The Last Thing He Told Me (8 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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— Part 2 —

Each species of wood has its own distinctive patterns and colors, which are revealed when the bowl is turned.

—Philip Moulthrop

Keep Austin Weird

We get on a 6:55
flight out of San Jose.

It's been forty-six hours since Owen left for work, forty-six hours since I've heard a word from him.

I give Bailey the window seat and take the aisle, passengers knocking into me as they make their way to the one bathroom in the back of the plane.

Bailey leans against the window as far away from me as she can get, her arms folded tightly against her chest. She is wearing a Fleetwood Mac tank top, no sweatshirt, goose bumps running up her arms.

I don't know if she is cold or upset. Or both. We have never flown together before, so I didn't think to remind her to put a sweatshirt in her carry-on. Not like she would have heeded my advice anyway.

Still, suddenly, this feels like Owen's greatest crime. How did he not provide me with a point of reference before he disappeared? How did he not leave behind a set of rules on how to take care of her? The first rule: Tell her to pack a sweatshirt when she gets on a plane. Tell her to cover her arms.

Bailey keeps her eyes glued to the window, avoids eye contact. It's just as well that she has no desire to talk. I start taking notes in my notebook instead. I work on making a game plan. We land at twelve thirty local time, which means it will probably be close to two before we make it to downtown Austin and check into the hotel.

I wish I knew the city better, but I've been to Austin only once before, during my senior year of college. It was Jules's first professional assignment (she was paid to the tune of $85 and a hotel room) and she invited me to tag along. She was photographing the
Austin Chronicle
's Annual Hot Sauce Festival for a Boston food blog. We spent most of our time in Austin at that festival, burning our mouths off on a hundred different kinds of spiced ribs and fried potatoes and smoked veggies and jalapeño sauces. Jules took six hundred photographs.

It wasn't until shortly before we were heading out of town that we wandered outside of the gardens in East Austin where the festival was being held. We found a hilltop that gave us the most incredible view of the downtown skyline. There were as many trees as skyscrapers, more clear sky than clouds. And the coziness of the lake somehow made Austin feel less like a city and more like a small town.

Jules and I decided then and there that we were going to move to Austin after graduation. It was far less expensive than New York, far easier than Los Angeles. We didn't really consider it when the time came, but in that moment, that's what it felt like, looking down over the city. It felt like looking at our future.

This certainly isn't the future I'd imagined.

I close my eyes, trying to not let it subsume me, the questions that keep rolling through my head on a terrible loop, the questions I need answers to: Where is Owen? Why did he need to run? And what did I miss about him that he was too afraid to tell me himself?

That's part of the reason I'm sitting on this plane. I have this fantasy that by leaving the house, it will trigger something in the universe that makes Owen come home home again and offer up the answers himself. Isn't that how it's supposed to work, the kettle boils once you stop watching? As soon as we land in Austin, there will be a message from
Owen asking where we are, telling me that he is sitting in our empty kitchen waiting on us, as opposed to the other way around.

“What can I get you ladies?”

I look up to see the flight attendant standing by our aisle, her silver drink cart in front of her.

Bailey doesn't turn her head from the window, her purple ponytail the only thing facing out.

“Regular Coke,” she says. “Lots of ice.”

I shrug, a peace offering for Bailey's shortness. “Diet, please,” I say.

The flight attendant just laughs, unoffended. “Sixteen?” she whispers.

I nod.

“I have a sixteen-year-old myself,” she says. “Twins actually. Believe me, I get it.”

This is when Bailey turns around.

“I'm not hers,” she says.

It's true. It's also something Bailey may have said on another day, eager to correct the record. But just now it sounds different and it stings in a way I have trouble hiding on my face. It isn't just about how it makes me feel. It's also about the reckoning that's coming for her on the heels of her comment—the impossible realization that hating or disavowing me is a whole lot less fun when, at the moment, I'm the only person that she has.

