On the playground, half a dozen kids were still waiting for their parents to pick them up. Two little girls spun on the tire swing. A trio of middle school boys played basketball; the yellow floodlight above them swirled with moths. A sleepy-looking after-school attendant sat on a throne of milk crates, reading a college textbook. She didn't look up as Chadwick walked in.
Once inside, he was immediately disoriented. The doors weren't where they were supposed to be. The walls were too white, the linoleum floors too shiny. Even the smell was different. The old odors—decades of peanut butter apples, dried Play-Doh, burnt popcorn and peeled crayons—had been replaced by the industrial lemon scent of an office building.
The first phase of Ann's expansion plan, Chadwick remembered—to remodel the interior of the existing building to maximize space.
The basketball dribbled outside.
In a way, Chadwick was relieved to look around and see almost nothing he remembered. On the other hand, the changes in the school seemed uncomfortably like his own changes—shuffling interior walls, laying down new carpet to conceal old floors, making everything look as different as possible. Yet the underlying structure was the same. You couldn't change the size and shape of the foundation.
He was still trying to get his bearings when a young man came down the stairwell. He was in his mid-twenties, short blond hair, navy business suit. A kindergarten parent, Chadwick assumed.
It took a moment for his features to resolve themselves in Chadwick's mind—for Chadwick to see the boy he had been, an awkward zit-faced kid, waving a red handkerchief to spot the high bidders.
David grinned. “This is awesome. What are you doing here?”
Chadwick shook his hand, tried not to look like a man on his way to the rack. “Don't tell me you have a child . . .”
“God, no. I mean, No, sir. Ann—Mrs. Zedman—hired me to help in the office. I'm assisting with the capital campaign drive.”
“You're out of college.”
“Yes, sir. Working here part-time. Working on my MBA.”
Chadwick felt like he had needles in his eyes. Of course David was out of college. He would be twenty-four now. An adult. He had been in Katherine's class.
He tried to swallow the dryness out of his throat. “Congratulations, David. That's wonderful.”
David blushed, just as he had in eighth grade, trying to recite the Declaration of Independence in front of the class. And in high school, when he'd taken the BART train all the way from his house in Berkeley and shown up at Chadwick's doorstep, asking to see Katherine—advising Chadwick in a heartbreakingly awkward, gallantly honest way that he was here to—you know, see her. Not just like a friend, anymore. Was that okay with him?
David looked down, pinching at his silk tie. “Listen, Mr. Chadwick, I never got to tell you . . . I mean, after the funeral . . . I wanted to write, or something.”
“It's all right, David.”
“No, I mean . . . You were the best teacher I ever had. This place wasn't the same after you left. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Chadwick felt as if he were standing in the loop of a snare. If David said one more thing, if he spoke Katherine's name . . .
“Thanks, David,” he managed. “Listen, I really should get upstairs.”
“Oh. Right.” David pointed behind him. “You know Ann is meeting—um—about the campaign, right? With Ms. Reyes?”
“I'll try not to keep them long,” Chadwick replied. “Good to see you again, David.”
He left David Kraft's waning smile—the look of a pupil who'd just gotten a B+ on a project he'd put his heart into.
Upstairs, Chadwick's classroom had vanished, the space it had occupied filled with a computer lab and a faculty lounge. The doorway, where he and John had stood talking at the auction so long ago, was a blank wall.
The old student cubbies, which Katherine had so despised, had been replaced with a row of red metal lockers. Chadwick wondered which was Race Montrose's. He tried to imagine Ann opening that locker, finding a gun—at Laurel Heights, where the kids weren't even allowed to play with water pistols. The kindergarteners downstairs, singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The rainbow parachute being spread on the playground for PE.
Ann's office was right where it had been, still dominated by a giant window, the same Japanese curtain hanging over the doorway. Ann's byword: Openness. No closed door between her and her school.
She was standing behind her desk, Norma leaning across it, showing her something on a laptop screen. Baguette sandwiches on wax paper and bottles of water were spread out between them.
Chadwick parted the curtain.
Norma sensed his presence first. She turned, and her face shifted through several phases, like a projector seeking the correct slide.
She touched Ann on the arm. “You've got a visitor . . .”
If anything, Ann seemed younger since Chadwick last saw her—thinner, her caramel hair longer, her eyes with a new, hungrier light. Chadwick's memories had been of a plump gentle girl who had comforted him when he most needed it in high school, counseled him and mentored him since they were teens together, but this Ann looked as if she'd been pared down to just the essentials. She reminded Chadwick, disconcertingly, of the kids who had been through Cold Springs.
“Where's Mallory?” she asked, without greeting him.
He glanced at Norma.
“It's all right,” Ann told him. “She knows.”
“Doesn't mean I approve,” Norma inserted. “Did you find her?”
