Was the rich man so wrong, wanting their children apart?
“Gone,” he had said. “I want you completely, totally gone. You and your son. That is the deal.”
The Mexican dude had stood behind him, making it clear—silent, but clear—what the other alternative was.
Talia felt angry, all of a sudden, and she wasn't sure at who.
She stuffed the girl's necklace in her pocket.
Seven thirty-five now.
Talia should get going, get downtown to meet Vincent. He was a decent man, but she was still nervous. She probably shouldn't have told him about the money, but she needed a man the way she needed the photo album or the clothes or the Tampax. It was just one of those traveling essentials.
She wished Race were here. She didn't want to go without him. He was her last baby. If it was too late for the others, maybe she could still make things right for him.
She would break the news to him. Maybe he would see the logic. He'd gotten himself in trouble at that school anyway. Now was a good time to leave. He shouldn't be there, shouldn't be with that white girl, anyway. It had been a mistake, taking that partial scholarship. Like Talia going into the Starbucks this morning—a place she'd never stepped into, never wanted to. What were those people thinking? How much for coffee? Shit.
Race didn't belong at that school any more than Talia did at Starbucks. She'd take Race away to Tahoe. The boy had never seen snow. She'd fix that.
Talia felt better the minute she made her decision. Lighter. She would take Race with her, be a good mother. He would get her complete attention, the way it should be. And if Vincent didn't like it, Vincent could get the fuck out.
Then Talia looked out the window, saw the black Honda Civic sliding into the driveway, blocking her in, and she felt the new world she'd been painting for herself start closing up like a night flower.
Samuel hadn't planned it. He didn't mean to go over the edge.
He was the kind of guy who had turned his life around. He'd had his share of bad breaks as a kid. Now he worked with children. He helped people. He got up on time, went to work, did a good job.
But see, he'd been hearing these stories. Race had been kicked out of school. Race was getting in trouble on account of that girl, following a path Samuel knew too well. And Samuel was paying the bills for that school. Race had better goddamn be there.
At first, he hadn't minded Race hanging out with that girl. Wasn't something Samuel could've planned on, but he'd gotten some twisted satisfaction out of it. Race wanted to mess around with her, drive her parents crazy, remind them of the past—that was cool, as long as he didn't get himself in too much trouble. Three more years. Race would graduate from that school—the school Katherine never finished. He would go on to college. That would be justice—a future gained for a future lost. Then Samuel would close the books, call it even. He promised himself that would be it—no more revenge. He would make something good come out of the past.
But if Race started compromising his chances at graduation, if he got kicked out of school, especially if it was the girl's fault— No, that wasn't part of the plan.
Samuel had never shown himself to the girl. He'd taken care to stay out of the picture. But he would, if he had to.
He expected to catch Race at the house this time of morning, maybe the girl, too, but instead there was Talia's car, and Talia herself looking out the living room window.
What the hell was she up to?
This was way too early for her. She should have been off with her latest boyfriend—whatever the hell his name was. Samuel couldn't keep track. He'd lived through so many of them over the years. He never got mad. The memories just settled on him like sediment, hardening to rock, until his gentlest touch could smash through a wall.
He waited behind the wheel, trying to steady his nerves. Swear to God, he had worked at forgiving that woman. He had helped her with money, time, whatever she needed. He'd spent years telling himself she wasn't guilty of anything except being born poor and stupid about men.
Samuel walked up the steps of the house. He kicked a piece of smashed pumpkin into the weeds, ripped the paper black cat off the door. He hated that shit—Halloween. The whole idea of children in costumes.
First thing he saw when he came into the living room was the leather satchel at Talia's feet. Wasn't right—wasn't something she'd be carrying. She was dressed in her Friday night clothes—skintight red jeans, leopard-skin sweater. Her hair was the color of crusted sap.
“Stylin',” he said. “You going somewhere?”
“I had to.” Her voice leaked guilt, like it always did, even when she hadn't done anything.
Samuel could smell her—the cheap watery magnolia perfume. He wondered if that's what men were attracted to. He didn't know. He couldn't imagine it.
What was Talia planning—weekend in Vegas? No, Tahoe. Closer. That would be more within her scope. No doubt the latest boyfriend was waiting for her.
But there was more to it than that.
Samuel slipped his fingers in his pocket, tapped against the hard rectangle of wood and metal there—the six-inch knife he always carried, ever since the old days, before he turned around. He never planned on using it—certainly not this morning, hoping to talk sense into Race. But the knife sat on the dresser every morning, and it made his fingers itch until he picked it up, slipped it into the pocket where it belonged. Otherwise Samuel felt dizzy—ten ounces off balance.
He tried for a smile. “What you up to, Talia?”
“Was I supposed to say no?” she asked. “He give me a lot of money.”
Samuel could swear she was accusing him—turning her guilt on him.
