* * *
Chadwick struggled with his bow tie.
He was thinking about what he would say, how he would break the news that would end his marriage, when Norma came up behind him and told him about the heroin in their daughter's underwear drawer.
He turned, the bow tie unraveling in his fingers.
Norma wore only her slip, her bare arms as smooth and perfectly muscled as they'd been when she was nineteen. Her eyes glowed with that black heat she saved for lovemaking and really huge arguments, and he was pretty sure which she was planning for.
“Heroin,” he said.
“In a Ziploc, yeah. Looked like brown sugar.”
“What'd you do with it?”
“I smoked it. What do you think? I flushed it down the toilet.”
“You flushed it down the toilet. Jesus, Norma.”
“It wasn't hers. She was keeping it for a friend.”
“You believed that?”
“She's my daughter. Yes, I believed her.”
Chadwick stared out the window, down at Mission Street, where the Christmas lights popped and sparked under the sudden weight of ice.
He'd lived in this house almost all of his thirty-seven years, and he couldn't remember a November night this cold. The glass storefront of the corner taquería was greasy with steam. Lowriders cruised the boulevard billowing smoke from their exhaust pipes. Twenty-fourth Street station was swept clean of the homeless—all gone to shelters, leaving behind piles of summer clothes like insect husks. Next door, the Romos had turned up their music the way other people turn up the heater—the sorrowful heartbeat of narcocorrido pulsing through the townhouse's wallpaper.
Chadwick wanted to turn to steam and disperse against the glass. He wanted to escape from what he had to do, what he had to say. And now this—Katherine.
“The Zedmans will be here in a few minutes,” he told Norma. “I've been home since yesterday.”
She tilted her head to put on an earring. “What? I should've told you earlier? Last week I needed your help, you ran off to Texas. Maybe I should've told you at the airport, huh? Let you get right back on the plane?”
Chadwick felt his throat constricting. His Air Force buddy Hunter used to tease him about marrying Norma Reyes. Hunter said he wasn't getting a wife, he was getting a Cuban Missile Crisis.
He wanted to tell her why he'd really run.
He wanted to tell her that out there in the woods of Texas—for a few days—he had remembered why he'd fallen in love with her. He'd remembered a time when he'd been excited to have a woman half his size take him on so fearlessly, grab his hand like a toddler's grip on a shiny new toy and pull him onto the dance floor with a look that said, Yeah, I want to marry an Air Force man. You got a problem with that?
He had decided Norma deserved the truth, even if it destroyed them. But that had been at a distance of two thousand miles. Now, getting too close, the feeling was like a computer photo. Expand it too much, and it turned into pixels of random color.
He shucked his tuxedo coat, walked down the hallway to Katherine's room, Norma calling from behind, “I've already grounded her, Chadwick. Don't make it worse.”
Katherine was on her bed, her back to the wall, her knees up to her chin—prepared for the assault. The Guatemalan fabric had fallen off her headboard, revealing the decorations Chadwick had painted when Katherine was two—rainbows and stars, a baby-blue cow jumping over a beaming moon. Kurt Cobain's picture sagged off the wall above, where Babar the Elephant used to be.
Sadness twisted into Chadwick's chest like a corkscrew. How the hell had Katherine turned sixteen? What happened to six? What happened to ten?
He tried to see something of himself in her, but Norma had dominated their daughter's genes completely. Katherine had her mother's fiery eyes, her defiant pout. She had the coffee skin, the lush black hair, the build that was both petite and combat-sturdy. As a child, Katherine would clench her fists and lock her knees and she'd be impossible to pick up—as if she were molded from stone.
“Heroin,” Chadwick said.
She rubbed her silver necklace back and forth over her lips, like a zipper. “I told Mom. It wasn't mine.”
“You went back.” Chadwick tried to keep his voice even. “After everything we talked about.”
“Daddy, look, a friend asked me to keep the stuff. A friend from school.”
“It doesn't matter. It's over. Okay? I didn't want to piss him off. I was going to throw the stuff away, give it back, whatever. I didn't have time. Happy?”
Chadwick needed to believe her. He needed to so badly her words gained substance the more he thought about them, began to harden into a viable foundation. But goddamn it. After last Saturday . . .
He wanted to grab Katherine by the shoulders. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her until she went back to being his little girl. He wanted to take her away from here, whether Norma liked it or not, put her on a plane to Texas, bring her to Asa Hunter's woods, teach her how to live all over again, from scratch.
It had seemed so simple when he talked to Hunter. Hunter saw things the way a gun did—narrow, precise, certain. Hunter had coached him, prepared him on what to say to Norma. He'd let Chadwick imagine Katherine walking those woods, free from drugs and self-destructive friends and pictures of asshole rock stars on her wall. He'd even offered Chadwick a job as an escort, picking up troubled kids from around the country and bringing them to the ranch.
This school I'm starting— It is the future, man. Get your family out of that poison city.
