Beside me, Sam laughed.
“We got to Nana’s house on the river, and I think that was the first time I asked whether we were going to go home. Mom said no.” Pausing, I pulled up another blade of grass. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him.”
“Does anyone in Guerneville know who you guys are?”
“Probably some of the locals, yeah. I mean Nana has lived there forever, but everyone just knows her as Jude. I bet the only one who knows her last name is Houriet is Alan, the mailman. Mom grew up there, but she cut her hair, dyed it brown, goes by Emma now, not Emmeline, and we both use the last name Jones. Almost everything is in Nana’s name and it’s not like Emma Jones would mean anything to anyone.” I shrugged. “It seems like anyone left in town who knows who Mom is and why she came back also didn’t need to get into her business, if she felt like hiding.”
“But you have friends who know?”
“My best friend Charlie knows. That’s it.”
Guilt started to creep in, spreading from the center of my chest outward until I felt cold all over. It was both good and terrifying to talk about all of it. I was spilling everything. I knew Mom and Nana built this secluded bubble to protect us, but talking about it was a little like unleashing a creature we’d kept in a basement for years. Nice to be rid of it, but now the world could see the ugliness for themselves.
“There were some pictures of you from LAX, weren’t there?” he asked.
“Oh, right.” I settled back beside him, and he surprised me by taking my hand. My neck and face burned with nerves, but I didn’t let go. “It was the first approved visit I had with Dad after the divorce—when I was nine. Mom bought a ticket for me to fly down. She walked me to the gate, hugged me about a thousand times before she’d let me leave with the flight attendant. She was more freaked out about me flying alone than I was, and even more freaked out that I would be hounded by the press when I was out with Dad. I landed in LA, got off the plane with the escort, and waited.”
I told Sam about the rest of it then: about feeling like I was waiting a long time—long enough for some people to figure out who I was, and for a couple of them to take pictures of me. After a while I realized the airline people were figuring out which parent to let me go home with, because Mom flew down and got me.
“I guess she was too worried about me being in LA, and in the papers. She said Dad was waiting, but he would understand, and I guess he did, because she took me home.”
Sam went still next to me when he heard this, and his lingering silence made me uneasy.
“What?” I asked, after his silence started to feel like a thick fog.
“You really haven’t read the articles about this, have you?”
I turned my head, looking over at him. He wore the expression of someone who was about to break terrible news. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he started, looking back up at the sky, “the story that’s out there is a little different.”
I waited for him to tell me, but it was clear that I was going to have to confirm that I really wanted to hear it. “Is it that bad?”
“I . . . it’s pretty bad?”
“Just tell me.”
“I think your mom had to fly down because your dad didn’t show up,” Sam said quietly. “At least, that’s what I read.”
A chill spread down my arms. “What?”
“I mean, there’s not a ton. But I remember it because there aren’t any pictures of you after you left LA—except for these. I saw pictures of you waiting in LAX, and witnesses who say that the gate attendants were trying to get ahold of Ian Butler, but couldn’t.”
My history crumbled the tiniest bit. Did I really want the truth? Or did I want the story that let me feel better about my silent father? I supposed it was too late now.
“He put out a statement,” Sam said, and turned back to look at me, eyes searching. “You never heard this?”
I shook my head. The only time Charlie and I worked up the nerve to look up Ian Butler online, the first hit was a strategically posed naked photo shoot for GQ, and that was enough to kill the urge to do it again.
“He basically threw his assistant under the bus, saying she had written the time down wrong, and explained how heartbroken he was.”
Shrugging, I said, “I mean, it could be . . .”
“Yeah, that’s true.” Another long pause, and my hopeful grip on this possibility loosened. “Did he fly up to see you after that?”
I closed my eyes. “Not that I know of.”
Sam cleared his throat, and the uncomfortable fallout silence felt like a weight on my chest. “I mean,” he said, clearly scrambling for something to say. “Maybe it’s for the best. Charlie sounds pretty nice but if you lived in LA, maybe your best friend would be Britney.”
I laughed, but it sounded hollow. “Totally. Maybe I would have shaved my head when she did a few months ago.”
“See? And that would have been awful. You have pretty hair.”
The compliment blew right past me. I rifled through my thoughts, digging for something more to say, a different subject to discuss, but just when I thought my heart was going to roll over in my chest from the tension, Sam rescued us both: “You know, I have this theory about cats.”