Her face tightens as it hits her. I stay quiet, staring at the television screen on the seat in front of me, an episode of
playing silently, Rachel and Joey kissing in a hotel room.

I pretend not to notice Bailey's despair, but I don't put on my headphones either. It's the best I can come up with for giving her some breathing room while trying to let her know I'm there if she wants me.

Bailey rubs at the goose bumps on her arms, not saying anything, not for a while. Finally, she takes a sip of her soda. Then she makes a face.

“I think she switched our drinks,” she says.

I turn and look at her. “What's that?”

She holds out her ice-filled cup, her soda brimming to the top. “This is diet,” she says. “The flight attendant must have given me yours…”

I try not to look too surprised as she hands her drink over. And I don't argue. I hand Bailey my drink and wait for her to take a sip.

Bailey nods, like she is relieved to have her correct drink. Except we both know the flight attendant delivered us the correct drinks in the first place. And only now—only since Bailey's gesture, her attempt to relieve the tension—are the drinks mixed up.

If this is Bailey's way of reaching toward me, I'm going to meet her there.

I take a sip of the Coke. “Thank you,” I say. “I thought mine tasted weird.”

“No worries…” she says. Then she returns to looking out the window. “No big deal.”

We get into an Uber at the airport and I scroll through the news reports on my phone.

Stories about The Shop plaster CNN's home page, the
New York Times
, the
Wall Street Journal
. Many of the recent headlines focus on a press conference held by the head of the SEC, offering up such clickbait as

I click on the most recent article in the
New York Times
, which covers the SEC announcement that they're filing civil fraud charges
against Avett Thompson. And which quotes a source in the FBI about how senior staff and top executives will
most certainly
be named as people of interest.

Owen isn't mentioned by name. At least not yet.

The Uber pulls onto Presidential Boulevard and heads toward the hotel, which is on Lady Bird Lake near the Congress Avenue Bridge. It's away from the hubbub of the busiest part of the city, across the bridge from the heart of downtown Austin.

I reach into my bag and pull out a printout of our hotel reservation, sweeping over the details. Jules's full name, Julia Alexandra Nichols, stares back at me. Jules suggested reserving the room on her credit card as a safety measure. I have her credit card and her ID in my wallet, further safety measures, in case anyone is tracking us.

Of course, there is a record of our flight to Austin. Jules put the flights on her credit card, but our real names are on the plane tickets. There's a clear way to track us here, if anyone is inclined to do so. But even if they track that we're in Austin, they don't need to know exactly where in Austin. I'm not helping the next Grady or Naomi to show up at my door, unannounced.

The driver—a young guy in a bandanna—looks at Bailey in the rearview mirror. He isn't much older than she is and he keeps trying to make eye contact with her. He keeps trying to get her attention.

“Is this your first time in Austin?” he asks her.

“Yep,” she says.

“What do you think so far?” he says.

“Based on the fourteen minutes since we left the airport?” she says.

He laughs, as though she is joking with him, as though she is inviting him to keep talking.

“I grew up here,” he says. “You can ask me anything about this city and I can tell you even more than you wanted to know.”

“Good to know,” she says.

I can see that Bailey is totally tuned out so I try to engage him in case any of it will turn out to be useful later.

“You grew up here?” I say.

“Born and raised. I lived here when this was a small town,” he says. “It's still a small town in a lot of ways, but there are a helluva lot more people and a lot bigger buildings.”

He pulls off the highway and I feel a clinching in my chest as downtown Austin comes into view. I know this was the plan, but looking out the window at this strange city, it all seems so much crazier.

He points out the window, motions toward a skyscraper.

“That's the Frost Bank Tower,” he says. “Used to be the tallest building in Austin. Now I'm not even sure it cracks the top five. Have you heard of it?”

“Can't say I have,” I say.

“Yeah, crazy story behind it,” he says. “If you look at it from certain angles it looks like an owl. Exactly like an owl. Might be hard to see from here but it's wild if you can make it out…”

I open my window and take in the Frost Building—the tiers on top, like ears, the two windows that look like eyes. There is definitely an owl similarity.

