The Last Thing He Told Me (9 page)

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
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As soon as we make it over the bridge, the downtown splays out before us—vibrant and spinning, even in the early afternoon. It somehow feels more like it's nighttime: music playing, bars open, garden restaurants packed with people.

Bailey keeps her head down, eyes on her phone. How is she going to recognize anything if she isn't paying attention? But when we stop at a traffic light on Fifth Street, the
DON'T WALK
sign flashing before us, she does look up.

She looks up and I catch her do a double take.

“What?” I say.

“Nothing.”

She shakes her head. But she keeps staring.

I follow her eyes to a sign for Antone's, written in blue script.
HOME OF THE BLUES
written below it. A couple cuddles by the front door, taking a selfie.

She points at the club. “I'm pretty sure that my father has a John Lee Hooker record from there,” she says.

I know she's correct as soon as she says it. I can picture the album cover:
Antone's
logo on the front of it—the sleek lettering in script. And Hooker singing into a microphone, hat and sunglasses on, guitar in hand. I remember a night last week—how could it possibly have been last week?—when Bailey was at play practice, and the two of us were in the house alone. Owen strummed on his guitar. I can't remember the words of the song now, but Owen's face while he sang—that I remember.

“He does,” I say. “You're right.”

“Not that it matters,” she says.

“I don't think we know what matters yet,” I say.

“Is that supposed to be uplifting or something?” she says.

Uplifting? Three days ago, we were all together in our kitchen, a million miles from this reality. Bailey was eating a bowl of cereal, talking to her father about the weekend. She wanted Owen to let her take a drive down to the Peninsula with Bobby, who wanted to go on a long bike ride around Monterey.
Maybe we can all go,
Owen said. Bailey rolled her eyes, but I could see that she was considering it, especially after Owen said that we could stop in Carmel on the way home. He wanted to stop and get clam chowder at a small restaurant she loved near the beach, a restaurant where he's been taking her since shortly after they moved to Sausalito.

That was three days ago. Now the two of us are in a new reality where Owen is missing, where we spend our time trying to figure
out where he is. And why. A new reality where I'm constantly asking myself whether I'm wrong to hold on to the belief that the answers to those questions aren't going to upend my most central ideas of who Owen is.

I'm not aiming for uplifting. I'm just trying to say something neutral so she doesn't know how angry I am too.

When the light changes, I walk quickly across the street, turning onto Congress, picking up speed as I go.

“Try to keep up,” I say.

“Where are we going?” Bailey says.

“Somewhere better than here,” I say.

About an hour later, we round the capital and circle onto San Jacinto Boulevard. And the stadium comes into view. It is enormous, demanding—even from several blocks away.

As we walk toward it, we pass the Caven-Clark Sports Center. It seems to be the student rec center complete with a series of matching orange-laced buildings, Clark Field, and a large track. Students are playing tag football and doing sprints up the stairs and lounging on benches, making this part of campus feel at once completely separate and still a part of its city. Seamlessly integrated.

I look down at my campus map and start moving toward the closest stadium entrance.

But Bailey stops walking suddenly. “I don't want to do this,” she says.

I meet her eyes.

“Even if I was at the stadium, then what? What's that going to tell us about anything?”

“Bailey…” I say.

“Seriously, what are we doing here?”

She won't respond well if I tell her that I stayed up last night reading about childhood memories—how we forget them. And how we get them back. They often come from returning to a place and then being allowed to experience it in the same way you experienced it the first time. That is what we are doing here. We are following her instinct. We are tapping into her memory that she's been here before. And my instinct, from the minute I realized where Grady Bradford came from, that we should.

“There are things your father hasn't told us beyond what's going on at The Shop,” I say. “I'm trying to figure out what they are.”

“That sounds pretty general,” she says.

“It'll get less general the more you remember,” I say.

“So… this is on me, then?”

“No, it's on me. If I was wrong to take you here, I'll be the first to say it.”

