Authors: LS Hawker
Tuesday, May 31
going to have to sell her brand-Âspanking-Ânew car. And all because the rearview mirror hung in the perfect position to display an accidental glimpse of her reflection whenever she reached into the backseat. Typically she prepared herself before facing a reflective surface. But when she was caught off guard, without fail, her mother's disappointed, sour Resting Bitch Face stared back at her.
It wasn't that her mother was unattractive. She was, in fact, far more beautiful than Nessa could ever hope to be. It was that her mother had always used Nessa as a mirror in which to see herself without ever truly seeing Nessa.
So the new black Chrysler Pacifica would have to go.
It was nearing sunset when Nessa parked it on Crestview Drive by the Randolph Bridge, which spanned not only the Big Blue River but the northern tip of Tuttle Creek Lake as well. This was the last stop on a four-Âday camping tripâÂjust Nessa, her three-Âyear-Âold son, Daltrey, and their Wheaton terrier, Declan MacManus.
She checked on Daltrey, asleep in his car seat, listing to starboard, mouth open. He'd be okay for a moment, and she was glad she wouldn't have to explain what she was about to do. She felt silly enough about it already.
Nessa and Declan MacManus exited the Pacifica, the dog running ahead, while Nessa locked and shut the door.
She walked the eighth of a mile to the river's edge beneath the bridge as sparse traffic droned by overhead, tires making that
phut phut phut
sound as they traversed the seams in the asphalt. Nessa stood and watched the water flow past, appearing deceptively tranquil until a tree branch rushed by at breakneck speed. Declan sniffed happily around, pausing to mark every object he encountered with a lifted leg.
Nessa looked around to make sure she was alone, then reached into her pocket and withdrew the six-Âinch-Âlong braid of her husband John's hair. He'd cut it before their wedding five years ago. She had kept it in a velvet box all this time, never dreaming this day would come. She looked at the sky and the water, remembering all their good times on the river. This was the right place to let John's braid go.
The water lapped against her tennis shoes as she wound up and let the braid fly. She watched it arc through the air, hit the rushing water with an inconsequential splash, and disappear. She watched for a moment and let herself cry a little. She needed this sort of closure ritual to move on with her life, like spreading his ashes. Except he wasn't dead. Yet.
Nessa trudged back to the car, Declan MacManus meandering behind her. She unlocked and opened her door, and the dog jumped in and settled in the passenger seat. Nessa noted that Daltrey hadn't even changed position while she was gone.
Nessa started the car, put it in gear, and headed toward home.
Forty minutes later, she parked in the converted hay barn garage behind her house and decided she'd wait until morning to unload the camping gear.
Declan MacManus jumped from the car and ran, whining, toward the other outbuildings, hops vines, and woods beyond as Nessa climbed into the back to struggle with Daltrey's car seat restraints. She draped him over her shoulder, and took him inside and upstairs to his big-Âboy bed. There, she pulled off his sandals and kissed his fat little feet before slipping him between the sheets. Good. He was out for the night. She left his door ajar, and went downstairs and out the back door to get their suitcase from the Pacifica.
Outside it was full dark, and the woods buzzed with late-Âspring insects. When she hit the bottom step, she saw Declan MacManus curled up in front of the outbuilding they called the boathouse. He sprang to his feet as if he'd just noticed royalty entering the room. This slowed Nessa downâÂwhat was he doing?âÂbut she continued on to the garage, where she retrieved their luggage. When she closed the garage door, the dog jumped to his feet again, in the exact spot she'd left him.
Nessa stood staring at him, and he gazed expectantly back at her.
And then she saw it. The wooden carriage-Âhouse door's lock was gone. In its place was a jagged hole, as if God himself had punched a massive fist through it in a fit of righÂteous anger.
Nessa froze, her breath captive in her throat.
She set down the suitcase and, after a moment of indecision, pulled out her phone and dialed.
Marlon Webb didn't say hello, just, “With a student.” This was his way of saying he could be interrupted only for a very specific kind of emergency.
