Love was in the air and all over the mall. They’d started hanging the hearts right after Christmas. It was a whole lotta hearts since we were America’s Mall, one of the largest malls in the world. Not merely a place to shop, but a destination. Four stories of shopping, eating and entertainment that covered as much space as small town.
We had three hotels and a water park attached to the mall proper and more had sprung up around it to house the visitors. Oddly enough, the mall was a popular spot for weddings. As I walked through the sea of hearts, cupids and flowers I had to smile. I was the new sheriff of Lovetown. I had recently accepted the job of heading up security. I hadn’t figured it would be a small job; but it was bigger than I’d imagined. Still, this career seemed unlikely to end like my seventeen years with the local police force: with me shot full of holes and lying in a pool of my own blood.
My partner, Brady Haskins had told me a dark hallway was clear when there was a naked lunatic with a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun and his armed and dangerous gangsta bud at the end of it. But Brady had made up for it by sleeping with my wife during my long and difficult recovery. On the bright side, I’d been shot by a very wealthy dude with fine upstanding parents who felt like hell about what happened. I’d gotten a nice fat settlement, after which Lisa had tossed me out, filed for divorce and taken half my money. I guess I could have fought it, but I couldn’t take the chance on making Lisa angry. I had no legal right to my 13 year old stepdaughter Tristan, even though I’d raised her since she was three.
Once rid of me, Lisa had quickly married Brady and they’d used my cash to open an employment agency. Lisa told me she’d never been happier and didn’t know why it upset me to hear it. The father of the millionaire waste of skin who’d shot me felt guilty about the actions of his meth-addicted son and when he heard I’d gotten the boot at home, he gave me a fantastic condo with a river view. His idiot son had tried his hand at real estate development before devoting himself full time to smoking meth. The condos were gorgeous, they’d just spent so much money building them, there was no way you could have made any money on them. But I loved my spacious home with professional kitchen, hot tub and cathedral ceiling in my great room. It had been kind of lonely limping around there all by myself.
I was doing better now, I had a good job to keep me occupied and a hot new girlfriend to keep me company. Mackenzie Gordon was the Director of Special Events for America’s Mall and there was always something special going on. Brett Miller, a fellow cop who picked up security shifts at the mall, had set up to meet. I owed him one. She was just thing I needed to get past Lisa. Mackenzie was good looking, funny and not like my ex-wife in any way, shape or form. She got along great with Tristan. Especially considering that Trissy went out of her way to make life difficult to Lisa and Brady. She was extra-nice to Mackenzie just to spite Brady. I didn’t encourage it, even though I kind of enjoyed it.
I had wondered how working with Mackenzie would go, but it had been fairly easy. She was always in professional mode at work. If she felt like yelling at me, she’d do it at home. But I didn’t think I gave her much reason to yell, at least not at work. My predecessor had not run a tight ship. In fact, his assistant had turned out to be pimping shop girls in the food court. I may have come from a small town police force, but it wasn’t exactly Mayberry and shit wasn’t going to get past me like that.
My first priority had been to get the state-of-the-art surveillance system to actually function. The person who was supposed to make it work was the food court pimp, so I had to look for someone else to fill the position. I decided that I was cop enough for the job and that I needed a tech person. So I hired a fresh-out-of-college computer geek named Karlie Bergeron who’d minored in criminology for fun. She confirmed my suspicion that her predecessor the pimp had purposely fucked with the program to cover up his own activity. But Karlie was working on it and that was enough for me right now.
I was making my regular rounds through the mall, checking in with the guys and gals who worked for me and also making contact with the loss prevention staff at the stores as well as security personnel at the hotels and the Tahiti Water Park. It might have done Dave Spivey, the former head of security, a lot of good to follow a routine like that. You notice a lot of little things that way. I think Dave was just hoping to take it easy after thirty years in law enforcement. If you want to take it easy, just retire to play golf in Arizona, don’t take on security at mall with its own zip code. I used to like Dave. He’d been easy to deal with when I was on the police force. But his choice to half-ass his job had left three four kids dead. One of them probably deserved it; but that should have been up to the State. The other three were just kids. One who’d made stupid mistakes and the other the definition of innocent bystanders. The Mall’s rep had taken a beating and they thought I was the guy who could help resuscitate it.
I’d spent the better part of a year sitting home mulling over why my wife left me for my partner. It was good to be back at work. I’d worried if I was physically up to the challenge, but so far so good. I’d worried the same about being physically up to Mackenzie. But again, so far so good.
I stopped in to look around Elegant Chocolatier. I was contemplating Valentine’s Day gifts for the ladies in my life. When she was four, Tristan had slid a candy heart that said I heart U on it across the kitchen table to me. I hearted her right back. It was a tradition of ours to leave the little candy hearts with Be Mine and For You imprinted on them around for each other to find. Under pillow, in drawers or on shelves. We’d put them anywhere. It drove Lisa crazy. She was a neat freak and the little hard sugar hearts invariably got crushed into a million pieces when somebody stepped on them. So I gave her roses. I added an extra dozen every Valentine’s day we’d been together. She seemed to love them, always thanking me enthusiastically later in bed. And she tended to them carefully with daily trimmings of the stems, fresh water in the vases and the daily plucking of wilted petals and leaves. I’d already bought and paid for the flowers when she dumped me right before Valentine’s Day. I wondered how she felt when the 10 dozen roses showed up. Or how Brady felt. They probably didn’t feel jack about it. They probably covered the bed in my rose petals and screwed on it. Maybe then they added another layer of my money. Since my grave wasn’t available, it was the next best thing. I wondered what would happen if I sent Mackenzie ten dozen roses. Her apartment was a little small for that, though. She lived in a place about the size of my walk-in closet so she could save up to buy a house. I had four bedroom home that I shared with a couple of kittens. It had crossed my mind to ask her to move in. But I didn’t know if that was a good example for Tristan. Lisa had moved Brady right in as soon as I moved out. I didn’t like living alone. I’ve never really valued solitude that much. Nothing made me happier than the weekends Tristan spent with me. Well, the weekends Mackenzie spent were pretty good, too. For a long time after I moved into the condo, I kept my weapon and my ammunition in different parts of the house, just in case I felt like putting myself out of my misery. Didn’t feel much like dying these days. I had places to go and things to do.
Karlie was geeked when I got back to my office. Our new communications headsets were in. We would be smooth with our little earpieces and our tiny receivers clipped to our belts. Or we would look like schizophrenics muttering to ourselves as we patrolled the mall. My strategy was to have some people who were very obviously members of the security team on display and some people who looked nothing like security personnel. Both had their uses. Karlie was great to dress up like the kid she was and sent out among the masses. She was also an excellent reference to current pop culture and fashion trends so I could keep up with Tristan without actually trying.
It made me feel good to see a young girl who was smart and tough and doing okay out in the world. The deaths of the two little gals who worked here had hit me hard around Christmas. Especially the one who had even done one thing you could think of as wrong. The world was not a safe place to send your daughter out into and you still had to send them anyway.
I had my standard Friday afternoon briefing to get everyone set for the weekend. I ran things like we actually were a little police force. Dave Spivey’s mistake had been to look at this place as cushy job. There was a lot of cushiness about it, I’ll admit that. But I never treated it lightly. I was a tougher boss than Dave, but nobody seemed to mind that much and if they did, they were sure welcome to leave. Not everyone liked that I’d hired my assistant from outside the current staff and the fact that she was young didn’t help. There were rumors that she’d got the job by sleeping with me. I guess I should have been flattered that they thought I could get twenty-three year old tail. Damn, that would have been the perfect thing to do after getting dumped by my wife. Take up with someone young enough to be my daughter. Well, young enough to be my daughter if I’d knocked someone up in high school. Wisely, I’d taken up with someone my own age.
“Is it possible that we’re all set?” I asked Karlie.
“You might be, Jack.” She grinned at me. “I’m gonna work a little more. My date isn’t until ten.”
“And just who is this guy?” I asked.
“He’s the ammunitions manager at Sportsman’s Paradise.” She said. Sportsman’s Paradise was almost a mall unto itself offering the supplies for every outdoor activity imaginable. They drew visitors from all over the region. Usually Sportsman’s Paradise locations were freestanding, but America’s Mall had managed to entice them into building here.
“Does he come from a nice family?” I teased.
“Gee Dad.” She said. “Don’t be so nosey.”
“Can you get me a discount?”
“We’ll see.” She said. “I think I’m going to need another large coffee. I’m on the verge of de-fucking our surveillance system.”
“I really should have tossed Denny off the roof of the parking garage when I had a chance.” I said.
“Bring him here, I’ll do it.” She said. “And since I haven’t already dangled him over the edge, nobody will suspect me. It’ll be kind of like a Klingon War vessel, you kill your predecessor and take his job.”
“You know a lot of Star Trek for a young woman.” I said.
“My other Daddy and I watched a lot of TV together.” Karlie said. “Don’t you have a date or something?”
“With my little girl.” I said.
“Tell Triss I said hello.” She said.
“You want me, you call.”
I got my laptop case and headed out to the parking lot. I had so much stinking paperwork to do that I always had something to do on the weekend. I was parked right where I’d dangled Denny Schuster over the edge and threatened to drop him. I was always a little sorry I hadn’t. The only witness would have been Mackenzie and I think she would have backed me up.
Once home, I made sure the kittens had food and water and then used my professional grade kitchen to prepare a Thirty Minute Meal from a cookbook Tristan had given me for Christmas. Dinner was ready by the time Brady dropped Tristan off. Lisa usually just dropped Trissy off and took off as soon as I opened the door, but for some reason Brady always wanted to talk to me. Maybe he thought we were still friends. Making small talk with the idiot who’d gotten me shot made the metal still left in my body vibrate.
“And she has a paper due on Monday.” He said. I knew that already. As a parent, I could access a webpage for her school that listed current assignments and upcoming events for each class.
“I always get my work done.” Tristan said as she went to her room. “Don’t worry about it, Brady.”
“I’m up to speed.” I said to him. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Dinner smells good.” Brady said.
“Country captain chicken.” I said.
“How’s it going at the mall?” He asked.
“Super.” I said.
“How’s working with your girlfriend?”
“None of your goddamned business.” I said. “Why, are you looking to go after her, too?”
“No.” He actually had the nerve to sound offended. “Christ, I don’t see why we can’t be civil.”
“Civil is fine.” I said. “I don’t want to chit-chat with you. You fucked my wife while I was in intensive care.”
“You were out of intensive care.” He said.
“Good night, Brady.” I said. “Have a nice weekend.”
When he finally left, Tristan came out smiling. “I don’t think he wants to go home. His brother is visiting and stuff. I don’t think he likes him too much.”
Back when we worked together, I could remember Brady talking about his brother Dakota and he never had anything good to say.
“Maybe he thought I was going to ask him to stay for dinner.” I dished out two plates of chicken and garnished them with almonds as the recipe instructed.
“Food looks good, Dad.” She said. “Mackenzie’s not coming over?”
“Not tonight.” I said. “Can you stand my company for an entire evening?”
“Is she coming tomorrow?’ She asked. “Can we ask her to have dinner with us?”
“We can ask.” I said. “You ask, you’re much cuter than I am.”
“Maybe we could watch a movie.” She suggested.
“You wanna spend the weekend at her place?” I laughed.
“I don’t want you not to be able to see her because I’m here.” Tristan said. “I know you want to be all moral and upright because Mom set such a bad example.”
“I’m not so sure Mackenzie wants to spend her every waking moment with me.” I poured drinks for us and we sat down on the stools at the kitchen island to eat.
“Oh, I think she does.” Tristan said. “I would if I could.”
“Not every waking moment. You’d go places with your friends.” I said.
“I would live here if I could.” She said. “When you finish up legally adopting me, maybe I could?”
“You know what?” I said. “Let’s not even talk about it until we have all the paperwork done. I don’t want your mother changing her mind because she thinks I’m trying to take you away from her.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything to her and the idiot.” She said.
“I think word you’re looking for is stepfather.” I said.
“No, that’s not the word.” She said sharply.
“Mother’s husband, then.” I said. “Or even Brady. Don’t get in the habit of calling adults names. It will not serve you well.”
“I’m not stupid.” She said. “I wouldn’t say anything, even when I’m mad. I want it too much. I don’t belong there. It’s Mom’s new life, you know. I think she’d love to be rid of me, but she worries about what other people will think.”
“She got rid of me without worrying what other people think.” I said. “I think she wants you there.”
“She hardly ever even talks to me anymore.” Triss sighed.
“You aren’t perhaps being a bit difficult at times?” I suggested.
“Perhaps.” Tristan admitted.
The condo came equipped with a craft room that Tristan used for elaborate art projects. She spent three hours working on a collage with music blaring down in the basement. I liked the sound of someone else in the house. I managed to get in a call to Mackenzie and invited her for dinner tomorrow. Then I drank a beer while I played a video game that involved a whole lot of shooting. Maybe an odd choice for someone whose been shot multiple times, but I like to shoot. I really would have liked that discount on ammunition. When Tristan came upstairs, I switched to a game rated T for teens.”
“You’re censoring me.” She said.
“It’s my job.” I said.
“If I can do anything I want at home, I have no reason to ever move away.” She flopped down next to me on the sofa. “And you’ll never get to be alone with Mackenzie.”
“You can live at home until your forty, I’m good with that. Might not be a lot of fun for you.”
“You’ll be cleaning your gun when my boyfriends come over.” She laughed.
“I’ll hang up my silhouettes from the shooting range with the nice, neat head shots for them to see.”
“I’m going to beat you so bad.” She grinned picking up the controller for the X-Box. “You have no defense against my spin kicks.”
“Really?” I said. “Because I couldn’t have been studying up on ways to beat the living crap of you.”
“That’s awful close to child abuse.” She said.
“Yeah, prove it.” I said.
She selected a character that looked like a pro wrestler in a cowgirl outfit and she proceeded to kick me in my virtual head. I was my favorite sword-wielding ninja and I picked her up and tossed her over a balcony. Just a little father-daughter family fun. She screamed with laughter. “You suck!”
“You bounce.” I said.
“But I can’t fly, like I found out when I was four.” She said.
“Remember that.” I said thinking ahead to her college years. “Unless you decided to become an astronaut or join the Air Force.”
“A limitless future awaits, I know.” She said as her character cart wheeled into my ninja head. “Oh Yeah!”
“I may have to ground you.” I said.
She did some deadly combinations of kicks and punches and I was flat on my ninja ass. “That looks like it hurts.” She said.
“Maybe a timeout.” I said. “Go sit in a corner.”
She was up early and full of energy. We had a pop-tart breakfast and then went to pick up her very, very best friend Shanda. I had promised her a day at the Tahiti Water Park. Usually, you had to stay at the hotel to use the facilities. But being head of security had its privileges. I was not putting on my bathing suit and heading down a twisting waterslide. Once you’ve had shotgun pellets and bullets cut out of your body, you just aren’t a pretty sight in shorts and no shirt.
“That must have hurt.” Mackenzie said the first time she saw my scar collection.
“Yeah, it did.” I said.
She had later offered to see if kissing would make it feel better. It really kinda did.
So while the girls splashed and played, I took up residence by the pool with a good book and my I-Pod. There was something ironic about my sleek new electronic equipment stocked full of twenty year old music. There were some young fellow scoping out Tristan and Shanda. I judged them to be about fifteen, so I just kept an eye on them instead of knocking their heads together. It would be hard for a fifteen year old boy to miss Shanda’s recently developed figure. Difficult, apparently, for Brady as well. Triss had complained that he’d ogled Shanda and I’d had a little chat with him about that. Brady had insisted that it was impossible not to notice her ample back and front. I suggested firmly that he try harder. When we were partners, I’d called him on his habit of gawking at young girls more than once. Now that he was living with my teenage daughter, I’d insisted on it. How hard was it for an adult to just not look at eighth-grade ass? Well, I guess just about as hard as not sleeping with your partner’s wife while he was in the hospital.
It was nice to get the chance to read. I got a ton of it done during my long convalescence, but I was kind of busy now trying to reorganize the mess that was the security team at the mall and I was spending a lot of time with Mackenzie. And weekends belonged to Tristan. I felt compelled to entertain her when she visited. I knew it was exactly the wrong thing to do, but I couldn’t help it. Like a moth to a bug zapper I could see the weekend father trap, but I just couldn’t help myself. I used to eat breakfast with my daughter every morning and help her with her homework every night. Trissy came over to see me, she was getting ready to ask me a favor.
“Shanda and I wanna go to the game room.” She said.
“With your new friends?” I asked.
“We’re gonna play air hockey.” She said.
“And how old are your friends?” I asked.
“Just turned fourteen and just about to turn fifteen.” Tristan said. “They’re brothers and the family is spending a week here as a joint birthday present.”
“Shouldn’t they be in school?” I asked sounding very fatherly.
“They’re home schooled.” She said triumphantly.
“Okay, you girls can go.” I said smiling.
“Really?” Tristan said brightly and then she thought about it for a moment. “You’re coming too, right?”
“Yeah.” I said. “I’ll be unobtrusive.”
“That seems unlikely to me.” She said.
“That’s because it’s a lie.” I said.
I was perfectly well-behaved in the game room. Tristan, Shanda and the Barrington brothers Jordan and Jason played air hockey, foosball and one of those arcade games where you had to follow dance steps that got increasingly complicated. When I was fourteen, I would have dearly loved to play foosball with a cute little thing wearing a T-shirt over her bathing suit. Even if her mean old dad was watching me. A nice looking woman who was loaded down with packages and accompanied by a little girl came into the game room. She watched the kids playing for a moment and smiled. She walked over to me.
