The Last Thing He Told Me (17 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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“Thank you. They're great kids. But I need some new photographs in here. They were five in this photo,” he says. “And now they're eleven, which, as they would be quick to tell you, is essentially voting age.”

Eleven. That stops me. Eleven would line up, almost precisely, with when he and Andrea got married. Andrea getting pregnant shortly before or shortly after the wedding.

“They play me a bit now though, since the divorce. Think I'll cave to all their demands just so I get to be the cool dad…” He laughs. “They win more often than they should.”

“Probably okay,” I say.

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “You got kids?”

“Not yet,” I say. “Still looking for the guy.”

This is truer than I want it to be. And Charlie smiles at me, perhaps wondering if I mean it as an invitation. I know this is the moment, the moment to ask the question I need an answer to most.

I stall as I think of how to get there.

“I should probably get going, but maybe I'll head back if I get done early enough.”

“Definitely,” he says. “Come back, we'll celebrate.”

“Or commiserate.”

He smiles. “Or that.”

I stand up, as if I'm about to leave, my heart threatening to beat out of my chest.

“You know… this is a bizarre question. Is it okay if I ask you? Before I head out? I figure you know a lot of locals.”

“Far too many,” he says. “What do you need to know?”

“I'm trying to find this guy. My girlfriend and I met him when we were here that time… a lifetime ago. He lived in Austin, probably still does. And my friend had this huge crush on him.”

He looks at me, intrigued. “Okay…”

“Anyway, she's going through a crappy divorce and he's stuck in her head. That sounds ridiculous, but since I'm back in town, I thought I'd try to find him. It would be a nice thing to be able to do for her. They had a connection. A million years ago, but connections are hard to find so…”

“Do you have a name?” he says. “Not that I'm great with names.”

“How about faces?” I say.

“I'm pretty good with faces,” he says.

I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone, click through to the photograph of Owen. It's the photograph that we showed Professor Cookman—the one on Bailey's phone, the one I asked her to text me. Bailey's face covered with flowers, Owen smiling, happy.

Charlie looks down at the photograph.

And it happens so quickly. He throws my phone down, cracking it against the countertop. He is over the bar and in my face. He isn't touching me, but he is so close that he could.

“Do you think this is funny?” he says. “Who are you?”

I shake my head, frightened.

“Who sent you?” he says.

“No one.”

I back up against the wall, and he moves closer to me—his face in my face, his shoulder almost touching my shoulder.

“This is my family you're messing with,” he says. “Who sent you here?”

“Get away from her!”

I look in the doorway to see Bailey standing there. She is holding the class roster in one of her hands, a cup of coffee in the other.

She looks scared. But more than that, she looks angry, like she is going to hurl a barstool at him, if she needs to.

Charlie looks like he has seen a ghost.

“Holy shit,” he says.

He moves away from me slowly. I take in a deep breath and then another, my heartbeat slowing down.

We are in a weird standstill. Bailey and Charlie stare at each other as I pull myself off the wall. There are no more than two feet between any of us, but no one is moving. Not toward each other or away. Charlie, all of a sudden, in tears.

“Kristin?” he says.

At the sound of him calling her by a name, even a name I don't recognize, I stop breathing.

“I'm not Kristin,” she says.

Bailey shakes her head, her voice catching.

I reach down and pick my cell phone up from the floor, the screen cracked. But it's working. It's still working. I could dial 911. I could get help. I inch backward, toward Bailey.

Protect her.

Charlie puts his hands up in surrender as I reach Bailey, the blue door right behind us. The stairs and the outside world just beyond that.

“Look, I'm sorry about that. I can explain. If you just sit down,” he says. “Take a minute. Can you both do that? Have a seat. I'd like to talk, if you'll let me.”

He motions toward a table where we can all sit. And he steps away from us, as if giving us a choice. And I can see he means it—in his eyes. He looks more sorrowful than mad.

But his skin is still bright red, and I don't trust the anger I saw, the fear. Wherever it came from, I can't have Bailey around it, not until I know what his stake in this is. What I suspect his stake in Bailey is.

So I turn to Bailey. I turn to Bailey and grab her shirt at the small of her back, roughly, pulling her toward the door.

“Go!” I say. “Now!”

And, as though it is something we know how to do, we run down the stairs, together, then outside into Austin's streets and away from Charlie Smith.

Careful What You Wish For

We move quickly down Congress Avenue.