She gets quiet.

“Look, will you just come inside? Can you do that?” I say. “We've come this far.”

“Do I have a choice?” she says.

“Yes,” I say. “Always. With me you always do.”

I can see it flash across her face—her surprise that I mean it. And I do mean it. We are a hundred feet from the closest stadium entrance,
GATE
2, but it is up to Bailey. If she wants to turn around, I won't stop her. Maybe this frees her to keep going, because that's what she does.

She walks up to the gate, which feels like a victory. A second victory: a stadium tour group seems to be congregating and we are able to latch on to them, walking past security without so much as a look from the distracted student manning the desk.

“Welcome to DKR,” the tour guide says. “I'm Elliot, I'll be taking you around today. Follow me!”

He leads the group into the end zone and gives everyone a second to take in the stadium, which is epic. There is seating for more than a hundred thousand fans, TEXAS spelled out large on one end of the field, LONGHORNS on the other. It is so large—so imposing—that it feels like the kind of place you might remember, you might hold on to, especially at an early age.

Elliot starts walking the group through what happens on game night—how a cannon is fired after each touchdown, how Bevo, the mascot, is an actual steer bull and how there are a group of Texas cowboys who march him around the field, who tend to him.

As he finishes his spiel and starts to lead everyone up to the press box, I motion for Bailey to hang back, and we head to the bleachers.

I take a seat in the front row, Bailey following suit. I stare out at the field, watching her out of the corner of my eye as she settles in. And then she sits up taller.

“I can't be sure if it was here,” she says. “I don't know. But I remember my father talking to me about how one day I'd love football the way he did. I remember him telling me not to be scared of the mascot.”

That seems wrong—not the mascot part, which sounds exactly like Owen, but the loving football part. Owen doesn't care at all about football. At least since we've been together, I've barely seen him watch a whole game. No long afternoon football games taking over our weekends. No Monday night recapping. One of many refreshing changes from Jake.

“But I must be remembering wrong,” she says. “My father doesn't love football, right? I mean… we never even watch games.”

“That's what I was thinking. But he may have loved it then. When he thought he would make a fan out of you.”

“When I was a toddler?”

I shrug. “Maybe he thought he could mold you into a Longhorn?”

Bailey turns back toward the field. Nothing left, apparently, to add to her memory. “I do think that's what it was. It wasn't about football, in general. He loved this team.” She pauses. “Or whatever team it was, in their orange uniforms…”

“Just walk me through what you know, as if this were the place,” I say. “Did you come after the wedding? Was it night?”

“No, it was during the afternoon. And I was in my dress. The flower girl dress. I know that. Maybe we had come from the wedding. The ceremony part.”

She pauses.

“Unless I'm imagining all of this. Which feels equally possible.”

I feel her getting frustrated. More than likely, Bailey remembered what she could back in Sausalito, and that's where we should've stayed. In our floating home, empty without Owen. The two of us existing in the terrible space he left there.

“I don't know what to say,” she said. “Any stadium I might feel this way.”

“But it does look familiar?”

“Yeah, it kinda does.”

Then something occurs to me. It comes fast and I can see the rest, depending on what her answer is.

“So you walked here?”

She gives me a strange look. “Yes, with you.”

“No, I mean, didn't you say you walked here from the wedding? That day with your father? Assuming it was here…”

She shakes her head, as if that was a crazy question, but then her
eyes get wider. “Yeah, I think we did. If I was in the dress, we probably came right from the church.”

I don't know if this conversation is creating the memory, or not, but she suddenly becomes more definitive.

“We definitely did,” she says. “I mean we only came to the game for a little while, after the ceremony. We walked over. I'm pretty sure of it…”

“So it has to be near here.”

“What does?” she says.

I look down at the map and see the options marked for us: a Catholic Church not too far from here; two Episcopal chapters, and a synagogue even closer than that. They are all within walking distance. They are all potentially the place Owen took Bailey before he took her here.

