|Apr/May 2015 Fiction|
Photograph by Rus Bowden
It was the new little barista at the Starbucks on the corner. He might have known that what was keeping him awake would have something to do with a woman. She was barely a woman though, certainly not one he would expect to take an interest in. He hadn't suddenly acquired a taste for teenage waitresses. She was pretty enough, but very possibly jailbait. She was small, slender and not very tall, with short, dark hair in what he believed was called a pixie cut. There was something a little exotic about her—her skin color and cheekbones suggested that not all of her ancestors were European—but that was so common these days as to be unremarkable. He hadn't really looked at her name tag, but thought it might have said Mary, Marissa, something like that.
He hadn't noticed her while she was waiting on him, so why did his thoughts keep going back to her now? The thought of her was like something he couldn't quite remember, something on the tip of his tongue. It was only to get his mind to relax and go to sleep that he promised himself to take another look at her in the morning and figure out what the subconscious trigger was.
The morning was still, cold, and sunny. He got to Starbucks about five minutes earlier than usual and during a momentary lull. To reward himself for his timing, he decided to add a muffin to his usual order. The new girl was on duty, and there was only one customer ahead of him. He was on his cell phone, and she waved him aside and asked Finn, "What can I getcha?" He was pretty sure that wasn't the way she was trained to ask, and chewing gum was probably frowned on as well.
"Tall cinnamon spice mocha extra hot and—" He scanned the choices and settled on "a pumpkin cream cheese muffin." He watched the barista as she busied herself at the espresso machine. She was an ordinary young woman, like so many others in this university town, very likely a student making ends meet with this not-too-demanding job. Her beauty was just the general attractiveness of the young of every species. She was briskly efficient and very soon brought him his coffee and muffin. As he thanked her, he saw something in her face that he recognized, a familiarity that had nothing to do with Starbucks. He ran a mental version of face recognition software, but nothing clicked. Of course he could have seen her at any time around campus or on the streets. The part of his brain that had kept him awake nudged him, and he looked at her name tag. Her name was not Mary or Marissa, but Maris.
His grandmother's name was Maris. Was that all it was, her name tag subconsciously noticed? But there was that sense of knowing her from somewhere. Had there been a hint of interest in her eyes? "I'd like to talk to you," he said and, already hearing rumblings behind him, quickly added, "I mean later—on your break or something?"
Maris shrugged and immediately turned to the young man behind him, now off his cell phone, to ask, "What can I getcha?"
Finn sat down at a small table by the window to eat his muffin. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for. Was it just that he didn't want to juggle the coffee, muffin, and his briefcase, bulging with manuscripts, on the short walk to the Maryland Quarterly office? He was never late, but there would be no consequences if he was. He had started there as a student intern while attending the university, and now, at thirty, he was the senior editor, at least nominally the boss.
Maris worked steadily through a rush and then, in a moment of calm, said something to the other barista, a gawky, redheaded boy, and disappeared into the back room. Two minutes later she came out, sans apron and visor, and came directly to his table. "Maris is an unusual name," he said by way of greeting.
"I was named after my grandmother," she said, sitting down across from him. The hairs on the back of Finn's neck stood up. Was what he recognized in her face something he had seen in the mirror? "I only have like a few minutes," she said, "so I'll just get this outta the way. We're not s'posed to like date customers, but we can if we don't meet here. I do like having sex, but not, y'know, too often, because I—"
"That's way too much information," he said. "I don't want to have sex with you." She opened her mouth to reply, and he was pretty sure she was going to ask why not. He forestalled her with, "I think we're related."
She stopped chomping her gum and stared at him. "What?"
"I think we might be cousins."
She was amused. "You don't look anything like my cousins," she assured him and then added more seriously, "You do look, y'know, sort of like my dad."
The feeling was something like a long dip on a roller coaster. "What's your last name?"
"We're not s'posed to—oh! It's Mitchell."
He held out his hand. "I'm Finn Mitchell," he said. "Nice to meet you, Cousin Maris."
She shook his hand, looking rather dazed. "How did you—"
"My grandmother's name was Maris Mitchell. I never met her, but she used to send me birthday cards when I was a kid. I gathered she and my mother didn't get along. I haven't heard from her in years."
"She died when I was little," Maris said. "My dad told me he had, y'know, a brother, but he died like a long time ago."
"When I was a baby," Finn agreed. "His name was James."
"Jimmy," she said. "Dad always calls him Jimmy. He never said he had, y'know, any kids." She was still dubious, suspecting some kind of con.
"My mother never told me anything about his family, except that Grandma Mitchell lived far away."
"Ohio," she said. "That's like where my dad was from, but now we live in, y'know, Canada."
"You're a long way from home," he said.
"My dad like wanted me to go to school here because he did."
"My parents both went here; this is where they met." So it was not such a big coincidence that they would meet here, both far from where they started.
It was starting to get busy again, and the redheaded boy called, "Maris!"
Finn dug out one of his business cards and scribbled his cell phone number on the back. "Call me," he said. "The one on the front is my work phone—either one is fine. I want to talk to you again after I ask my mother about this."
Maris shrugged, but she took the card before she got up and hurried back to work. As he tossed his muffin wrapper, he heard her saying something to the other barista, understanding only the word "cousin."
Cousin. A graceless young woman, not the best example of her age group, but pretty and at least gainfully employed. He had never had a cousin—never known that he had a cousin. Relatives, in his experience, were in short supply. His mother was close to her parents, who still lived in Pittsburgh, retired now and enjoying their leisure, but she was an only child, and so was he. She had never remarried, finding solace instead in bottles. Had she ever mentioned that his father had a brother? He had forgotten to ask Maris her father's first name. He hadn't asked for her phone number—afraid she would nip their relationship in the bud by refusing out of understandable caution.
He walked quickly to the Quarterly office on the edge of campus, greeted Leo and Brenda, deposited his briefcase in his desk chair, and went into the men's room to look in the mirror. Was this where he had seen echoes of her face? With hers clear in his mind, he studied his own for similarities. Her nose was nothing like his, but perhaps the eyes? Her chin looked not like his, but like his father's.
He possessed only two pictures of James Mitchell, but he knew them by heart. It had never occurred to him to wonder why there weren't more—no pictures of James as a boy with his brother, no pictures of him with Finn's mother, no wedding pictures. Just the one framed photo of him at twenty-one, tall and handsome in his uniform at the police academy graduation, and the newspaper clipping he had put up on the wall next to it with its slightly blurry image of James squinting at the camera under the heading: Hero Cop Saves Kids, Gravely Wounded.
There was another clipping folded up between the academy photo and its mat. Hero Cop Succumbs, it said. It had been there so long that he hadn't know what the word "succumbs" meant when he put it there. It was time he looked at it again.
He waited until evening to call his mother. Her voice was a little blurred, but she seemed reasonably sober. He didn't think she ever drank during the day except on weekends. She liked her job and was well-liked there. She had been the office manager for the same small business for as long as he could remember. He had assumed, since he was old enough to consider such things, that her widow's pension was too small to make ends meet, but he knew now that the job also fulfilled other needs. "How's my sweet boy?" she asked.
"I'm fine, Mom. How are you?"
"Peachy," she said. "When are you coming home?"
"This is home now, Mom," he reminded her. Except for visits, he had never left Maryland since he'd started college, but his boyhood room was untouched. He knew the pictures would still be on the wall. "I have a question to ask you."
"Shoot," she said. She sounded relaxed, and he could visualize her leaning back in the comfortable chair next to the table that held the telephone.
"Did Dad have a brother?" There was a silence so long that he prompted her: "Mom?"
"Who told you that?" she finally asked. He didn't know what he had expected, but he was thrown by the caution in her voice. "Why would you ask that?"
"I think I should know if I have an uncle," he said.
"You don't. I don't want you talking to him," she said sternly. "He'll just tell you lies. How did he find you?"
"He didn't," he told her. "I haven't met him, but it's true? He had a brother?"
"Listen to me, baby, you can't talk to that man. He hated me. The whole family hated me. They don't matter. It's just you and me; it's always been just you and me."
"It was a long time ago, Mom. It doesn't matter now."
"Yes, it does! If you love me, don't see him. Let the past alone. When are you coming home?"
"Maybe I'll come up on spring break." He wanted to look at those pictures again.
"Please come," she said. "I miss you." It was a common complaint, but she had resisted any suggestion that she move to College Park to be near him. She liked her job and being close to her parents and still believed she could persuade him to come back to Pittsburgh.
"Tell me about Dad's brother," he said.
"I don't know anything," she said. "He moved away before I came back here. I don't know where he is. If somebody is claiming to be your uncle, don't believe it. He's probably dead. I hope he's dead." She was sounding increasingly upset, and he decided it was time to change the subject. He didn't tell her about Maris, partly because he could never mention a woman's name without her assuming she was about to lose him to someone dreadful. He supposed her experience with the Mitchells predisposed her to expect the worst of in-laws.
Maris wasn't behind the counter at Starbucks the next morning. He didn't ask the redheaded boy where she was and ordered his usual mocha. When he came into the office, Brenda said, "You have a visitor. She says she's your cousin," in a tone that suggested she knew what that meant. Brenda loved gossip, which he had always been too discreet to provide her.
Maris was sitting in his desk chair, her head bent over her cell phone, apparently texting.
"Good morning, Maris," he said.
"Oh, hi," she said with a quick glance up at him. She kept thumbing the keys.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I thought you were going to call."
She finished her text message and put the phone in her small pink purse. "The address was on the card," she said. "I like your office." It was a single large room with four desks, very cluttered, not much to like. "My dad is all like Uncle Jimmy never, y'know, got married or anything. He says you're like lying and I shouldn't talk to you."
"And yet here you are."
She shrugged. "I don't like being, y'know, dictated."
He pulled up a straight visitor's chair for her and waved her out of his. She was apparently willing to take that much dictation and took the offered chair, slouching a bit. Her skirt was a little short, but she dressed conservatively for a girl her age.
"Tell me about your family," he said. "What's your father's name?"
"Gary Mitchell," she said. "It's like Gareth really."
Gareth. Had he heard that name somewhere before? "Do you have brothers and sisters?" "I have a sister," she said. She pointed to her purse. "I texted her I was like seeing you, but not to, y'know, tell Dad."
"I'm an only child," he told her. "Is it nice having a sister?"
"Yeah," she said. "Joanna's nice. Me and her are like best friends."
"She and I," he said.
"Huh? Oh—it's like rude to correct people, y'know."
"Yes, it is. I'm sorry. It's an occupational hazard."
"It's the editor in me," he said.
"Oh, yeah." She looked around the room vaguely.
"Do you miss her?" he asked and blunted the direct question by turning on his computer and moving a few items on his desk, as if his mind was on work. It wasn't.
Maris didn't answer. He looked up and met her eyes. She seemed to be on the edge of tears, but she shrugged again. It seemed to be her most expressive means of communication. "Yeah, I guess. Y'know... "
"No, I don't. I never had a brother or sister. Until yesterday I never had a cousin."
"Now you have me," she said, brightening a little.
"And Joanna. Are you going home on spring break?"
She shook her head. "I can't." She studied him for a moment as if wondering whether he could be trusted. "It costs too much to fly," she said, "and it was like real important to my dad for me to come here. He's gonna be, y'know, pissed off when he sees my midterm grades."
"It's not going that well? Are you a freshman?"
"So you're—what? Eighteen?"