“Call me back,” she whispered. “I'm rethinking that whole restraining order thing.”
ESSA'S HEART BANGED
against her rib cage and blood roared in her ears. She looked over her shoulder at the house, then back at the broken door, and despaired. Was John inside the boathouse right now, peering out through the shattered door at her? Was he planning to wait until the lights went out in the house to break in?
And how high was he?
Always endless questions, never any good answers.
Call the cops? Ugh. Another police report. Another two hours wasted on minutiae that would change nothing. But if her husband was high on crack, in the throes of a manic episode, he might come after her with whatever tool he'd used to destroy the door.
She walked back to the house, went inside, and drew the dead bolt. Dialed 911, her most-Âused-Âdigit combination. It seemed to her that she'd used them so much she'd almost worn depressions in the glass phone face.
“What's your emergency?” The 911 operator's flat, mechanical, almost-Âbored tone irritated Nessa.
“We've had another break-Âin,” Nessa said into the phone. The put-Âupon sigh in her own voice filled her with self-Âloathing.
“We'll send out an officer. Do you want me to stay on the line until he arrives?”
Oh, I'm dying for you to,
Your warm, comforting presence will no doubt ease me through another harrowing stand-Âoff.
Of course, that was unfairâÂthe operator was just doing her job. But would it kill her to be a little more compassionate?
Nessa went into the kitchen and gripped the sink, keeping her eyes on the boathouse.
“I'm Stuck in a Condo (with Marlon Brando)” by the Dickies began playing on her phone, her ringtone for Marlon.
“It's hell being right all the time,” he said.
Nessa laughed. She had his full attention now, which was usually a little too intense, a little too penetrating. A civil engineering professor in his late thirties, Marlon's alcoholism had taken hold during his PhD studies. Vodka had been his drug of choice, and a nearly fatal DUI sent him to rehab at twenty-Âsix. He'd been sober over ten years, and Nessa's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor for three. Although AA generally frowned upon opposite-Âsex sponsorships, he and Nessa had clicked immediately.
“He broke into the boathouse,” Nessa said, hoping the inevitable police siren wouldn't wake Daltrey, ever careful to shield her son from the chaos swirling all around him.
“Is John on the property? Do you want me to come over?”
“No, thanks,” Nessa said. “The cops are on their way.”
“You didn't answer my first question.”
“The answer is I'm afraid he is.”
She filled the teakettle at the sink and set it on a burner.
“I don't want to say I told you so,” Marlon said. “But I told you so. You should have petitioned for a protective order the minute you gave him the old heave-Âho.”
“I know. I didn't want to have to give depositions and talk to lawyers and cops and all that crap. I just wanted him off my property and out of our livesâÂ
She glanced sadly out the window above the kitchen sink, which looked out over twenty acres of hops vines. The vines were the beginnings of the niche farm her estranged husband had planted before he relapsed for the third andâÂfor herâÂfinal time three weeks ago. Until then, the plants had held the promise of a new direction, a new start. John had come up with the idea of growing hops for local craft beer brewers. She'd made it clear this project was his babyâÂshe was plenty busy with her blog and satellite radio show. But now she'd have to hire someone to care for the hops or let them rot. It made her tired just thinking about it.
“Better get the ball rolling tomorrow,” Marlon said. “I doubt this will be John's last unannounced visit.”
“I will,” she said. She hesitated. “Hey, Marlon. Give me a reality check, will you? I did the right thing, didn't I?”
“Of course you did,” Marlon said. “Somebody smokes crack in your houseâÂI don't care if it's a bum or your husband or the popeâÂwith your toddler in the next room, you throw him out.”
“I gave him three chances,” she said.
“Yes. Which was more than generous.”
“Then why do I feel so guilty?”
“Because you have a heart.”
“Not according to him, I don't.”
“Bullshit,” he said. “It's an excuse. You can carry the message; you can't carry the addict.”