“She's in the car,” Chadwick said.
“Safe?” Ann asked.
“Alone?” Norma asked.
“My partner is with her. Mallory got confrontational. We had to handcuff her.”
Ann pressed her fingertips to the desk, as if gathering strength from the wood. “Chadwick, thank you. I knew you'd find her.”
“Handcuffs,” Norma said. “He puts your daughter in handcuffs, and you're thanking him.”
Norma wore a black dress, as if she'd never changed from the funeral. She looked cold, beautiful in a stark way, like a black and white picture of herself. Friends and former colleagues had kept Chadwick updated about her new life, even when he didn't want to be. He knew about her degree in accounting, the connections John Zedman had made for her, the multimillion-dollar funds she now managed. He knew she'd taken John's place as development director for the school after the Zedmans' divorce, and kept up her friendship with both of them.
Chadwick tried to believe that he'd ever touched this woman, ever been close to her, raised a child, shared a life. The whole idea now seemed alien. A bomb had been dropped on that existence—a holocaust of grief so powerful that it sucked all the air out of the old house on Mission—love, anger, memories—creating a vacuum where nothing could live, even hate, without becoming irradiated.
“Norma,” Ann said softly. “Let's finish business later.”
“She has no money.” Norma's eyes blazed at him. “I want you to know that, Chadwick. She's been to court three times to keep custody of Mallory. She's mortgaged her house.”
“Norma—” Ann tried.
“The woman is busting her ass raising thirty million dollars for her school, trying to help kids. Meanwhile, she's scraping to pay her PG&E bill. Now you've sold her on this fucking wilderness school, and she has no money to pay for it. I hope that makes you feel good.”
“Ann called me,” Chadwick said.
Norma slapped the laptop closed. “I tried to talk her out of it. I tried to convince her what I knew a long time ago, Chadwick—the only good thing you ever did was leave.”
“I'm here to help Mallory,” he said. “Not argue with you.”
She slashed out, raking her fingernails across his face. “Cabrón.”
Ann tried to take her arm, but Norma jerked away, knocking over a bottle of water.
“You don't help children, Chadwick,” she said. “You steal them. You're a goddamn child-stealer.”
She pushed past him on her way out. If there'd been an office door, Chadwick was sure she would've slammed it.
Chadwick felt the warmth of blood making its way along his jawline. He took a tissue out of his pocket, dabbed it against his cheek.
“I'm sorry,” Ann said. “I didn't know you were coming.”
Chadwick's legs were shaking. All week long, chasing children, talking them out of suicide, dragging them screaming through airports—that he could handle. But a few minutes with Norma, and he was a basket case.
His eyes strayed to the sleeping bag rolled up in the corner, the carryall tucked between the wall and the fax machine. “You camping out here?”
He meant the comment to express concern.
But when Ann looked at him, an uninvited memory flashed between them—an August night a decade ago, at Stinson Beach, two sleeping bags spread out on the sand dunes. They had stayed up all night at the faculty retreat, watching the Big Dipper rise over the Pacific. They had talked of a life that might've happened, had they been wiser when they were younger—a life that was impossible now that they both had families. And yet they'd pretended otherwise, that night.
“I'm not living on the street, yet,” Ann said, “if that's what you mean. I stay here overnight sometimes to get my work done.”
“Cold Springs costs two thousand a month.”
“I know that.”
“The average stay is one year.”
“Why are you discouraging me?” Her voice was getting smaller. “Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to call you—to admit I need help with my own daughter?”
“I think I might have some insight.”
Her ears tinged with red. “No, Chadwick. No. I hate what you do for a living. I hate Asa Hunter's approach. It goes against everything I stand for as an educator. As a mother, though . . .”
She spread her hands, helplessly.
Out the open window, night fog was swirling in from the Pacific, tufts of white drifting like ghosts through the dark eucalyptus branches. Downstairs, a parent called good night to the attendant, then footsteps clopped down the front stairs, the age-old conversation between mother and son fading into the evening quiet of Walnut Street: “What did you do today?”——“Nothing.”—— “Nothing? I can't believe you did nothing.”
Chadwick checked the tissue against his cheek. The blood had made a row of fuzzy red dots on the paper, like Orion's belt. “Why Cold Springs, Ann? Why now?”
“I told you—”
“The truth, this time. The friend Mallory was staying with—his name is Race Montrose.”
“You admitted him as a student here.”
“What would you have me do—punish him for his older brother?”
Chadwick had been trying to convince himself there was no connection. The fact that there was, and Ann obviously knew about it, sparked a string of firecrackers in his stomach.
“Samuel Montrose was Katherine's dealer,” he said tightly. “He supplied the drugs that killed her. Your own daughter identified the house they went to that night.”