"Still pretty young," he said. "Sometimes it takes a while to get the hang of academics." He could well believe that she was struggling with English composition.
Maris shrugged. "It's like real hard," she said.
"What if I gave you a ride home?" He was surprised to discover that the plan was fully formed in his mind. "We could stop in Pittsburgh to see my mother, and then I could meet your family, and your dad would have something else to think about besides your grades."
She looked at him doubtfully. "My dad said you were like a scam artist. He said I gave you my name before you gave me yours, and that's true, y'know... but you already had cards like printed up and everything. And you do look like him."
"There's no scam," he assured her. "But you think about it. If you want to go home, I'll drive you. Where is it you live?"
"Never heard of it."
"It's like a stupid little nothing town in New Brunswick," she said. "You don't really want to go there. There's nothing there, y'know."
"Except your family."
"Yeah, my parents and Joanna and all my dopey cousins. When you like think about it, you'll, y'know, change your mind."
"We'll both think about it then," he said. "Now I'd better get to work. Do you have someplace to be?"
She looked at her watch, an inexpensive digital with a pink plastic band, and said, "Yeah. I have to go to this lame class."
"Okay," he said. "Call me later." Since her father was already suspicious of him, he again didn't ask for her number.
As soon as she was gone, Brenda came and perched on the edge of his desk. "The online submissions manager still isn't working right," she said. "I called tech support." She raised an eyebrow. "I didn't know you liked them that young."
"She's my cousin, Brenda. There actually is such a thing. It's not just a euphemism."
"You don't know my cousin Brad," she said. "He's a euphemism if I ever met one. I thought you were an orphan."
"I'm not an orphan. My mother is alive and well and living in Pittsburgh. Apparently I also have an uncle and a couple of cousins."
"Twins?" she asked with a mischievous smile. "You are a bad boy."
"Cousins," he repeated firmly. "I haven't met the other one. And I assure you I have no carnal interest in this one."
"Okay," Brenda said in a humoring tone. "Maybe she is a little low-rent for you." Before he could reply, she put up a hand, gave him an apologetic smile, and went back to her desk.
He tried to keep his mind on the job, but questions kept popping into his mind. Maris's father said her Uncle Jimmy had never been married. Had the breach in the family taken place before his parents were married? Gary had known his mother though; she said he hated her. They hadn't wanted James to marry her? Or were his parents actually not married? He hadn't seen a marriage certificate or a wedding picture. Having a child out of wedlock was less common, or at least less fashionable, then, but it wasn't the scandal it would have been in the fifties. Still, the family might not have liked it. They might have old-fashioned values.
When he got home, he hunted through the desk drawer that held his important papers to find his birth certificate. It was a fairly modern document and didn't indicate whether or not the parents were married, but his mother's name was given as Elisa Kivela Mitchell and his father's as James Brandon Mitchell.
The story, as it had been told to him, was that his parents had met in College Park while attending the university, married, and moved back to his hometown in Ohio. After James was killed, she had taken baby Finn and gone back to live with her parents in Pittsburgh. Except for the birthday cards from Grandmother Maris, there had been no further contact with the Mitchells.
If they hadn't been married, would that account for it? Why would she have moved to Ohio with him and not married him? He looked at the birth certificate again. Yes, her name was given as Mitchell. The document was not the original—she had told him it was lost and had to be replaced when she needed it to register him for school. He studied it intently and noticed for the first time that the official legalese included the word "corrected." Could she have had the surname added to hide the fact that he was illegitimate? Why did it matter? It didn't matter to him whether or not they had been married. His father was just as dead either way.
The Monday before spring break, Maris called—in the middle of the night. He was groggy with sleep and in crisis mode, thinking there was an emergency of some kind, and it took a minute to figure out who she was. "Do you know what time it is?" he demanded.
"It's like... two o'clock. One if we didn't, y'know, spring forward. I couldn't sleep."
"Yeah, well, I could!"
"Oh," she said in a small, surprised voice. "Are you like mad at me now?"
"I am not like mad at you. I am furious with you. I didn't give you my number so you could wake me up in the middle of the night."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I guess you don't want to, y'know, drive me home now?"
He took a deep breath. "Not in the middle of the night. I'll drive you to Cedar Hills if you promise not to wake me up again. Is that why you called? To tell me you do want to go home?"
"I just... I couldn't sleep and I wanted to, y'know, talk to you. I think you're like real nice and everything. I'm sorry I woke you up. You go to bed early, huh?"
"Two o'clock in the morning is not early, Maris. If you went to bed earlier maybe you would be getting better grades."
"I'm sorry," she said again. "Next time I'll like text you."
"I don't text," he said firmly.
"You're just like my dad," she said.
That was still such a strange feeling, to think there was someone he hadn't met who resembled him in some way, who was his blood kin. He rubbed his eyes and tried to speak calmly. "How am I like your dad?" he asked.
"Go to bed, Maris," he said and hung up.
Maris was on duty when he went into Starbucks the next morning. She was busy, and the redheaded boy waited on him. As he took the tall beverage cup, he had a chance to meet her eyes and say, "Hi, Cuz." She looked startled, and then, as he slipped a five dollar bill into the tip jar, she gave him a sweet smile. For the fiver, or because he apparently wasn't mad at her? If he had had a chance to get to know his father, would her smile be familiar?
She called him at the Quarterly office later in the day. "Will you really take me home?" she asked.
"Yes. I've already made arrangements to be away from the office over spring break and I can take my laptop. I want to stop in Pittsburgh to see my mother—you might want to meet your aunt."
"Okay," she said, perhaps a bit dubious.
"I looked up Cedar Hills and I think it will take about a day and a half from there. We can stop somewhere for the night—separate rooms if you prefer."
"Why?" she asked. "Do you like snore or something?"
"No, I don't snore." He wouldn't have minded paying for two rooms, but thought it might be best to keep an eye on her. "Will you be able to get the time off from Starbucks? Not so busy during the break, is it?"
"No," she said. "Anyway, I quit."
"You quit Starbucks? Today?" He thought she had just started, at least on that shift.
"Yeah... Okay, I was fired. But I didn't do what they said."
"What did they—no, never mind. I don't want to know." If she had sounded outraged by the injustice, he might have offered to help her get her job back, but she sounded only a little sulky. She had probably done whatever she was accused of. He hoped it was nothing illegal or dangerous. He arranged to pick her up in front of her dorm after her last class on Friday. "Have you told your parents?"
"Joanna is gonna, y'know, tell them I'm coming," she said. He didn't like the sound of that. She didn't want to talk directly to her parents, didn't want them to know he was driving her, that she was seeing him against their wishes? He probably shouldn't be doing this. Still, Maris was of age; it wasn't as if he was going to be accused of kidnapping or transporting a minor across state lines.
He called his mother and told her he would be there Friday night. "I'm bringing someone with me," he said. He knew from experience that that would put her into a tizzy, but she sounded more mellow than usual. She was watching Jeopardy.
"A woman?" she asked.
"Yes—a girl really. She's a student here. Her name is Maris Mitchell."
After a moment of shocked silence, she said, "You can't bring her here."
"I want you to meet her, but we don't have to stay."
"Please, Finn, don't do this to me."
"She doesn't bite, Mom."
"I asked you not to talk to those people."
"They're my relatives. The past is the past. It doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does. It matters to me."
"You don't have to contact them. Maris is just a kid; whatever bad blood there is has nothing to do with her. If you're sure you don't want to see her, she can wait in the car."
"But then I'll hardly see you."
"That's the deal," he said. "She's Dad's niece—aren't you even curious?"
"She's not—she's lying."
"Wait 'til you see her," he said. If he had recognized something in her, his mother, who had known and loved his father, surely would see more.
Maris had one small suitcase, a plain, battered bag, not very heavy. She seemed keyed up, excited by the adventure of it all. She eyed his freshly-washed, black Ford Focus and said, "This is like the most boring car. Can I drive?"
"No," he said and, because she looked so disappointed, "Maybe later." The first part of the trip, from College Park to Pittsburgh, getting into the city about rush hour, would be the most difficult. After that it would be the weekend and much of the route on less-traveled roads. He turned on the GPS although he didn't need it yet. The radio was tuned to a classic rock station that he liked. It was all music from before he was born, but somehow timeless.
Maris was appalled. "What are you, like sixty?" she asked. "Can I change it?"
"I guess." She punched buttons until she found a song she liked. Finn hated it. It sounded like some sort of Goth metal band. The lyrics were dreary, but at least not profane.
"Try again," he suggested.
She was surprised. "You don't like My Chemical Romance?"
"I never heard of it. No, I don't like it. It's a long drive. Something a little less jarring please."
"It's your car," she said and started punching buttons again. She finally settled on a classical station, the last thing he would have expected.
"You like that?" he asked.
"It's boring," she said, "but it won't like jar you."
In the worst of the D.C. traffic, he spotted a bumper sticker that said, "Relax. God is in control." He pointed it out, and Maris said, "God is like out of control."
She took out her phone and started thumbing the buttons. He concentrated on his driving and left her to it. She had no sooner put it away than it signaled that she had a text message. She read it and laughed. "Joanna wants to know if you're cute," she said. She thumbed a reply.
"What did you tell her?" he asked.
"You don't want to know."
He let it go. "Will you be glad to see Joanna again?"
"Yeah," she said, and after a moment, "Not just Joanna. Cedar Hills is like stupid and boring. I couldn't wait to get out of there, but now I kind of miss it, y'know? Maybe I like stupid and boring." She gestured toward the radio. "Yeah, maybe I do."
The traffic in Pittsburgh was awful, and Finn was very glad to finally turn onto the familiar street where his mother still lived. "This is it," he said unnecessarily.
Maris looked up at the narrow townhouse. "She doesn't want to meet me, does she?"
"Why would you say that?"
"You're like all tense and stuff. My dad doesn't want to meet you either."
"Well," he said, "let's show them there's nothing to worry about."
"We could like keep driving," she said.
"Or not." He got out of the car, and she reluctantly followed. "I don't want to stay here tonight," she said.
"We don't have to," he agreed. "Meet her first; you might like each other."
She shrugged. "Whatever."
His mother didn't rush out to meet him as she sometimes did. He had never gotten into the habit of knocking on the door of the house he'd grown up in, but tonight, with Maris behind him, he did. There was no answer, and after a moment he opened it. At least it wasn't locked against him.
His mother came out of the kitchen. "Finn," she said flatly. She was drunker than usual, her face puffy, her steps a little unsteady. She had been a pretty woman once, a tall, curvy blonde with deep blue eyes and smiling lips. It was all still there, but blurred and melted into this sad old woman.
"Hi, Mom," he said. He gave her a quick kiss. She reeked of alcohol. She stared at Maris, who had taken out her phone and was texting. Finn took it out of her hand. "This is Maris Mitchell," he said. "Maris, my mother, Elisa." Maris nodded. She snatched back the cell phone and put it away.
"She's not a Mitchell," his mother said. "You're claiming to be Finn's cousin?"
"No," Maris said. "He's like claiming to be mine."
"Little liar," Elisa said.
Maris took a step back. "Can I, y'know, use the bathroom?" she asked Finn.
"Upstairs on the right," he said.
As soon as she was out of hearing, his mother said, "That's not Gary's child. She's lying."
"I don't think so."
"Why does she look like that? Is her mother a nigger?"
"Oh, sorry. African-American I mean."
"I haven't met her mother." He thought her question meant that she didn't have any doubt about the identity of Maris's father, no matter what she said.
"Are you staying for dinner?"