Then she added like an afterthought, “Race be okay.”
“Oh—yeah,” Samuel agreed. “He's always better without you.”
Talia let a tear escape, and Samuel thought, That's good. Now you cry.
She started to leave, but the anger in Samuel was building. He hated this woman. She was always leaving—like a cockroach. Every time you turned on a light, there was Talia, scurrying away.
He knocked the satchel out of her hand. It split open, spilling bricks of cash.
They stood close enough to dance, the cash scattered around their feet. Talia's perfume burned his nose. She was staring down at her wrist, squeezing it.
“Look here,” Samuel said. “Goddamn.”
“I was gonna leave some for you,” Talia said.
“What you done?”
“Some for Race, too. Y'all both got a share. He can stay at the house a few more days. After that, I figure Nana take him.”
Then Samuel understood—the whole thing clicked into place. “What's your end of the deal?”
“Just disappear,” he repeated. “With Race.”
She stared at the rug.
Samuel's throat felt dry. “Well, then. You'd better do it.”
She started to push past him, leaving the money behind, but he said, “You forgetting something?”
She turned, glanced down at the cash. She looked nervous and hungry, like an animal, waiting for permission to grab some food.
“You got to disappear,” Samuel said.
“Yeah. Vincent waiting for me—”
“That's his name. Vincent.”
“He's a good man.”
“Oh, yeah. All of them, good men. So checking, savings, real estate. You got it all into cash, huh?”
“Liquidated,” Samuel said. “Everything about you gone—squeezed into dollar signs. Like you never existed—not to me, not to your boys, not to nobody. That the way you want it?”
Talia's eyes were Christmas-ornament fragile, the way they always looked when a man started to turn angry on her, got ready to knot his hands into fists. Samuel had seen that look too many times, and it made the bones in his fingers turn to acid.
“I'll leave you the cash,” Talia said. “Let me take Race.”
“Oh, now you're taking Race.”
“He's my son. Just take the money. I owe you.”
“You owe me what?”
She wouldn't say.
“You owe me what?”
“Look at me. Say my name.”
“I got to—it's eight o'clock—Vincent, he—”
“Look at me, girl.”
The knife was in his hand now, melting into his palm, becoming an extension of his fingers.
“Samuel,” she murmured.
“You're not gone yet,” Samuel said. “Not totally. You need to disappear, girl.”
Talia stepped back, sensing that moment on the edge of the railing, when you are still sure you can recover, before you tumble and realize the void is void. That you don't get second chances.
Samuel's knife slashed up, splitting leopard-pattern cloth like the leather satchel, spilling everything like the cash, everything she'd kept inside all those years—her softness, her warmth. He and Talia sank to the floor together like lovers, her fingers hooked into the flesh of his shoulders, her magnolia perfume and her sap-crust hair and the little sounds she was making, whimpering as he made heavy, desperate thrusts—so much like making love—a warm wet spray on his face, dampening his shirt, sticking his sleeves to his arms.
He stopped only when the handle of the knife slipped from his grip, the blade biting his index finger, tangling in a fold of what used to be Talia's sweater. Samuel stayed on his knees, straddling her, his breath shuddering. He sucked at the salty cut on his finger joint. He was wet all over, but it was already starting to dry, starting to cool.
After a long time, he stood, flexed his fingers to keep them from sticking together. He stared at a twenty-dollar bill, floating in a wet red halo. Talia's shoe, twisted at an unnatural angle.
He walked to the bathroom, turned on the shower. He stripped and stood under the warm water, naked, until the needles of heat stopped causing any sensation in his back. He watched swirls of pink curly clouds in the water, tracing the outlines of his toes.
Samuel forgot where he was. He forgot who he was. He felt like someone had gone carefully under his skin with a hot filament, separating the skin from the muscle, so that his face floated on top of someone else's—some other person he didn't like, someone who hadn't turned his life around, who carried a knife and spent every dark hour of the evening, for the past nine years, studying a reflection in the blade, seeing Talia's eyes, Talia's mouth, Talia's cheekbones.
He stepped out of the shower, the house too quiet without the noise of water.
What would he do if Race walked in with his girl right now?
He stood naked in the bedroom doorway, looking down at Talia in her sticky nest of money, her eyes soft and dewy and staring at the ceiling, looking straight through to Jesus.
Something glinted at her hip. Samuel knelt beside her, hooked his pinky around a loop of silver chain, and pulled the necklace out of her pocket. He laid it across his palm, read the inscription. His eyes began to burn. He remembered a warm brown throat, slender fingers lifting the chain, rubbing it nervously across full red lips.
Samuel looked at the flattened leather satchel at Talia's feet. He imagined the phone call, the offer to buy the house. He understood the deal better than Talia ever had—the rich man trying to get around him, trying to take control of the situation, get his daughter free of the Montrose family.