Read The Last Thing He Told Me Online
Authors: Laura Dave
Jules doesn't leave until after 2
She offers to stay over, and maybe I should have let her because I barely get any sleep.
I lay awake most of the night on the living room couch, unable to face my bedroom without Owen. I wrap myself up in an old blanket and wait out the dark, playing it over and over in my headâthe last thing Jules said before she left.
We stood at the front door and she leaned in to give me a hug. “One thing,” she said. “Did you keep your own checking account?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That's good,” she said. “That's important.”
She smiled approvingly, so I didn't add that I'd done so at Owen's insistence. Owen was the one who wanted to keep some of our money separate for a reason he never fully explained. I assumed it had something to do with Bailey. But maybe I was wrong about that. Maybe it had to do with leaving what was mine untouched.
“I ask because they're probably going to freeze all his assets,” Jules said. “That's the first thing they'll do while they're trying to figure out where he went. What he knew. They always follow the money.”
Follow the money.
I feel a little bit queasy, even now, as I think about the duffel bag shoved under the kitchen sink, a bag full of money that Owen probably knows they can't follow. I didn't tell Jules about the duffel
because I know what it looks like to any reasonable person. I know what it should look like to me too. It looks like Owen is guilty. Jules had already decided as much, and a mysterious bag of money would only convince her further. Why wouldn't it? She loves Owen like a brother, but it isn't about love. It's about what points toward Owen's involvement in this mess: that he's running, that he acted suspiciously with Jules on the phone. Every single thing.
Except this. Except what I know.
Owen wouldn't run because he is guilty. He wouldn't leave to save himself. He wouldn't leave to avoid prison or to avoid looking me in the eye and admitting what he's done. He wouldn't leave Bailey. He would never leave Bailey unless he absolutely had to. How can I be so sure of this? How can I trust myself to be sure of anything when I'm obviously biased in what I'm willing to see?
Partially it's because I've spent my life
to see. I've spent my life paying incredibly close attention. When my mother left for good, I didn't see it coming. I missed it. I missed the finality of that departure. I shouldn't have. There were so many hasty exits before that, so many nights she slipped out and left me with my grandfather without so much as a goodbye. There were so many times she didn't come back for days, or weeks, only offering up an occasional phone call, an occasional check-in.
When she finally left for good, she didn't say she wasn't coming back. She sat down on the edge of my bed and brushed my hair off my face and said she had to go to Europeâthat my father needed her with him. But she said she'd see me soon. I assumed that meant she'd be back soonâshe was always coming and going. But I missed it. The language of it. “Seeing me soon” meant she was never coming back, not in a substantial way. It meant I'd spend an afternoon or an evening with her twice a year (never overnight).
It meant she was lost to me.
That's the part that I missed: My mother didn't care enough not to be lost to me.
That's the part I've sworn to myself I would never miss again.
I don't know if Owen is guilty. And I'm furious he left me to deal with this alone. But I know he cares. I know he loves me. And, more than that, I know he loves Bailey.
He would only leave
her. It has to be that. He left the way he did to try and save her. From something or someone.
It all comes down to Bailey.
The rest is just a story.
The sunlight streams through the undraped living room windows, soft and yellow, against the harbor.
I stare outside. I don't turn on the television or flip open my laptop to check the newsfeed. I know the most important thing. Owen is still gone.
I head upstairs to shower and find Bailey's door uncharacteristically open, Bailey sitting up in her bed.
“Hey there,” I say.
“Hi,” she says.
She pulls her knees to her chest. She looks so scared. She looks like she is trying hard to hide it.
“Can I come in for a sec?” I say.
“Sure,” she says. “I guess.”
I walk over and sit down on the edge of her bedâas if that is something I know how to do, as if that is something I've done before.
“Did you sleep at all?” I say.
“Not much,” she says.
The outline of her toes is visible through the sheets. She curls them tight together, like a fist. I start to reach for her foot, hold it, but then think better of it. I clasp my hands together and look around her room. Her bedside table is littered with theater books and plays. Her blue piggy bank rests on top of themâthe piggy bank that Owen won for her at a school fair shortly after they moved to Sausalito. It's a female piggy bank, complete with bright red cheeks and a bow on top.
“I just keep going over it in my head,” she says. “I meanâ¦ my father doesn't make things complicated. At least not with me. So explain what he wrote in his note to me.”
“What do you mean?”
You know what matters about me
â¦ what's that even mean?”
“I think he means that you know how much he loves you,” I say. “And that he's a good man despite what people may be saying about him.”
“No, that's not it,” she says. “He meant something else. I know him. I know he meant something.”
“Okayâ¦” I take a deep breath. “Like what?”
But she is shaking her head. She is already onto something else.
“And what am I supposed to do with that money? All that money he left me?” she says. “That's the kind of money that someone leaves you when they're not coming back.”