"Not if you're going to insult her."
"I didn't mean her. Just you."
"Not going to happen." He was dismayed. Maris was such a harmless little thing; he had hoped this would work out. He went upstairs and into his boyhood room. It was all still there—his high school wrestling trophies, the poster of Janet Jackson, the NFL spread on the narrow bed, the small desk where he had done his homework. He took the picture of his father off the wall and slid back the mat. The clipping was brown and slightly brittle, the folds now deep creases.
"Let's get out of here," Maris said behind him.
He turned around. "I'm sorry," he said. "She's not usually like that."
"She's like stinking drunk," she said.
"We'll go in a minute," he promised. She came into the room and looked at the framed photograph in his hand. "Uncle Jimmy," she said.
"Yes," he said. "How did you know?"
"I've, y'know, seen pictures," she said. "Not like this. Younger. I always thought he died like in his teens. When I was little, I thought he, y'know, died of some bad disease that would like get me too."
Finn pointed to the framed article still on the wall, and she looked at it gravely. "He was like a hero," she said, impressed.
"Yes." He handed her the photo and spread the folded clipping out on the desk. Hero Cop Succumbs.
"I didn't know he was a cop too," she said. "My dad told us like stories about when they were kids, but he never, y'know, told us that."
"Too?" he echoed. "Your father is a police officer?" It would help explain the automatic distrust.
"He's like the chief of police," she said disinterestedly. She was reading the article, moving her lips slightly.
"Your father is the chief of police?"
"It's a small town," Maris said dismissively. "Your dad—wow! He like saved those kids and everything."
"He walked right up to the shooter," Finn said. "Bullet proof vests weren't as common then." She came to read the other article over his shoulder. Her finger found the pertinent line: "survived by his parents and his brother, Gareth." So he had seen that name before and forgotten it. How many times had he read this article? What he was noticing now was not what he had read and forgotten, but what was missing. Surely it should have said "survived by his widow and infant son." Even as a boy he should have noticed that—such a fuss was usually made about the grieving families of officers killed in action. Did that mean that his suspicion was correct, that his parents had never been married?
"Take your filthy hands off that," his mother said from the doorway. Maris turned, the framed photo still in her hand.
"Mom!" he said. "Go downstairs. We'll be down in a minute."
She came into the room. "I said take your hands off that picture," she said, sounding drunker than ever, quite out of control. She snatched the photo out of Maris's hand and if Finn hadn't stopped her she would have slapped her face. "Lying little guttersnipe," she snarled.
Maris ran out of the room. Finn, still holding his mother's wrist, said, "What is wrong with you? Maris hasn't done anything. I approached her, not the other way around. I offered to drive her home."
She stared at him, aghast. "You're going to drive her home? You're going to meet him? After I asked you not to?"
"It's the past, Mom. It doesn't matter. If you weren't married, nobody cares now."
"If I wasn't—why would you say that? That isn't true! Did she tell you that?"
"I figured it out."
"No, you didn't," she said. "It's not true."
"I'm going now," he said, folding up the article. He took the photo from her and the framed article from the wall. "I'll call you later. Take care of yourself. Maybe you should ask Grandma to stay with you."
"There's nothing wrong with me," she said. "You are an unnatural son. You'd take the word of strangers over mine."
"Calm down," he said and kissed her. "Go lie down for a while and then call Grandma. You'll feel better." He walked out of the room and left her standing there amid his childhood memories.
Maris was in the car with the radio on, listening to a heavy metal station, chewing gum, and texting. When he opened the door, she reached for the radio buttons. "Leave it," he said. "I'm sorry about this."
"What's a guttersnipe?" she asked.
They found a nearby Best Western with a vacancy. The room was on the first floor with a parking space right in front of the door. It wasn't fancy, but quite comfortable, with two queen-size beds and a fairly nice bathroom. The TV only got two channels. Maris tried them both, switching back and forth for a few minutes before she gave up.
Finn opened his suitcase and hung up what he was planning to wear the next day. Maris sat on her bed, watching him intently. "Do you want to go get something to eat now?" he asked.
"No, after," she said.
"After what?" He turned to look at her.
"You know," she said and started casually unbuttoning her blouse.
"Whoa," he said. "If you want to change, do it in the bathroom."
"I don't want to change," she said. "I just want to, y'know, get it over with. It was a long day. I'm like real tired." She took off the blouse and reached behind her for her bra clasp. He wondered if her parents knew about her navel ring and the butterfly tattoo between her breasts.
"Maris, put your clothes back on. We are not having sex. We're cousins."
She looked at him. "Jerry Lee Lewis did his cousin," she said. "He like married her."
"I'm not Jerry Lee Lewis. Do you even know who Jerry Lee Lewis was?'
"Some old rocker dude or whatever."
"Yes. Why would you think I wanted to have sex with you?"
She shrugged. "Guys usually do," she said.
"And do you usually oblige them?"
"Ob—I don't know what that means."
"Seriously? What do they teach in school these days?"
"Nothing about sex," she assured him.
"It's not a sex term. It just means doing what they want."
"Well, yeah. I never heard it called that before. Anyway, it's okay—I'll like oblige you if you want. It's no big deal. I'll, y'know, suck you off or whatever."
He shook his head, shocked, not by the words but by the completely new feeling of having a young female relative say them. She shrugged and put her blouse back on. "How long have you been sexually active?" he asked.
"When I was in seventh grade, this real cute boy took me in the girl's bathroom and wanted me to—"
"I don't want a blow-by-blow description of your sex life," he said and inwardly cringed at his own choice of words.
She shrugged. "You asked."
"I just meant—do your parents know?"
She looked appalled. "No—I didn't think you'd like narc."
"I won't, but I am concerned."
"Why? It's just sex. I don't get why old people like make a big deal of it."
"It is a big deal," he said. "People should treat it with more respect. And people who think they can do it without getting emotionally involved eventually find out different. I hope you at least use protection."
"I'm not stupid," she said. "Are you one of those creepy religious guys who won't do anything unless they're like married?"
"Why is that creepy? I don't think the sexual revolution has done you any favors."
"Oh, you are, aren't you? You're like celibate?"
"You know 'celibate', but not 'oblige'?"
"Everybody knows 'celibate'. You're not gay, are you?"
"How would that be your business?"
"Oh, I bet you are. Does your mother know? Did you like come out to her?"
"I'm not gay, Maris. My sex life is none of your business." She opened her mouth, and he held up a hand. "And yours is none of mine. Let's go get some dinner."
"Okay, but I don't want to do it after dinner. If you change your mind, you'll have to wait 'til morning."
"I'm not going to change my mind. Haven't you ever had a relationship with a man without sex?"
"No," she said simply.
"Oh, yeah." She shrugged."You're not my father."
"And your other cousins?"
"I like fooled around with my cousin Bobby once. But we didn't—I mean I didn't oblige him."
"Too much information. It would oblige me if you'd talk about something else."
"I don't get it," she said. "You're driving me home. You paid for the room. You're like taking me to dinner. What do you want from me? I don't want to do anything, y'know, weird."
Exasperated, he said, "I want to meet your family. Period."
She shrugged. "Whatever." She got up to comb her hair and put on lipstick.
There was a Friendly's on the corner. Finn offered to take her somewhere nicer, but she seemed indifferent, and he didn't much want to get back into traffic, so they walked to the Friendly's. Maris ordered a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a large coke and ate as if she were starving. Finn chose the Mandarin grilled chicken salad. He wasn't particularly hungry. He didn't know which had left a worse taste in his mouth—his mother's drunken hostility or Maris's apparent promiscuity. Even if he assumed that much of it was just talk, she had certainly been willing to "oblige" him. A girl like this was sure to come to grief eventually, and he was to some degree responsible for her.
Maris pointed her fork at his salad. "You like that?" she asked.
"It's pretty good," he said. "It has oranges in it. How's your burger?"
"Awesome," she said. "My dad would call that rabbit food."
"Tell me about him," he said. "He's the chief of police and a meat eater. What else?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. He's just my dad. Kind of old, y'know, and thinks he has to like tell me what to do all the time. Dictate me."
"I'm sure he just wants you to be safe and happy."
She shrugged. "Oh, he likes baseball and fishing and stuff. Is that like what you want?"
"What about your mother?"
"She's like sick all the time. Not like my dad—not so strict or whatever. She reads murder mysteries. I tried reading them, but they like gave me nightmares."
"And your sister?"
"Joanna's nice. She lets me like borrow stuff and she doesn't, y'know, tell me what to do."
"So she's older?"
"Yeah. Like four years. Is it just you and your mom?"
"Okay," she said. "I get it. If I just had your mom, I'd like want another family too."
He gave her that one, although he knew his mother had better aspects than she had seen. "I'd like to hear some of your father's stories about my dad," he said. "My mother never told me very much. It was too hard for her to talk about."
"It's awesome that he was like a hero and all. I mean, y'know, not that he died. That's real sad. You can have some of my fries if you want."
Was that meant as consolation for his long ago loss? "No, thanks," he said. "Are you going to eat that pickle?"
"This is fun," Maris said. She passed him the slice of pickle and took another big bite of her burger.
"Shall we come here for breakfast?" he asked.
"I don't eat breakfast," she said. At least he thought that was what she said; her mouth was full.
"When you're with me you do," he said. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
She shrugged and then brightened. "Pancakes?" she asked.
"Sure. Whatever you want."
"You're real nice," she said.
"Thank you, Maris. I like you too."
When they got back to the room, he set up his laptop on the small table and checked his e-mail. When Maris went to take a shower, he called his mother. She answered on the second ring. "Finn," she said. "Please come home."
"Not tonight, Mom. Another time. Are you all right?'
"Peachy," she said. "You with that little nigger bish?"
"Stop that. Did you call Grandma?"
"She thinks I'm drunk. She doesn't unnerstand my sweet little boy stabbed me in the back."
"Oh, Mom. Nobody's stabbing anybody. Get some sleep and you'll feel better in the morning."
"Thass what they all say," she said. She hung up.
When Maris came out of the bathroom, he was lying on his bed reading a manuscript. She was wearing blue flannel pajamas and had a towel wrapped around her wet hair. "What are you reading?" she asked.
"A story somebody wants us to publish in the magazine," he said.
"That's what you get paid for? Reading stories?"
"Among other things."
She sat on her bed. "Can I read one?"
He pointed to his briefcase on the table. "Knock yourself out," he said.
Maris selected a manuscript—a short one, he noticed—and sat cross-legged on her bed to read it. She read slowly, intently, moving her lips slightly. When she was done, he asked, "Did you like it?"
"Yeah," she said. "The people were stupid, but I liked the story."
"Why were the people stupid?"
"I don't know. They like talked too much and stuff." She shrugged. She got up and went into the bathroom, coming back with a glass of water, and rummaged in her suitcase for what looked like a prescription bottle. She popped a pill and then put the bottle on the nightstand and pushed it toward him. "Want some?"
"What is it?"
She shrugged. "Nothing illegal," she assured him and lay back on her bed. He picked up the bottle. The label said Adderall, which he thought he had heard of in relation to ADHD. The name on the label was Olivia Mitchell.
"This isn't even yours," he said.
"It's my mom's," she said. "It's okay; she doesn't like take it anymore."
"It might not be illegal, but it's wrong to take somebody else's medication. It's dangerous. Not to mention that you're probably not supposed to take them across the border."
"It isn't dangerous," she said. "It makes me feel good."