“Are those your girls?” She asked.
“One of them is.” I said.
“I’m Deilia Barrington.” She said. “I’m Jordan and Jason’s mother.”
“Lovely young men.” I said. “It’s been a pleasure to meet them.”
“I saw you watching them like a father hawk.” She smiled.
“My job.” I said.
“Absolutely.” She said. “Are you just here for the weekend?”
“I’m actually just visiting. Usually you have to be a guest to get in, but I’m the head of Mall security and, you know, I know people.”
She laughed. “Well, I’m glad you’re here to look after things. We’re here for a week. This is our family vacation. The kids wanted to go to America’s Mall. And we did save a lot on airfare. And since this is the off-season for family travel, you can get some deals.”
“I still have a hard time wrapping my head around vacations at the mall.” I said. “But I’m all for it.”
“It’s really convenient. The boys are playing in the pool. My husband took our oldest girl to a movie and I went shopping.”
“The marketing team would love you.” I said.
“It’s not exactly educational travel that offers rich cultural experiences.” She said.
“I don’t know. I think this place is a cultural experience onto itself.” I said.
“Can I use my token to play a game, please?” The little girl asked her mother.
“One game.” She said. “Then we all have to meet Dad and Melissa in our room.
The little girl ran off to play something and Deilia Barrington sat down at the table with me.
“So you home school?” I inquired in what I felt was a polite manner.
“Yes I do.” She snapped defensively.
“Well.” I said. “That must be a lot of work.”
“It’s pretty much my full-time job.” She said.
“Like you have your own one-room schoolhouse.” I said. “But back in the old days, that’s how most people learned.”
“Sorry.” She said. “I was expecting some criticism. Everyone tends to assume you are some sort of religious nut storing up guns for the revolution.”
“And gun-toting religious nuts are known for their love of visiting malls and water parks.” I said.
“I guess my attitude is that if you want something done right, you can do it yourself. I could be making twenty eight grand a year teaching while I paid twenty-five grand to keep my kids in private school or spent a fortune to live in a suburb we can’t afford.”
“I was really just making idle chit-chat.” I said. “Unusually warm for this time of year, huh?”
“I don’t know.” She said. “I’ve been ensconced in the mall.”
“High forties in February.” I said.
“The drive was pretty pleasant.” She said.
When the kids finished their game, I got the girls together and got them dressed and ready to leave the warm and wonderful faux Tahiti village. I decided that it might just be fun to take Tristan to Tahiti. I could afford it and I suspected Mackenzie might like to go. The girls and I stopped at the chocolate extravaganza at center court. There was a cooking demonstration from a famous pastry chef and samples and coupons from various chocolate retailers and restaurants in the mall. You were supposed to buy a twenty dollar ticket that benefited charity to get the goodie back of chocolate, but since my girlfriend was directing the event, I managed to score some anyway.
Mackenzie was out in the middle of things, keeping the event on schedule. I took the opportunity to look over my people and make sure they were doing their jobs and I like what I saw. My girlfriend was looking really fine in a red pantsuit that echoed the Valentine theme and set off her light skin and dark hair nicely. But she did look a little tired, which did not happen often.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“It seems successful.” She said. “No complaints from anyone and some decent traffic. I think the numbers are looking good. I’ll have to coordinate with some other coordinators to know for sure. Shouldn’t you be cooking my dinner?”
“It’s a thirty minute dinner.” Trissy said. She help up her bag o’ chocolate. “And this is dessert.”
“Brilliant.” Mackenzie said. “You know I haven’t had time to get a bite of chocolate yet.”
“Bummer.” Shanda said.
“It is.” Mackenzie said. “But I knew my girl would come through for me.”
“I never let a friend down.” Tristan said.
“You ladies have fun in pretend Tahiti?” Mackenzie asked.
“It was the funnest.” Shanda said.
“That’s not a real word.” Triss corrected her.
“Well it was real fun.” Shanda said. “And I didn’t know we were in school today.”
“My guys up to snuff?” I asked Mackenzie.
“Looks good to me, big fella.” She said. “They wouldn’t let you down.”
“Better not.” I said. “I’ll see you later. You look pretty busy.”
“I can’t wait to see what’s cooking.” Mackenzie said to Tristan.
On the ride home, the girls listened to the satellite radio and Shanda bemoaned that her parents had just regular old radio in their vehicles and then she surprised me by saying, “You’re just a really good father, Mr. Weaver.”
“Thanks Shan.” I said.
“I really mean it, you’re really a good dad to Triss and you’re kind of dad-like to me. I mean, if I was ever in a situation where my dad couldn’t come and get me, I would feel really safe calling you for help.”
“I would be glad to help you.” I said.
“Not everybody’s parents are really stable, you know?” She said. “Some of them are really creepy.”
“You think Brady is creepy.” Tristan laughed.
“I don’t know. He just doesn’t seem to get he’s an adult. He wants to come down on your level and talk like he’s your friend or something. That never works right. And like I would be friends with someone who fooled around with his friend’s wife. That’s so lame.”
“It is lame, isn’t it?” I laughed. “So tell me about your new friends Jordan and Jason.”
“Nothing to tell, Dad.” Tristan said. “They’re nice guys and it’s their birthdays.”
“They get home-schooled but they’re not all Charlie-church and stuff.” Shanda said. “They seem really smart and they weren’t hitting on us or anything. But you were watching, so who knows.”
“They have to write a paper about the mall.” Tristan said. “When they take trips, they have to do a paper about where they’ve been. I said that they should e-mail Mackenzie because how they plan events at the mall is really interesting.”
“More interesting than security?” Shanda asked. “Or don’t you want him talking to your dad?”
“There’s a lot of interesting stuff that you could write about.” Tristan said. “I mean, you don’t think about all the work it takes to run the place unless you happen to have a look behind-the-scenes like I do. So much goes on and everything is planned. Even the maintenance is amazing.”
“I like to think that stuff just happens by magic.” Shanda said. “Then I don’t have to worry about it. But Mom says there’s no laundry fairy.”
I dropped Shanda off, tooted a hello on the horn to her mother and then went to the grocery store with Tristan. We had always liked grocery shopping together. It was a chore I gladly did for Lisa. Post-divorce, she said I did it to be controlling. I actually just really like food. Even just to look at and know that there are strange and exotic sauces available was fun for me. Trissy had picked up the habit, she stopped to check out everything new and different on the shelves. So it took an hour and twenty minutes to shop for our thirty minute meal.
Back at the condo, Tristan made a Caesar salad while I grilled beef tenderloins. I was digging on the indoor grill with built-in downdraft. It was probably not something I would have spent the money on myself, but it sure was cool. Sometimes I felt like I was living in a magazine when I looked around this place. Especially after Mackenzie helped me pick out all the nice new furniture. But it was all starting to feel like my home now, not just some place I’d been exiled to.
“I don’t think Brady even likes his brother.” Tristan said while she was whisking together the salad dressing.
“Probably not.” I said.
“Mom’s the one that said he could say. She was talking to Brady’s mother and thought she was doing her some big favor. I think Brady was pissed she went and did it.”
“Like you said, I don’t think he likes his brother too much.” I was not going to encourage gossiping about Brady. I wasn’t going to do it. I so wanted to do it.
“Which is kind of a bummer for him, I guess.” Tristan said. “I almost feel bad for him. I used to like him before he broke up my family.”
“Your family is still here.” I said.
“I liked it better when it only had one location to serve me.” Tristan said.
“Baby, there’s nothing to be done about that.” I said.
“I know that.” Triss said. “I’m not seven, I don’t think that someone can wave a magic wand and it will all go back the way it used to be. You know, I’m trying to work with what I got. I just can’t forgive Mom and Brady, I just can’t.”
“Well, you should try.” I said. “Because that’s the only mother you have.”
“One mother and the dads just keep rolling in.” She said.
“I will always be here for you.”
“I know.” Tristan said. “I know who my daddy is. Mom’s crappy taste in husbands isn’t going to be my problem.”
“Thanks.” I said. “I’m one of those husbands.”
“She didn’t keep you, did she?” Tristan said. “Crappy taste.”
Dinner was pleasant, like it always was when the three of us got together. It was a strange feeling like I’d created a whole new family in this stylish new home. Sometimes, it could feel like it had always been this way. Pretending that you hadn’t been through a bitter divorce was probably not particularly healthy. But it was kind of fun. No custody problems, no broken heart. No trust issues. While we were cleaning up, I got a phone call from work. I went into my office to check the work schedules on my computer and settle a dispute. Responsibility could be a huge pain in the ass. When I finished up confirming who the hell was supposed to be where and for how long I was finally able to get back out to Triss and Mackenzie. They were talking while they loaded the dishwasher.
“I mean, I like boys. I just don’t get the boyfriend thing.” Tristan said. “And I don’t want to sleep with anybody now. I think it makes life really complicated.”
“Yes.” Mackenzie said. “It does. In ways you can’t imagine.”
“My life is way too complicated now. I like having guy friends and I like looking at boys and talking about boys. I just don’t want everything to be all about some boy. Cause I think that would drive both of us crazy.”
“You’re a smart girl.” Mackenzie said.
“I tried explaining this to Mom.” Triss sighed. “It’s okay with her if I’m gay. Jesus, I like boys. I think I’d know if I was gay.”
“Your poor Mom, she was just trying to be understanding.” Mackenzie said. “When people have teenagers, they’re nervous all the time.”
“Yes, but if you tell him I told you, I’ll completely deny it.” Mackenzie said.
“You should have seen him watching the guys at the water park.” She laughed. “It was so funny.”
“You are his baby girl.” Mackenzie said.
‘I’m lucky he hasn’t found a chastity belt for me.” Triss said. “And I’ve read about those things and they are really gross.”
“I think your Dad would rather just raise you up to make good decisions.” Mackenzie said.
“Like to never, ever, ever have sex.” Tristan said.
“No, I think he just would prefer that you not do it until your brain is fully formed and you can make good decisions.”
“I know boys lie.” Tristan said.
“Girls lie, too.” Mackenzie said. “I don’t buy that boys are liars.”
“They’ll stretch the truth to get in your pants.” Tristan said.
“And girls will hear what they want to hear.” Mackenzie said.
“I know.” Tristan said. “It’s like their brains stop functioning.”
“You have to work on fine tuning your bullshit detector.” Mackenzie said. “You’ve got one, it just takes a while to calibrate it. That’s why it doesn’t pay to get too serious about your first few boyfriends. The device doesn’t work so well and you’re bound to get burned a couple of times.”
“I don’t think my mother has one.” Tristan sighed.
“You are sharp.” Mackenzie said.
“Sometimes I think I see stuff coming that other people don’t.” Tristan said. “I guess it’s a good thing, but sometimes it makes me worry about stuff.”
I decided that was enough of the eavesdropping and I came out of the hall announcing myself. “All taken care of.”
“You’ve missed the dishes.” Mackenzie said closing the dishwasher. “I know you must be crushed.”
“Devastated.” I said. “Anybody want to play some pool?”
“If you feel the need to lose, I won’t deny you.” Mackenzie said.
“I play the winner.” Tristan said cheerfully. “I want to lose to the best.”
And the rest of the evening was fine and dandy, my illusion of my new family in my new house only falling apart when Mackenzie left to go home. She did not stay over when Tristan was there. That was just how we did things. I missed her at night. Mackenzie had been staying over a lot lately and I enjoyed the company in bed. Sleeping alone was difficult for me and I actually enjoyed sharing a bed with Mackenzie more than Lisa. Lisa was a light sleeper and I was constantly disturbing her. I could at least feel free to roll over with Mackenzie there. I don’t know if I could say the sex was better, but that was because my body was just not what it used to be before the shooting. Mackenzie was wonderfully accommodating though. And God knows, she made me happy. She seemed happy as well, but Lisa had seemed more than satisfied to me and she was banging my partner.
I did not wake up in a good mood. Then Tristan announced she was making us cinnamon toast for breakfast. I felt better. She sat dutifully down to work on her paper and I did some laundry. There wasn’t a lot of it, I took damn near everything to the dry cleaners these days. But I didn’t trust strangers with my socks, towels, sheets and underwear. My laundry room was outfitted with a washer and dryer that had all sorts of high-tech abilities. The dryer even had shelves on top for gently drying sweaters. There was a fold down ironing board should I ever get the urge to iron. Mackenzie used it occasionally. Like every room, there was a built in sound system and even small flat screen television mounted on the wall. They had spent a ridiculous amount of money putting expensive features into a condo they were building on spec. Of course when you’re high, lots of things seem like a good idea. Nothing like a rich idiot with a lot of money at his disposal. It was perhaps a little weird to live in a house built by the dude that shot you. But it was a nice place and I think it made his poor father feel better to give it to me. You know, I can still hear Brady’s voice telling me that the damn hall is all clear. There was no memory loss associated with my trauma. I could remember every second of it, feel every bullet and I had decided to mope about it today. I was feeling thoroughly sorry for myself by the time I got around to grilling a cheese sandwich and opening a can of tomato soup for our lunch.
Tristan read me her thoughtful paper comparing the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century to the technology revolution of the late twentieth. My daughter was freaking brilliant. It had to be my influence.
I felt the usual letdown when Tristan left, but Mackenzie called to say she was coming over and I perked up immediately. I was a needy little bastard.
“We have to talk.” Mackenzie said when I opened the door.
“Uh oh.” I said. “Last time that conversation it ended with get out and I want half your money.”
“This is pretty much the opposite.” Mackenzie took off her coat and gave it to me. “You have to marry me.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“You have to marry me.” She said. “Because I’m stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.” I said.
“Don’t make up your mind about that just yet.” Mackenzie said. “I’m pregnant.”
“Huh.” I said.
“I get a freaking shot four times a year for birth control and I wrote the wrong damn date down for getting the next one and the damn doctor’s office sent me a reminder card and I just decided it was for the damn day I wrote down wrong on my calendar. I am stupid.” She pounded the kitchen counter with both fists. “Stupid, stupid, stupid and now you probably hate me.”
“Huh.” I said again. I was clutching her coat tightly.
“I’m stupid and I’m pregnant.” She said in case I hadn’t quite taken it in.
“Ooops.” I said.
“And you have to marry me.” She said. “Or I have to avoid my parents for a long time and tell them I found a baby in a basket.”
“It’s okay.” I said pretending to be calm. Yet I couldn’t let go of the coat.
“I didn’t do this on purpose.” She said. “I know we talked about how you want to have more kids, but I swear I didn’t do this on purpose.”
“It’s okay.” I said again. I didn’t sound very sincere.
“You can put the coat down.” She said. “Or are you going to hand it back to me so I can leave?”
I hung up the coat and did what I should have done in the first place, I hugged her. “I’m not mad. I’m just stunned.”
“Me, too.” She said. “I had a doctor’s appointment Friday afternoon. But you were kind of busy this weekend.”
“So I have to marry you?” I said.
“Well, I can’t make you.” Mackenzie said. “I’d appreciate it. I’m just not into being your baby mama.”
“I’m just not into my kid living somewhere else.” I said.
“I know.” She said. “I knew what you’d do. I knew what you’d say. I know the kind of man you are. I know it’s hard for you to trust me.”
“Not to trust you.” I said.
“You’ll say it’s you that you don’t trust, but the issue is trust because you got burned bad.” Mackenzie said. “I would never hurt you like that. I’m not a liar and I don’t cheat. I’m just stupid.”
“It’s probably the having to work ahead.” I said. “You’re always working three or four months or more out, it probably messes up the days in your head.”
“It’s not some Freudian mistake where I was trying to trap you. At least I don’t think it was. God, I don’t think I’m like that.”
“I believe you.” I pulled a little bit away from her and looked down at her face. Her eyes were red, she’d had a rough weekend.
“I’ll sign any kid of prenup you want. I insist on it.” Mackenzie said.
“You don’t have to…”
“Yes, I really do.” She said. “That’s my punishment for being stupid.”
“I don’t want to punish you.” I said. “Marrying me is probably punishment enough for anyone.”
She smiled. “That’s the trade off. I sign something that means I can’t take your money and you don’t ever, ever get to bring up how stupid I was for getting knocked up.”
“I guess that’s fair enough. I’m giving up a lot here if I can’t ever use it.” I said.
“I’ll stay with and spend your money.” Her tone was lightening up.
“That’s fine. You’re good at it.”
“I am.” She said.
“When do I have to marry you?” I asked.
“I was thinking early March. That’s when Trissy has her spring break. I’d like to maybe get married at home. It’s not too far to Pennsylvania for your family to come. But we’d want Tristan there. Gives me some time to arrange everything.”
“That sounds fine.” I said. “I don’t want Lisa finding out anything until I get those papers signed for Tristan. I’m afraid it’ll freak her out. That should be done by then. Then I’ll work out getting her to Pennsylvania.”
“I haven’t told anyone but my sister and you.” She said.
“I don’t think you’re like Lisa.” I said. “I never did. And even if I thought the very worst of you. At least you were trying trap me to keep me.”
“I think I could keep you anyway.” Mackenzie said.
“I think you could. Are you okay? I know you weren’t completely sold on the idea of children.”
“I know you think I’m this brittle old maid completely consumed by work.” She said.
“No, I didn’t think you were sure if you wanted kids.” I said.
“We’ll find out, won’t we?” She said.
“So when is our blessed event expected?” I asked.
“Late September or early October.” She said. “You know, it’s not actually nine months.”
“It was a very merry Christmas.” I said.