That stops me. Cold. “Your father's coming back,” I say.
Her face fills with doubt. “How do you know?”
I try to think of a comforting answer. Luckily it also feels like the truth. “Because you're here.”
“So why isn't he?” she says. “Why did he take off like he did?”
It feels like she isn't actually looking for an answer. She is looking to fight when I give her an answer that she doesn't want. It makes
me furious with Owen for putting me in this position, regardless of the reason. I can tell myself that I'm sure of Owen's intentionsâthat, wherever he is, he's there because he is trying to protect Bailey. But I'm left sitting here, without him, anyway. Doesn't that make me as ridiculous as my mother is? Doesn't it make me the same as her? Both of us putting our faith in someone else above everything elseâcalling it love. What good is love, if this is where it leads you?
“Look,” I say. “We can talk about this more later, but you should probably get ready for school.”
“I should get ready for school?” she says. “Are you serious?”
She isn't wrong. It's a lousy thing to say. But how can I say what I want to say? That I've called her father dozens and dozens of times, that I don't know where he is. And I certainly have no idea when he's coming back to us.
Bailey gets out of bed and heads toward the bathroom and the terrible day ahead of her, ahead of both of us. I almost stop her and tell her to come back to the bed. But that seems more about what I need. Isn't what's best for her to get out of this house? Go to school? Forget about her father for five minutes?
“I'm going to drop you off,” I say. “I don't want you walking to school alone this morning.”
“Whatever,” she says.
She's apparently too tired to argue. One break.
“I'm sure we're going to hear from your father soon,” I say. “And things will start to make a lot more sense.”
“Oh, you're sure of that?” she says. “Wow, that's a relief.”
Her sarcasm can't mask itâhow tired she is, how alone she feels. It makes me miss my grandfather, who would know exactly how to make Bailey feel better. He'd know how to give her the thing she
needs, whatever that thing might be, to know she's loved in a moment like this. To know she can trust. The same way he did for me. How many months after my mother left did he find me upstairs in my room, trying to write a letter to her? Asking her how she could desert me?
I was crying and angry and scared. And I'll never forget what he did next. He was wearing his overalls and these thick work glovesâpurple, and ridged. The gloves were a recent purchase. He got them made special in purple because that was my favorite color. He took the gloves off and he sat down on the floor next to me and helped me finish the letter, exactly as I wanted to write it. No judgment. He helped me spell out any words I was having trouble with. He waited while I figured out exactly how I wanted the letter to end. Then he read the entire letter out loud so I could hear it for myself, pausing when he got to the sentence in which I asked my mother how she could have left me behind.
Maybe that's not the only question we should be asking,
my grandfather said.
Maybe we should also think about whether we'd really want it to be different. We could think about whether she actually did us a favor in her own wayâ¦
I looked at him, starting to understand where he was gently leading me.
After all, what your mother didâ¦ it gave me you.
The most generous thing to say. The most comforting and generous thing. What would he say to Bailey now? When am I going to figure out how to say it too?
“Look, I'm trying here, Bailey,” I say. “I'm sorry. I know I keep saying the wrong things to you.”
“Well,” she says as she closes the bathroom door behind herself, “at least you know.”
When we decided I was moving to Sausalito, Owen and I talked about how to make the transition as easy as possible for Bailey. I felt strongly, probably more strongly than Owen even did, that we shouldn't move Bailey out of the only home she'd ever knownâthe home she'd been living in for as long as she could remember. I wanted her to have continuity. Her floating homeâcomplete with its wooden beams and bay windows, its storybook views on Issaquah Dockâwas her continuity. Her safe haven.
But I wonder if it didn't just make it more apparent: Someone moved into her most cherished space and there was nothing she could do about it.
Still, I did everything I could to not disturb the balance. Her balance. Even in the way that I moved into the house, I tried to keep the peace. I put my stamp on Owen's and my bedroom, but the only other room I redecorated wasn't a room at all. It was our porch, lovingly hugging the front of the house. Before I arrived, the porch was empty. But I lined it with potted plants, rustic tea tables. And I built a bench to put by the front door.
It is a great rocking benchâshingled in white oak, striped pillows for comfort.
Owen and I have made it our weekend ritual to sit on the bench together, drinking our morning coffee. It's our time to catch up on the week as the sun rises slowly over the San Francisco Bay, catching the
bench in its warmth. Owen is more animated in those conversations than during the work weekâa load lifted as the day stretches out before him, empty and relaxed.
That's partially why the bench makes me so happy, why I take comfort even passing by it. And why I nearly jump out of my skin when I walk outside to take out the trash and there is someone sitting on it.
“Garbage day?” he says.
I turn around to see a man I don't recognize leaning against the bench's arm, like he belongs there. He wears a backward baseball cap and a windbreaker, holds tight to a cup of coffee.