"It makes you stupid. Life isn't about feeling good all the time." He got up and opened her suitcase. "What else do you have in here?"
"That's my stuff," she said indignantly. "You have no right!" She was right, but he didn't care. He found another bottle, also for Olivia Mitchell, labeled Dexedrine.
"Maris, this is really dangerous!"
"It is not. My mom used to take it like all the time."
"Under a doctor's care." He left the Adderall on the nightstand, but took the dexies into the bathroom and flushed them down the toilet.
Maris, sitting up straight, eyes full of angry tears, said, "That was mean. I'm like sorry I said you were nice. We should've had sex; you wouldn't be so uptight!"
She didn't say another word. She turned her back on him. Finn took his laptop out again and looked up Adderall on Wikipedia. He was right; it was primarily used for ADHD. It was also said to increase alertness and libido. The ingredients included dextroamphetamine, and it had "a relatively high potential for abuse and addiction." He took the bottle into the bathroom and dumped the pills down the toilet. He thought Maris was asleep when he turned out the light.
He woke up in the middle of the night, disoriented in the unfamiliar darkness. Maris was shaking him. "For God's sake," he said. "You promised not to wake me up again."
"That was before I like found out what a mean bastard you are," she said. "Anyway, I couldn't sleep. You were snoring. You said you didn't snore. Plus I got like real horny. Are you sure you don't want to, y'know... "
He wished he had paid for separate rooms. He wished he had never gone into Starbucks.
Saturday was better. Maris seemed to have forgotten her grievance. They had breakfast at Friendly's—buttermilk pancakes with strawberry topping and sweet, crisp bacon—and were on the road in good time. Maris found a radio station they could both tolerate. He let her drive for a while—a nerve-wracking proposition, but she did pretty well. When her cell phone chimed she reached for it, but acquiesced when he said, "Not while you're driving."
When he was driving again, she told him what she could remember of her father's stories about Uncle Jimmy. He was charmed, thrilled. His father was a real person to him in a way he had never been before. He was hungry for this, more than he had ever realized. The boys had grown up in a semi-rural part of Ohio. James had always been the daring one, the ringleader in most of their adventures and pranks. The stories had come down to Maris along with stern admonitions: Don't try this. It's dangerous. Gary was better in school, but had always believed Jimmy was the smarter one, able to talk his way out of trouble, an all too necessary talent. He was popular with the girls too, good-looking and with an easy charm. The bittersweet hero worship Finn had grown up with gave way to a different kind of admiration, to love and longing.
"Is this like making you sad?" Maris asked.
"No, it's great," he said. "Go on."
They stopped for lunch near Scranton. Friendly's had been such a success that they opted for it again. They both had tuna salad super melts and Maris added fries and a double thick chocolate shake. It was artery-clogging food, but he hoped it was at least better than the burger. "Do you eat like this all the time?" he asked.
"Sometimes," she said evasively. "Better than that rabbit food, huh?"
Well, actually, it was pretty good.
They were in Augusta by dinner time and stopped at a Travelodge. Before they got out of the car, Finn said, "Maybe we should get separate rooms?"
"I promise I won't, y'know, wake you up if you promise to like stay out of my stuff."
"Agreed," he said. "But don't take any more pills. Give them back to your mother." He had disposed of the two bottles he'd found, but was afraid she had more.
"She'd just throw them away," Maris argued. "She has, y'know, something else now, like this awesome miracle drug that really works."
"You said she was sick a lot?"
"She has MS. It like runs in families, so I could get it too." She brightened. "Maybe if I like take her pills now, I won't."
"I don't think it works that way," he said, but he felt a greater sympathy for her.
The room wasn't quite as nice as the one in Pittsburgh, but the TV choices were a lot better. Maris settled happily against her pillows to watch a romantic comedy, while Finn worked in relative peace. Near the end of the movie, there was a bedroom scene, not explicit, but uncomfortably suggestive in what his mother would call "mixed company." Maris was quite intent on it, apparently fascinated, and when it was over, she asked. "Want to?"
"I told you no," he said.
She was silent for a moment and then she said, "Do you think I'm like ugly?"
He looked at her. She seemed to be perfectly serious. "You're a very pretty girl," he said. "You're also my cousin. And don't you think I'm a little old for you?"
She shrugged. "I don't want to like marry you. Anyway, guys my age are always, y'know, in a hurry."
"I'm sure," he said. "It's not going to happen, Maris. Would you like something to read?"
"No. Can I use your computer?"
"I guess." He wasn't thrilled at the idea, but it was the lesser evil. "The Wi-Fi here is pretty slow," he warned her.
She sat happily for some time in front of his laptop and then asked, "Are you on Facebook?"
"No. Are you?"
"Yes, but don't tell my dad. He thinks it's like dangerous or something."
"He might be right."
"No—everybody does it." She was silent again for a while and then asked, "Who's Brenda? Is that your girlfriend?"
"Brenda works with me—what are you doing?" He got up, and she quickly tried to cover her tracks—or keystrokes—but he already knew she had somehow gotten into his e-mail. Kids like her, the true digital natives, were too damned tech savvy for their own good. He shut the computer off and closed it.
"Sorry," she said, but her tone suggested she thought he was overreacting.
"That's a serious violation of privacy," he said.
"Yeah, well, you like searched my suitcase," she said.
"We're even then."
"I didn't like throw your stuff out though."
Okay, it wasn't a perfect evening, but at least she let him sleep through the night.
Finn's GPS couldn't find Cedar Hills, but Maris knew her way around pretty well, and it was early Sunday afternoon when they turned onto a curving, tree-lined street of modest older homes and pulled up in front of the Mitchell house. It was a rambling, two-story converted farmhouse, covered in ivy, old, but in good repair. In the driveway was an older Jeep Wrangler with a large gold star on the door.
As they got out of the car, two terriers came rushing over, barking joyfully. They leapt on Maris, and she laughed and knelt to hug and kiss them. Over the barking Finn could hear music coming from the house, the mellow sound of a saxophone solo. He recognized "Stormy Weather."
Maris stood up with the smaller dog in her arms. "Give Finn a kiss hello," she said. The terrier licked his face, and the other one was trying to climb up his leg. The front door banged open, and a man came out. He was tall and broad-shouldered, dressed in slacks and a worn wool cardigan. He was in his fifties, with a graying mustache and thick salt and pepper hair.
"Hi, Dad," Maris called. The words were casual, but there was a deep warmth in her voice. She shoved the dog at Finn and ran up the walk to throw her arms around her father.
"Hello, baby girl," he said, holding her tight, looking over her head at Finn. "Buttercup!" he yelled. "Stinky!" The larger dog ran obediently to his side, and Finn let the little one down to follow. He stood transfixed in the middle of the sidewalk, staring, oblivious to the sharp northern wind.
It was not like looking in a mirror. It was like looking at the portrait of Dorian Gray. This was how he would look in middle age. He was already years past the age at which his father had died, and his grandfather looked just like his mother, so he had never before had a model of his future.
Gary Mitchell seemed to be as affected as he was. He spoke quietly to Maris, and she ran into the house, followed by the eagerly barking terriers. The saxophone solo stopped abruptly. Finn shook himself out of his paralysis and walked up to the older man. He put out his hand. "Hello," he said. "I'm Finn Mitchell."
Gary cleared his throat, but couldn't seem to summon any words. Finally he said, "Elisa's boy." It seemed an odd choice to Finn—not "Jimmy's boy." Again it seemed as if the bad blood between his mother and the Mitchells was rooted in his birth—because his parents weren't married? Because the Mitchells had doubted his paternity?
There was too much to say, so neither of them said anything. Gary gestured toward the house and turned to go in. Finn followed. The entryway was large, with a staircase leading upstairs on the right. From a doorway on the left, a woman emerged. She was in her forties, dressed in muted and flattering colors. She had been—arguably still was—a very beautiful woman. Her eyes were large and dark, her hair almost black, combed back and fastened with a jeweled clip. He couldn't guess at her ancestry—European, Asian, African, Native American, or all of the above. She had Maris's cheekbones and smooth, light brown skin.
"Oh, Gary!" she said. She came forward, leaning a little on a wooden cane, staring unabashedly at Finn. "He looks just like you," she said, her voice rich with emotion. "It's true."
Gary shook his head. "I don't—"
"Yes," she said. "Look at him, sweetheart. This is your son."
Stunned, Finn stood still, unable to move or speak. Gary was still shaking his head, but there were tears in his eyes, and they all knew Olivia was right. His birth certificate—his corrected birth certificate—listed James Mitchell, but this broad-shouldered, inarticulate, Canadian police chief was his father.
Maris came running down the stairs, followed by the dogs, and for a moment there was joyful chaos. She skidded to a stop just in front of her mother, and they hugged fiercely. Caught between their excited greetings and the terriers barking and jumping, Finn could barely form a thought.
Maris was his sister.
Much more sedately, another young woman descended the stairs. She was, if Maris's math could be trusted, twenty-three, taller than Maris, with the same cheekbones and skin color and longer dark hair. She wore wire-frame eyeglasses, cut-off jeans, and an oversize sweatshirt. She appeared to be at least six months pregnant. She gave him her hand and said, "I'm Joanna." He wanted to respond, to introduce himself, to compliment her on "Stormy Weather," but found that he couldn't say a word.
It was Olivia who told him the story. She sent the girls back upstairs and took him into Gary's study. Gary sat with his head in his hands, too overcome to speak, and she took Finn's hands in hers and spoke to him softly, lovingly. She knew the story only second-hand from her husband, but she knew it by heart.
Elisa was Gary's first love, his college sweetheart. They met in College Park, where he was studying for his B.A. in Criminology and Criminal Justice, and he took her home to Ohio and married her in the local Lutheran church. It was the same story his mother had told him, except for the name of the man she had married.
"She was married to you?" Finn asked, relieved to find that he could speak after all. Gary didn't answer.
They were young and in love and they were happy. Gary began a successful career with the police force, and his younger brother Jimmy followed in his footsteps. It was part of Gary's happiness that his wife and his brother got along so well, but then Jimmy always was a charmer. Gary and Elisa had a son; their joy was complete.
And then James was killed. He walked right into the middle of a school shooting and ended it at the cost of his own life. His family was devastated. Elisa broke down at the funeral. She said things that raised a few doubts in Gary's mind, but it wasn't until he went through Jimmy's personal effects and found the letters that he knew for sure that she and Jimmy had been lovers. Finn didn't particularly look like either of them; he was still just a baby. Elisa insisted he was Gary's child, but she was an unfaithful wife and not to be believed. Worst of all, the date and contents of the last letter suggested that she had broken it off the morning he was killed. She loved them both, but she had to protect her marriage and her son, so she couldn't continue the affair. It was quite possible that James had been distraught when he answered the school shooting call. He was not heroic; he was suicidal.
Every single thing Finn knew about his parents was untrue.
Gary divorced Elisa and left town. He blamed her for the ruin of the marriage and for his brother's death. He didn't believe Finn was his and never wanted to see either of them again.
"I told Gary he should try to find you and make sure," she said. "Mitchell is such a common name, but he knew your mother's maiden name and that her parents lived or had lived in Pittsburgh. It wouldn't have been that hard. But he wouldn't." She looked at Gary, who didn't raise his head, but it was a loving look; it was an old argument, lost a long time ago.
"We have two lovely daughters, but I was always sorry that I couldn't give Gary a son."
He did look up then. "No, Livie," he said.
