Cold Springs

Page 5

She thought it would've been acceptable consolation if he'd just applied himself to making some money, taken a career that would get them out of that inherited dump of his in the Mission. After all, hadn't Norma given up her own plans for him, dropped out of college to raise their child? Couldn't he make some sacrifices?

Apparently, he couldn't. He still looked at her with guilt, sometimes. Sorry he'd followed his dream and become a teacher. Sorry they couldn't pay the goddamn credit card bills this month. But he'd been meant for the classroom.

The last year or so, he'd been giving her the same kind of guilty look, every time he'd come back from his camp-outs with Hunter, broaching again and again the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, Katherine was beyond their help.

She'd be damned if Chadwick would take her baby away.

She shivered, her right knee trembling against Ann's under the quilt.

“Okay, enough,” Chadwick told John, holding his hands flat.

“Yeah, but the kick is the best—”

“Come on, John. All right?”

“Oh, scared. The big man is scared now.”

Ann murmured, “I'm convinced eighth grade is just about the limit.”

“What?” Norma said. “The limit for what?”

“Men growing up.”

Ann smiled conspiratorially, and Norma wondered, Are you going to tell me? Is that what we're here for?

Something told her Ann would come clean with her tonight. She hoped so. In the end, the only thing Norma couldn't forgive would be disrespect—the disrespect of Chadwick and Ann believing she was stupid.

Surely Ann didn't think Norma had failed to notice the smell of her perfume on Chadwick's shirt that one time, back in October, the subtle change in the way Chadwick said her name, starting a few months ago. During the summer—their faculty retreat. A week in that big sprawling house on Stinson Beach, just the teachers and Ann. Plenty of time to sneak away, Norma guessed.

Norma's marriage was an eggshell, held in shape by Scotch tape. She knew that. She knew she had pushed Chadwick to be something he couldn't—pushed so hard for so many years that he'd cracked, and whatever was inside had seeped out, slowly, until he was hollow to her. But still, Norma needed to believe he would respect her enough to come clean. That was one reason, in itself, to hang on to the dying marriage—that and Katherine.

She could forgive Ann. She loved Ann. She loved her calmness, which Norma could never possess, and the way Ann really listened. When Norma had gone through breast cancer, it was Ann who helped her. No pity, no platitudes, no false sympathy—she was there from the second doctor's appointment on. She'd helped Norma accept the mastectomy, accept the fact that Katherine would now be an only child forever because the chemo had poisoned Norma's womb.

And of course Chadwick would be drawn to her for comfort. Ann was his oldest friend. Always platonic, he'd sworn—Ann knows me too well to fall for me, he'd told Norma years ago. But hell, things had changed.

Maybe Norma was crazy—still wanting Ann's friendship. But love and forgiveness had nothing to do with logic.

Tonight, despite the heroin problem, Ann had given Mallory over to Katherine without a hesitation. “I'm sure it will be fine.”

Norma had wanted to hug Ann. It was a vote of confidence not just for Katherine, but for Norma, too. It was somebody saying, “Yes, I understand you gave up your entire life to be a mother, and I do not think you failed.”

Norma waited for Ann to say something.

The hands of her watch glowed half past midnight. They really should have been home by now.

“Oh, I give up,” John said. “This guy is too tough.”

He punched Chadwick in the gut, and came over to the play structure, grinning. “Spread that quilt, girls. Let's picnic.”

“Not a chance, hijo,” Norma told him. “It's warm. It's also seventy-five hundred dollars worth of artwork.”

“Tax deductible,” John said.

“You're not putting your butt on it, John Zedman.”

He laughed, scooped up his champagne bottle.

Chadwick stood off to one side, looking up at the murky orange soup of the sky.

Norma suddenly longed for L.A. She wanted warm nights—shorts and T-shirts, a dry Santa Ana wind. She had lived here too long, allowed her child to be raised here. It wasn't healthy. Time had passed too quickly.

She should have been a money manager by now—a banker, an accountant.

Everybody at her public school had known Norma Reyes would make it. She could breathe numbers the way most people breathed air. The first girl ever to complete AP calculus. She would go far. It was the bitterest irony that she had ended up a full-time mother in a working-class barrio, just like her mother.

But Norma was still young. Only two years, and Katherine would be off to college. Katherine would overcome her problems—Norma was confident of that. Norma took fierce pride that her daughter had inherited her talent at math. Katherine could go to MIT. Or Columbia. She could get a scholarship.

Then Norma could have her own career. She could let her marriage with Chadwick crumble, if it had to. Or perhaps, who knew? What kind of couple might they be without Katherine? They had never had the chance to find out. Maybe they would work things out after all.

“Hey, Chadwick,” John said. “What—you lose something up there?”

And when Chadwick looked down, straight at her, Norma knew it was coming. She knew him well enough to know he was planning a confession.

Well, all right, she thought. We need a good fight. For once, maybe—a true knock-down-drag-out. Maybe the game of chicken ends here.