“Can I help you?” I say.
“I'm hoping so.” He motions toward my wrists. “But you may want to put those down first.”
I look down to see that I'm still holding the trash, the two weighty garbage bags in my hands. I drop the bags into the trash cans. Then I look back up and take him in. He is youngâmaybe in his early thirties. And he is good-looking in a way that's disarming, complete with a strong jaw, dark eyes. He is almost too good-looking. But the way he smiles gives him away. He knows it better than anyone.
“Hannah, I take it?” he says. “It's nice to meet you.”
“Who the hell are you?” I say.
“I'm Grady,” he says.
He bites the edge of the coffee cup, holding it between his lips as he points at me to give him a second. Then he reaches in his pocket and pulls out something that looks like a badge. He holds it out for me to take.
“Grady Bradford,” he says. “You can call me Grady. Or Deputy Bradford if you prefer, though that seems awfully formal for our purposes.”
“And what are those?”
“Friendly,” he says. Then he smiles. “Friendly purposes.”
I study the badge. It has a star with a circular ring wrapped around it. I want to run my finger around that circle, through the star, as if that will help me determine whether the badge is genuine.
“You're a police officer?”
“A U.S. marshal actually,” he says.
“You don't look like a U.S. marshal,” I say.
“And what does a U.S. marshal look like?” he says.
“Tommy Lee Jones in
,” I say.
He laughs. “It's true, I'm younger than some of my colleagues, but my grandfather was with the service, so I got an early start,” he says. “I assure you it's been a legitimate one.”
“What do you do for the Marshals' office?”
He takes his badge back and stands up, the bench rocking back and forth as it loses the weight of him.
“Well, primarily, I apprehend people who are defrauding the U.S. government,” he says.
“You think my husband's done that?”
“I think The Shop has done that. But no, I'm not convinced your husband has. Though I'd need to speak to him before I could properly assess his involvement,” he says. “Seems like he doesn't want to have that conversation though.”
That sticks to me for some reason. It sticks to me as not the entire truth, at least not Grady's entire truth as to what he's doing on my dock.
“Can I see your badge again?” I say.
“512-555-5393,” he says.
“Is that your badge number?”
“That's the phone number for my branch office,” he says. “Give a call there, if you like. They'll confirm for you who I am. And that I just need a few minutes of your time.”
“Do I have a choice?”
He gives me a smile. “You always have a choice,” he says. “But I'd certainly appreciate if you talked to me.”
It doesn't feel like I have a choice, at least not a good one. And I don't know if I like him, this Grady Bradford, with his practiced drawl. But how much would I like anyone who is about to ask me a bunch of questions about Owen?
“What do you say?” he says. “I was thinking we could take a walk.”
“Why would I take a walk with you?”
“It's a nice day,” he says. “And I got you this.”
He reaches under my rocking bench and pulls out another cup of coffee, piping hot, fresh from Fred's.
SHOT OF CINNAMON
are written on the side of the cup in large black letters. He hasn't just brought me a cup of coffee. He's brought me a cup of coffee just the way I take it.
I breathe the coffee in, take my first sip. It's the first bit of pleasure since this whole mess started.
“How do you know how I take my coffee?” I say.
“A waiter named Benj helped me out. He said you and Owen get coffees from him on the weekend. Yours with cinnamon, Owen's black.”
“This is bribery.”
“Only if it doesn't work,” he says. “Otherwise it's a cup of coffee.”
I look at him and take another sip.
“Sunny side of the street?” he says.
We leave the docks and walk toward the Path, heading toward downtownâWaldo Point Harbor peeking out at us in the distance.
“So I take it no word from Owen?” he says.
I think about our kiss goodbye by his car yesterday, slow and lingering. Owen wasn't anxious at all, a smile on his face.
“No. I haven't seen him since he left for work yesterday,” I say.
“And he hasn't called?” he says.
I shake my head.
“Does he usually call from work?”
“Usually,” I say.
“But not yesterday?”
“He may have tried me, I don't know. I went to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, and there are a bunch of dead zones between here and there, soâ¦”
He nods, completely unsurprised, almost like he knows this already. Like he is playing way past it.
“What happened when you got back?” he says. “From the Ferry Building?”
I take a deep breath and think about it for a minute. I think about telling him the truth. But I don't know what he will make of the information about the twelve-year-old girl and the note she gave to me, about the note Owen left for Bailey at the school. About the duffel bag of money. Until I figure it out for myself, I'm not including someone I just met.
“I'm not sure what you mean,” I say. “I made Bailey dinner, which she hated, and she went to play practice. I heard about The Shop on NPR while I was waiting for her in the school parking lot. We came home. Owen didn't. No one slept.”
He tilts his head, takes me in, like he doesn't believe me, entirely. I don't judge him for that. He shouldn't. But he seems to be willing to let it go.