“Looks like.” She said. “No Christmas names, I’ve lived with Holly all these years.”
“I’ve always wanted to name a son Yule.” I said.
“I’m sorry to crush your dreams.”
“Actually, kind of the opposite.” I said.
It was an odd evening. Mackenzie cried a few times and we talked about a lot of stuff and I thought we pretty much knew what we were going to do. It was strange. A year ago my friends all had me on suicide watch and now I was living this whole different life. Great house, interesting job and a baby. I had wanted one for years. Lisa thought it would be a bad idea because I would be sure to love any child of my own more than Tristan. I knew that was crap. I was awake most of the night, anxious but not really afraid or upset. I think it was more like anticipation. Mackenzie slept soundly, but I think that’s because she’d been awake since Friday wondering how I’d take things. I gave up on sleeping around four in the morning and sat in my kitchen thinking about my old life and how that had completely crumbled away. And that was sad and it hurt that my wife was liar. But the woman sleeping in my bed was not like Lisa. And out of the ashes of what used to be my life was this new one with more money, a nicer wife and two children instead of one. I liked that. When I got a drink I found a candy heart in cupboard. When I took something for my aching knee, I found that Trissy had hidden candy hearts in my medications. Either she was trying to kill me or just being a sweetie. I would have to talk to her about staying the hell out of my medications. By the time Mackenzie got up, I was in a good mood. I forced her to at least have a banana for breakfast. She was more amused than annoyed and she showed me her prenatal vitamins so I’d believe she was getting nutrition.
I had a ton of stuff to do at work. There were twenty e-mails to answer and two meetings to attend. I didn’t even get a chance to talk to Karlie about her progress with the surveillance cameras until noon. She had spent the better part of the weekend systematically eradicating a computer virus that she suspected had been put there as an inside job. I sort of understood computer jargon and could follow most of what she said. Which was pretty impressive since my mind was not exactly on my work. Good thing I had a desk job.
I didn’t really get a chance to see Mackenzie until around three-thirty that afternoon. We just weren’t quite it the same place at the same time. I didn’t call her, I didn’t want it to seem like I was hovering.
“I had lunch. A highly nutritious salad.” She said when she came into my office.
“Good.“ I said. “How’s your day going?”
“Not bad.” She said. “Like it was any other day. Like the world doesn’t not revolve around me.”
“Freaky.” I said. “You know what I’ve decided?”
“I wouldn’t hazard a guess.” Mackenzie said.
“I don’t deserve you.”
“Who could?” She said.
“Seriously. As much as I didn’t deserve the crap that Lisa did to me; I don’t see what I’ve done to deserve someone as great as you. I whiny and self-absorbed and I regale you with tales of my failed marriage and my custody problems and all my aches and pains.”
“I find it all fascinating.” She said.
“I’m lucky you put up with me.”
“And don’t you forget it.” She said. “You are so lucky.”
“A year ago, I didn’t think I had a future. Now, things look kind of bright to me.” I said. “I hope you feel the same way.”
“I’m nervous, you know?” She said. “The doctor says I’m fine, but I’m nervous about that. I’m nervous that I’m pushing you into something you aren’t sure you want. I’m worried about what kind of example we’re setting for your daughter. I’m also thinking how great it will be to have a walk-in closet.”
“It’s a nice closet.” I said. “Larger than your apartment.”
“And I’m worrying about how I can’t take much time off when the baby comes since it’s before Christmas. And do I not work or do I leave my baby with terrible, terrible strangers who want to shake it.”
“My sister does childcare in her home, remember?” I said. “I think she might find us a slot or hell, you want me to stay home?”
“Hmmm, does she have references?” Mackenzie said. “Did she ever shake you?”
“Brittle old maids are funny when they’re on the nest.” I said.
“Oh, you are so funny.” Mackenzie said.
“It’s nice to have something good on the horizon.” I said. “I’m tired everything being about my prolonged recovery. I am officially recovered and moving onto something else.”
“It can all be about me.” She said cheerfully.
“That’ll be fun, don’t you think?” I said.
“Yeah, you do have to cater to my whims, don’t you?”
I heard Tristan’s voice in the hall saying hello to Karlie. A minute or so later she came skipping into my office.
“Happy Monday, Daddy.” She said and offered me a little candy heart. Then she gave one to Mackenzie. “Happy Monday, Mackenzie.”
“Nice to see you.” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Just some shopping.” She said. “Thought I’d say hey.”
“You aren’t stopping by the Tahiti to say hello to your new friends are you?” I asked.
“Adults are so suspicious.” She said. “And yes I am stopping by to say hello and then I’m going home where I will diligently study for the entire evening.”
“You need a ride home?” I asked.
“Mom is picking me up.” She said. “In about forty minutes. I don’t have enough time to get up to no good.”
“It doesn’t take much time to get up to no good.” I said.
“Can’t you do something with him?” Tristan asked Mackenzie.
“Like what?” Mackenzie asked.
“Keep him occupied?” Tristan asked.
“You get your paper all turned in?” I asked.
“Of course.” Tristan said. “I am the perfect daughter.”
“I’m sorry.” Mackenzie said. “But I am the perfect daughter.”
“You guys should stay a few feet apart or otherwise we’ll get some sort of rift in the space time continuum.”
“It’s okay.” Tristan said. “You counteract our perfection.”
“Hey.” I said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That I’m a brat?” She laughed. “But you love me anyway.”
“I wish I had another one just like you.” I said.
Mackenzie gave me this sly, secret smile.
“I made birthday cards for Jordan and Jason.” Tristan volunteered. “And I’m dropping them off. I think we might e-mail each other or something. Their mom has them doing a lot of artsy things and I’m always chock full of ideas for projects.”
“That’s nice of you.” I said.
“They don’t get a chance to make a lot of friends. They don’t go to school and they live out in the country.” She said.
“Does Mrs. Barrington know you’re dropping by?” I asked.
“Yes.” Tristan said. “God, I’m not rude. I’m meeting them down in the game room. Are you going to follow me?”
“No. I have cameras everywhere in this mall.” I said.
“I thought they didn’t work.” She said.
“Karlie fixed ‘em.” I said.
“Big Daddy is watching, huh?” Triss said.
“Always.” I popped my candy heart in my mouth.
Mackenzie and I ordered a pizza that night and had another long conversation where we just kept making the same points over and over. But I think it was cathartic for both of us to say what was on our minds.
“I thought four bedrooms was way too big for me.” I said. “But Triss and the baby each need a room and we pretty much have to have an office.”
“At least we have plenty of room. Where the heck would I put a baby at my apartment? The closet?”
“I’ll bet you know a great place to get a discount on baby furniture.” I said.
“I’m not going to go nuts with the nursery.” She said.
“You think it would be okay if Trissy helped you pick out stuff?” I asked. “I think she might like that.”
“Better her than you?” Mackenzie laughed.
The phone rang and I answered it.
“Jack.” Lisa said on the other end. “Tristan isn’t there with you is she?”
“No.” I said. “Wasn’t she there when you picked her up at the mall?”
“My brother-in-law picked her up and brought her home.” Lisa said. “And she just took off sometime between five and when I got home at seven. Shanda says she’s not there and her bike is in the garage.”
“No, I haven’t seen her since around four.” I said. “She came by my office to say hello.”
“Did she seem mad?” Lisa asked.
“No.” I said. “She was in a really good mood.”
“I don’t know where she’s at.” Lisa said. “Maybe she just went somewhere. I’m worried about her.”
“So am I.” I said.
Parents hardly ever think their kids would just run off. I had learned that in seventeen years as a cop. They are almost always wrong and the kids just come home on their own. I was a typical parent. Trissy was almost always just where she said she would be. Although, she had gotten mad at her mother and come over here once on her bike. Maybe she was on her way now. But how the hell was she getting here?
I called my buddy Brett Miller. He was working a security shift at the mall that night.
“Lisa came home and Tristan wasn’t there and she can’t find her.” I said. “Maybe she came out there.”
“I’ll check the food courts, that’s where the kids hang. I’ll get everybody looking out for her.” He said.
“She’ll probably turn up any minute.” I said.
“You know kids.” Brett said. “They don’t think.”
But Tristan usually did think. I reminded myself that we can always give ourselves perfectly good reasons to do the things we shouldn’t.
When there was still no sign of her after half an hour, I called the hotel and asked for the Barringtons’ room, but there was no answer.
“I think I’m gonna take a drive and go over to the mall.” I said.
“I’ll wait here in case she shows up.” Mackenzie said exactly what I was thinking.
“Thank you.” I said. “She’s probably at the neighbors doing her nails…”
“I was young once.” Mackenzie said. “Very long ago.”
I kissed her goodbye. “Hopefully, this won’t be too long. Secure the child, ground the child and come home.”
I took a pretty slow drive along the route I would expect Tristan to take to my house in case she was coming that way. I called Lisa’s place and got Brady, who told me they’d already checked with Lisa’s parents, my parents and Tristan’s biological father’s folks as well as all off Trissy’s friends that they could think of.
“She’s got her purse and her backpack with her.” Brady said.
I told him I was headed out to the mall.
“Yeah, I thought about that.” Brady said. “Figured you’d handle that.”
“Brett’s got everyone keeping an eye out for her now.” I said.
“I’ll call you if she shows up.” Brady said.
Usually, I thought the vast expanse of the mall was kind of cool, even though it was my job to secure it. Tonight, it all seemed designed to prevent me from finding my daughter. I considered the possibilities of where she might be. The number of stores that actually interested her could be narrowed down. Kids loved loitering near the food to watch other kids. The possibility of a movie crossed my mind. Being that I was in charge of security, it was easy enough for me to just walk in and look around for Trissy. I checked out the flicks that seemed as if they might be on interest, but I didn’t see her blonde head anywhere in the darkened theaters. It took more than an hour to make the movie rounds. Then I checked in with Brett who told me there had been no luck spotting Trissy at any of the usual teen hangouts. I went over to the Tahiti to look for the Barringtons. I found Jordan and Jason playing in the pool. Their parents and siblings had gone to a movie.
“She came over before suppertime.” Jordan said. “To give us birthday cards.”
“But she had to leave because someone was coming to pick her up.” Jason said.
“She said there was an idiot waiting for her.” Jordan said. “She’s kind of funny like that.”
“You know what time that was?’ I asked.
“It was before five, cause we ate right after five so everybody else could get to the movie they wanted on time.” Jason said.
“If she gets in touch with you, tell her I am looking for her.” I said. “And I want you to let me know.”
“She just left without telling anybody?” Jordan asked.
“It’s not like her.” I said.
“Maybe one of her friends was in trouble.” Jason said. “Maybe there was an emergency and she just wasn’t thinking straight.”
“That’s a pretty good possibility.” I said. “Did she talk about anything like that?”
“No.” Jason said. “She doesn’t like her stepdad very much and she wants to live with you. But she said she has to be extra good if that’s gonna happen.”
“Okay.” I said. “I need to keep looking for her. I’m very worried.”
And I was. The mall stores closed at nine and the emptier the place got, he worse I felt. I called Mackenzie.
“Honey, I’m still looking. I didn’t forget about you.” I said.
“I’m fine.” She said. “I’m a grownup and you know where I am. Don’t worry about me.”
Triss had only been missing for a little over two hours. It wasn’t time to panic.
I met up with Brett outside the security team’s locker room and break lounge.
“I’m getting really worried.” I said to him.
“Hopefully, she just went somewhere with a friend. Even the good ones will blindside you sometimes by acting just like a thirteen-year old.” He tried to reassure me.
I was not feeling reassured. I drove over to Lisa and Brady’s place. It had taken a long time to stop thinking of it as my house and feeling like crap because I’d been tossed out of it. But I didn’t like coming over here. I always ended up pondering how I could have wasted ten stinking years of my life o Lisa. Then I would remind myself that Trissy was worth it and that no time with her had ever been wasted. Now I could just start thinking about Lisa as my unhappy first marriage. Brady had not done a good job of keeping the evergreen bushes in front of the house neatly trimmed and I knew Lisa wasn’t about to get into that. The shrubbery was getting too tall and was well on its way to overtaking the window. It was not my problem. The Christmas lights were still hanging from the eaves. Lisa would be mad about that. She liked every trace of the holiday gone before New Year’s Day. It would not have bothered her so much that she’d get a ladder and do it herself, but it would bother her. Or maybe not, maybe the little things didn’t irritate her anymore. Maybe it was just me that made her feel that way. I had no way of finding out short of grilling Triss about it and I wasn’t going to play that game.
Brady opened the door and said. “No luck at the mall, huh?”
“No.” I said. “The Barrington boys said she dropped off their birthday card right when she said she would and that she left to go meet her ride. They say they haven’t seen her since.”
“I don’t know why the police aren’t doing anything!” Lisa said to me when I came in.
“Lisa, I am the police.” Brady said.
“Why isn’t there an Amber Alert or something?” She demanded.
“Because of her age and there’s no evidence that she was abducted.” Brady said. “And because most kids her age end up coming home in a couple of hours.”
“My baby isn’t home.” She said.
They had new furniture. I don’t know why that jumped out to me when my little girl was missing, but it did. Everything in the living room was new down to the pictures on the wall. But I guess you wouldn’t expect to see photographs of me hanging around these days. It appeared Brady had managed to talk her into replacing the white carpet with hardwood floors. It was a miracle. You could wear shoes in the house if you wanted, maybe even drink some Kool-Aid. I noticed the new photographs framed on the wall. Lisa had arranged for a couple of family photo sessions. Lisa, Tristan and Lisa’s mother were posed in one, Lisa and Tristan in another and Lisa, Brady and Tristan in the third. Tristan was scowling in every single one of them. What a little brat my baby girl could be. I had talked with her several times about purposely making things harder at home.
“You shouldn’t be able to dump your husband for the guy that caused him to get shot then take all his money and come out happy.” Tristan said. “They’ve got each other and they have their wonderful new business, but they’re never getting me on board the good ship Haskins.”
“It’s not your job to punish your mother.” I said.
“They aren’t even a little bit sorry. They aren’t sorry that you got put out of the house and had to live alone. They think that getting a brand new condo for free puts you ahead of the deal. That they did you some kind of favor. That a condo is more important than you family. That’s how they think. They don’t get it.”
“You will never be happy making other people miserable.” I warned her.
“Think how glad they’ll be to get rid of me when I come to live with you.” Trissy had said.
She was nice as pie to Mackenzie, but I knew that could change. I made a point of calling my daughter out on all of her bad behavior and disapproving long and loud. She thought she was looking out for me. Nobody who made her Big Daddy unhappy should have any happiness for themselves. But Brady and Lisa looked pretty happy to me. They were often annoyed at Trissy, but since they had true love and a thriving employment agency started with my money, they were hard to bring down.
Brady’s younger brother Dakota was sitting on the back of the sofa looking down at the floor.
“Patti Mackey is coming over to file the report.” Brady said.
“It’s about damn time.” Lisa said.
“From experience honey, let me give you a little advice.” Brady said. “Yelling at officers doesn’t make them want to help you.”
“It’s not your daughter that’s missing.” She snapped.
“Well, it’s mine.” I said. “And the police aren’t your enemy, Lisa.”
“She wouldn’t do this.” Lisa said. “Take off like this. It’s a little too passive-aggressive for our girl. She’s an in-your-face kind of kid.”
“Her friend from the water park made a suggestion.” I said. “That I didn’t think of cause when you get old you forget that kids actually have these complicated little lives. That she might have a friend with a problem who needed her.”
“You get a call of help, you could just take off to help.” Brady said.
“We checked with her friends.”
“Most of her friends.” Brady corrected her. “And we don’t know everyone she knows from school.”
“She would tell me that she had to help a friend.” She would leave a message.” Lisa said.
“Because she did get home, right?” Brady looked sharply at his brother. “You didn’t forget to pick her up?”
“I’m not an idiot!” Dakota Haskins said. He was a scrawnier, less well kept version of his brother. His bright yellow and red shirt looked like he’d mugged a surfer. But his pasty complexion made it obvious that he wasn’t getting out in the sun much. “I said that I was right there on time and I took her straight home and she went off to her room and slammed the door. She was pissed off when I told her you guys wouldn’t be home for dinner and that she’d need to microwave something. She said that she could have stayed at the freaking mall and eaten there.”
“That sounds like her.” Lisa said.
“But not like you.” Brady said. “I find out you missed picking her up…”
“I didn’t!” Dakota almost screamed.
“Brady…” Lisa said. “Give him a chance.”
“He’s had plenty. If that kid had to catch a ride with some stranger…” Brady said threateningly to his brother.
“She would have gone back to get Jack.” Lisa said. “Or even his girlfriend. How late were you there, Jack?”
“Probably five forty-five.” I said.
“See.” Lisa said.
“Mackenzie is waiting for her at my house.” I said.
“You said that before.” Lisa said. “Mackenzie is waiting by the phone.”
“Tristan likes her a lot.” Brady said. “Wonder what that feels like?”
Standing around with Brady and Lisa in the house I used to call my own was pretty much my idea of hell. I was glad when Officer Patti Mackey showed up to take our missing persons report. Patti was my girl. Brady had turned useless when the shots rang out in that dark hallway. Patti had jumped out screaming and killed the second shooter. I would never forget the sound she made, just like a samurai charging into battle in a movie. I thought it was going to be about the last thing I ever heard.
She smiled warmly at me. “How are you?” Patti was a girl so pretty that sometimes people thought her uniform was some kind of stripper’s costume. She had hip-length pale red hair that she did up in a braid for work. She was freckle-faced with big brown eyes and made out of solid muscle.