She reached over and patted his hand and then turned back to Finn. "We could do blood tests to make it official, but I'm sure now. I've seen pictures of Jimmy, and there is a family resemblance, but you look almost exactly the way Gary looked when I met him—except for the mustache."
"How did you find us?" Gary asked.
"Just coincidence," he said. "I saw Maris in Starbucks—if you hadn't named her after her grandmother, I wouldn't be here."
"Starbucks?" Gary echoed.
"Coincidence—the Starbucks where she was working was the same one I usually—"
"Maris was working at Starbucks?" He didn't wait for an answer and abruptly left the room.
"Oops," Finn said.
Olivia smiled at him. She had a wide, beautiful, generous smile. "It's all right. He's just being a father. I am very glad to meet you, Finn. I've thought of you so often over the years. I hope that no matter what relationship you and your father end up having, you'll think of me as your stepmother."
Finn blinked back tears. He was already overwhelmed, and her kindness was too much for him. He tried to focus on something less emotional. "The girls don't know?" he asked. "Maris thought Jimmy died in his teens."
"We'll tell them tonight," she said briskly. "You will stay, won't you? I think you'll be comfortable in the guest room."
"I can go to a motel," he said.
"No, please stay. We owe you for bringing Maris home anyway. I know she can be a handful." He wanted to tell her that he thought Maris was taking dangerous risks, but he couldn't help seeing it from the girl's viewpoint—she trusted him not to narc on her. Don't tattle on your sister! Maybe he would have a chance to ask Joanna to talk to her.
"Is your luggage in the car?" Olivia asked. "Why don't you bring it in, and I'll have Maris show you the guest room. We have dinner early on Sundays—about five. You can rest until then. You have a lot to think about."
He went out to the car and then could only stand there staring at the trunk. He couldn't remember how to open it. The world had turned upside down since he had done it last. Maris came to the rescue. She came running out, took the car keys out of his hand, and opened the trunk. She pulled out her suitcase, rolled her eyes at him, and hurried back into the house.
Smiling, Finn unloaded his suitcase, briefcase, and computer. My little sister, he thought. Joanna was his sister too. Remembering the soft look she had given him, he briefly entertained the fantasy that she was Olivia's daughter by a previous marriage and therefore no blood relation to him. But no, one way or another she was his sister. The baby she was carrying was also related to him. His relatives were multiplying—an embarrassment of riches.
Maris showed him the guest room, which was across from Joanna's and next to the bathroom. Only the master bedroom and bath were on the first floor, so that Olivia didn't have to climb the stairs. She was right; it was quite comfortable. He lay on the bed and tried to sort out his feelings. One came strongly to the surface, and he reached for his cell phone.
His mother picked up on the fifth ring. "Mom?" he said.
"Finn." Her voice was flat, emotionless. "You're in Ohio?" she asked."Who did you talk to?"
"No, I'm in Canada. I know what happened, Mom, and it's okay. "
"No," she said. "Canada?"
"Yes, I'm in New Brunswick. I just met my father."
"He's not your father!" she said savagely. "He didn't want you. Your father died a hero. Nobody can take that away from you." She started to cry. "Please come home," she said.
He lay on the bed for a long time, thinking about getting some work done, but unable to summon the energy or the focus. Who am I if I'm not who I thought I was? He finally did get up and open his laptop, but he couldn't remember his e-mail password. Maris probably did; it was time to change it. He was still staring at the screen when Maris knocked on the door and called, "Dinner in five minutes."
He smoothed his hair before the bathroom mirror and looked at the face that acknowledged his paternity. His mother had known; if she had doubted, the evidence stared her in the face every time she saw him. Had she forgotten what Gary looked like? She had said she hoped he was dead. The stories Maris had told him about James had made him real, and now he was gone again, replaced by a flesh and blood man who hadn't wanted to meet him. What had been simple was complicated. What had been complicated was stunningly simple.
Olivia smiled at him and showed him where to sit, on her left, across the table from Joanna. Gary sat at the other end of the table with Maris on his left. He looked pretty grim. The mood was lightened a little when the terriers joined the feast. "This is Buttercup," Joanna said as the little one came to rest its head on her feet.
The larger dog came to sit next to Finn, looking up expectantly. "That's Stinky," Maris told him. Finn didn't blame the dogs for their eagerness; everything smelled wonderful. It was the kind of Sunday dinner he had always imagined other families had, complete families. Except for Thanksgiving and an occasional birthday dinner with his grandparents, he had never sat around a table like this. There was a platter of roast beef, a bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes, thick, fragrant gravy, three kinds of vegetables, and hot, crusty bread. No microwave meals in front of the TV here.
There was a brief period of murmurs and rustlings as plates were passed around, and then silence descended. Finn didn't know what to say and he didn't think Gary was going to say anything. He looked at Joanna across the table, and she smiled at him. He thought of commenting on her pregnancy, but it was none of his business, and it would be really embarrassing if he was mistaken. He was too excited to eat, but made an attempt. The roast beef was tender and delicious. He slipped a morsel to Stinky under the table.
Gary cleared his throat. "How was the drive?" he asked politely.
"It was fine," Finn said. "Not too much traffic most of the way."
"It was awesome," Maris said. "I had the best burger in Pittsburgh." There was an air of slight embarrassment about her, but he didn't think it was because of his presence. Her father had apparently reprimanded her.
"How is your mother, Finn?" Olivia asked.
He glanced at Gary, who straightened a little in his chair, but didn't change expression. "She's okay," he said. "I just talked to her a little while ago."
"Oh, good," Olivia said warmly.
"She drinks," Maris said.
"Maris!" It was Joanna who objected.
"She does," Finn admitted.
Gary cleared his throat again. "She didn't when I knew her," he said. "Not even a glass of wine with dinner."
Maris turned to him. "Why didn't you tell us Uncle Jimmy was married?"
"He wasn't," he said simply. "She was married to me."
"Daddy!" the girls cried in perfect unison.
"Long before I met your mother," he said, and then, firmly, clearly, relating a simple matter of fact: "Finn is my son."
Mouths opened, eyebrows were raised. Joanna looked at Finn. "You're our brother!" She was the eldest; would she feel displaced? "Why did you say you were our cousin?"
"He didn't know," Gary said. "His mother told him Jimmy was his father, but yes, he's your half brother."
Maris turned beet red. "Cousin," she said. "We're cousins." She looked appealingly at Finn.
"Sorry, sis," he said and smiled to let her know he wasn't going to tell anyone she had propositioned her brother. Olivia reached for his hand and squeezed it. He liked Joanna—and Maris when she wasn't being a pest—but he adored Olivia. How lucky he would have been to be her son—a disloyal thought, but irresistible.
"What do you do in College Park?" Gary asked, as to any dinner guest.
"I'm the editor of the Maryland Quarterly, the literary magazine." he said.
Gary nodded. "There's not much money in that, is there?"
"No, not much, and our funding is always uncertain. I'm sure police work pays better."
"I can't complain," Gary said.
"We'd be quite comfortable if it weren't for the medical expenses," Olivia said frankly.
"Doesn't Canada have socialized medicine?" He was aware that it was a pejorative term, but didn't know what else to call it.
"It's one reason we live here," Olivia said. "But it doesn't include prescriptions, and they can be expensive."
"You got your degree at Maryland?" Gary asked.
"Yes. My mother wanted me to go there because she did."
"It's a good school. I wanted both girls to go, but Joanna's had to stay home and help her mother."
"It's not exactly a sacrifice," Joanna said cheerfully.
"But you should go next year," Olivia said. She turned to Finn. "I've been taking this new drug, Gilenya, and it's really helped. There's no need for Joanna to delay starting her own career. She's very gifted musically."
Finn nodded. "I heard the sax when we arrived. 'Stormy Weather.' Very nice." He smiled at Joanna, and she smiled back. He wondered what they intended to do with the baby if Joanna went to college.
"I want to know why you didn't like tell us," Maris said sulkily. "About Finn."
Gary looked at his plate. "Finn's mother hurt your father very deeply," Olivia said. "They were divorced when Finn was a baby. We didn't know where he was."
"Still," Maris said.
Gary looked at her. "How's school, baby girl?"
"Oh, shit," Maris said.
"Maris!" Olivia reprimanded her, but her tone was indulgent.
Finn stepped in. "I was telling Maris the other day that it can take a while to get the hang of academics. You can't tell much by the first year's grades."
"That bad?" Gary asked.
"I might get like a B minus in psychology," Maris said.
"Are you flunking English?" Joanna asked.
"No. I did like extra credit." She looked at Finn with a mixture of guilt and defiance, and he had a sinking feeling about the nature of the extra credit assignment. His little sister was on a very dangerous path.
After dinner, Gary gestured to Finn to follow him into his study. He pointed to the chair Olivia had been sitting in and closed the door. Finn sat down and waited. It was a fairly long wait, but finally Gary sat down behind his desk and met his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said.
Finn acknowledged the apology with a nod. He didn't know what to say.
"When you were born," Gary said, "you looked more like your mother. She was really fair, you know, a very light blonde, very Scandinavian."
"She still is."
"Your hair was light. I knew it might get darker later, but when you were born, you were very fair, our little Finn. Did you know that was where you got your name?"
"Yes, more or less. She said it was my grandmother who—"
"Yes, I'd forgotten that—Elisa's mother said it first, 'He's such a little Finn.' You might have preferred a more conventional name," he added apologetically.
"Maybe in grade school. I like it now."
"I loved you," Gary said abruptly. "I did love you. And then I thought you weren't mine, and it hurt like hell. If I had stayed—"
"It's all in the past," he said. "It doesn't matter anymore."
"Oh yes, it does. Believe me, it does. I forgave your mother a long time ago—if she hadn't done what she did, I never would have met Livie. It's a lot harder to forgive myself."
"How long have you and Olivia been married?"
"Twenty-five wonderful years. She is one in a million."
"Yes," Finn agreed.
"If she left me, it would kill me. I understand what Jimmy felt."
"All these years I thought... "
"Are you sorry you found out? Lost your golden boy hero father? Jimmy was special."
"But I never knew him. I was always proud that he was a hero, but it wasn't enough."
Gary nodded and turned to look out the window. He drummed his fingers on the desk, thinking his own thoughts. Finn waited. "So," Gary said finally. "You're what—thirty now?"
"No. I haven't found my Olivia yet."
Gary smiled. He held out his hand. "It's good to meet you, son."
When they came out of the study, the women were in the living room watching television. Olivia was sitting in a deep, comfortable-looking armchair, and the girls were on the sofa, Maris lying with her ear against Joanna's belly, Joanna's hand on her hair. Buttercup was on Olivia's lap, and Stinky got up and followed at Gary's heels. Gary picked Maris up effortlessly and sat in the other armchair with her on his lap, leaving Finn to sit beside Joanna on the couch. Maris nestled in her father's arms like the little girl she still was. They were watching America's Funniest Videos, which Finn had always found more painful than funny
"Did you have a nice man-to-man talk?" Joanna asked. Finn nodded. "Sort of like the son-in-law interview?"
"Not at all," Gary said. "He's a Blue Jays fan." This was true, but the least of what they had discussed.
On the screen, the pratfalls and crashes had been replaced by a series of brazenly cute babies. "Aww," Joanna said and rested her hand on her swollen belly.
Olivia smiled at her. "I guess you noticed we're going to be grandparents," she said to Finn. Nephew or niece, he thought. More words that he had thought would never apply to him.
"Congratulations," he said.
"It's a girl," Maris said.
