Motel. A neon sign flickered in the window. It read: SORRY. VACANCY. That pretty much summed it up.
“Here we are, Nick. I don’t know . . .”
“Home sweet home,” he said, smiling weakly.
She turned to him then, and there was a softness in her expression that he hadn’t expected. She leaned toward him, gently brushed the hair from his eyes. “I’ll help you. But you’d better not screw up this time, Nicky. That beautiful child of yours doesn’t need to lose her daddy, too.”
“Christ, Annie,” he whispered in agony.
“I know you love her, Nick.” She leaned closer. “Just meet me halfway. Trust me. Or better yet, trust yourself.”
Even as he told himself he’d fail again, he didn’t care. He wanted the second chance she was offering. He was tired, so tired, of being lonely and afraid. The words I want to try weighed heavily on his tongue, but he hadn’t the strength to give them a voice. He could remember too many other times he’d wanted a chance . . . and the times his mother had said, Trust me, Nicky, I mean it this time. He had long ago gotten out of the habit of trusting people.
He climbed out of the car and stood there, watching her drive away. When she was gone, he jammed his hands into his pockets and turned toward the motel. Fishing his credit card out of his front pocket, he signed the register and got himself a room for the night.
The room was small and dark and smelled of urine. Dirty brown walls ran in a perfect square around a sagging double bed. A gray woven bedspread covered a lumpy mattress. A curtainless window looked out onto the neighboring building’s cement brick wall. Gold shag carpet, peeled away in places to reveal the bubbling blue foam pad, lay untacked atop a cement floor.
He could see the closet-size bathroom behind a wood-grain plastic door that hung awkwardly from broken hinges. He didn’t have to go inside to know that there was a white plastic shower and beige toilet, and that rust ran in rings around the sink’s metal drain.
He sat on the bed with a tired sigh. He had been living less than half a life for so long, and now even the half he’d clung to was slipping through his shaking, numb fingers like crumbled winter leaves. He knew that he’d been wrong to drink, that he’d gone down the wrong road when he first reached for a bottle. The booze was sucking him dry, and when it was finished with him there would be nothing left except a skinny, freezing old man on a park bench. . . .
On the far wall, a cockroach scurried up alongside the brown plastic molding and disappeared beneath a framed picture of Mount Olympus.
Finally, after eight months of drifting, he’d come to the end of the line. There was only one thing that might make a difference. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the card Joe had given him.
Annie kept Izzy busy all day, but as the night began to fall, she couldn’t pretend anymore. She read Izzy a bedtime story after dinner, then pulled Izzy into her arms. “I need to tell you something, Izzy,” she started softly, trying to find the right words. “Your daddy is going . . . to be away for a while. He’s sick. But he’ll be back. He loves you more than the world, and he’ll be back.”
Izzy didn’t respond. Annie didn’t know what to say, what words could soothe this situation. She held Izzy for a long, long time, humming tunes and stroking her hair, and then, finally, she sighed. “Well, it’s bedtime.” She pulled away from Izzy and got to her feet. She started to head for the stairs, but Izzy grabbed her hand.
Annie looked into the sad, frightened brown eyes, and it broke her heart all over again. “I’m not going anywhere, honey. I’m right here.”
Izzy held on to her hand all the way up the stairs and down the hall, and into the bathroom. In the bedroom, she still wouldn’t let go.
Annie looked down into the girl’s huge brown eyes. “You want me to sleep with you?”
A quick smile darted across Izzy’s face. She squeezed harder and nodded.
Annie climbed into Izzy’s tiny twin bed, without bothering to brush her teeth or change her clothes. She left the Little Mermaid nightlight glowing next to the bed as Izzy snuggled close.
Annie stroked Izzy’s soft cheek, remembering suddenly how much she’d missed talking about her mom when she was young. After the accident, no one ever mentioned her: it was as if she’d never existed in the first place. And so, Annie had begun, day by day, to forget. She wondered if poor, quiet Izzy was facing the same fears.
She pulled up a memory of Kathy, concentrating until she could see Kathy, sitting in that old rocking chair on her porch. “Your mom had the prettiest blond hair I ever saw; it was the color of a ripe ear of corn. And it was so soft. When we were little, we used to braid each other’s hair for hours. Her eyes were almost black, the deep midnight color of a night sky, and when she smiled, they crinkled up in the corners like a cat’s. You remember that?”
Annie smiled. It was funny the things she could recall all these years later. “Yellow was her favorite color. She wore it in every school picture for years. And to her first dance—that was in eighth grade—she wore a yellow cotton dress with a deep blue satin trim that she’d made herself. She was the prettiest girl in the school.”
Izzy twisted around to see Annie. There were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling.
“You’ll never forget her, Izzy. You remember her laugh? The way it used to spike up at the end, just before she started snorting? And the perfume she liked to wear? And the feel of her hand in yours? You remember how it used to feel to snuggle in her lap and hear her read you a bedtime story? All of that is your mom. My mom’s been gone a long, long time, and I still think of her every time I smell vanilla. I still talk to her at night, and I believe she hears me.” She brushed a lock of black hair from Izzy’s earnest little face. “She hears you, honey. She just can’t answer, is all. But that doesn’t matter. You snuggle under your blankets with Miss Jemmie and close your eyes and remember one thing about your mom—just one—and the next thing you know, she’ll be in bed beside you. You’ll feel yourself getting warmer, or you’ll see the moonlight get a little brighter, or the wind will moan a little louder, and you’ll know. In her own way, she’s answering you.” Annie took Izzy’s cheeks in her hands and smiled down at her. “She’s always with you.”