“My daughter is missing.” Lisa said.
“That’s why I’m here.” Patti said. “Who was the last person to see her?”
“My brother.” Brady said.
“What time?” She asked.
“About four-thirty.” Dakota said. “I picked her up outside the entrance where the Bravisimo Italian restaurant is.”
“West entrance.” I said
“I guess.” He said. “And then I brought her home and she went to her room. I left. I went and had a couple of beers and when I got back Brady and Lisa were here, but no Tristan.”
“What kind of mood was she in, did she seem upset?” Patti asked.
“She was pissy. Really mad that she had to come home when Lisa and Brady were going to dinner out. She said she could have just eaten at the mall or with her dad. But she was always like that with me.”
“Was she having problems at home?” Patti asked.
“No.” Lisa said.
“Lisa, that’s not entirely true.” Brady said. “Triss took the divorce very hard. She was upset about it and mad her mother and me. I think the situation was improving slowly but surely, but she was angry with us. She’s not the kind of kid who just disappears. She’s never done anything like this. She got mad at us once and rode her bike all the way over to Jack’s, but she did leave a note. I’m going to Dad’s and I hate you all.”
“She was in a good mood today.” I said. “She stopped by my office at the mall to see me.”
“She was fine this morning.” Lisa said.
“She had finished this paper for history and she thought it was really good. She had it all printed out nice and in a binder with this cover she made.” Brady said. “Triss is very artistic. She met these kids at the Tahiti and she wanted to take a birthday card over after school.”
“That’s when she came to see me.” I said. “I talked to the kids. They’re there on a family vacation. They said she dropped off the card and left. Said her ride was waiting for her.”
“And I was there, right on time.” Dakota said.
“Anything out of place here? Signs of a struggle?” Patti asked, but I knew she would check.
“No, her backpack and her purse are both gone.” Lisa said.
“Why take the backpack?” I asked. “if she was going back out? Why not just the purse?”
“She have a cell?” Patti asked.
“No, much to her displeasure.” Brady said. “She had a couple of phone messages waiting for her on the machine. Just girlfriends wanting her to call. They all said they hadn’t heard from her. The last call dialed out of here was Dakota calling Lisa at our office and that was while Triss was still at the mall.”
“May I see her room?” Patti asked.
“It’s a mess.” Lisa said.
Lisa was nuts. For a teenage girl, it was a pretty neat space. The bed was neatly made, though there was a sprinkle of glitter on the floor. Tristan’s fondness for crafts drover her neat-freak mother up the wall. Tristan liked stuff. Her shelves were jammed with bears, books and her old childhood dolls. She had pictures of pop stars and surly young actors plastered everywhere. She loved stickers, too and had abused the furniture that Lisa carefully selected by slapping them on everything. I was taking in all the changes since I was last in this room. I used to see it every day. I knew what pictures were hanging in my daughter’s room back then. I knew what outfit she wore everyday.
“This is the way her room always looks.” Brady said.
Patti pulled the comforter off the bed to take a look at it. “Anyone can make a bed, usually they won’t bother straightening the sheets and fluffing the pillow.”
“Cookie crumbs and glitter.” Lisa said shaking her at Tristan’s leavings on the sheets.
It was better than a blood trail and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought to do the same. There was an abundance of Trissy’s blonde hairs, but no sign of any other color clinging to anything.
“She visit a lot of chat rooms?” Patti asked.
“She goes on-line.” Lisa said. “But he’s got some kind of program to spy on her.” She waved her finger in my direction.
“Little something we use to keep an eye on our employees. I’ve put it to use at home.” I said. “I’ve never seen anything that struck me as too inappropriate. She tends to cut people off immediately if it looks like it might get a little raunchy. I’m pretty sure she knows I’m watching her. She posts on a lot of boards about books and TV shows and art and music. She doesn’t do much chatting for the sake of chatting. The program I have lets me look at all of instant messaging, her e-mail and a complete history of where she goes on the web. And I can access her computer from mine whenever she’s on-line.”
“Sneaky.” Patti said.
“That’s my business, being sneaky.” I said.
“Triss isn’t the kind of kid you could easily fool.” Brady said. “She’s sharp and she questions everyone’s motives. Tristan thinks before she acts. That girl is way too smart to do something that would get her in this much trouble. She understands actions and consequences better than most people. She’ll act up, but only take it as far as she can go without really getting in trouble. Just enough to get sent to her room or something. And what does she care, kids nowadays have everything in their room anyway and what Triss likes to do is draw and read.”
“I can’t see her letting a stranger in.” Lisa said. “She wouldn’t let the cable guy in once when I was late getting home and the cable was out. And Tristan loves her television.”
“May I?” I gestured towards Trissy’s computer while asking Patti’s permission. It was her investigation. “I checked her Internet activity last night, but not today.”
“He wouldn’t let her go on-line unless we could track her.” Lisa said apologetically as she glanced sideways at me.
“World’s chock full of freaks.” Brady said.
“Thanks for reminding me.” Lisa said.
I sat my bulky self down in the teen sized white chair at the little white desk that had nearly been obliterated by stickers and turned on the computer. I had purchased a very nice laptop for my daughter and also was paying for her wireless Internet service. Yeah, it was indulgent but she also needed a new system in order for me to be able to properly spy on her.
“If she were running off, she’d take the computer.” I said.
That morning, Trissy had received e-mails about her favorite brand of glitter and more on the continuing saga of Hannah’s haircut. A girl named Hannah had chopped off her hair and it had caused quite a stir in the eighth grade. Hannah was a fashion forward girl and quite the trendsetter. Many girls were taking were feeling obligated to cut their long hair to keep up. In fact, three popular girls already had. Many of the longer-haired girls were angry. Feeling that Hannah was trying to force their hand or at least put scissors in them. I had been a little surprised at the nasty things Tristan had to say about Hannah’s hairdo. It was only hair and Hannah did not have the power to make everyone cut their hair. That was a choice the girls were making. But it had been a long time since I was in the eighth grade and even then I didn’t understand the society of eighth grade girls. Perhaps Hannah was just yanking everyone’s chain to prove that she could do it. She had years to grow out her hair for senior pictures, after all. And that bitch’s hair grew fast or so they said. Morgan Tolliver had been observed with a pixie cut while out for her morning run. It was on. Tristan had pledged that she would remain unshorn, in fact she was going to grow her hair even longer. It was hard to imagine that Tristan had left us waiting for a hair emergency, but not impossible. But you’d think she’d be back by now. Maybe it was a really bad haircut. But it just seemed to me that Tristan would have told us she had a haircut emergency. There were four little boxes of candy hearts stacked up on her desk. Her little stash from which she spread the love. She had added the Barrington brothers to her e-mail contact list that morning. There was nothing unusual. Nothing that hinted that she was planning on disappearing that afternoon. And yet she was gone.
Patti’s questions were thorough and I could find no flaw in her investigative technique. And all she could do was write it all down and file the report. There was no sign of a struggle, nobody had witnessed an abduction. Trissy was sure big enough to take off on her own, in fact she was of prime age to do so. The fact that I knew she wouldn’t do it, didn’t mean jack to the police. You always took parents with a grain of salt. They all said the same thing. “My kid wouldn’t do this.” Of course, they’d tell you that if their kid was a heroin addicted car thief. Because they wanted you to look. Because their baby was missing and probably in trouble.
“Are you going to put out an Amber Alert?” Lisa asked.
Patti did not want to answer that.
“Not up to her.” I said. That was true. And it was damn unlikely. At least not when she’d only been really missing for about four hours. It only seemed like eternity.
I drove around to all the places I knew were teenage hangouts. I bothered a few kids, but none of them were as young as Trissy. I even checked out the spot near my condo where I found a kid lying half in the river last year. Nobody was out drinking in the cold.
When I reluctantly went home for awhile, I found Mackenzie talking on the phone.
“You find her?” She asked me.
I shook my head no.
“No, not yet.” She said into the phone. “I gotta go, I’ll let you know.” She flipped her phone closed. She had plugged it in to charge. “I was talking to my sister. I didn’t want to use your phone in case Tristan called and it’s long distance.”
“You can make a long distance call.” I laughed. “From what I’ve heard we’re getting married.”
“That’s the rumor.” She said. “Nothing about Tristan?”
“I don’t know where she is.” I said. And that was really all there was to it. It was past two in the morning and I didn’t know where my little girl was.
Mackenzie hugged me. “I know. It’s scary. I’m really worried about her. So I kept Ivy up and made her talk to me.”
“Good.” I said and I went to make myself a pot of coffee. “I didn’t mean to leave you here alone.”
“What else could you do?” Mackenzie said. “Ivy and I have a lot to talk about. She’s been alternating between bitching me out for being irresponsible and tearfully promising to stand by me no matter what you do.”
“What am I’m expected to do?” I asked.
“And she wants us to be sure to sit down and discuss everything thoroughly before we get married. Because we haven’t known each other very long and she’s right, but I’m so overwhelmed by the idea of having a baby, I don’t know that I want to deal with that stuff. But I know that’s all the more reason to do it. Because this is the time. But hardly any of that matters because Trissy is missing. And I think she’s a sweetheart and I adore her. And she’s my baby’s sister and that makes it so much worse and I’m not sure why. It’s like I’m worrying for two. She’s part of my family.”
“I truly hate to admit this.” I said. “But Brady really seems like this is hurting him. He’s worried and he seems to be doing all the right things.”
“Just don’t follow him down any dark hallways.” Mackenzie said.
“No, he’d send me first.” I said.
“So the last anyone saw of Tristan, she just went into her room.” Mackenzie said. “And a couple of hours later when Lisa gets home, Tristan is gone?”
I nodded. “I checked her e-mail, the last thing she read was this morning. She didn’t make any outgoing calls. There were a few messages for her, but nothing that sounded like it would make anyone run out of the house in a hurry. There’s nothing in the e-mails unusual, just some ruckus over a girl getting her hair cut short that had the whole eighth grade in an uproar.”
“Jack.” Mackenzie said. “Does that make any sense to you?”
“What?” I had to think a minute before starting up my complicated high-end coffee maker. I still couldn’t quite master it.
“You tell me there’s a big uproar over a haircut and Tristan goes home and doesn’t check her e-mail or make any phone calls? Does that sound like any thirteen year old girls you know? Does that sound like Triss? When you’re that age, it’s all about the after school phone calls. Especially if you’re pretty popular like Tristan is. And you’re telling me she went out to the mall to take cards to two new boys she just met and she didn’t run home to tell her friends all about what they said and what she said and OHMIGOD!”
“No, that doesn’t sound right.” I said. “That doesn’t sound right at all.”
“You’re so upset that you aren’t thinking like a cop.” Mackenzie said.
That hurt. It hurt a lot. But it was right and she was blunt and where Trissy’s safety was concerned there was no point in dancing around the subject.
“I am so fucking stupid.” I said.
“You are so far from stupid.” Mackenzie said.
“I’m an idiot.” I said.
“It just doesn’t seem right to me, unless someone came over right when she got home.” Mackenzie said.
“But why take your school back pack?” I asked.
“It seems odd to me. Even though at that age you get these rushes of hormones that tell you how right you are and how everything has to happen now.”
“I’m not saying Trissy wouldn’t go somewhere without telling us. But she would sure as hell cover her tracks better than this.” I said.
“I think so.” Mackenzie said.
“I have to go back to Lisa’s.” I said.
“I know.” Mackenzie said.
“Why don’t you try to lie down and maybe sleep.” I suggested.
“You’re nuts.” Mackenzie said. “I’m not sleeping.”
It had been eight hours, the length of a work day, that my girl had been missing. It was time to panic.
I drove back to Lisa’s house. The lights were still on, I didn’t they’d be going to sleep. As angry as I was with Lisa, she loved her daughter. There was no denying that. It was probably true that she’d only married me for the sake of giving Tristan a good home. Might have been nice if she could have held that home together for a few more years. But maybe other things were meant to me. If Lisa were still my wife, I sure wouldn’t have gotten Mackenzie pregnant, no matter how nice looking she was. I knocked on the front door and Lisa opened it in a panic.
“What, what’s happened?” She asked.
“Nothing.” I said. “I need to talk to Brady.”
“Something’s happened.” Lisa said as she stepped aside to let me in.
“Something’s not quite right.” I said quickly to Brady.
“Yeah.” He agreed with me quickly. “You don’t take your schoolbooks to run off. It’s been bothering me.”
“She didn’t check her e-mail. No outgoing phone calls?” I said.
“She usually makes her calls.” Lisa said. “The damn phone is always busy after three. I know she wants another line, but I like to know what she’s doing.”
“Fuck it.” Brady said and he headed straight back to the guest room, pushed open the door and flipped on the light. Dakota appeared to be sleeping rather peacefully. “Get up!”
“Huh?” Dakota started.
“Get up.” Brady said. “I need to talk to you and you better tell me the truth.”
“I told you the truth.” Dakota squinted at the light and pushed his hair out of his face.
“I don’t think so.” Brady said.
“Why?” Dakota demanded.
“You never tell the truth.” Brady said. “You picked Tristan up at 4:30 and you brought her straight back here?”
“Yes!” He insisted.
“And she didn’t move a thing anywhere in this house, had nothing to eat or drink, didn’t check her e-mail and didn’t use the phone. Didn’t even take the mail out of the mailbox, even though she almost always does to look for her magazines? So, if I were to check will all the neighbors and believe me I will, they would tell me they saw you come home with Tristan? Nobody would say that they saw you park and get out alone or that they never saw you come back here at all? Nobody would tell that’s what they saw. And if a neighbor happened to have a security camera and I checked the tape, I wouldn’t see you by yourself or not here at all?”
“No.” Dakota said, but his voice was getting shaky.
“You’re lying.” Brady said.
“I forgot.” Dakota said.
“Forgot what?” Brady growled at his quaking brother.
“Forgot to pick her up. I got there late and she never showed up. I figured she got a ride home. I was gonna give her some cash not to tell you. I forgot and left the house unlocked once and she didn’t tell because I gave her a ten.” He said. “I just forgot. I was about and a half late.”
“Goddamn Lisa.” Brady shouted suddenly. “I told you not to trust him. I told you not to have him ever pick her up. I told you that he was irresponsible and couldn’t be trusted to so much as flush the toilet. He’s a moron! God must have known I was going to sleep with my partner’s wife so he punished me in advance by giving me that for a brother!”
“I just forgot!” Dakota said.
“And then you lied and let us look in the completely wrong place when you knew damn well something could have happened to her!” Brady screamed. “You are worthless! My God, what is wrong with you? A little girl is missing and you lie because you don’t want to get yelled at for being late? Get out of my house! Get up and get the fuck out of my house!”
Dakota scrambled up and started grabbing his stuff like he was used to leaving in a hurry with all he could carry. I grabbed him by the arm.
“Wait up.” I said. “This idiot needs to talk to Patti. Let him stay until we find Trissy.”
“What if we can’t find her?” Lisa said. “What if somebody’s hurt her?”
“Then I’ll kill him.” I said.
“You won’t have to.” Brady said.
“I just lost track of time.” Dakota said.
“That little girl better be all right.” Brady said looking at his brother with disgust.
“She hates you, you know that right?” Dakota said as if that might be some kind of excuse for leaving my baby at the mall.
“Well, I hate you.” Brady said. “And I always picked you up when I said I would.”
I called Patti at home. She’d just finished her shift, but I knew she’d want to know. Police are a family and even as an ex-cop, I was part of that family. Brady was on the force, too. But he wasn’t too popular. I had a lot of years on the job and a lot of friends. My friends would never forgive him for sending me into that hall or for messing around with my wife. His job was difficult now, but to give the bastard credit, he still went to work. God knows he didn’t need the money since he had mine.
She came straight back out to the house to talk to Dakota again. She was not a happy camper.
“So you lied to me?” She said to Dakota. “That was a large mistake. I don’t care if your brother is a cop.”
“Do what you want.” Brady said. “You got your TASER?”
“I was fucking late.” Dakota said. “I’m sorry.”
“You fucking lied.” I said. “And had us looking in the wrong place for my missing child.”
“I didn’t want to get blamed.” Dakota said.
“That happens when it’s your fault.” Brady said.
Lisa bit down on her lip. She turned and went back towards the kitchen. Brady didn’t seem to see her, so I followed her. Her back was to me, but I knew her arms were braced against the counter, the way she tried to steel herself when she didn’t want to cry.
“Lisa.” I said.
“If something happens to her, you’ll hate me forever.” She said.
“It’s not your fault.” I said, although when somebody’s brother tells you not to trust him, you probably should listen.
“I love her. She’s really all I have. I mean, your husband can quit you anytime. But your daughter is your daughter. I guess you found that out.”
It was incredibly awkward, but I put my arms around her in what I hoped was a comforting gesture.
“It’s my fault. I send Dakota to pick her up. I wanted to show him that we had some confidence in him. Brady’s mother has her hopes up that he’s gonna turn his life around and I thought we were helping. Brady is just ready to give up, but that didn’t seem right. It’s my fault. It’s my fault that she’s your only child. You’d probably have eight kids if you had your way. It’s my fault if you end up alone.”
“I’m not gonna end up alone.” I said. “Neither are you.” Somewhere I thought that she might deserve it, but holding her like that, I could remember loving her very much. If the person no longer seemed that familiar, the body did. The hair smelled the same.
“I know you think I didn’t ever listen to you, but I did. And I know that when people take kids, they either rape them and let them go or rape them and kill them. And if someone took her and let her go, she would be home by now.”