“This is a UT town, but the architects all went to Rice University and the owl is Rice University's mascot. So that's like a f-you to our mascot and to the Longhorns in general,” he says. “And I mean, some people say it's just a conspiracy theory, but look at it. The building looks like an owl! How can that be an accident?”

He turns onto South Congress Bridge and I can see our hotel in the distance.

“Are you guys here looking at UT?” he asks. He directs the question toward Bailey, again trying to meet her eyes in the rearview.

“Not exactly,” she says.

“So… what are you doing here?”

She doesn't answer. She opens the window in an attempt to discourage further questions. I don't blame her for that. I don't blame her for not being particularly anxious to explain to a stranger why she is here—in a city she is trying to remember whether she's been to before, searching for information about her missing father.

“Just fans of Austin,” I say.

“Right on,” he says. “A little vacay. I can get behind that.”

He pulls up to the hotel and Bailey is opening the door before the car even stops moving.

“Wait, wait! Let me give you my number. In case there is anything I can show you guys while you're in town.”

“There isn't,” Bailey says.

Then she shifts her bag higher on her shoulder. And starts walking toward the hotel's entrance.

I grab the suitcases from the trunk, hurry to keep up. I catch up to her by the revolving doors.

“That guy was so annoying,” she says.

I start to say he was just trying to be friendly, but she isn't interested in friendly. And since I have to pick my battles, I decide this isn't going to be the one I choose.

We head into the hotel and I look around the lobby: high atrium, the bar, a Starbucks off to the side. Hundreds of rooms. Just the type of nondescript hotel I was hoping for, an easy place to get lost in. Except maybe I'm looking around a moment too long because a hotel employee catches my eyes.

She has a name tag on,
, her hair in a short bob.

We get in line at reception, but it's too late. She walks over, a smile plastered to her face.

“Hi there,” she says. “I'm Amy, the hotel concierge. Welcome to Austin! Is there anything I can help you with while you're waiting to check in?”

“We're good. Unless you happen to have a map of the campus?” I say.

“Of UT-Austin?” she says. “Absolutely. I also could help set you up on a campus tour. And there is some outstanding coffee that you won't want to miss when you head to that part of town. Are you coffee drinkers?”

Bailey eyes me as though it's my fault Amy is hovering and jabbering on—and maybe she isn't wrong. I did ask for a map as opposed to just telling chatty Amy to move along. But I want a map. I want to hold something in my hands that makes it seem a little more like I know what I'm doing.

“Can I set up a shuttle service to take you there?”

We get to the front of the line, where a desk clerk named Steve is holding out two glasses of lemonade.

“Hiya, Amy.”

“Steve! I was just about to set these two ladies up with some college maps and good flat whites.”

“Excellent,” Steve says. “I'll get you settled into your digs. What brings you to our little corner of the world? And how can I go about making it your favorite corner?”

That's it for Bailey. She gives up and starts to walk away—Steve the final nail in the aggressively friendly coffin. She heads toward the elevator bank, drilling me with a final look as she goes. A look of blame for these conversations she can't handle, for being far from
home, for being in Austin at all. Any goodwill I managed to accrue on the plane is apparently gone.

“So, Ms. Nichols, you'll be staying on the eighth floor with a great view of the Lady Bird Lake,” he says. “We have a pretty great spa in the hotel if you're looking to refresh from your flight before heading up to the room. Or I can set you up with a late lunch?”

I put up my hands in surrender.

“A room key, Steve,” I say. “Just a room key. As quick as you can hand it over.”

We drop our suitcases upstairs. We don't stop to eat anything.

At two thirty, we leave the hotel and head back toward the Congress Avenue Bridge. I decide we should walk. I figure a long walk may help jog a memory in Bailey, assuming there is a memory to jog. And this walk will lead us through the heart of downtown Austin and up toward the campus and the Darrell K Royal Stadium, the only football stadium in the city.

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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