“You don't remember by chance what kind of ceremony it was? Like denominationally?”

“You're joking, right?”

I'm not. “Of course I am,” I say.

Who Needs a Tour Guide?

I circle the churches on the map and we head out of the stadium through a different exit. We head down the steps and past a statue honoring the Longhorn Band, UT's Etter-Harbin Alumni Center just behind it.

“Wait,” Bailey says. “Slow down a sec…”

I turn around. “What?”

She looks up at the building, at the sign in front:
THE HOME OF THE TEXAS-EXES
.

Then she turns back to the stadium. “This looks familiar,” she says.

“Well, it looks a little like the other gate entrance—”

“No, it's like it all looks familiar,” she says. “Like this part of the campus looks familiar. Like I was here more than once, or something. It
feels
familiar.”

She starts looking around.

“Let me get my bearings,” she says. “Let me figure out why this place looks familiar to me. Isn't that the point of all this? That something here is supposed to look familiar?”

“Okay,” I say. “Take your time.”

I try to encourage her, even though I don't want to stop here. I want to get to the churches before they close for the day. I want to find us someone to talk to.

I stay quiet and focus on my phone. I focus on figuring out the
time line. If Bailey is onto something, if we aren't walking completely down the wrong path, it has to have been in 2008 that Bailey was here—while Bailey and Owen were still living in Seattle, while Olivia was still alive. The next year, Bailey and Owen moved to Sausalito. And any time before that, she would have been too young to remember much of this, if any of it.

So 2008 was the sweet spot. If Bailey is right about any of it, that's when she was here. I search for the football schedule. I search for the home game schedule, from twelve years ago.

But as I start to pull the past schedules up, my cell rings,
BLOCKED
coming up on the caller ID. I hold it in my hand, unsure what to do. It could be Owen. But I think of Jake telling me not to answer any unknown numbers, and it feels risky. Who else it may be, what other trouble that may cause.

Bailey motions to my phone. “Are you going to get that? Or just stare at it?”

“Haven't decided yet.”

What if it's Owen though? What if? I click accept. But I don't say anything, waiting to hear what the caller has to say first.

“Hello? Hannah?”

The woman on the other end has a high-pitched voice, lispy, irritating. It's a voice that I recognize.

“Belle,” I say.

“Oh what a mess this is,” she says. “What an
outrage
. Are you okay? And how is Owen's daughter?”

It's Belle's attempt to be nice, but I note that she doesn't say Bailey. She says Owen's daughter because she can never remember Bailey's name. It's never been important to her to learn it.

“They didn't do this thing, you know…” she says.

They.

“Belle, I've been trying to reach you,” I say.

“I know, I know, you must be beside yourself. I'm beside myself. I'm holed up in St. Helena like some kind of common criminal. Camera crews camped outside my door. I can't even leave the house! I had to have my assistant drop off roasted chicken and chocolate soufflés from Bouchon so I'd have
something
to eat,” she says. “Where are you?”

I start to sidestep the question, but I don't need to. Belle isn't waiting for my answer. She just wants to keep talking.

“I mean this whole thing is just ridiculous,” she says. “Avett is an entrepreneur, not a criminal. And Owen's a genius, though I don't need to tell you that. I mean, for crying out loud, why the hell would Avett need to do this thing anyway? Steal from his own company? This is,
what,
his eighth start-up? This late in his career he is going to start inflating values and lying and stealing? Or whatever the hell they say he is doing? Give me a break. We already have more money than we know what to do with.”

She is fighting hard, arguing forcefully. But it doesn't change what she is leaving out, what she is refusing to acknowledge. Avett's previous success, the hubris that comes with it, could explain why he refused to fail now.

“Point is, it's a setup,” she says.

“By who, Belle?”

“How the hell do I know? The government? A competitor? Maybe some hack who wants to get to the market first. That's Avett's theory. The point is that we are going to beat this. Avett has worked too hard for too long to be taken down by an accounting mishap.”