“We don’t know what happened. She could have accepted a ride from some kids she knew and they went off on some kind of joyride and it just got out of hand.” I said, though I didn’t believe it.
“I don’t think you believe that.” She said.
“Ninety nine point nine percent of all the teens that don’t come home turn up all right.” I said. “Go with the odds until you know something better.”
“You probably think God is punishing me.” Lisa said.
It was one of her most annoying habits, putting words into my mouth and thoughts into my brain. I didn’t think God would punish her by taking away my child. I didn’t feel like comforting her anymore. Where the hell was my comfort? I guess it was back at my house waiting for me. I pulled away and went back to the living room where Patti was giving Dakota a verbal beat down.
I tapped Brady on the shoulder and pointed him in the general direction of the kitchen. Lisa was his problem now.
Dakota started telling Patti the same story he told us twice already. I went back to Tristan’s room and started rooting through Trissy’s drawers. I read notes that she’d saved, some selections from her diary and looked through her old appointment book. I assumed the current one was in her backpack. In this one, she had circled her visits with me in bright colored markers and drawn flowers on the page. She’d bordered Lisa and Brady’s wedding day in black. Her friends’ birthdays were thoughtfully noted as well as who had been voted off American Idol each week. I was nearly positive Triss hadn’t taken off of her own accord, but I had to make sure. Nothing suspicious, though again I was surprised at how mean Tristan could get sometimes. I’d been told by my sister as well as Lisa and Mackenzie that there was nothing meaner than an adolescent girl, but I not sure I was always willing to accept that it applied to Tristan. As I tossed her room, I could find no evidence of drugs or anything more illicit than hidden Oreos and a couple of racy romance novels. She had filched them from Lisa who used to read a ton of them. The fact that they were hidden in the closet made it clear she didn’t have permission.
I had been at it for a bit when I heard Lisa in the doorway. “What are you doing?”
“Searching her room.” I said.
“But she didn’t run off, he left her at the mall.” Lisa said.
“Doesn’t mean someone didn’t meet her there.” I said. “So I’m looking.”
“She’ll be mad.” Lisa said.
“I hope so.” I replied.
Brady stepped into the room. “Nothing, huh?”
“Nothing important.” I said.
“You haven’t come across my voodoo doll have you?” He asked.
“I haven’t come across much of anything.” I said. “But I might as well look.”
“It’s my house and I didn’t say you could.” Lisa said sharply.
“Lisa.” Brady said. “He’s working and he knows what he’s doing. He’s probably a better cop that Patti and me put together.”
Patti said nothing, which surprised me. I didn’t not think she would like being lumped in with Brady.
“I don’t think we’ve had any recent reports of anyone bothering girls at the mall. Not since the fallout from our little prostitution ring you busted up.” Patti said. “But I’ll check. I’ll need to know what you’ve heard and to talk to the hotel security people.”
“I know.” I said to Patti. “I’m gonna just head over there. I’ll wake my assistant up early.”
“Jackass is coming down to the station to make a statement.” Patti said.
“I didn’t break any laws.” Dakota whined from out in the hall.
“I didn’t break any of your bones.” I said “But that could change.”
“Lying to an officer in the course of a police investigation is breaking the law.” Brady said. “And also a good way to get your bones broken, you moron.”
“Do I need to call Mom and Dad?” Dakota asked.
His brother went out into the hall and slapped him. An open-handed girl slap.
“You need to shut up unless you have something else to tell us.” Brady said. “Is there some other lie you need to inform us of?”
“No.” Dakota sounded like a petulant kid that needed a spanking. “You know, I’m all confused. You drug me out of bed and started yelling at me.”
“I’m glad that Tristan being missing didn’t keep you awake.” Patti said.
“I thought she was just out with her friends. You know how kids get.” Dakota said.
“Not every kid lives only to torment his parents.” Brady said.
“Well that sure seems to.” Dakota said. Brady smacked him hard, saving me the trouble. Dakota just took it. I mean he deserved it, but usually you expect a grown man to have a little more pride than that.
The sun was starting to come up by the time I left Lisa’s place. I hadn’t slept in forty-eight hours and I was starting to feel it. A couple of young girls in track suits were out for a morning run. One of them had short hair. I wondered if she’d cut her hair because of Hannah.
“Slow up Hannah!” One of the girls called out to the one ahead of her.
Heavens to Betsy, it was Hannah herself.
“Hannah!” I called to her and she stopped, eyes me suspiciously.
“Hannah.” I said. “I’m Tristan’s father.”
She put her hands on her hips and looked at me for a minute. “Is something wrong? You don’t live with her, you wouldn’t be here so early unless something was wrong.”
Fashion forward and smart to boot.
“Yes.” I said. “Someone was supposed to pick Tristan up at the mall yesterday and he was very late and when he got there, she was gone and we haven’t heard from her or been able to find her since.”
“Oh my God.” Hannah said. The other girl’s eyes grew wide. “What do you think happened to her?”
“We don’t know.” I said.
“They caught the guy that killed those girls at the mall.” Hannah said. “Didn’t they? Didn’t you?”
“Yes, that guy we caught.” I said.
“Triss wouldn’t just take off.” The other girl said. “She’s way too…”
“She lives life with purpose.” Hannah said. “She don’t get into trouble cause it would mess up her goals.”
“There’s been a lot of drama over your hair.” I said.
Hannah rolled her eyes. “OHMIGOD. My hair is not the root of all evil. It can’t make people vanish.”
“I didn’t say that.” I said.
“It so stupid.” Hannah moaned. “All I did was change my hair. You know, I’m into clothes. I’m into hair. I like to change it up. It’s not my fault if all these people copy me.” She came closer to me. There were tears in her eyes. “You know, Grandma and Mom have all these years worth of fashion magazines from all the way back to sixties and I go through them and I take old clothes and I style them differently so I can be unique, then everybody goes and copies me. And it doesn’t even matter if I do it first and it makes me mad. And yeah, when I cut off all my hair, I thought maybe some people would copy me. And maybe some of them, aren’t like me. I don’t care that much about hair. You know, it grows back. And these stupid bitches go copy me and then they fall all apart because when you cut your hair it’s short. Like that’s a surprise. Now it’s all my fault.”
“It’s not your fault.” I said. “People can be weird about stuff like that.”
“Tristan said I did it on purpose because I didn’t care about my hair and I knew that other girls who were weaker would. That I knew they would chop off their hair because I did and that they’d feel bad about it later. That was so mean. I told her I didn’t know she was so shallow and stupid. She said I was a bitch.”
“All over a haircut.” I said.
“I don’t really think she’s stupid.” Hannah said.
“I don’t think Tristan thinks that about you either. She was just mad.”
“Why was she mad? She’s not one of the lemmings.” Hannah said.
“Sympathy for the lemmings.” I said. “Thinks someone has to look out for them.”
“She’s really smart. I don’t think she’d just go off with some stranger.” Hannah said.
“Or even with someone she knows.” The other girl said. “She’s just too smart to get in trouble.”
“Or smart enough not to be obvious about it, Jessica.” Hannah said. “Smart enough not to just disappear.”
“Do you know anyone, she might take off to try to help out?” I asked.
“Shanda is her best friend.” Hannah said. “But I can’t think of any reason you’d have to run off to be there for Shanda.”
Triss had been gone for twelve hours. If she had been abducted, I was probably eleven hours too late to save her. But maybe, just maybe she hadn’t.
In case there was a reason, I needed to speak to Shanda before school. I called Mackenzie on the way over to Shanda’s house.
“You were right.” I said. “That idiot never picked her up. He was late and she wasn’t there and he didn’t want to get in trouble, whatever that means. Is he six? I went through her room, just in case I could find some clue. There wasn’t anything.”
“Are you going to the mall now?” She asked. “To check out the security cameras?”
“I’m putting Karlie on that. I want to talk to Shanda, then I’ll get over there to the mall.”
“I’m taking a sick day.” Mackenzie said. “I will stay here just in case.”
“Thank you. Are you okay?” I asked.
“I am very worried, but physically I am fine.” She said. “Yourself?”
“Sleepy and scared out of my head.” I said. “Sick to death of Lisa and a little nauseous from having to spend time in that house. Other than that, just fine.”
“Poor baby.” She said.
“Brady told Lisa not to have Dakota pick Trissy up. He told her that his brother was an irresponsible idiot, but Lisa was trying to score points with Mrs. Haskins, so she’s embarked on some campaign to help rehabilitate Dakota by trusting him with important things, like my daughter. And since I’m not an ass, I couldn’t say it to her face while she’s hysterical with worry.”
“Yeah, I would think you’d start with something small like sending him to the store.” Mackenzie said.
“I’m going to talk with Shan and see what I find out. I’ll get back to you, okay?”
“Don’t worry about me right now.” Mackenzie said. “I’m okay.”
I knew that wasn’t the truth, but Mackenzie wasn’t in imminent danger and I had no idea where Trissy was. I knocked on the door at Shanda’s house and she opened it.
“Did you find her?” She asked me.
“No.” I said.
“I was hoping you had.” She said.
“Is your Mom and Dad home?” I asked.
“No, they both had to go to work.” Shanda said. “I either catch the bus or ride to school with Tristan.”
“I wanted to talk to you. Do you have any idea where Tristan could be?” I asked.
“No.” Shanda said. “If I knew, I’d tell you.”
“She didn’t come home from the mall. Brady’s brother forgot to pick her up.” I said. “And when he remembered, she wasn’t there anymore.”
“He is an idiot.” Shanda said. “Or so I’ve heard. But why wouldn’t she call you or call me or just call anyone?”
“I don’t know what happened.” I said.
“Oh God.” Shanda said. “I’m so scared.”
“Me, too.” I said. “But can you think of anyone, and I mean anyone that Trissy might have gone off with thinking she was helping him or her out?”
“I can’t think of anyone.” Shanda said. “Nobody has any real big problems…” She thought for a moment. “I don’t know, maybe Danny Gonzales. He’s in eighth grade. His dad has been in jail and stuff. For a while, he was living in a foster home and doing okay. But his Dad got out of jail and he had to go back to live with him and like nobody’s allowed to hang out with him anymore. He was kind of bummed and stuff. Him and Trissy are both really good artists and stuff. So they always talk about stuff. But he wanted Tristan to come help him with something at his house and she said that she wouldn’t even ask cause there’s no way you’d let her go over there cause you actually arrested his dad and that you probably wouldn’t let him come over to your place either. He was kind of mad at her.”
I had not known that Danny Gonzales was Tristan’s friend. I knew his father, though. And while I wouldn’t let Tristan go to his house, if the kid was okay I’d probably let him come over under my watchful eye. She hadn’t asked. Maybe she didn’t want him there and was just shifting the blame on me.
“You know where they live.” I asked.
“Yeah.” She said. “He takes the bus. They live over off Third in a mobile home.”
“Shan, if you here from her, you let me know.” I said.
“I will, I promise.” Shanda said.
“If you think of anything, you let me know.”
“I will.” She said. “I swear. You’ll let me know when you find her, okay?”
“I will.” I said.
I knew Danny’s father Marty Gonzales. I had arrested him more than once. We had a cordial professional relationship. He knew when he was caught and gave up willingly. Asking only for a moment to arrange that someone take care of his kid. I did not expect Marty to meet me at the door with a gun. I felt a little sorry for him. He was widowed and if he’d just get a damn job, he probably would have been okay. His career in crime had not worked out well for him, but he didn’t seem interested in a new field.
I banged on the door to their old mobile home. It was not one of the new snazzy modular homes that were as large as a ranch house. It was tinny old trailer with a rusty pole barn in the back.
Marty opened the door, really surprised to see me.
“Hey Marty.” I said.
“Hey Weaver, what’s up?” He asked. “I didn’t do anything.” Marty was covered in tattoos, he looked like a con straight out of central casting.
“I see you’re out.” I said. “Staying straight?”
“I am.” He said. “I got a job and everything. I heard you got shot.”
“Yeah, I’m better now.” I said. “Is Danny here?”
“What do you want with Danny?” He asked. “He’s a good kid.”
“He goes to school with my daughter.” I said. “She disappeared from the mall yesterday.”
“What?” He asked. “That’s bad. What’s it got to do with Danny?”
“Probably nothing.” I said.
“Danny!” He called out. “Come here.”
Danny was a clean-cut younger version of Marty. Like a Marty from an alternate time line where he’d made the right choices.
“What’s going on?” Danny asked.
“You don’t know nothing about some missing girl, do you?” Marty asked.
“Who’s missing?” He asked.
“My daughter Tristan.” I said.
“What happened to Tristan?” Danny asked concerned.
“No one has seen or heard from her since yesterday about five.” I said. “She was at the mall.”
“Oh God.” Danny said.
“You don’t know where she is, right?” Marty said. “Cause if you know something, you better say it right now.”
“No, I don’t know anything.” Danny said. “I haven’t talked to her in a while. You know, nobody wants to hang with the con’s kid.”
“Hey.” Marty said. “Enough.”
“Well, it’s true.” Danny said. “They liked me better when I lived with the Valdez family. In a house that wasn’t a trailer.”
“Hey.” Marty said. “What didn’t you understand about enough?”
“I haven’t talked to Tristan in a couple of weeks.” Danny said. “I’m kind of mad at her and stuff. I sure haven’t heard from her and I don’t know where she’d be. I can’t imagine her not going home. She’s not one of those kind of kids. I mean, she’s very focused. Tristan is all about her goals. She has a list.”
“A list of goals?” I asked.
“In her notebook.” Danny said. “She’s got ten goals and she’s always checking things off about whether or not they contribute towards reaching her goals. I guess I detract.” Danny picked up his backpack. “Man, I know what they’ll be talking about at school today.”
“You better get out there to the bus stop.” Marty said. “I didn’t think he knew anything. He’s a good kid, even if he’s got a mouth.”
Back in my car, I talked to Karlie for a few minutes. I watched Danny walk to the road to wait for his bus. I pulled up alongside and got out.
“You okay?” I asked. The kid looked like he was going to cry.
“Yeah, I guess. I just hate my life. I hate living with Dad. He doesn’t beat me and he’s not mean to me. I guess he loves me. But I hate living with a loser. I hate knowing that this is as good as life gets. I hate that people don’t want me hanging around cause they think my father will steal their stereo. I hate that you don’t want me at your house cause you busted my dad. I wanna go back to the Valdez’s. But by the time Dad gets busted again, they’ll have some other foster kids and no room for me.”
“You’ll be on you own sooner than you think.” I said. “And then it’s all up to you.”
“It seems like a long time right now.” Danny said.
“I hope nothing happened to Tristan.” He said. “I just really like her. She’s very smart and she’s kind of funny. Sometimes she’s mean, but I don’t think she does that on purpose.”
The word mean had popped up a couple of times today when referring to my daughter. That wasn’t how I saw her at all, but I put on a good face for my parents, too. I wondered what her ten written goals that she lived life by were. Intellectually I knew that she had this whole life with school and friends that I really couldn’t be a part of, but seeing it up close was another thing. Hannah testing what she called lemmings to see if they’d whack off their hair and then hating them because they would. Danny being pushed away because his father was a con. There was probably a lot more to it than I was seeing and Tristan could probably explain the ins and outs of it all to me. Where the hell was my child?
I think the first time I had realized that she was my little girl was when I was watching her one day when she was sick. Lisa was working and I was working overnight, so I was able to pick her up from daycare when she developed a temperature. I took her back to Lisa’s and gave her kiddie Tylenol. It was difficult to get her to swallow the sickeningly sweet red liquid, but Tristan finally did. She didn’t want to go to bed, so I sat in a chair watching television with her on my lap. She liked that. Later when I tried to get her to lie down, Tristan said. “It makes me feel better when you hold me on your lap.” So I held her there all day with both of us napping occasionally. When Lisa came home and tried to take her, Trissy said. “I want to stay here with Jack. He makes me feel better.” And I had realized that she made me feel better, too. I hated her rotten father for abandoning her. To me, Tristan was the embodiment of happiness. To see that little face anxiously looking out the window for me was the highlight of my day. Lisa had always worried that I would not live Tristan enough. That was stupid. I had sometimes thought that I loved Trissy more than Lisa or at least appreciated her more. Lisa felt she had been cheated out of the life she should have had because she’d gotten pregnant with Tristan and married her father. And apparently she felt she’d been cheated again because she’d married me to provide a good home for Tristan. I was never sure what Lisa thought she had been cheated out of. Although, I had been cheated on, I had not felt like I’d missed anything. I was counting the seconds until I was legally Tristan’s father. And I was looking forward to being a father for the second time. To being with my child from the second it came into the world. I hoped that Mackenzie had done enough in her life so far that she wouldn’t feel she was missing out on anything by settling down with me. Tristan would want a sister, I was sure of that. I didn’t think I really had a preference. I suspected a girl would please Mackenzie. But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was if your children were safe.
My phone was charging in the car when it began to vibrate. Brett Miller was calling to check on me and to let me know that Patti was interviewing the Barrington kids down at the station. If I wanted, I could come down. So, of course I did. Though I wasn’t particularly suspicious of those kids. I just had a gut feeling that they were exactly what they seemed to be.
Jordan and Jason Barrington, under their mother’s watchful eyes were being interviewed by Patti Mackey. The whole thing was being video recorded and sent into another room where other people could observe on monitors. The setup was one of the nice things the department had purchased with the increased tax base from the mall.
“No need to be afraid.” Patti said gently to the boys. “You didn’t do anything wrong, did you?”
“No.” Jordan said.