“Katherine,” Chadwick said, “I want to help you.”
“How, Daddy?” Her voice was tight with anger. “How do you want to do that?”
Chadwick caught his own face in Katherine's mirror. He looked haggard and nervous, a hungry transient pulled from some underpass and stuffed into a tux shirt.
He sat next to her on the bed, put his hand next to hers. He didn't touch her. He hadn't given his daughter a hug or a kiss in . . . weeks, anyway. He didn't remember. The distance you have to develop between a father and a daughter as she grew into a woman—he understood it, but it killed him sometimes.
“I want you to go to Texas,” Chadwick said. “The boarding school.”
“You want to get rid of me.”
“This isn't working for you, Katherine. School, home, nothing.”
“You're giving me a choice? If you're giving me a choice, I say no.”
“I want you to agree. It would be easier.”
“Mom won't go for it otherwise,” she translated.
Chadwick's face burned. He hated that he and Norma couldn't speak with one voice, that they played these games, maneuvering for Katherine's cooperation the way a divorced couple would.
Katherine kept rubbing the necklace against her lips. It seemed like yesterday he'd given it to her—her thirteenth birthday.
“You can't baby-sit tonight,” he decided. “We'll tell the Zedmans we can't go.”
“Daddy, I'm fine. It's just Mallory. I've watched her a million times. Go to the auction.”
Chadwick hesitated, knowing that he had no choice. He'd been gone from work the entire week. He couldn't very well miss the auction, too. “Give me your car keys.”
“Come on, Daddy.”
He held out his hand.
Katherine fished her Toyota key out of her pocket, dropped it into his palm.
“Where's your key chain?” he asked.
“Your Disneyland key chain.”
“I got tired of it,” she said. “Gave it away.”
“Last week you gave away your jacket. A hundred-dollar jacket.”
“Daddy, I hated that jacket.”
“You aren't a charity, Katherine. Don't give away your things.”
She looked at him the way she used to when she was small—as if she wanted to touch her fingertips to his chin, his nose, his eyebrows, memorize his face. Chadwick felt like he was melting inside.
Down in the stairwell, the doorbell rang. John Zedman called up, “Candygram.”
“This isn't over, Katherine,” Chadwick said. “I want to talk about this when I get home.”
She brushed a tear off her cheek.
“Yeah, Daddy. Understood.”
She made the last word small and hot, instantly igniting Chadwick's guilt. He wanted to explain. He wanted to tell her he really had tried to make things work out. He really did love her.
“Chadwick?” Norma said behind him, her tone a warning. “The Zedmans are here.”
Little Mallory made her usual entrance—a blur of blond hair and oversized T-shirt making a flying leap onto Katherine's bed.
And Katherine transformed into that other girl—the one who could attract younger kids like an ice cream wagon song; the natural baby-sitter who always smiled and was oh so responsible and made other parents tell Chadwick with a touch of envy, “You are so lucky!” Chadwick saw that side of Katherine less and less.
She tousled Mallory's hair. “Hey, Peewee. Ready to have some fun?”
“I got Candyland. I got Equestrian Barbie. We are set to party.”
Mallory gave her a high five.
Ann and John stood in the living room, cologne and perfume a gentle aura around them.
“Well,” John said, registering at once that Chadwick wasn't even half ready to go. “Grizzly Adams, back from the wild.”
“The carnivores say hello,” Chadwick told him. “They want you to write home more often.”
“Ouch,” John said, his smile a little too brilliant. “I'll get you for that.”
Ann wouldn't make eye contact with him. She gave Norma a hug—Norma having dressed in record time, looking dangerous in a red and yellow silk dress, like a size-four nuclear explosion.
Chadwick excused himself to finish getting ready. He listened to Norma and Ann talk about the school auction, John flipping through Chadwick's music collection, shouting innocuous questions to him about Yo-Yo Ma and Brahms, Mallory setting off all the clocks on the mantel—her ritual reintroduction to the house.
When Chadwick came out again, Katherine sat cross-legged by the fireplace—his beautiful girl, all grown up, drowning in flannel grunge and uncombed hair. Mallory sat on her lap, winding the hands of an old clock, trying to get it to chime.
Chadwick locked eyes with his daughter. He felt a tug in his chest, warning him not to go.
“Don't worry, Dad,” she said. “We'll be fine.”
Those words would be burned into Chadwick's forehead. They would live there, laser-hot, for the rest of his life.
When the front door shut, Katherine felt herself deflating, the little knots in her joints coming loose.
She took Candyland down from the shelf. She joked with Mallory and smiled as they drew color cards, but inside she felt the black sadness that was always just underneath her fingernails and behind her eyes, ready to break through.
Katherine wanted a fix. She knew it would only make her depression worse—buoy her up for a little while, then make the blackness wider, the edges of the chasm harder to keep her feet on. Her therapist had warned her. Ann Zedman had warned her. Her father had warned her. They were all part of the educational team, all looking out for her best interests.