And then the door at the top of the stairs burst open, and Gladys, Ann's secretary, came running down from the office, her dress shoes clacking against wooden steps, her breath smoking.

“There's a call,” she gasped, stopping halfway down, shouting to them. “Oh, God. The police are asking for you.”

At ten-thirty, Katherine put Mallory in front of the television, settled her into her father's recliner. Mallory was so small she looked like a stuffed animal in the midst of all the black leather. Katherine rummaged for a good video—something from the war chest of her childhood—and settled on The Little Mermaid. It was a bootleg video, something her dad had taped for her, knowing that the official VHS version wouldn't be out for years. She'd loved the movie when it first came out, even though she'd been twelve going on thirteen—a little too old to admit she liked cartoons. Her dad had told her the story many times when she was young, but she liked the Disney version even better, because it had a happy ending. She figured that's why her dad had gone to such trouble to get her a copy—it was the last thing she'd ever enjoyed as a kid, the last happy ending that had ever appealed to her.

She put it in the machine, waited for the intro music to start.

“I don't like that one,” Mallory complained.

“This is a good one, sweetie. I love this one.”

“Could we play a game? I like it when we play games.”

“Maybe later.” Katherine tried to keep the smile in place. It's paint, she told herself. Spread it a little thicker, hold it in place, give it time to dry. “I'm going to lie down for a little bit. Okay?”

“You're getting sicker?”

“Just a little tired. I'll be fine.”

“Can I come, too?”

The plea tightened across Katherine's chest like a seatbelt. She felt the urge she'd been feeling for several weeks now—to shed her possessions, to let Mallory know she loved her.

“Here, sweetie.” She unclasped her birthday necklace, poured the chain into Mallory's hands. “This is a present, okay?”

“That's yours. It's your favorite.”

“Hold it for me. I want you to, Mal. I love you.”

“I love you too, Kaferine.”

“That's good. Now watch television for a while.”

Katherine closed her bedroom door, then went into her bathroom. She opened the brown paper bag. She took out the spoon, the rubber tube, the lighter, the needle. She was surprised by the color of the heroin—almost white this time, like baby powder. Her fingers were cold as she worked, but she knew how. She'd been taught by an expert—deft hands, without fear, taking her wrist, tapping the inside of her forearm for a vein. Just like a nurse. Better than a nurse. Oh God, Samuel. She would miss him.

Katherine shot up and immediately shuddered. This was better. This let her feel the sadness and the happiness at the same time. Her dad was never coming home. They wouldn't have any more arguments. Her mom would never yell again.

Katherine stared at the mirror, smiling at the girl there. She looked like her mom, only younger, without the frustrations of raising some stupid kid.

Katherine wished her mother had gone back to college. Goddamn it, but Katherine would have preferred that. She'd rather have her father at home, away from Laurel Heights, and her mother out making the money. Hadn't they thought of that? Didn't it occur to them it would make them all happier?

The pleasing sensation of floating off the ground wasn't working as well as Katherine had hoped. She could hear Sebastian the Crab singing in the living room. Should she check on Mallory? No. She'd be fine.

Katherine tried to remember—had she shot up yet? It didn't feel like it. Her friend had warned her, You may not get the right high off this batch. You may need to try a little more.

That's what it is, Katherine decided. Weak drugs. Weak, like everything else.

She went through the process again—holding the lighter under the spoon, jerking back her thumb when she realized she'd been holding it too close to the flame without even feeling it. The tip looked like she'd dipped it in charcoal. She put it in her mouth and started to giggle. Don't suck your thumb, m'hijita.

Finally, she shot up . . . was it for the second time?

She felt better now, like she was encased in cotton. She stood up from the toilet and her feet sank several inches into the floor. She made her way to the bed, dropped onto the sheets. She tried to touch her face, but she wasn't sure whether she was stroking a pillow or her own cheek.

Above her, upside down, were the pictures on the headboard—the cow and the moon and the stars that had kept her company since she was little. Where had they come from? Hadn't she covered them up?

She could hear her own breathing, felt the breath being reflected back on her face, as if she were against a window.

She remembered crawling into her parents' bed when she was small, her head next to Daddy's, listening to him while he slept. She tried to align her breathing to his, but his breaths were too deep. She couldn't hold that much air in her lungs without bursting. She couldn't go that long between breaths without suffocating. She had felt a failure, not being able to match her father's rhythm. So she had stayed up, unable to sleep, studying his closed eyes, the small freckle on his right eyelid, the blond lashes you never noticed when he was awake.

The Little Mermaid was playing, somewhere far away. Her mother and father needed her to stay in bed a little longer. It was too early to get up—too early even for cartoons.

Katherine closed her eyes. She felt her breath slowing, aligning itself at last to her father's.

Mallory got up once during the video and went into Katherine's bedroom. Katherine was asleep on the bed. The air smelled funny—like a toaster.

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