I'm trying to get back to our hotel room on the other side of the bridge. I need to get us somewhere private where we can collect our things and I can figure out the fastest way out of Austin.

“What happened in there?” Bailey says. “Was he going to hurt you?”

“I don't know,” I say. “I don't think so.”

I put my hand on the small of her back, steering her in and out of the after-work crowd—couples, groups of college kids, a dogwalker handling a dozen dogs. I move sideways, hoping to make it harder for Charlie to follow us—in case he is trying to follow us—this man who was so angry at seeing a photograph of Owen that he exploded.

“Faster, Bailey.”

“I'm going as fast as I can,” she says. “What do you want me to do? It's a clusterfuck.”

She isn't wrong. Instead of the crowds letting up as we get closer to the bridge, there are more people, all clamoring to get onto the bridge's narrow walkway.

I turn back to make sure Charlie isn't following us. Which is when I see him—several blocks behind. Charlie. He is moving at a fast clip but he hasn't spotted us yet. He looks to the left and to the right.

The Congress Avenue Bridge is straight ahead. I grab onto Bailey's elbow and we head onto the bridge's walkway. But the foot traffic is
moving slowly, if at all, the entire walkway jammed up with people. It's good in the sense that it is easier to blend in, but everyone seems to have stopped moving.

Mostly everyone on the bridge is at a standstill, many of them looking down at the lake below.

“Did these people forget how to move?” Bailey says.

A guy in a Hawaiian shirt, carrying a large camera—a tourist, if I were guessing—turns back and smiles at us. Apparently, he thinks Bailey's question is directed at him.

“We're waiting on the bats,” he says.

“The bats?” Bailey says.

“Yeah. The bats. They feed every night right around now.”

This is when we hear, “HERE THEY COME!”

And—in a bright flood—hundreds and hundreds of bats start to fly up from beneath the bridge out into the sky. The crowd cheers as the bats move in an almost ribbonlike formation—an enormous, orchestrated beautiful swarm of them.

If Charlie is still behind us, I can't see him. He is gone. Or we are gone, two revelers observing the bats take flight on a pretty Austin night.

I look up at the sky, flooded with the bats, moving as if in a dance together. Everyone applauds as they disappear into the night.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt angles his camera to the sky, shooting pictures as they depart.

I slide past him and motion for Bailey to keep up. “We have to move,” I say. “Before we get stuck here.”

Bailey picks up the pace. And we make it over the bridge, both of us breaking into a jog. We don't stop until we turn down our hotel's long driveway. We don't stop until we are in front of the hotel, the doormen holding the door open.

“Just wait,” Bailey says. “We need to stop for a second.”

She puts her hands on her knees, catching her breath. I want to argue. We are so close to being on the safe side of the hotel's doors, so close to the privacy of our small room.

“What if I told you I remembered him?” she says.

I look over at the doormen, who are chatting with each other. I try to meet their eyes, get them to focus, as if they will keep us safe.

“What if I said I know him, Charlie Smith?”

“Do you?”

“I remember being called by that name,” she says. “Kristin. Hearing him say it, all of a sudden I remembered. How do you forget something like that? How is that even possible?”

“We forget all sorts of things that no one helps us remember,” I say.

Bailey gets quiet. Silent, actually. Then she says it, the words both of us have avoided saying out loud.

“You think that woman Kate is my mother, don't you?”

She pauses on the word
mother,
like it has fire in it.

“I do. I could be wrong, but I do.”

“Why would my father lie about who my mother is?”

She meets my eyes. I don't try to answer her. I have no good answer for her.

“I'm just not sure who I should be trusting here,” she says.

“Me,” I say. “Just me.”

She bites her lip, like she believes me, or at least like she is starting to believe me—which is more than I could hope for in this moment. Because you can't tell people to trust you. You have to show them that they can. And I haven't had enough time.

The doormen are looking at us. I'm not sure they are listening, but they are looking. And I feel it. I feel how much I need to get Bailey out of here. Out of Austin. Immediately.

“Come with me,” I say.

She doesn't fight me. We walk past the doormen and into the hotel lobby, head to the elevator bank.

But, as we step inside, a man gets on too—a young guy who I think is looking at Bailey strangely. He wears a gray sweater vest, piercings covering his ears. I know it is paranoid to think he is following us. I know it. If he is looking at Bailey, it is probably only because she is beautiful.