“Right.” Patti said. “You’re helping us out and we appreciate it a whole lot. If people didn’t help us out, I don’t know what we’d do.”
“But we don’t know anything.” Jason said.
“People sometimes know a lot more than they think.” Patti said and she walked them through meeting Tristan and Shanda in the game room and Tristan coming back on Monday with birthday cards for them. It was pretty much the same story they told me. Not verbatim so that you’d think they were reciting something they’d memorized or so different that you thought they were making it up as they went along.
“Did you see anyone unusual?” She asked. “Maybe someone who seemed like they were watching you?”
“No.” Jordan said. “I would have told my Mom.”
“Maybe someone who just seemed a little strange?” Patti asked.
“Lots of people seem a little strange.” Jason said. “But not scary or creepy or anything.”
I wondered if Deilia Barrington was thinking that even home schooling was not enough to keep your kids safe. You couldn’t even take them out in public. Cause I was starting to feel that way.
Brett Miller was going out to the mall with me to check the security video. Since he worked there part-time, the Chief figured he was the man to coordinate that end of things. What we would be doing was watching Karlie pull up files. She was hard at work when we got there, her hair uncombed and no makeup and her sweater actually on backwards. The girl had hurried her behind into work as soon as I had called.
“Anything?” She asked without really looking up when I came in.
“No.” I said.
“Okay.” She said. “Working with the timeline we have, here’s what I got.”
Brett and I watched the video on a monitor.
“Three thirty-five, she heads into the Tahiti from the mall entrance.” Karlie said and I could spot my little girl in the crowd carrying her backpack. “Four-twenty-two and she’s out of there. She was supposed to meet her ride at the West Entrance, so we check this out and there’s our girl going by the Smoothie Hut. And you check here and there she is near the doors.” Karlie’s fingers were flying as she typed in the time code and pulled up the images. Not all of our cameras worked like they should and the placement was iffy on some of them. “Looks like her ride is a little bit late.” She said. “She’s just pacing back and forth and she finally goes to get her a smoothie.”
I got the horrible thought that those could be last images I ever saw of my child. I felt sick.
“Pacing, pacing.” Karlie said. “And look there, she turns and starts heading towards the entrance. Looks to me like she’s looking at someone.”
“Who is she looking at?” Brett asked.
“That’s kind of the problem.” Karlie said. “That person is to the far left. It’s a blind spot. And you look from the other angle, she heads that way and she disappears into the blind spot.”
My phone rang and it was Andrew Keegan, the Aussie who ran company that owned the mall.
“I heard about your daughter.” He said.
“How’d you hear about that?” I asked.
“Your assistant is efficient.” He said. “Anything I can do, you let me know.”
“We have to free up that money to upgrade the cameras before second quarter.” I said. “We can’t see where my daughter went because of the damn camera placement.”
“Not good.” He said. “I’ll get on it. No closer to finding her?”
“Maybe.” I said. “Looks like she walked out of here on her own.”
“I won’t keep you.” He said.
“Keegan?” Brett asked.
“Yes.” I said. “Where’s the parking lot video?”
“I’ve got it.” Karlie said. “Problem being, it looks like they hung left and you can’t see jack. It’s a blind spot.”
“God damn it.” I said.
“You know, I wish these damn things worked like they did in the movies.” Karlie said. “That I could zoom in and blow up crystal clear reflections for you. But they don’t. I’m doing what I can.”
“I know.” I said. “I’m going to the Smoothie Hut. Karlie stay on that parking lot.”
“I know. That’s what I’m doing now.” She said.
“Stay here with her.” I said to Brett. “She’s our best hope.”
“I’m not working for you right now.” Brett said. “But I’ll do it anyway.”
I hurt. I hurt everywhere. Every bone, every muscle and my stomach was in a know. It felt like a million miles to the Smoothie Hut. It was really just a little kiosk standing near the entrance waiting to sell refreshments to people entering and leaving the mall. They had a prep area back in the bowels of the mall that they brought the frozen fruit from a few times a day.
“Hi there.” I said to the girl at the counter. “I’m Jack Weaver, head of Mall Security.”
I looked a mess. I hadn’t shaved or bathed since yesterday morning and I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she didn’t believe me.
“Hi.” She tapped her name badge. “I’m Bonnie.”
“Bonnie were you working here yesterday afternoon between four-thirty and five?”
“Yes.” She said. “There were two of us here, we were changing shifts.”
“Did you see a girl about thirteen years old? She was blonde with a pink back pack. The was waiting here for someone, she bought a smoothie?”
“I did.” She said. “I remember because she real rude. Her smoothie tasted funny or something. She didn’t think there was enough pineapple in it. So we made her another one. And she said something about it not being rocket science. I was really mad.”
“She’s missing.” I said. “Nobody has seen or heard from her since then.”
“Oh that’s not good.” Bonnie said.
“Did you happen to see her meet someone?” I asked.
“Actually, yeah.” Bonnie said. “This is like your lucky day. Some guy came in and he wasn’t a young guy, he was maybe closer to thirty. Not that thirty is old. Just that he wasn’t a kid. And he had on a school jacket. So I said to Diane, the girl that works with me, what is he in, the nineteenth grade? And she laughed. And said that he was a candidate to go on What Not to Wear. Cause he was dressed really stupid.”
“How was he dressed?” I asked.
“He had messy hair and ripped jeans and his shirt was so long is was hanging out from under his jacket. It was some yellow Hawaiian thing and it looked really stupid.”
“And Diane said that maybe since that girl was so picky, she should help her Dad pick out clothes. Cause we thought maybe he was her dad. Then I said maybe he’s her boyfriend and we both said ewwww. Then Diane said nobody that picky about their smoothie is going out with a dude that looks like that.”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“They just left, went out the door.” Bonnie said.
“A police officer will probably be coming to talk to you later.” I said. “Okay?”
“Did something bad happen to that little girl?” Bonnie asked.
“I’m starting to think so.” I said and I went straight to my car.
Nineteen hours ago, he had taken my baby somewhere.
I was out on the road before I called Brady. “Don’t say anything, just answer my questions.”
“Okay.” Brady said.
“Does your brother have a high school jacket that he still wears?”
“Yes.” Brady said.
“I’ve got witnesses that saw a guy in a high school jacket and a yellow shirt with messy hair and ripped jeans meet Tristan at the Mall entrance around five.”
“Oh.” Brady said.
“I think that you should get him and we need to take him somewhere and speak with him.”
“I think so.” Brady said. “Your house?”
“No.” I said. “That’s not good. Mackenzie is there. How about out behind the bait place over towards the river?”
“Sure.” Brady said.
I was fairly sure I could trust Brady on this one. But I wasn’t taking any chances. I stopped by the condo to get my thirty-eight.
“This isn’t good, is it?” Mackenzie said, but she didn’t ask for any further explanation.
“Probably not.” I said.
“Be careful.” She said.
“I will.” I said. “I know I have responsibilities in this world besides Tristan.”
“She’s not the only one that loves you.” Mackenzie said.
“I’ll call you soon.” I promised.
So with my weapon holstered, I drove out to a little bait shop and carryout that was closed this time of year. Brady knew the place. It was a good place to bring people when you needed to speak with them alone. I got there first and waited about fifteen minutes. Both Brett and Karlie had tried to call me on my cell, but I wasn’t taking calls right at the moment.
I was angry at myself. Mackenzie was right, I was not thinking like a cop, but like a father. Dakota should have been at the top of my list. I should have beat him until I got answers. But the problem was, I didn’t want the answers. I wanted some other scenario where Trissy was just being a kid. My heart was fighting my mind. It could not accept the possibility that I wouldn’t see my girl again.
When Tristan was about ten, she asked me if I would make her a martini when she was grownup. I asked why a martini and she said that it just looked like it might be refreshing.
“On your twenty-first birthday, we’ll have martinis.” I promised.
That year for Christmas she bought me a cocktail shaker with two martini glasses to put away for our special party. They were still in a box, waiting for the big day. I did not kid myself into thinking she’d never taste alcohol before the legal age, but I thought she would be pleased when I pulled the set out. We had talked about taking a trip to Montreal. She wanted to taste unusual cheeses, visit the underground shopping center and see the Cirque de Soleil. She was so interested in so many things. And as I sat there in the car waiting, I wish I could say that I felt sure of something. Positive she was alive or sure she was gone. But I felt nothing but dread. It swelled up and overwhelmed me and I could not see beyond it. I gripped the steering wheel and I started to cry.
The absolute look of panic on Dakota’s face when he got out of the car told me so much. He wasn’t wearing the high school jacket, he had on a different one that I recognized as having belonged to Brady.
“What’s going on?” Dakota asked.
“People saw you meet Tristan at the mall.” Brady said.
“I didn’t.” Dakota said.
“We have security cameras everywhere.” I said. “You can’t lie about this.”
“I’m not lying. I don’t believe you anyway.” He said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“If you had some cameras that showed me taking Tristan away and she disappeared, you would have me arrested.” Dakota said confidently.
“If he wanted you to be sitting in a jail cell with your lawyer on the way, yeah that would be what happened.” Brady said. “That’s not what we want Dakota.”
“Are you threatening me?” Dakota asked.
“He’s almost a genius.” I said to Brady.
“He amazes me sometimes.” Brady said. “Get this Dakota, you will tell us everything that happened. We can get it out of you. You may think that because you’re my brother, I won’t hurt you. But you ain’t his brother.”
“Okay, okay.” He said. “I picked her up. But she was just being… awful. Mean and threatening to tell that I was late and calling Brady and me all kinds of names. I put her out of the car, cause I got so mad. I thought if she walked a little bit, she’d learn to watch her mouth. But when I turned around to come back to get her, I didn’t see her anywhere.”
I was not really buying that story. I wasn’t sure if Brady was either. I think he preferred it to the alternative and I did, too.
“Show me where it happened.” Brady said and shoved Dakota back towards the car. Brady looked back at me, his face full of disappointment and anguish. I kind of felt sorry for him.
I followed Brady’s car to the road that ran by the river. The new shiny road had been built in anticipation of a boom in town and the boom had happened out more by the mall. It was often jokingly referred to as the Road To Nowhere. This stretch was more traveled in the warm months when people were headed down to the boat ramps and the campgrounds. It was a good way to beat the traffic, if you knew where you were going. It was dark out here at night, though.
Assuming the very, very best, he had but my baby out in the middle of nowhere in the cold as it was beginning to get dark. My only shred of real hope was that my child was lying in field with a bad case of hypothermia.
Brady pulled Dakota out of the car roughly and threw him up against it like he was just some perp.
“So show and tell.” He said to his brother.
“Well.” Dakota said. “I was late picking her up. And she was just being all… you know how bitchy that kid can get. All critical and mean and she’s good with words, so she can just keep them hammering at you and you can’t think of anything to say to defend yourself.”
“You don’t need to defend yourself against children.” Brady said. “Adults don’t get into arguments with children. You are a grownup. You ignore the child.”
“So I just stopped the car here and said she should get the fuck out.” Dakota said. “And she’s all like fine and she grabs her bag and gets out and just starts walking. And I just peeled off and drove for about ten minutes and then came back and she wasn’t here.”
“You put my stepdaughter our in the cold alone?” Brady said. “What is wrong with you? And you didn’t tell us to come look for her here?”
“I didn’t want to get thrown out. I know how you get.” He said.
“Well, you are the most important thing in the world, ain’t you?” Brady said. “The sun around which the whole damn Haskins family is supposed to revolve.”
“I thought she would be here.” Dakota said.
“That’s not the whole story.” I said. I just figured it wasn’t, he’d never told us the straight truth before, so why start now?”
“It is, I swear.” Dakota said.
“Where’s your jacket you had on yesterday?” I asked. “Anybody seen it? You’re wearing your brother’s old jacket.”
“I just left it somewhere.” Dakota said.
“Liar.” Brady said.
“Why do you always think I’m lying?” Dakota demanded.
“Because you always are.” Brady said.
I pushed him up against the car. “I’ll start breaking your fingers. This is my baby we’re talking about.”
“I came back.” Dakota said. “To pick her up and she wouldn’t get the car. She told me to fuck off. That I was going to be in so much trouble for putting her out of the car that she couldn’t wait. I told her to get back in the car before she got hit or something. She said that she was walking to her Daddy’s and she was going to show up cold and shaking on his doorstep about seven thirty and that he would hit the roof and call Lisa and that I would probably get arrested for child endangerment. She laughed about it and just kept walking.”
“And then?” Brady asked. “What happened after that.”
“I stopped the car, so I could get out and get her.” He said. “I wanted to make her come back. So I grabbed her by the arm and she swung around and hit me with her book bag. I tried to drag her back to the car, but she stomped my foot and called me a motherfucker.”
“You got into a fight with a little girl?” Brady said. “A fist fight with a child?”
“She’s tall.” Dakota said. “And she wouldn’t come with me, then she slipped and fell onto the pavement. And when I tried to help her up, she kicked me in the nuts.”
The thought of Trissy beating him up would have been funny had she made it to my door that night cold and angry.
“Where is she?” Brady said.
“I got so mad when she kicked me. I just jumped her and it was like I was back in juvenile lock up and all these big mean kids were jumping on me. I only meant to hit her once. But I grabbed hold of her head and I just kept banging it against the pavement to make her shut up. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to kill her.”
Everything literally went black. I saw the whole universe sucked into this black hole of nothingness and it stayed just like that for almost a minute before it came back into shape again, but nothing looked right. I heard myself exhale and all the breath leave me. Brady grabbed my arm, I must have looked like I was going to fall or maybe he needed the support. It hurt worse than getting shot. A thousand times worse. This was a fate worse than death. Had it been a year ago, I might have just put my weapon in mouth and called it a life. Hell, had it been three days ago, I might have done it right after I shot him in the balls and left him to bleed to death slowly. But, just as I could not leave Tristan when I was at my lowest, I could not leave Mackenzie and my baby. God was playing some hideous joke on me. Look here Jack, you get to have that baby you always wanted. Oh, but wait a minute, I’ll just take back the one you have. You didn’t really think you were getting ahead here, did you?
“What have you done!” Brady screamed. “You worthless devil, what have you done!”
“It was an accident.” Dakota said. “I swear to God, it was an accident.”
“Beating my daughter’s head into the pavement was an accident?” I said. “Ooops. Wait until you see the accident you’re about to have.”
“I want a lawyer.” Dakota said.
‘You want a lawyer?” Brady said. “You know what you’re getting? You’re getting my gun and I’m going to give you the chance to do the right thing and put us all out of our misery. You don’t have to put up with a trial that ends with a needle going into your arm. Mom and Dad don’t have to suffer through it. Jack and Lisa don’t have to suffer through it. I’m going to let you kill yourself and save me and the State a whole world of trouble. That’s what you’re getting. Or Jack and I can just kill you and cut you up and feed you to whatever scavenges on whatever you’re made out of.”
“You couldn’t do that.” Dakota said.
“You killed my kid.” Brady said.
“She’s not your kid. She’s his kid.” Dakota said.
“But you’re going to die all the same. Want to show a little dignity for once in your life?”
“Not yet.” I said to Brady. “We have to find her.”
“I know.” He answered me. “We’ll find her. What happened to Trissy, Dakota?”
“Why should I tell you if you’re gonna kill me anyway?” He asked.
“So we don’t hurt you so bad you’ll wish you were already dead.” I said. “You’ve ruined my life. You think I won’t enjoy making the last few hours of yours nothing but agony?”
“There was blood all over my jacket. It splattered.” He said. “I could tell it was too late to do anything. So I drug her off over by the river and I left her here with her stuff. I ripped my jacket up and threw it in one of the barrels over at the campground and I burned it. Took forever to get all the mud off my shoes.”
He was more interested in the details of getting cleaned up than the details of what happened to my little girl.
She would never go to high school, never have a real boyfriend or a real martini. We would never visit Montreal or travel to Pennsylvania for a wedding in March. She would never hold her baby sister or play with the kittens or sit behind the wheel of her first car. I would never roll my eyes as the bills came in for the ridiculously overpriced wedding she would plan with Mackenzie’s assistance. He had stolen a million little moments from me. And yet I had to go on like my life wasn’t completely ruined. My other child could not grow up thinking that something was missing, that he or she wasn’t good enough to make me happy. The whole rest of my life would be a struggle to not notice that Tristan was missing. And not just for me. All of her friends would be marking their high school days thinking about how she was not there for prom or graduation or their senior trip. Shanda would think that Trissy was not there to be her bridesmaid and Hannah would remember that the last thing she did was yell at her. Jason and Jordon would have birthday cards from a little girl who got killed. Oh and I worried for Mackenzie. She liked Tristan so much. The stress was not good and there was no reason to suppose God wouldn’t hit me with a double whammy. And Lisa, there was Lisa. Right at that moment, I hated her. I hated her for bring Brady and his worthless brother into Trissy’s life. I hated her for letting him pick Tristan up at the mall when she’d been warned not to. I hated the school for not allowing the girls to carry pepper spray on them. I just hated.
“Show us.” Brady said.
“I don’t want to.” Dakota began to sob. “I’m scared. I want a lawyer, I want Mom and Dad.”
“I want Tristan alive and well.” Brady said. “You got that anywhere!” He pushed his brother hard. “You take us to where you put that little girl right now or I swear we’re gonna start cutting off your fingers. You got ten of them to lose. It won’t be pretty.”
“You aren’t going to cut off my fingers.” Dakota said.
“Why wouldn’t I?” Brady said. “Look what you did? Look what you admit to doing. What else did you do? What else did you do to her?”