"Have you picked a name?" he asked. He was not going to ask the other question, the one that in the new millennium was not always politically correct. These days if you asked a woman whose baby it was, she was likely to say, "Mine." One more child to grow up fatherless, as he had.
"Maya, I think," Joanna said.
"Daddy?" Maris said, sounding not drowsy, but very comfortable.
"What, baby girl?"
"I don't want Finn to be my brother."
Gary stroked her hair. "Why not?"
"He's like too bossy."
Joanna laughed. "As if anybody could boss you," she said. Finn had seen this before, this easy familial teasing, but he had never been inside it. "Does anybody want popcorn?" Joanna asked. She got up from the couch, not an easy feat in her condition, amid a chorus of yeses.
Finn still wasn't hungry, although he hadn't eaten much dinner, but the hot, salty smell nudged his appetite. He was a stranger here and had eclipsed Maris's homecoming, and they were already treating him like one of the family.
Olivia went to bed first, just after ten. She kissed the girls goodnight, bending over Maris with a whispered, "Behave yourself." She didn't kiss Finn, but she took his hands and said, "I'm so glad you came."
Gary turned off the TV and sent Maris upstairs for Joanna's saxophone. This was a real treat, the best Finn could have asked for. Joanna complained that her wind was not what it had been because of the baby pressing against her diaphragm, but it all sounded perfect to Finn. She played the quieter, more soothing part of her repertoire in deference to the late hour and the presumably sleeping Olivia, and Finn went to bed lulled and ready to sleep.
He reflected that if she were not his half sister, he would have liked to take Joanna out, maybe to dinner or a movie, and get to know her better. I don't want Finn to be my brother. He didn't particularly want to get to know Maris any better.
When he woke up he was disoriented at first. He wasn't in his own apartment or his mother's house or even a motel room. He was in a dream, surreal, super real, incapable of integration with simple reality. He got up groggily and checked his e-mail. That other world was still there; nothing had collapsed. He had a vague memory of hearing plumbing sounds while he was still half asleep; somebody else was up. The other bedroom doors were closed, and the bathroom was free. He took a quick shower, careful not to use too much hot water. I don't want Finn to be my brother. How would he feel if Maris or Joanna had just shown up one day and said, "I'm your sister." They had been eased into it with the idea of a new cousin, but it was still a huge leap to make.
When he came out of the bathroom, Joanna's door was ajar, and he heard voices.
"... like halfway through he pushed me down," Maris was saying, confiding in her sister, "and he, y'know... did me."
"Did he hurt you?" Joanna asked.
"No, but that wasn't part of the deal!"
Joanna's voice, entirely too calm: "Did he use a condom?"
"Have you had your period since?"
"Oh!" A silence, a few seconds, an eternity. "Yeah."
Finn went into the guest room and quietly closed the door. When he came out, both bedroom doors were wide open; the girls had gone downstairs.
He deliberately bumped into a dining room chair before he walked into the kitchen, so they would know he was coming. Maris and Joanna were sitting at the table and looked up. Their faces were composed, polite, not as if he had interrupted anything or was unwelcome. The dogs were sitting just under the table, and Buttercup got up and came over to sniff at Finn's shoes. He had intended to exchange neutral morning pleasantries and say nothing of what he had heard, but Maris's pretty little face, so deceptively young and innocent, made something unexpected rise in him.
"Tell me who it was, and I'll break his arm," he said. Maris gasped and put her hand over her mouth. He looked at Joanna. "That's what big brothers are for, isn't it? To go after the bullies?"
"Please don't tell," Maris said.
"It was a teacher, wasn't it?" The suspects would be few and in the university records.
Joanna got up and checked that the dining room was empty. "Not the professor. A teaching assistant. She offered him oral sex for a better grade. You can't tell anybody."
"He was real suspicious," Maris said. "He made me like take off my blouse to prove I wasn't, y'know, wearing a wire."
Extra credit. "Did you know she was doing stuff like this?" he asked Joanna, but didn't wait for an answer. "She's in over her head. Her parents should know."
"Not Daddy!" Maris pleaded.
Finn gave Joanna a helpless look. How do you tell a man, especially a man who just became your father, that his baby girl is a whore? "She's taking drugs too," he said. "At least she was taking your mother's old meds."
"Maris," Joanna said, "do you have—?"
"No! Go search my room—he's lying! You won't find anything,"
"Because I flushed them down the toilet in Pittsburgh," he said.
"Narc!" Maris snapped. "You had no right looking in my stuff. You're not my brother just because my dad was like married to your mother a hundred years ago."
As intent as they all were on this conversation, they still heard Olivia coming. As she came in, Finn switched gears as if he had engaged in family intrigue all his life. "I'm sorry I let the cat out of the bag about Starbucks," he told Maris. "You didn't tell me it was supposed to be a secret."
"Good morning," Olivia said. "It's just that she's supposed to get by on the spending money we send her and concentrate on her classes."
"It was just money for, y'know, clothes," Maris said. Or a piercing and a tattoo? Better that than drugs or an abortion. "It was fun, but I already quit."
"I know," Olivia said and kissed both of the girls. "How did you sleep?" she asked Finn
"Fine, Olivia, thank you."
"What have you all been talking about? Do you have plans for today?"
Maris shrugged. "Let's go shopping," Joanna said.
"Maybe we should show Finn the sights?" Olivia suggested. Glances were exchanged—tension between Olivia trying to entertain a guest and the girls wanting the intruder out of their business.
"Please don't change any plans on my account," he said. "I have a lot of work I should do."
"Well, we'll talk about it," Olivia said. "I'm going to get the newspaper."
"Let me," Joanna said, starting to rise.
"No, it's good for me to walk. Why don't you start breakfast?"
Finn didn't know how far she had to go for the newspaper—apparently it wasn't delivered to their doorstep, because it was clear that the girls expected her to be gone long enough for them to revisit their discussion as soon as she was out of hearing. "I'm nineteen," Maris said. "What I do is like my business."
"Okay," he said. "If you want to play with fire, I can't stop you. But if you make yourself cheap, don't be surprised when people treat you cheaply." Maris glared at him. Joanna didn't say anything, busying herself with breakfast preparations. He was a little worked up, feeling defensive, or he might not have continued. "And what kind of example are you setting her?" he asked Joanna.
She slammed the frying pan down on the stove. "What does that mean? You come waltzing in here and you don't know a damn thing about us."
"No, I don't, but I spent two days with Maris, and she's—"
"I know what she is! She's my sister. I know about the idiot boy who introduced her to oral sex in junior high! I know her friends here don't even think of that as sex; it's just a way to get what they want from boys. She's never had a boyfriend, just sex partners. I thought in college she would meet smarter, more mature kids, but even the teachers take advantage of her."
"I'm like right here," Maris said.
Joanna was just getting warmed up. "And goddamn sex is everywhere in the culture—the movies, music, TV shows, the frigging advertisements. How is that my fault? How do I fight that? It's not because we weren't raised right. I've only slept with one man in my entire life and I was married to him." She took note of his surprise."You didn't know that, did you?"
"No," he said, ashamed to have assumed otherwise. "Maris was too busy trying to seduce me to tell me—"
"Maris Catherine Mitchell! You didn't!"
"I'm sorry," Finn said. "I didn't mean that. Nobody said anything about the baby's father, so I made a stupid assumption. I'm sorry. Where is he?"
"Well, if you really want to know," Joanna said, cracking eggs with controlled fury, "he was killed by an asshole American."
"Sorry again," Finn said. "I apologize on behalf of asshole Americans everywhere."
Joanna softened. She almost smiled. Maris was not amused.
They heard the front door open as Olivia came back with the newspaper. She looked at Maris. "Are you okay, sweetie? You look upset."
"I don't want a brother," she said. She got up and ran out of the room.
Olivia was unperturbed. She patted Finn's arm. "Don't take it personally," she said. "She'll come around."
He did take it personally. It was personal.
"Sit down," Olivia told him. "Do you want coffee? How do you take it?"
He almost laughed. "Or as Maris would say, 'what can I getcha?'"
"Oh—at Starbucks?" Olivia smiled. "We can't do a caramel macchiato or whatever it is, but—"
"Black with a little sugar is fine," he said.
Olivia began to set the table. "You really are walking better, Mom," Joanna said.
"I am. I hope it lasts." To Finn she said, "I know the drug companies get a lot of bad press, and maybe it's deserved, but sometimes they get it right."
Gary came in, dressed in an outfit reminiscent of a western sheriff. It wasn't the uniform James had worn in his academy graduation picture, but it had the same effect all police uniforms had on Finn, a mixture of the nervousness most people felt and a sense of proud connection. There were "Good morning"s all around. Gary kissed Joanna's cheek and said, "Looks good, princess." He looked around. "Where's Maris?"
"Upstairs, I think," Olivia said calmly. "She was a little upset."
Gary went out and yelled, "Maris! Breakfast!" He came back with another chair from the dining room; the kitchen table only had four.
Finn didn't think Maris would come, but she did. She was Daddy's little girl after all. She came in and kissed Gary and helped Joanna fill plates with scrambled eggs and toast. The table was a little tight for five, and Maris jostled Finn as she sat down. He thought it was deliberate, but couldn't be sure. There was discussion of the newspaper headlines—Libya, Japan, and the Prime Minister's likely downfall—and plans for the day. Gary was supposed to be on duty. "Would you be interested in a ride along?" he asked Finn.
"I'd like that," he said gratefully. Just to get away from these women and their domestic drama would be enough.
"Can we come too?" Maris asked.
"Not this time, baby girl."
"Well then, we're going shopping," Joanna said.
"Why do women think shopping is an adventure?" Gary asked.
"Because we're so good at it," Joanna told him.
"So how are you doing?" Gary asked when they were on the road.
"Still reeling," Finn confessed.
"Have you thought about moving up here?"
"No. It's been great meeting all of you, but my life is in College Park."
"But if you—if that ever changes, you know you're welcome here?"
"Thank you. It's a little hard on the girls though."
"No, they're fine."
"I don't think so. I wouldn't be in their place. Promise me you won't change your will or anything like that."
"Don't worry about Maris," Gary said comfortably. "She's a mouthy little thing, but she has a good heart."
Finn gave up, but later, after being introduced to what seemed to be the entire Cedar Hills Police Department—all five of them—he had a chance to say, "I'd like to talk to you about Maris." He was walking a fine line, but if she came to grief, he wanted to know that he had at least tried. "I know I don't know her the way you do, but we were in close quarters for a couple of days."
"Did she drive you crazy?"
"A little bit, yeah, but it's more that I'm concerned about her. She's really struggling. Maryland is a tough school. The pace is a lot faster than it was even when I was there, and she's so far from home. She'll stick it out because she wants to please you, but she was really homesick. I'm thinking she might be better off going to a community college at least for a year or two, living here where you can keep more of an eye on her. Academics isn't exactly her strong suit."
"Maris isn't stupid," Gary said. "All the kids talk like that now—it probably sounds terrible to a professional editor."
"No, she isn't stupid," Finn said. But she's been doing stupid things, he wanted to say. "I just hate to see her struggling, when she could take it a little easier, maybe go to school part time and work—she liked working at Starbucks."
"There's no future in that," Gary said.
"Okay," he said. "It's not my business. I know you love her, but sometimes an outsider can see more clearly. Could you maybe think about it? Ask her what she'd like to do?"
Gary was silent for a moment. "Did Maris ask you to intercede for her?"