“Soâ¦ no call this morning, correct?” he says. “No email either?”
“No,” I say.
He pauses, as though something is just occurring to him.
“It's a crazy thing when someone disappears, isn't it? No explanation?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“And yetâ¦ you don't seem all that mad.”
I stop walking, irritated that he thinks he knows enough about me to make a judgment call on how I feel.
“I'm sorry, I didn't realize there was an appropriate way to respond when your husband's company is raided and he disappears,” I say. “Am I doing anything else you deem inappropriate?”
He thinks about it. “Not really.”
I look down at his ring finger. No ring there. “I take it you're not married?”
“No,” he says. “Waitâ¦ do you mean ever or currently?”
“Is it a different answer?”
He smiles. “No.”
“Well, if you were, you'd understand that I'm more worried about my husband than anything else.”
“Do you suspect foul play?”
I think of the notes Owen has left, of the money. I think of the twelve-year-old's story of running into Owen in the school hallway, of Owen's conversation with Jules. Owen knew where he was going. He knew he needed to get away from here. He chose to go.
“I don't think he was taken against his will, if that's what you're asking.”
“So what are you asking, Grady? Exactly?”
“Grady. I like that. I'm glad we're on a first-name basis.”
“What's your question?”
“Here you are, left to pick up the pieces of his mess. Not to mention take care of
daughter,” he says. “That would make me mad. And you don't seem to be that mad. Which makes me think there is something you know that you're not telling meâ¦”
His voice tightens. And his eyes darken until he seems like what he isâan investigatorâand I'm suddenly on the other side of whatever line he draws to separate himself from the people he suspects of wrongdoing.
“If Owen told you something about where he disappeared to, about
he left, I need to know,” he says. “That's the only way for you to protect him.”
“Is that your primary interest here? Protecting him?”
“It is. Actually.”
That does feel true, which unnerves me. It unnerves me even more than his investigator mode.
“I should get home.”
I start to move away from him, Grady Bradford keeping me a little off-balance standing so close.
“You need to get a lawyer,” he says.
I turn back toward him. “What?”
“Thing is,” he says, “you're going to get a lot of questions about Owen, certainly until he's around again to answer them for himself. Questions you're under no obligation to answer. It's easier to push them off if you tell them you have a lawyer.”
“Or I can just tell them the truth. I have no idea where Owen is. And I have nothing to hide.”
“It's not that simple. People are going to offer you information that makes it seem like they're on your side. And Owen's side. They aren't. They aren't on anyone's side but their own.”
“People like you?” I say.
“Exactly,” he says. “But I did make a phone call for you this morning to Thomas Shelton. He's an old buddy of mine who works on family law for the state of California. I just wanted to make sure you're protected in case someone comes out of the woodwork seeking temporary custody of Bailey during all of this. Thomas will pull some strings to make sure that temporary custody is granted to you.”
I let out a deep breath, unable to hide my relief. It has occurred to me that, if this goes on for too much longer, losing custody of Bailey is a possibility. She has no other family to speak ofâher grandparents deceased, no close relatives. But we aren't blood relatives. I haven't adopted her. Couldn't the state take her away at any time? At least until they determine where her one legal guardian is, and why he has left his kid behind?
“He has the authority to do that?” I say.
“He does. And he will.”
He shrugs. “Because I asked him to,” he says.
“Why would you do that for us?” I ask.
“So you'd trust me when I tell you the best thing you can do for Owen is lie low and get a lawyer,” he says. “Do you know one?”
I think of the one lawyer I know in town. I think of how little I want to talk to him, especially now.
“Unfortunately,” I say.
“Call him. Or her.”
“Him,” I say.
“Fine, call him. And lie low.”
“Do you want to say it again?” I ask.
“Nah, I've said it enough.”
Then something in his face changes, a smile breaking through. Investigator mode apparently behind us.
“Owen hasn't used a credit card, not a check, nothing for twenty-four hours. And he won't. He's too smart, so you can stop calling his phone because I'm sure he dumped it.”
“So why did you keep asking if he called?”
“There are other phones he could have used,” he says. “Burner phones. Phones that aren't readily traceable.”
Burner phones, paper trails. Why is Grady trying to make Owen sound like a criminal mastermind?
I start to ask him, but he presses a button on his key chain, a car across the street shining its lights, coming to life.
“I won't keep you longer, you have enough to deal with,” he says. “But when you do hear from Owen, tell him I can help him if he lets me.”
Then he hands me a napkin from Fred's, his name written down,
, with two phone numbers beneath it, his numbers I presumeâone of them marked cell.
“I can help you too,” he says.
I pocket the napkin as he crosses the street and gets into his car. I start to walk away, but as he turns on the engine, something occurs to me and I walk toward him.
“Wait. With which part?” I say.
He lowers his window. “With which part, what?”
“Can you help?”