She knew this twelve-Âstep aphorismâÂand all the othersâÂfrom her six years in Alcoholics Anonymous the way some Âpeople knew
Rocky Horror Picture Show
, but hearing it from a man who'd stayed sober for a decade made her feel better.
“In other words, it's not your fault,” he said. “You did not enable him. You are not responsible for his sobriety. He is. Your priority has to be your ownâÂnot to mention that little boy's health and well-Âbeing, mental and otherwise.”
“I know,” she said.
Nessa turned on the burner, pulled a cup from the cabinet, and dropped in a teabag.
“Keep me updated, all right?” Marlon said. “And keep your head. Remember what's important. Nothing is so bad that a drink won't make it worse, right? Go to your meetings.”
“I will. Now go back to whatever it is you do when you're not propping me up.”
“I don't prop you up. God does. Remember that.”
Marlon said goodbye and hung up. She turned from the window and gasped.
Daltrey stood there, silently staring up at her with his enormous taupe eyes, solemn and watchful. He was almost four years old and hadn't started speaking yet.
What had he heard? She definitely couldn't tell by his expression because even if she'd been doing a stand-Âup routine, he would've looked at her the same way. His disposition was that of a serious, scholarly, middle-Âaged man deep in contemplation, preoccupied with thoughts of trash swirling in the world's oceans and the hole in the ozone layer. This was the only reason she was glad he couldn't talk, because she had no answers for the questions she knew he'd ask, that he already asked with his eyes.
He tapped his forehead twice with his thumb, palm out. American Sign Language for “Daddy.”
She picked him up, his sturdy, compact little body much heavier than it looked. She hugged him and kissed his hair. “No, that wasn't Daddy. What are you doing up?”
He took her face in his little hands and pressed his forehead to hers.
“It's way past your bedtime,” she said.
He nodded and rubbed his eyes. Nessa carried him up the stairs and put him back in his bed, kissed him, and closed the door.
He was toilet trained already and neat as a pin. He didn't talk, but he didn't cry or scream either. No tantrums, no fits, no epic messes. He did laugh sometimes, howeverâÂthe sweetest sound in the world. One that Nessa would do anything to provoke.
As she descended the stairs, she heard the siren and saw the red and blue lights of a police patrol car.
Nessa took a deep breath and went out the back door.
Declan MacManus howled until the patrol car siren went silent. Then he started barking, his hackles raised when two uniformed police officers got out and walked toward them. Nessa grabbed Declan's collar as he whined, trying to check out the intruders.
“Good evening, Mrs. Donati,” one of the officers said.
“Hi,” Nessa said, trying to read their nametags.
Officer R. Michaels. Officer B. Watt. Right.
They'd been here before, that first week after she'd thrown John out, the night he'd stood in the front yard screaming like Stanley Kowalski in
Streetcar Named Desire.
Michaels and Watt approached and held out their hands palms down for the dog to sniff. Declan's tail wagged, recognizing their scents, and Watt gave him an ear rub before straightening. Now Declan was eager to lead everyone back to the boathouse, wagging and smiling at the cops and Nessa.
“So what happened?” Watt said.
“The lock on the boathouse is broken,” Nessa said.
“He in there?” Michaels said, pointing.
“I don't know. I didn't look. I just called you guys.”
Michaels nodded and pulled out his flashlight, switching it on.
“Why don't you wait inside, Mrs. Donati?” Watt said, unholstering his gun.
She walked toward the back door and whistled for Declan MacManus, but he ignored her. She had to go back and take him by the collar to encourage him into the house. She locked the door and watched through the window as her dog whined beside her, sad to be missing all the action outside.
“Police,” Michaels shouted, walking toward the boathouse, light aimed at the broken door. Watt aimed his weapon.
Nessa tensed. There was no telling what John might do, coked up and manic as hell. He might still have whatever implement he'd used to break the door and try to crack the cops' skulls.
“Anyone in there?” Watt called. He held the gun with both hands and nodded at Michaels, who threw open the boathouse door, shining the flashlight beam inside.
Nessa ground her teeth, waiting and watching as they entered.