“Nothing.” Dakota said. “I swear.”
“Cause we’ll be able to tell if you did something sexual.” Brady said. “You know, we’re cops. If you did, I swear I’ll cut off your dick and shove it down your throat and watch you choke to death on it with a smile on my face.”
“I swear to God.” Dakota said. “You know me. I’ve never done anything like that, not ever. Not ever in my whole life.”
“You never killed anybody either.” Brady said. “Or so I thought.”
“It was an accident.” Dakota insisted. “She kicked me in the balls. I just got so mad.” He broke down into a sobbing heap on the road. I wanted to vomit.
Brady kicked him. “Get up and show me where she is. You try to take off and I’ll kill you.”
He got up, wiped his eyes and started walking across a desolate field towards a stand of trees by the river.
My baby had been lying dead in the weeds for close to twenty hours. Dakota didn’t have twenty minutes left to live. These fields flooded in the spring sometimes and they were rough from kids four-wheeling through them. Something else Trissy would miss out on. Being muddy and buzzed. I had no doubt that Brady was serious about wanting his brother to just kill himself. I also had no doubt that Dakota lacked the guts to do it. So what would we do then? I wondered if Brett had figured out what had happened. He knew I was talking to the Smoothie Hut girl, he would go down there and ask. Patti was intelligent enough to suspect Dakota, even if my mind wasn’t working, hers was. As we went into the stand of trees, I saw the bright pink backpack lying there on the mud. The one with her homework, her magazines, her planner and the list of ten goals that she always kept her eyes on. Most likely there was a snack and those little candy hearts that she was leaving everywhere in celebration of the season. The backpack was soaked in dried blood, as was her purse that was on the ground beside it.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“She was here.” He stuttered.
“Where is she!” I screamed in his miserable little face. I grabbed him and shook him hard. “Just tell us the fucking truth before I have to tear it out of you!”
“I did. I did. I swear.” He sobbed.
The sickening thought that animals might have gotten hold of her hit me hard. But I had seen coyotes around here. I must have been holding him off the ground, cause when I let go of him, he fell down hard.
Brady’s phone started to ring, but he didn’t touch it. The ring tone was “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” It was so wrong, I couldn’t quite grasp it.
Then I saw it. And my state of mind was such at the time that I didn’t know what I was seeing. There was a complete disconnect between my eyes and my brain. It certainly didn’t look human. It’s an awful thing to say now, but it did not look human to me. It was like an insect or truthfully, more like Gollum in Lord of The Rings, moving along the ground powered by gangly limbs with a dark face and huge light eyes. And then I realized that the thing was Tristan. She was covered in mud and dried blood and she was pulling herself by her arms along the ground. She let out an inhuman moan.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” I said and I ran to her. Not easy for me to run, but I ran. It hurt like hell when my knees hit that muddy ground beside her. Her pupils were blown almost covering up the blue irises of her eyes.
“Help, help.” She said. I’m not sure she really saw me.
“Trissy, it’s okay. Daddy’s right here.” I said.
“Triss, I’m calling for an ambulance. You’ll be okay.” Brady said. “You run and I’ll fucking shoot you in the back!” He screamed out at Dakota who was starting to move away from him. “I will do it!” He flipped open his phone to call 9-1-1. “This is Officer Haskins. I found my stepdaughter. She’s hurt pretty bad.” He gave directions and then called Lisa. “Just go to the hospital.” He said. “She’s alive, but she’s hurt. Just meet us there.” Then he said to me. “What’s Mackenzie’s number?” I told him and he gave her the same short version that he’d given Lisa.
I pulled Trissy up in my arms. She was so cold. “I’m gonna take care of you baby.”
“That mother fucker tried to kill me.” She said. “I’m gonna kill him.”
“I’m sorry.” Dakota said and I seriously thought that Brady was going to shoot him.
“Don’t try to move her. I’ll go flag down the ambulance.” Brady said. “Come with me, Dakota. You make a move and I kill you.”
“But she’s alive.” Dakota said. “It’s all gonna be okay.”
“Oh, it will all be dandy.” Brady took off his coat and tossed it to me. Keep her warm with that. “I’ve got a bottle of water in the car. I’ll bring it back, she’s gotta be dehydrated.”
“My head hurts.” She moaned.
“I’ll bet.” I said. “It’s gonna be okay.”
“I knew you’d find me.” She said.
I kissed her bloody mud covered face. “I love my little girl.”
“I lost my purse.”
“I know where it is.” I said.
“I have a test on Thursday.”
“It’ll be okay.” I said. “I know it’s cold. We’ll get you warmed up soon.”
“Dakota hit me.” She said in this dry weak voice that was really not hers. “He grabbed my hair and kept hitting my head on the ground and then it was all black and I woke up here. I can’t stay awake. I heard you. I heard you talking. If I had a cell phone, I would have called.”
“You’re good.” I said. “Even with a concussion and frozen, you’re good.”
“I want a pink one with unlimited minutes.” She was shaking. “And instead of a battery, it runs on Dakota’s blood. And it’s a personal organizer and it takes pictures and videos and you can go on-line to check your e-mail. And it costs soooo much money that I can never have a car, not ever.”
“We’ll talk about it.” I said. “I’ve been looking for you for a long time.”
“I was walking to your house.” Tristan said. “He called me a bitch. So I hit him. I’m cold.”
My life was seeping back into me. My future was reconstructing itself into something happy. Trissy was in my wedding. She was in a holiday photo with her baby brother. She was learning to drive and selling candy bars to raise funds. I was taking her to visit colleges and to Montreal for the circus. And she was on the phone too much and slamming doors and coming in past her curfew. There were boyfriends that I liked and those I despised. And I would probably buy her the stinking phone. I heard the sirens coming towards us.
“Here’s the ambulance, baby. They’ll get you nice and warm. Mom will be there, too.”
“Not Dakota.” She said.
“No.” I said. “Not him.”
“Poor Brady.” She sounded drunk. “His brother sucks. And he can’t do anything about it cause you can’t divorce your brother.”
The paramedics came and took her away from me to shine light in her eyes and take her pulse and temperature. They wrapped her up in a special blanket and I sat beside her in the ambulance as we drove to the hospital.
Lisa was waiting in the emergency room with her mother and father.
“What happened?” She asked me desperately.
“Dakota beat her unconscious and dumped her out by the river.” I said. “He thought she was dead.”
“No, he wouldn’t do that.” Lisa said.
“He admitted it. He took us there.” I said and then I saw Mackenzie coming through the doors and I went to her.
“Thank God, thank God she’s alive.” Mackenzie said to me. “I was so scared.”
“She’s cold and I’m pretty sure she has a concussion.” I said. “They’ll have to check for everything else. Brady’s goddamn brother tried to kill her. He dumped her out in the woods.”
And Mackenzie squeezed me tightly and I just felt better about things even though I could hear Lisa sobbing.
“I called your parents.” Mackenzie said. “And they’ll tell everyone in the family. I called work. Camera crews are showing up out there at the mall to do the missing girl story. I told Karlie to let Keegan know.”
“Thank you.” I said. “I thought I’d lost her.”
“But you found her, didn’t you?” Mackenzie said.
There was no damage to Tristan’s brain, just a good crack in the skull and a big split in her scalp that needed stitches. The blood loss looked worse than it was, nothing bleeds like a head. She had hypothermia, but they were warming her gradually back up. And there were some contusions from the fight she’d been in with Dakota. She was dehydrated and they put her on an IV. The pain medication put her out like a light, but that was good. When they moved her to a room, Lisa and I stood there at the foot of her bed just looking at her. They’d hacked off a big chunk of hair, Triss wouldn’t like that.
“I asked the nurse if there were any signs of sexual assault.” Lisa said. “They said none. The doctor said they always check and that she’s still a virgin. Which I thought, but these days you never know.”
I knew, but that’s because I spied a lot and because Mackenzie had listened and understood when Tristan talked to her.
“I don’t know why he did it.” Lisa said.
“He’s a bad person.” I said. “A lot of times, it is as simple as that.”
“I haven’t heard from Brady yet.” She said.
“I think he went down to the station to make sure Dakota was put in a cell. I guess he had to call him parents.”
“I don’t know why he’s not here yet.” She said.
“He was very upset.” I said. “We thought she was dead. That’s what he told us, that he had killed her.”
“I would have lost my mind.” She said.
“I kind of did.” I said.
“She’s all you have.” Lisa said.
“Well, I have Mackenzie.” I said because it was true.
“Really?” Lisa asked. “Is it getting serious?”
My first reaction would have been that it was none of her business. But that was unnecessary especially at a time like this.
“I think so.” I said. “Didn’t really see that coming, but you never do know how things are going to work out.”
I had sent Mackenzie home to sleep, but I wasn’t ready to leave Trissy. So I was fueling up on coffee and hoping to make it through another night before I fell over. As I was coming back up from my coffee run, I ran into Brady in the family lounge. They had tried to outfit it to look like a comfy living room. There were couches and chairs that did not look like standard-issue waiting room stuff. They had filled bookcases with books, magazines, cards and games. You even had the Internet and television. It still felt like a hospital. Brady absolutely looked like hell.
“Hey.” I said.
“How is she doing?” He asked.
“She’ll be okay they think.” I said. “Just a nasty knock the head, a bad cut and hypothermia. We were lucky the weather was only down in the forties.”
“I’m so sorry.” He said. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“It wasn’t your fault.” I said. “You didn’t know.”
“I should have put my foot down when Mom talked her into moving him in. I didn’t know he was violent, but I knew he was worthless. And those people only get worse. I should have just physically tossed him out. I owed that to Tristan. The man in a house is supposed to protect the people in it.”
“Thank you for your help. I don’t know that I could have handled this without you.”
“I am so sorry.” Brady said. “Not just for this, but for what I did to your life. I caused all of this. You were nothing but good to me and I paid you back by sleeping with your wife and then taking your family away from you. Tristan hated me for it and she should have. Even if Lisa was confused and unhappy in a lot of ways, I should never have taken advantage of it. I should have told her to work things out with her husband. I just had always spent my life cleaning up Dakota’s messes and trying to fix stuff for Dakota. I got the idea that it was my turn to do what I wanted because I wanted it. It’s never your turn to do that without considering other people’s lives; especially the life of a twelve year old girl.”
“We learn as we go.” I said.
“I can’t stay with Lisa.” Brady said as if the horrible realization were just dawning on him. “How can I do that? How can I expect Tristan to look at me knowing what my brother did? How can we get through Dakota’s trial? My parents are going to back him, they always do. How do I get through my parents sitting with my brother on the defense side of a courtroom? How do I look at Lisa or her parents? I can’t do it. I don’t think I can stand it. I don’t think I inflict myself on Tristan any longer. I think she’s suffered enough.”
“What do you want, my approval to bail on your family obligations?” I asked. “I can’t give that to you. I hate to spout old sayings at you, but two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“It’s pretty obvious that I’m not a great guy, ain’t it?” He said.
“I don’t know.” I said.
“God, Jack. I don’t see what else I can do.” He said.
“I don’t know what to tell you.” I said.
“I can’t go see Tristan.” He said. “I just can’t do it.”
“She’s asleep anyway.” I said and I just walked back to her room. “Brady’s in the lounge.” I told Lisa.
“Why didn’t he come in?” She asked.
I shrugged and sat down in a chair next to the bed so I could look at my daughter’s face. I wondered what my second child would look like, since obviously Trissy’s good looks would have no bearing on the matter. The irony of Lisa’s happy home falling to pieces at the same time mine was coming together was not lost of me. Maybe I would have felt a little triumphant if Tristan was not lying here returned to me from the dead. All I wanted was for her to be safe and for Mackenzie and baby to be okay. Lisa’s home life was her own problem now. My life was in the condo by the river. What went on in the little ranch house concerned me only in that it involved Tristan. I fell asleep in the chair listening to her breathe and reveling in the sound. A nurse gently woke me around eight a.m.. Lisa was napping in the other chair. I hadn’t heard her come back in.
“She’s doing well.” The nurse assured me.
I woke Lisa in turn and told her I was going to go home for a little bit to take a shower and take my medications.
“If she wakes up. Tell her I’ll be right back.” I said. “Do you want me to bring you something?”
“No.” Lisa said. “Mom is coming over.”
I had a bunch of cell messages, including one from Mackenzie telling me that she was going into work for a little bit and that if I needed anything to just call her. She promised that she had taken her prenatal vitamins and eaten some fruit with yogurt. When I got home I talked to my parents and told them I’d let them know when Trissy was up to visitors. I called Tristan’s school to tell the principal that she was going be okay and back to class soon. I called Karlie and thanked her for her assistance. I made sure to talk briefly to Brett as well. Then I took my pills and a long, hot shower before calling Mackenzie at work and thanking her for just existing.
“I want to see her, but I don’t want to overwhelm her.” Mackenzie said sensibly. “So you just tell her I said hello. I’m going to stop by and pick out a bear for her, she should like that.”
I was starving, so I poured a super-large bowl of cereal and sat down to eat it. The doorbell rang and I got up to answer it. It was Lisa.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mom is with Tristan, but she’s still sleeping.” Lisa said.
“Okay.” I said.
“I wanted to talk to you.” She said.
“Okay.” I let her in. “I was just trying to grab some breakfast, I haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday. Would you like something? Some cereal or some coffee?”
“Coffee might be good.” Lisa said.
I poured her a cup and added sugar with just a hint of cream, just the way she liked it. “Here you are.”
“I can’t get over how nice your kitchen is.” She said. “Just like a magazine.”
“I’m just figuring out the appliances.” I said.
“We almost lost our girl.” Lisa said. “It makes you think.”
“Yes.” I agreed.
“I think I made a mistake giving up our family.” Lisa said. “It was wrong to break up Tristan’s family. I wish I had done it.”
“I thought it was a bad idea at the time.” I said. I knew where this was going.
“I am so very sorry. It was the worst mistake of my life.” She looked at me with those huge blue eyes. God, she was beautiful. You couldn’t say she wasn’t beautiful. The first time I had slipped the sweater off that curvy body and unhooked her bra, I thought I’d hit the jackpot. She seemed way out of my league.
“It probably was.” I said.
She put down her coffee mug, slipped her arms around me and gave me a kiss. It felt good, but it always had. The familiar sensation of her body pressed hard against mine brought back a million emotions. It was easy to forget that this was a different time and place. What I wanted to do was throw her onto the table and screw her brains out. I only wished there was some way for Brady to catch us in the act. Or I wanted to screw her brains out and throw her away like she had me. And it really wouldn’t be cheating, I wasn’t married yet, we weren’t even really engaged. Christ, I was thinking like Brady and Lisa. That if you put up with a certain amount of stuff in life, you had the right to do just whatever you want. I’d put up with a lot why shouldn’t I bone a blonde in my kitchen. But it wasn’t what I really wanted. Sex I could have with Mackenzie. Revenge was not mine to mete out. And she thought I was so stupid that I didn’t know what was going on. Brady didn’t want her anymore, so she’d go back to old reliable stupid Jack. She fooled him once, why not twice? I hated her. I pushed her away.
“No Lisa. This is wrong. You’re married.”
“It’s not working.” She said.
“Did you notice that the common denominator in all three of your marriages that didn’t work is you?” I asked.
“You want me.” She said.
“Sure I do.” I said. “But this isn’t gonna happen. You’re married. Just because Brady did it to me, doesn’t mean I’m going to do it to him. I think you need to get back to the hospital and see about our daughter.” I went back to my cereal and tried to pretend Lisa wasn’t there. And she just left. I enjoyed my cornflakes and moral superiority while the kittens rubbed my legs. I was a good man damn it. I was a good husband and a good father. I did not cheat even if I knew I could get away with it.
I ran into Tristan’s biological father Fred Moore in the family lounge at the lobby. His parents lived in town and maintained a relationship with Tristan, he lived out of state. He had agreed a long time ago to let me become Tristan’s legal father, but Lisa wouldn’t go for it until recently. I had followed Mackenzie’s advice to suggest to Lisa that my adopting Triss was the best way to make sure she got my money when I died.
“How are you Fred?” I asked.
“I didn’t know if I should come.” He said. “When Dad called, I just couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
“I understand.” I said. “Triss is gonna be okay.”
“I’d like to see her, but I don’t know if I should.”
“Let me see if she’s even awake.” I went down to the room and found Trissy sitting up a little talking to Lisa’s mother.
“Well good morning.” I said.
“Hey Papa Bear.” Trissy said.
“You’re looking better.” I kissed her on the cheek. “Are you feeling better?”
“I had some breakfast.” She said.
“Me, too.” I said. “Mackenzie says hello and she’ll come see you soon.”
“My head still hurts.” She said. “And I’m a little woozy from the stuff they gave me.”
“Hon, Fred is here to see you. He took plane out here. But you don’t have to see him if you don’t want to.”
Lisa’s mother started to put in her two cents, but I shook my head slightly and she was silent.
“I’ll see him.” Tristan said. “He was probably pretty worried. And we better get it done before Mom comes back.”
Fred came in hesitantly with a balloon and some flowers from the hospital gift shop.
“Hi.” He said.
“Hey.” Triss said. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to call you. Dad doesn’t seem right and I’m not allowed to call you Fred because it’s disrespectful.”
“It’s okay if you call me Fred.” He said.
“Tell him that.” She looked at me.
“I heard.” I said.
“I just wanted to see for myself that you were okay.” He said.
“I’ll be okay. I’m apparently pretty tough.” She said.
They had a polite little talk and then I walked him out.