"No, not at all. She'd probably be angry if she knew I said anything."
"Is there something you're not telling me?"
Yes! Damn it, yes! But don't make me say it.
"Hold on a minute," Gary said. His radio was crackling. They took a call about a truant teenager. Gary knew right where to find him. He had fallen prey to spring fever—New Brunswick spring break was already over—and gone fishing, even though the day was cold and windy. "I'd like to do that myself," Gary said. While the boy waited in the Jeep, they stood on the bank of the creek, taking in the lush green and the silence. "I used to dream about fishing with my son," Gary said. "Joanna liked it when she was little, but she lost interest. The boy she was married to never seemed to have the time. He was a hard worker, a bit too serious."
"She said he was killed—murdered?"
Gary shook his head. "Drunk driver. Comes to the same thing. Do you fish?"
"I have," Finn said. Once, a long time ago, with his grandfather.
"Maybe we can find time this week."
"I'm thinking I should go to a motel for the rest of the week. It's too much disruption for your family."
"You're a part of this family now," Gary said.
They went back to the house for lunch. The womenfolk were still out, and they made sandwiches and coffee and sat talking at the kitchen table. Finn was beginning to relax into a comfortable relationship with Gary, but he still hadn't connected to the idea of him as his father. Gary called him "son" casually a few times, but he couldn't call him "Dad." The word had belonged for too long to the elusive shadow thrown by two photographs and the words "hero cop."
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. "I'd better take this. It's probably work," he said apologetically and stepped into the dining room to answer it. He didn't recognize the number, but the area code was 412—Pittsburgh.
"Finn Mitchell?" The voice was female, young, contralto.
"My name is Amy Chandler. I'm calling from Allegheny General Hospital." A feeling straight out of his childhood ripped through him. Mommy. Other kids had fathers. She was all he had, his only anchor. Without her he would be adrift in the world. He couldn't absorb all of the words. He thanked Amy Chandler numbly and let the cell phone fall from his hand.
When he came back into the kitchen, Gary stood up, alarmed by what he saw in Finn's face. Even Stinky knew something was wrong and rose to his feet with a whine. "My mother just tried to kill herself," Finn said. "Where's the nearest airport? Fredericton?"
"Saint John. I'll make a reservation while you pack." Finn handed him his credit card. They were men, better at dealing with practicalities than feelings.
By the time he was ready to go, Gary had a reservation for him on a flight to Toronto, with standby on an earlier one, and a connecting flight from Toronto to Pittsburgh. He still hadn't had time to feel, much less think. Gary offered to drive him to Saint John so he wouldn't have to put his car in long-term parking, and he left the car keys in case they needed to move it.
On the way to Saint John he tried to remember the gist of what Amy Chandler had told him. One of his mother's colleagues, concerned when the usually prompt and reliable Elisa didn't arrive for work and didn't answer the phone, had contacted his grandparents. His eighty-year-old grandfather had found her lying at the bottom of the stairs. She had taken an undetermined number of sleeping pills, dangerously mixed with alcohol, and then had fallen, or thrown herself, down the stairs. She had a broken hip and three broken ribs and was in a coma, in critical condition. They didn't know whether she would survive.
There was no suicide note, but the amount of benzodiazepine in her system suggested a serious attempt. You are an unnatural son. How could he have been so hard-hearted as to dismiss that much anguish? When she was drunk she might say things she didn't mean, but that didn't give him the right to assume... what? What had he assumed? That her feelings were not real, not legitimate, not worth his time or sympathy? My sweet little boy stabbed me in the back.
From the day he had first spoken to Maris, he had been so consumed with the idea of this new family that he had brushed off the concerns of the woman who had given him birth and raised him on her own. Everything he was he owed to her. Gary had abandoned him, forgivably or not. He's not your father! He didn't want you. It's always been just you and me. If you love me, don't see him. Let the past alone.
Q: When are you coming home?
A: When you kill yourself to get my attention.
With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, he couldn't imagine why he hadn't anticipated this. She had kept her secret for thirty years—how could she not react badly when it was finally revealed? If he had ever once, at any time in the last two weeks, stopped to look at the situation from her point of view, instead of minimizing her pain—It's all in the past. It doesn't matter—he would have known that this was not only possible, but logical, even inevitable.
And while he was on the subject of his blindness and ingratitude, why had he not done something to help her years ago? He had gone to the University of Maryland and never come home. He had drifted into the job there, when he could as easily have looked for something in Pittsburgh. Because she only drank in the evenings and on weekends and never let it affect her work, he had shrugged it off. But it was not natural to grieve for thirty years! She had been a young, pretty, passionate woman—she should have been able to rebuild her life.
Why in God's name had he never gotten together with his grandparents or her friends at work and staged an intervention? A weekend alcoholic was still an alcoholic. She should have been in AA years ago. How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child.
Why, instead of heading off to New Brunswick with Maris, had he not simply asked his grandparents what they knew? His grandmother had been there when he was born; she at least knew his mother had been married to Gary, not James. They might have believed James was his real father, but one question could have helped unravel the mystery.
In Saint John it was raining, with snow flurries, but there had been no flight delays. Gary and Finn hugged for the first time, awkwardly."Please tell Olivia I appreciate the welcome," Finn said.
Gary nodded. "Thank you for helping Maris."
"I'll try to get back Friday to drive her to Maryland." If I'm not attending my mother's funeral.
Waiting for the flight to be called, he debated about whether or not to call the hospital for an update, and did try calling his grandparents. They were probably at the hospital. They were too old to be bearing the brunt of this. Is she still alive? Will I have time to say goodbye? To say I'm sorry?
The journey to Pittsburgh was as smooth and easy as air travel can be, but it was a nightmare of waiting, and waiting, and more waiting. In the air he tried to work. He checked his e-mail, but couldn't summon sufficient interest to read his messages. He tried to read a couple of manuscripts, but couldn't concentrate.
The shortest period of waiting—less than ten minutes by the clock—felt like the longest. It was close to eleven when he walked into Allegheny General Hospital and inquired at the desk. He was sent to a small waiting room on another floor where a tired intern in rumpled scrubs finally came to talk to him.
"She's hanging on," the intern told him. "It's still touch and go." Touch and go. Did he even know what that expression meant? Did the intern? "Even that amount of benzodiazepine isn't usually fatal, but mixing it with alcohol is as deadly as you can get. This wasn't a cry for help. She wanted to die."
His grandparents had gone home to try to get some sleep. He wanted to see them, talk to them, but of course couldn't call them this late. The intern took him down the hall to the room where his mother lay in a narrow bed with side rails that reminded him of a crib. She was on a ventilator and a line ran from a set of IV bags to a catheter strapped to one hand. She was unrecognizable; he had to take it on faith that this was not a blonde, middle-aged stranger. The intern explained that her hip had been stabilized, her broken ribs were taped, and there was nothing to do now except support her breathing and wait for her to wake up. "If she wakes up—when she wakes up, she'll be confused and may not remember anything, and there's nothing you can do for her. I'd recommend that you go get some sleep and come back tomorrow. Visiting hours ended at 8:30, but you can stay awhile if you like."
She was in good hands; it was supposed to be one of the best hospitals in the country. This young doctor in training knew far more than he did, and he ought to take his advice. But he had been hours in getting here; he wasn't going anywhere. "Is it true that people in comas can hear what is said to them?" he asked.
"You never know," the intern said. Not a very scientific answer. Finn pulled a visitor's chair close to the bed and sat down. The intern put a hand briefly on his shoulder and turned to go.
Cautiously, Finn reached out and touched his mother's hand. She was far too silent, and the ventilator was nerve-wrackingly monotonous. "I'm here, Mom," he said. "It's Finn. I love you. Hang in there." He felt like an idiot. "I'm sorry," he said. "Please forgive me." There was of course no response, only the sound of the ventilator.
He stayed until a nurse came in. She didn't ask him to leave, but he felt as if he was in the way. Her tasks were routine to her, but made him feel as if his mother was an object, a machine undergoing routine maintenance.
He drove his rented Taurus to the townhouse through quiet, empty, rain-wet streets. He undressed and slipped into bed under the NFL spread in his old room. His mother must have changed the sheets before he and Maris came—three days ago? She had wanted him to come home. That was real. Everything else—Maris, Gary, Olivia, Joanna, Cedar Hills—seemed unreal now, even bizarre. A damned Canadian soap opera.
He did sleep, intermittently, restlessly. When he woke up the house was cold, and fortunately he had put on warm slippers when he went into the bathroom and felt a shard of glass crunch under his foot. Most of the broken bottle was in the bathtub. There was very little alcohol odor—the bottle must have been empty. He looked in the medicine cabinet. There were no prescription bottles and no empty ones in the wastebasket. He supposed the EMTs had taken whatever they could find.
He walked through the house looking for—what? A suicide note? Evidence of despair? Instead he found signs of how much he meant to her, how she had planned for his comfort, how much she had yearned for the visit she had been drunk enough to sabotage. There was a framed photograph of him on her bedside table. She had scrawled "Finn" on the calendar below Friday's date. The refrigerator was stocked with food, including some of his favorites, things she must have bought just for him.
While he ate a hasty breakfast, he checked his e-mail and looked up drug overdose and coma on Wikipedia. "Depressed respiration" was the reason for the ventilator. She might be in a coma for hours or weeks, and confused and amnesiac for longer than she was in the coma. Her broken hip would involve a long recovery too—this was not going to be over quickly.
He didn't call the hospital—they had said they would call if her status changed—but he called his grandparents as soon as he dared. He told them he would stay at the hospital all day and they needn't come—they had had the first day's long watch. He didn't get any sense that they blamed him for anything. He blamed himself for everything.
Before he left, he took the first step in the journey he should have begun years ago. He poured every ounce of liquor in the house down the drain and threw the bottles in the recycle bin out back. She had tried for thirty years to drink herself to death and now she might have succeeded.
He sat by his mother's bedside, except when a doctor or nurse sent him out to sit in the corridor. There were specific, complicated visiting hours in the ICU, one hour or half hour at a time, but they rarely enforced them. He skipped lunch and grabbed a sandwich at the hospital cafeteria for an early dinner. He did manage to do some work, but much of the time he just sat there. His life had been too much about work. It was the model she had given him. Her only real friends were her colleagues at the office. Only work had given her satisfaction, kept her sober. Most of his friends were people he worked with or had worked with. The Quarterly was the main thing they had in common. The best relationship he had ever had was with a woman so involved in her own work that she couldn't be jealous or resentful of his. He wanted more than that now. If he had a problem or a triumph to share, his mother had always been a willing ear. Who in his life could he lean on now?
A lot of his friends had little or no connection with their parents, or unsatisfying, contentious relationships. Because they set the bar so low, he had foolishly felt satisfied with his reasonably good relationship with his mother and seen no need to deal with what was wrong with it. He sat holding her hand and remembered the good times; times when he had striven to make her proud, when they had laughed together. You are an unnatural son.
One of the nurses told him that there were hopeful signs, that the small, restless movements she made could be the beginning of returning consciousness, but he had learned just enough to know it didn't prove anything. They had put soft restraints on her arms to keep her from pulling out the IV, but so far there didn't seem to be much danger of that.
At first all the white coats blurred together, but he was beginning to see them as people, getting used to being here among them. He felt more comfortable about talking to his mother, even though it felt as if he was sitting alone in a room talking just to hear his voice. He told her what was going on, but at first stayed away from the subject of Cedar Hills. Part of it was that he was starting to feel things he hadn't processed yet, including a deep resentment toward Gary for wanting to be friends now after thirty years of indifference. He left me behind and now he wants to go fishing? He hadn't called them yet, partly because the distance made them unreal and partly because he didn't know who would answer or who he would be willing to talk to.