I'm not taking that chance though, so I move us off the elevator, and toward the back staircase, heart pounding.

I open the door, point toward the staircase. “This way,” I say.

“Where are we going?” she says. “We're eight floors up.”

“Just be glad it's not twenty.”

Eighteen Months Ago

“Is there anything else I should know?” I asked. “Before this plane takes off?”

“Are we talking metaphorically or actually? Like the actual mechanics of the plane? Because I did do a brief stint at Boeing when I first got to Seattle.”

We were on the flight from New York to San Francisco, a one-way ticket for me. The Shop had sprung for first class for both of us because Owen had been in New York for business in preparation for The Shop's IPO. Owen had stayed on for the initial reason he'd been planning to be in New York that week—to help move me out of it.

We had spent the last few days packing up my apartment, packing up my studio. And, when we landed, I'd move into his home. His and Bailey's. It would become my home too. And, soon, I would be his wife.

“I'm asking you what you left out. About you.”

“While you can still get off the plane? We haven't started taxiing yet. There's probably still time…”

He squeezed my hand, trying to make light of it. But I was still jumpy. I was suddenly too jumpy.

“What do you want to know?” he said.

“Tell me about Olivia,” I said.

“I've told you a lot about Olivia,” he said.

“Not really. I feel like I know only the basics. College sweetheart, teacher. Georgia born and bred.”

I didn't add the rest… that he lost her in a car accident. That he hadn't been involved, seriously, with anyone since.

“Now that I'm going to be in Bailey's life, in a serious way, I want to know more about her mother.”

He tilted his head, like he was considering where to start.

“When Bailey was a baby? We all took a trip to Los Angeles. It was the weekend that a tiger escaped from the Los Angeles Zoo. A young tiger, who had been at the zoo for only a year or so. He didn't just escape his cage, but the entire premises. And he ended up in a family's backyard in Los Feliz. When he got there, he didn't hurt anyone. He curled up under a tree and took a nap. Olivia was consumed with this story, which is probably how she found out the other part.”

I smiled. “What's that?”

“The family whose backyard the tiger had curled up in had gone to the zoo only a few weeks before and one of their two young boys had been obsessed with the tiger. The boy had cried when he had to leave the tiger, not understanding why he couldn't take the tiger home with him. How do you explain that the tiger ended up at this boy's home? A coincidence? That was what the zoologists decided. The family lived pretty close to the zoo. But Olivia thought it served as proof. That sometimes you find your way to the place that wants you most.”

“I love that story.”

“You would have loved her,” he said. Then he smiled, looked out the airplane window. “There was no way… not to love her.”

I squeezed his shoulder. “Thank you.”

He turned back toward me. “Do you feel better?”

“Not really,” I said.

He laughed. “What else do you want to know?”

I tried to think of what I was asking for—it wasn't about Olivia. It wasn't even about Bailey. Not exactly, at least.

“I think… I think I need you to say it out loud,” I said.

“Say what?”

“That we're doing the right thing.”

That was the closest I could get to it—the closest way to express what I was actually worried about. I wasn't used to being a part of a family, not since I lost my grandfather. And that didn't exactly feel like a family. That felt like a twosome, plowing our way through the world, just me and him. His funeral was the last time I even saw my mother. Her calls on my birthday (or somewhere around my birthday) were our only form of communication at this point.

This was going to be something different. It would be the first time I was a part of an actual family. I felt completely unsure of how to do it properly, how to count on Owen, how to show Bailey she could count on me.

“We're doing the right thing,” Owen said. “We're doing the only thing. I swear to you, on everything that matters to me, that's how I feel.”

I nodded, calmed. Because I believed him. And because I wasn't really nervous, at least not about him. I knew how much I wanted him—how much I wanted to be with him. Even if I didn't know everything about him yet, I knew that he was good. I was nervous about everything else.

He leaned in and put his lips against my forehead. “I'm not going to be that asshole who says you kinda have to trust someone at some point.”

“You're going to be the asshole who says it without saying it?”

The airplane started backing up, jolting us, before it turned, slowly heading toward the runway.

“Apparently,” he said.

“I know I can trust you,” I said. “I do. I trust you more than anyone.”

He locked his fingers through mine.

“Metaphorically or actually?” he said.

I looked down at our fingers, locked together like that, just in time for takeoff. I stared down at them, finding comfort there.

“Here's hoping they're the same thing,” I said.

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
2.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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