“I just wanted to see her.” He said. “I know I haven’t done right by her. And I’m a better man now, but it’s too late because you’re her dad now.”
“I take care of her.” I said.
“I felt so trapped when she was born. I wanted to break up with Lisa and suddenly she turns up pregnant. I think she thought that if we got married and had a baby everything would be wonderful and of course she was miserable. No excuse for me running for my life.”
“You know, if she wants to contact you I won’t discourage it.” I said.
“I know. It’s great that she gets to see Mom and Dad. I appreciate it.” He said. “I’d like for her to know my kids, but I don’t think she’s too interested.”
“Maybe someday.” I said.
“I hope so.” Fred said.
I dodged the bullet, because Lisa didn’t come back until after he was gone. Her mother had left, too and Tristan had fallen back asleep.
“Oh, she’s out again.” Lisa said.
“Just resting.” I said, trying to ignore everything that had happened earlier.
“Mom called and told me about Fred.” She said.
“I didn’t think it would hurt.” I said. “Maybe a little more than he deserves, but I think it scared the hell out of him. I’m so happy she’s okay, I’m feeling generous.”
“I hope so.” Lisa said. “Cause I need a favor.”
“I didn’t even see you this morning.” I said.
“Well that.” She said. “And something else.”
“What?” I asked.
“Do you think Triss could come live with you for awhile?”
“With me?” I asked. “Sure.”
“It’s just I think with all that’s happening with Dakota, it would be really hard for Brady to see her everyday. He says he can’t bear to look at her he feels so guilty. And until he’s over that and back in his right mind… I mean Dakota’s going to have a trial…”
“I would be glad to have Tristan live with me. You know that.”
“Mackenzie won’t mind?” She asked.
“It’s not a problem.” I said.
“I think I should do what I can to work things out with Brady. I don’t want three marriages down the drain.”
“I understand.” I didn’t really. I thought it was ridiculous, but I wanted my daughter with me so bad, I could hardly stand it. And with the adoption shortly to be finalized, having Tristan in my custody would be a good way to keep her there until she was eighteen. “We’ll just work out the agreement with my lawyer, he’s taking care of the adoption stuff anyway.” And that pre-nuptial agreement Mackenzie insisted on. No need to talk about that just yet.
“All right.” She said. No argument; she just wanted to get rid of Triss so Brady wouldn’t feel bad. I could not fathom how I had gladly married this creature standing in the room with me. One minute she loved me, then she loved Brady and then she was ready to turn on a dime and try to get me back. I had gone to work and come home to her for ten years. I had really loved her. And now I wanted nothing from her but to spirit her daughter away to have for my own. I would smile at her and pretend she didn’t make me sick for as long as I had to. But I felt sick. Ten years of my life gone. My attention and my affection poured into nothing. The same attentiveness with someone else would have gotten me a devoted wife and I blew it all on her. But if that’s what it took to get my daughter, I guess that wasn’t such a bad deal. But truthfully, I just wish she’d been left on my doorstep. I wondered how Lisa had managed to talk Brady into staying. She probably pointed out that she’d broken up her family for him. The guilt over that would hold him for awhile and then she could point out that she’d given up her daughter for him. That might have another couple of years in it. Hell, maybe she’d even have a baby. All the cool kids were doing it.
Patti Mackey had come to interview Tristan that afternoon. Lisa kept crying when Tristan tried to tell the story, so I sent her to go get something to eat. Patti was good with kids and she just let Tristan tell the story. She set up a video camera to record it. It was easier these days now that cameras could fit in your palm. It just sat there unobtrusively on the little tray on wheels that you could roll over the bed as needed.
“I guess I was getting a little mouthy.” Tristan said. Her eyes still didn’t look right and the right side of her face was black, blue and purple with bruises. “I can be that way.”
“Really?” Patti asked.
“So they say.” Tristan smiled a little. “But he’s such a dumb-ass. So he said I should get out of the car. Dakota stopped it and I got out. And I told him to fuck off. I was gonna walk to my Dad’s. It’s a long walk and it would be dark when I got there, but I could make it. He was gonna be in such trouble and I figured I’d get a cell phone out of it since I was stranded. Then he comes back and tells me to get in the car. So I told him where to go again. And he follows me trying to get me to come with him. Starts saying he’ll be in trouble. Like Brady’s gonna ground him and take his allowance or something. I told him no. He made his bed. I was going to my Dad’s and he’d have to deal with him. I think that scared him. So he stops the car and starts chasing me.”
I could see it in my head. And it made me angry. I took her hand in mine.
“And he grabs my arm.” She said. “And I hit him with my backpack. And we just start wrestling and we hit the ground. So I did what they always say girls should do if they hit the ground. I used my legs. I kicked him where it counts and he got so mad. He called me a bitch and he just jumped on me with all his weight.” Triss stopped for a minute and took a breath. Her eyes filled with tears. “And he grabbed my hair and banged my head on the road hard as he could and he did it like three times before I passed out. And when I woke up I was just lying in the mud and it was dark and I was so cold. I felt really sick, too. And I kept trying to get away, to get up or to move. I didn’t want him to come back and finish the job. But I could hardly move. I could just go a little and I would get sick or just pass out. It seemed like I went a long way, but I didn’t. Then I heard Dakota and Brady arguing. And I thought maybe he got his brother to come help him dig a hole for me or something and I didn’t even try to say anything. Then I heard Dad’s voice and I knew it was okay.”
She squeezed my hand.
“You surprised your Dad, Little Girl.” Patti said.
“Yeah.” I said. “That she did.”
“I’m sorry you thought I was dead.” Triss said. “I kinda thought I might be, too. Mom said I really blew Brady’s mind. He’s all freaked out and afraid to come see me.”
Since I had pretty much decided to help Brady commit the first degree murder of his brother, I understood where the freaked out part was coming from.
Tristan wanted to see Mackenzie and she stopped by with a teddy bear for Triss. Tristan loved visiting the Bears n’ Stuff store at the mall where you could assemble your own stuffed animal from scratch and pick out clothes and accessories. One of my first inklings that Lisa was less that committed to our marriage was Tristan picked out a bear to represent me and one to represent her and Lisa didn’t want a bear to be her. She said it was stupid and left the store. Tristan had given Mackenzie a bear for Christmas. She named it Holly Bear after Mackenzie’s actual first name that she wasn’t so fond of. It lived on a shelf in her room at my place next to Papa Bear and Trissy Bear.
“Is this Head Injury bear?” Tristan asked. “Or Attempted Murder Bear?”
“I did not name the bear.” Mackenzie said.
“Is it a boy bear or a girl bear? I mean, it’s naked.” Triss said.
“I don’t know.” Mackenzie said and she grinned at me.
“It’s a little bear.” Tristan said. “I’ll have to buy her clothes. She can run around naked. I can’t think of a name right now, my head hurts.”
“Eternally Grateful Bear.” I said.
“It’s kind of long.” Triss said. “I’m sure it’ll come to me. I know it ain’t Dakota. It’s gonna cool when he goes to court. I’m gonna cry and cry and they’ll give him like two hundred years.” She kissed her bear. “Isn’t that right unnamed bear?”
Once Lisa was back with Tristan, I left to go home. I did something I’d been thinking about and called Brett. He was relieved that Triss was safe and sound and a little pissed at me for just taking off from the mall without saying word one to him.
“I’m sorry. She’s my baby.” I said.
“I can let it go.” He said.
“Did you know Marty Gonzales is out?”
“I don’t know.” He said. “What’s it matter, he’ll be right back in again.”
“You think you could kinda keep a close eye on him?” I asked.
Marty was usually not the kind of criminal we kept a close watch on. He wasn’t violent and he was definitely a follower. And he was always so darn cooperative when you came to arrest him, it was hard to be mad.
“He’s got a kid, from what I hear a nice kid. The kid was living with a family he liked and then Marty got out again and wanted him back with him. We all know he’s going back again, but the kid is afraid that the situation with his foster home will change before Marty gets his ass arrested again.”
“Maybe Marty will straighten up.” Brett said.
“He would have done it when his wife died if he was gonna do it.” I said. “And I didn’t ask you to plant something on him. Just keep an eye out, my bet is that you’ll see something.”
“Okay.” Brett agreed. “I can do that. Kiss your baby girl for me.”
“She’ll be home soon.” I said.
I drove back to my place where Mackenzie had just showed up with a to-go order of Mexican food.
“Look what I made you.” She said.
“I am so damn hungry. I’ve had a bowl of cereal in two days.” I said.
“I fed the cats and here’s a cold beer.” She said handing me a bottle.
“I definitely have to marry you.” I said sitting down to the food. “I’ve missed you.”
“Nice to see you, too.” She said.
“What would you think about Triss coming to live with us?” I asked.
“That’s awesome.” She said. “When?”
“When she gets out of the hospital.” I said. “It was Lisa’s idea.”
“What does Tristan think about me coming to live with you and her?” Mackenzie asked.
“I guess we’ll find out.” I said.
“What do you think about it?” She spooned out beans and rice onto my plate.
“I’m pretty happy.” I said.
“Why does Lisa want her to live her suddenly?” She unwrapped tamales and filled each of our plates.
“Brady feels so guilty he can’t bear to see Tristan.” I said. “He like gave me this big apology for breaking up my family. It all seems to have hit him at once. He was ready to just leave , but I guess she talked him out of it. So she’s ready to send Triss over here to keep Brady around.”
“Well, what do you say to that?” Mackenzie said.
“Lisa has lost her mind.” I said. “I thought she lost it last year, but she’s completely lost it now.” I had my first sip of alcohol in a couple of days and was very happy. “She came over here while I was trying to eat my breakfast and told me she had decided that breaking up with me was a huge mistake and that we should get our family back together.”
“Is she moving in, too?” Mackenzie asked.
“She was making those weepy eyes and me, shaking her fanny and pushing her boobs up in my face like she thinks I’m an idiot. I’m so dumb, I’m really going to think she had a change of heart. Then she just jumps on me and slips me her tongue.”
“And?” Mackenzie said. “You look like you want to confess something.”
“I didn’t do anything. I sent her home.”
“But you had impure thoughts?” Mackenzie said as if she were reading my mind.
“I thought briefly about banging her, finding some way to tape it and send it to Brady and then tossing her out in the street.” I said. “Like a tenth of a second. But you aren’t supposed to have sex for revenge, are you? Or when you love somebody else?”
“I don’t see how getting it on with you counts as a punishment.” Mackenzie said.
“It was so weird. I was dizzy from the past two days and it just took me a minute to even grasp what was going on. Then it was… God, all I know is I don’t want her. God Mackenzie, I thought she was dead. I thought I was looking for Tristan’s body. I just couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to go on and I knew I had to. God, you don’t think I’d cheat on you with Lisa?”
“I can understand the temptation to get even.” She said. “But you’d have to ask my permission first.”
“Ask your permission to screw Lisa?” I said.
“And then throw her away.” She said.
“Don’t mess with me. I haven’t hardly slept in days. This is like a trick, I’m supposed to try to get your permission so you can bust me for it.”
“Once you’ve had me, you’ll never settle for less.” She said. “I know that.”
“I’m so glad to have you.” I said.
“You’re not so bad yourself.” Mackenzie said. “I’ve been eating like a pig. I keep waiting for the morning sickness, but so far just the hunger.”
“I’m sorry you had to worry so much.”
“I was so afraid she was dead.” Mackenzie said. “I wish I could say I had faith she was alive, but I was so scared. You’re the one that told me that when people take kids they either let them go right away or kill them.”
“All I had was the fear.” I said. “That kid of mine is tough as nails, don’t you think?”
“That skull seems pretty thick.” Mackenzie said.
“I was going to kill him.” I told Mackenzie. “Well, it was Brady who was going to kill him. He couldn’t believe what he’d done and he didn’t want to put his parents though a trial. But I wasn’t going to stop him.”
“Worst week ever.” Mackenzie said. “Well maybe not, you did get pumped full of lead.”
“No this was the worst one.” I said. “Except that I found out I was having a baby and I’ve always wanted that. And I guess I was afraid to get to excited. Afraid that something bad would happen or that it would seem like I didn’t love Triss. But I love her more than life and she’s going to come live with me again and I get to have another one. And I love kids, Mackenzie. I love them. I’m good at being a father.”
“I can tell.” She said. “Eat, okay?”
“I’ll shut up now. I guess I’m lucky you’re still sitting here.”
“Oh, I’m not done with you yet, fellow. Not by a long shot.”
I called the hospital. Lisa said Tristan was sleeping peacefully. We agreed we’d talk to her the next morning about the new living situation. Initially, I thought she’d be happy about it, but I didn’t know how she would feel when she had time to think it over. I dropped down into bed beside Mackenzie with a weary sigh.
“When do you think you want to move in?” I asked.
“Don’t you think we should get those adoption papers signed, just in case Lisa has a bad reaction? And if we really want to be fine examples, we could wait until after the wedding.”
“Yeah, but Trissy can count to nine, so our chance at being fine examples is probably out the window. And you hate living in that cracker box. But I guess Tristan needs some time to get settled and by then it’s time to get married anyway, isn’t it.”
“I’ll see if I can’t get some things arranged.” Mackenzie said.
“Assuming that you still want me.” I said. “Cause I’m a mess.”
She pulled me down to her and gave me a kiss as an answer. We made some really sweet and gentle, but kind of cautious love. We were both a little nervous about the baby and truthfully, my whole body hurt like hell from the cold and damp. But it was nice and really just what I needed and way better than Lisa on the counter would have been. As I lay there with her, the knot in my stomach started to loosen a little. But just a little. It was months before there was any real give in it.
Even with Tristan safe and sound in her pink and green bedroom, I was still on edge. I was smiling in my wedding pictures, but I was also nervous that something was lurking, ready to ruin everything. I was downright shaky though an uneventful pregnancy. Tristan seemed to adjust well, she was excited about the baby and eager to help Mackenzie decorate the nursery and buy clothes. It hurt her that Lisa had picked Brady over her. Lisa still saw her, but not as often as I had when she lived with her mother. Dakota was too stupid to take a plea deal and his lawyer kept delaying stuff. We weren’t anywhere near his trial yet. I think I finally started to get the breathe again the day Madison was born.
Tristan had so wanted to be there, but the whole process freaked her out and she ended up in the corner of the labor room covering her eyes.
“It’s okay to leave.” Mackenzie told her.
“No, I’m helping.” Tristan insisted.
She actually did help, because her cowering in the corner unable to work up the gumption to peek really lightened the mood. She put her arms over her head to block the sights and sounds, but she just didn’t want to leave. She managed to free one hand to touch Mackenzie’s arm.
I’m not sure I realized how much what happened to Tristan weighed on me until I saw my second daughter for the first time. Covered in blood with her eyes wide open, she looked just like Tristan had crawling out of the mud and back to life. The thought upset me so much I felt sick.
Then Trissy called asked. “Is it okay to look at my sister or is it still really gross?”
I laughed instead. When Madison was cleaned up, wrapped in a blanket and put in her mother’s arms, I took a picture of my three girls together.
Even when my whole family was home, I would still get up at night and prowl the house just to check. I don’t know what I was looking for. Did I think Dakota was going to turn up? Was I expecting somebody to jump out with guns blazing? Not really. Did I think I could see bad fortune hiding in the bushes? Who knew? Certainly not this guy. Mackenzie was crashed out hard, catching sleep before the demand for food came again and Madison was happy in her bassinet knowing that she had a whole house full of people eager to serve her. I got up carefully, but waking Mackenzie was unlikely. The only thing that roused her from sleep was Madison. I went down the hall and peeked in Madison’s nursery. I don’t know why, she didn’t sleep there yet. It was a cute room, a joint Tristan and Mackenzie production for the arrival of the little princess. Tristan had stamped stars on the light blue ceiling one at a time over the course of a month. A door down, Triss was sleeping in her room, probably dreaming hateful thoughts of me, since I’d confiscated her cell phone for yakking on it after she was supposed to be asleep. The kittens slept at her feet. The family of stuffed bears was content on its shelf. Her door was scuffed where she’d gotten in the habit of slamming it hard whenever she thought I was being unfair. So one day I just got the drill and started taking it off the hinges.
“What are you doing?” She had exclaimed.
“If you can’t stop slamming this thing, I’ll just take it off.” I said. “Are you going to quit it?”
“Gawd.” Tristan said. “You are making it so difficult for me to be passive/aggressive.”
“Good.” I said. “Are we done with slam, slam, slam?”
“I guess so. I already got kicked out of one house, I shouldn’t push my luck.” And she gave that grin that always made me want to lift whatever sanctions I’d imposed. But I never did.
Everybody here was mostly happy. A Sweetest Day card from Mackenzie was still on my desk in the office. October had been a hectic month.
“You are mighty sweeeeet!” Mackenzie had written in red marker and circled with a heart. It was sitting next to a photo of us with Tristan at her eighth grade graduation. That’s when she’d gotten the phone I had to keep confiscating. We had quickly filled this house up with pictures of my newly configured family. It was as if it had always been this way. I was content with my life, but I had been content in my life with Lisa. But I guess I hadn’t examined that life too closely. You couldn’t say that about this one. I had analyzed this one to death. Mackenzie and I were of like minds and that made a difference. I was starting to believe that it was all real. Maybe God wasn’t out to get me. Perhaps He had blessed me with a loving wife, two daughters and a bunch of money and left Lisa and Brady with each other. They didn’t seem too happy to me when I had occasion to cross paths with them. And I really didn’t care. I’m a nice guy. But not quite that nice.