He told her, "I love you, Mom. I've always loved you and I always will love you, no matter what you do, no matter what you did in the past." She just lay there, buried under the sound of the ventilator. He didn't have a clue whether she could hear him, but took a chance that she wouldn't get too agitated if she did. "I'm sorry I went to see those people against your wishes. I'm sorry I brought Maris to the house. You don't have to have anything to do with them ever again. I promise. But you don't have to be afraid of them. You won't lose me to them. They won't steal me away from you or turn me against you. They couldn't. They aren't my family. Gary... he told me he forgave you a long time ago. You don't have to forgive him, but it might make you feel better if you did. All those negative emotions... if you could just let them go... I know, I know, I should practice what I preach!" He knew it would all have to be said again and not without interruption.
Before he left to get some sleep, the red-headed nurse, whose name he thought was Jeanne, told him that his mother's blood pressure and heart rate were better. He had already noticed a more relaxed manner among the medical personnel in general, as if they no longer had to be so cautious about giving him hope. Apparently she was now expected to recover. "You've been here all day," Jeanne said. "Are you her only family?"
"My grandparents were here yesterday," he said and then, trying to make it sound more casual than it felt, he was finally able to say, "My father lives in Canada. They were divorced a long time ago."
He called his grandparents and then, buoyed by their relief, he called the number of the house in Cedar Hills, hoping that he wouldn't be waking anybody up. Maris answered—no doubt she could move the fastest. In a way, he was glad; she wouldn't overwhelm him with sympathy.
"Finn!" she cried and, before he could say anything, she banged the receiver down on the table, and he could just make out her calling, "Dad, it's Finn."
Gary picked up. "I'm glad you called, son." Finn tensed. He's not your father. He didn't want you. "Are you all right?'
"I'm fine. I just wanted to let you know my mother is doing better, but she's still in a coma. I don't know when I'll be able to come back. I'm sorry that I brought Maris home without your permission and then abandoned her." Abandoned. The word hung there between them, and then he remembered his own advice: Let it go...
"Don't worry about that—or your car. Just do what you need to do and take care of your mother. We're all thinking of you."
At six a.m., while he was still in bed but awake, the hospital called. Amy Chandler—he hadn't met her, but apparently her job was to notify relatives—said, "Your mother is waking up. They're going to try to take her off the ventilator. If you'd like to be here, it might help keep her calm." He could not remember ever having heard better news.
As he came down the corridor toward her room, he could hear voices and an insistent, "Elisa! Elisa!" It was one of the peculiarities of hospital etiquette that he was "Mr. Mitchell," while the patient was always addressed by her first name. She was awake and struggling against the restraints, with two nurses and an intern gathered around the bed. One of the nurses caught his eye and waved him forward with a look of relief.
"Mom," he said, "It's okay. I'm here. They're trying to help you. They're trying to take out the tube."
She stopped struggling. "Okay," the intern said. "Elisa, I want you to hold very still for me and I'm going to count to three and when I say three, give me a nice big cough. Are you with me?" A slight nod. "One, two, three, and—good girl! It's out. Try to take big, deep breaths for me, even if it hurts."
His mother coughed, choked, tried to sit up. "My throat," she whispered. The nurse gave her a sip of water, and then she looked at Finn and said, "You promised." He didn't know what she meant, what he had promised. There was a relaxed, congratulatory mood in the room now. The nurse loosened the restraints and Finn sat in a chair and held his mother's hand. "My leg hurts," she complained. "What are you doing to me?" The nurse reached to adjust the IV drip.
"Your hip is broken," Finn told her. "You'll be okay. You'll be better soon." The intern put a hand on his shoulder for a moment, as he had the first night, but this time it was more encouragement than consolation. He and the second nurse left.
"Finn?" She looked at the nurse, who was checking everything, smiling and efficient. "Where's my baby?"
"I'm right here, Mom," he said, squeezing her hand.
"She'll be confused for a while," the nurse said. She pointed to the call button. "Ring if you need anything. Encourage her to breathe deeply. We'll be moving her soon." She went out.
"Finn, who are these people? Why did you bring them here?"
"You're in the hospital, Mom."
"Oh, no, you don't. You promised. Remember? You promised you would never let them put me on a machine."
He had, of course, in the context of terminal illness. This was different, temporary, but it was easier to say, "I wasn't here," and then he was sorry, because she might very well remember where he had been. If she did, she didn't say so.
A little while later, the nurse and an orderly came in and prepared to transfer her from the ICU to another room, where visiting hours would begin at 1.They advised him to go home—I just got here!—and come back after lunch. "She'll be in and out and won't remember anyway," the nurse said. It was all matter-of-fact and business as usual to them.
They were right though. When he came back after a morning of work and a decent lunch in the hospital cafeteria, she didn't remember that he had been there earlier. She didn't remember what had happened to her and asked the same questions several times. She drifted in and out of restless sleep.
While she was asleep, he revisited the questions that were beginning to nag at him. Why had it taken thirty years and a chance meeting in Starbucks for this secret to come out? Why hadn't Gary wanted to find him? Even if James had really been his father, they were related. If he had forgiven her, why would he not want to meet her son, his brother's son? Why did he tell Maris that Finn must be lying—if he had sent his offspring to his alma mater, why not believe that Elisa would have done the same? Was he trying to keep his own secret, prevent his family from learning that he had abandoned Finn?
And Olivia? He had been so touched by her welcoming kindness that he had not thought to wonder why she hadn't contacted him. She had said Gary wouldn't—maybe she thought, loyal wife that she was, that it was not her place. But she knew how to find him, through his grandparents, and even if Gary never wanted to meet him, couldn't she have just inquired about him, perhaps written to him?
The only person in all of this who had put him first was his mother. She had shielded him from the truth of his father's rejection, given him a father he could be proud of. Yes, she had been protecting herself too, hiding her guilt—and at what cost!
If James had lived, if they had raised him together, James would have been his dad forever, even if Gary turned out to be his biological father. But he had never known James. He had only the idea of a father, an outline that could never be filled in. That made it easy to think Gary could step in and fill the void. But no, he had a father, however distant and elusive, and it was too late to replace him now.
He had all he could handle now with the parent he did have. "Finn?" she said. "Where are you?"
"Right here, Mom."
"Don't go away again."
"I'll stay as long as they'll let me," he promised.
"Everything is fuzzy. I need a drink." She moved her head restlessly against the pillow and then looked right at him and asked, "They made you hate me, didn't they?"
"No, Mom. I don't hate you. I could never hate you. "
"I just want you to be happy, baby. That's all I want. Can you take me home now?"
"No, not yet. You need to stay here and let them take care of you. You'll be better soon, and we can go home then. Just rest now."
"It's too cold in here," she complained. "It hurts when I breathe."
"I'll ask if they can turn up the heat," he said, but she was asleep again before he finished the sentence. He was beginning to feel cramped from sitting so long, so he got up and walked around the room. There were practicalities he needed to think about now. Was her health insurance going to cover all this? Did she have long-term care insurance? How much would she miss him if he flew back to New Brunswick? How else could he get his car back to Pittsburgh? If Gary and Olivia wanted him to drive Maris to College Park, could he stand another trip with her? Gary had said not to worry about Maris or the car—he wouldn't let Maris drive it back, would he? That was a scary thought! How could he stay away from the office long enough to see his mother through her recovery? How would they manage when she was able to go home, with the bedrooms on the second floor? Would he be able to hire a nurse or aide to help out? Would they let her go home, or would she need to go to a nursing home? He knew that older people with broken hips sometimes deteriorated mentally and were never the same again, but she was only fifty-four. He needed her to recover; otherwise the guilt would be unbearable.
Later in the day, an attending physician came in and examined her and gave Finn a full medical report. A lot of it went over his head, but he understood that she was lucky to have strong, dense bones; they would be able to put a screw in her hip, and it should heal well. The biggest risks now were pneumonia, blood clots, and infection, which they would work to prevent. They would try to get her up and walking very soon. He didn't know yet how long she would be hospitalized, probably only a few more days. She would need physical therapy, but a nursing home would be unnecessary if she had adequate home care. Bottom line: It could have been so much worse.
His grandparents came in early in the evening. He hugged them gratefully. "She'll be all right," he said. She woke up while they were there and recognized them, but was again confused about where she was and what was happening. They insisted on staying while he went to the cafeteria for dinner—he had been planning to have a late dinner after visiting hours were over. He ate quickly and when he came back, his grandmother was drowsing in a chair, and his grandfather was chatting with his mother in Finnish, a language she had learned as a child.
"Nothing wrong with her brain," his grandfather said.
She stayed awake for a long time after they left and, although she had already forgotten their visit and repeated herself several times, was much more alert and coherent. "Did I try to kill myself?" she asked.
"I think so," he said.
"I didn't do a very good job."
"They think I killed Jimmy," she said.
"No, they don't. Gary doesn't. He said he forgave you a long time ago."
"I loved James," she said, "but I chose Gary, and he left me. I can't forgive him."
"Try," he said.
"He's not your father."
"No. He could have been, but he's not. It's just you and me, pal."
"Finn? Baby? Where have you been? I think I hurt my leg." And she was gone again.
The hip surgery was scheduled for early the next morning, and as soon as his mother was in Recovery, Finn drove to College Park. He cleaned out his apartment and met with Leo, who would be taking over as senior editor indefinitely, and Brenda, who would be working with the student interns. He was back in Pittsburgh in late afternoon. His mother was awake, alert, complaining of pain, and wanting to go home. "Where have you been?" she asked accusingly.
"College Park. I'm going to move in with you and take care of you. Maybe I'll look for a job here."
"Well, it's about time. If I'd known a broken hip was all it would take, I would have done it sooner." She tried to laugh, but it hurt too much.
Gary called that evening after Finn had left the hospital. Being chief of police had its uses. He had contacts in Saint John and had found someone responsible who was starting a job in Washington, D.C. and would drive Finn's car back to Pittsburgh and take the bus from there. While he was in Saint John, Gary had checked out Saint John Community College. Maris would be dropping out of the University of Maryland effective immediately, and arrangements were being made to send her belongings home.
Olivia came on the line. "Finn, how is your mother?"
"Much better, Olivia, thank you. I'm sorry I had to leave so abruptly."
"What I want to know is when you'll come back and see us again."
"I'm afraid I'll have my hands full here for a long time yet."
"Well, at least promise you'll come up for Thanksgiving. Ours is in October, so it won't conflict with yours. It will be a big family gathering, all the cousins, so there won't be any pressure. We'd love to have your mother come too."
"Thank you, but I don't think she will. I hope this won't offend you, but—"
"No, of course not."
He took a deep breath and said what he needed to say: "I didn't go to Cedar Hills looking for my father—at least not for Gary. I already had a father. I don't need another one."
She was silent for a few seconds and then said, "I do understand. Your loyalties—"
"On the other hand, I've never had a sister before. I wouldn't like to lose track of Maris and Joanna. I'd like to come for Thanksgiving if that's enough for you."
"Of course. And you'll be able to see our grandchild!"
"My niece. Maya?"
"Yes. I don't know if Gary told you, but Maris will be starting school in Saint John in the fall. In the meantime, she's applied for a job there—at Starbucks."