And I hear it then, what people—Patty, Carl, Naomi—must hear when they're talking to me. I hear the crazy. She sounds crazy. Maybe that's what happens when the bottom falls out, you lose the ability to modulate—to make your words make sense to the rest of the world.

“So are you saying it was a setup or an accounting error?” I pause. “Or are you just saying it's everyone's fault except for Avett's?”

“Excuse me?” she says.

She's angry. I don't care. I don't have time for her, now that I know this conversation is going to a place where she wants something from me. I don't have anything left to give her.

I look at Bailey, who is watching me with questions in her eyes: Why am I sounding increasingly angry? What does this mean for her father?

“I need to go,” I say.

“Just wait,” she says. Which is when she starts to get to it. What she actually needs.

“Avett's lawyers are having trouble reaching Owen,” she says. “And we just want to make sure, we just want to know… he isn't talking to law enforcement, is he? Because that wouldn't be smart, for any of us.”

“If Avett didn't do anything wrong, what does it matter what Owen says?”

“Don't be naive. It doesn't work that way,” she says.

I can almost see Belle sitting at her kitchen island, on the stool I made for her, shaking her head incredulously, the gold hoops she never takes off slapping at her high cheeks.

“How does it work?”

“Uh… entrapment, forced confessions. Is Owen that stupid?” She pauses. “Is he talking to the police?”

I want to say,
all I know is that he isn't talking to me
. I don't offer Belle that though. I don't offer her anything. We are in different positions, she and I. She isn't worried about Avett's safety. She isn't sincerely questioning whether the government's acting in bad faith or whether Avett's guilty. Belle knows that her husband is guilty. She
is just trying to spin it, to do what she needs to do, to stop him from paying for it.

My concern, on the other hand, is how to stop Bailey from paying for it.

“Avett's lawyers need to debrief with Owen as soon as possible, so the story stays consistent,” Belle says. “We could use your help on this. We all need to stick together.”

I don't answer her.

“Hannah? Are you still there?”

“No,” I say. “Not anymore.”

Then I hang up. I hang up and go back to pulling up the old UT-Austin football schedule.

“Who was that?” Bailey says.

“Wrong number,” I say.

“Is that what you call Belle these days?” she says.

I look up at her.

“Why even pretend?” she says.

She's furious and she's scared. And, apparently, I'm making that worse as opposed to better.

“I'm just trying to protect you from some of this, Bailey,” I say.

“But you can't,” she said. “That's the thing. No one can protect me from this. So how about you agree to be the person who tells me the truth?”

She looks older than she is suddenly. Her eyes are unwavering, her lips pursed.
Protect her.
The one thing Owen asked me to do. The one impossible thing.

I nod, holding her gaze. She wants me to tell her the truth, as if that is a simple thing to do. Maybe it is simpler than I'm making it.

“That was Belle. And she essentially confirmed for me that Avett is guilty, or that, at the very least, he has things to hide. And she
seems surprised that Owen has gone off the grid as opposed to helping Avett hide those things. All of which makes me wonder what your father is hiding. And why.” I pause. “So I'd like to find these churches and see if that offers any clue as to why he felt like he had no choice but to leave us. I'd like to figure out if it's just about The Shop or if what I'm suspecting is true.”

“Which is?”

“What he's running from goes back further than that,” I say. “And it's about him. And you.”

She doesn't say anything. She stands in front of me with her arms crossed over her chest. Then suddenly, she drops them. She drops them and moves in a little closer to me.

“So… when I asked you to tell me the truth, I meant, like, don't lie about who is on the phone.”

“I went a step too far?”

“In a good way,” she says.

It may be the nicest thing she has ever said to me.

“Well, I was trying to listen.”

“Thank you for that,” she says.

Then she takes the map from my hands and studies it herself.

“Let's go,” she says.

BOOK: The Last Thing He Told Me
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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