After what seemed a lifetime, the lights inside the boathouse illuminated. Officer Michaels exited, surrounded in the dark by a full-Âbody halo.
Nessa opened the back door.
“No one's in there,” the cop said. “You want to come out and take a look, see if anything's missing?”
She walked on shaky legs out to the boathouse, simultaneously relieved and disappointed. Inside, Declan sniffed in a widening circle where John had no doubt stood recently.
She looked around but found nothing out of place. John's Old Town Otca 16 canoe was still hanging from the ceiling on its rigging. She'd have thought he'd take it to sell, since it was one of the most valuable things they owned. The tool bench was undisturbed.
But something was off, as if the very air itself had been replaced. It smelled wrong. Instead of the usual musty, combination ancient wood/modern flooring odor, she smelled something else. A mixture of acrid and sour. It was the only indication, other than the broken door, that someone who didn't belong had been in here.
She almost said something about it but stopped herself. These guys didn't need any more crap from her. They must feel like they were constantly chasing ghosts out here.
“Everything looks fine,” Nessa said.
Watt nodded, sympathetic. “Let me get my clipboard and we'll fill out the report.”
“Come on in through the back door,” she said. “I'm going to check out a few things in the house, then I'll meet you in the kitchen.”
Back inside, Nessa climbed the stairs to the master bathroom where she looked in the medicine cabinet. Percocet and Vicodin still there. Looked in her underwear drawer where she kept a roll of cash, and it was all intact. At least he hadn't come in the house, or these things would most certainly be gone.
After the cops had taken her statement and left, Nessa changed into her pajamas, washed her face, and brushed her teeth, but she knew she wouldn't sleep, so she went back downstairs and got out her vapor pen. It was the only vice she allowed herself these days, since she'd quit smoking cigarettes when she learned she was pregnant with Daltrey.
It was soon after John had left that she'd discovered a store that had probably once been a head shop but now sold vapor pens. A clerk with gauges in his ears and a neck tattoo had explained how the device vaporized liquid nicotine, then showed her the different flavors. “You can get piÃ±a colada, raspberry, lemon-ÂlimeâÂ”
“Tobacco flavor, please,” she'd said.
“But we have so manyâÂ”
“I don't want to smoke limes or vanilla ice cream cones. I want to smoke tobacco, and this is as close as I'm going to get to the real thing.”
“Old school, huh,” he'd said with mild contempt, but sold it to her anyway.
Now she sat pretend-Âsmoking in the dark, looking out at her beautiful property, deep dark green in the moonlight after the heavy spring rains. She and John had bought the house, buildings, and sixty acres after two things: Nessa's music blog,
, had attracted its first major sponsor, and Altair Satellite Radio had offered her a twice-Âweekly overnight deep-Âcuts show. John was working at the time, at the job he'd held the longestâÂtwo years as a maintenance tech at the Manhattan Regional Airport, so they were able to get their first mortgage.
They'd had big plans when they bought the land and house nine months ago. She and John had agreed to quit his job and become a stay-Âat-Âhome dad and tend the hops vines. He'd renovate the outbuildings and add on to the house. They would have another baby. But John became depressed and irritable. Picked fights with Nessa. Started disappearing, saying he was shopping for farming equipment, but he somehow never came back with anything.
And then she'd caught John in their bathroom with his pipe and his rock. He'd brought that poison into their home where their son slept, the poison he'd sworn he'd never touch again after relapsing almost four years before. So she kicked him out for the last time.
“I'd rather see Daltrey dead than with you,” John had screamed, standing by his truck as Nessa loaded garbage bags of his clothes into the bed. This was the drugs talking, using John like a ventriloquist's dummy, because he worshiped his son, adored him, would die for him under sober circumstances.
“You're a shitty mother,” John ranted on. “It's your fault he doesn't speak. You let him get vaccinated.”
Not this again. The drugs made him buy into every conspiracy theory circulating on the Internet, especially the anti-Âvaxxer movement.
“It's your fault,” he said. “You're dirty inside and you infected him with your filth.”