Mark Fife was being watched.
He realized this in a coffee shop three blocks from the townhouse where he and his girlfriend, Allison, lived, sitting in a stuffed chair with his back to the front window. It was early on a weekday morning; all of central Ohio had woken to four inches of new snow, and Mark and Allie had decided to take a morning walk, ending here. Just before rush hour, the Cup O’Joe was full, noisy, the air warm and humid from snow melting off scores of boots. Allison had left Mark alone to use the restroom, and he was pretending to read the Dispatch while he waited. And then came the prickle at his neck, the sudden shock—as though a sly lover had drawn the tip of a fingernail across the short hairs of his nape.
He lifted his eyes from the paper and scanned the shop, but no one was looking his way. Then he turned around in his seat and was startled again: A woman—a stranger—was peering through the window at him.
The woman was older than he was, forty-five maybe. Her face was round, unnaturally tan for December, and wrapped in a silver scarf; what hair escaped was curly and very dark. Her eyes were wide: she seemed surprised to see him, in a way he recognized, and that soured his stomach.
Mark might have ignored her, but the woman was too odd—too nervous and frenetic—to ignore. Her mouth hung open; her gloved hands were twisting together in front of her. She wasn’t simply surprised to see him. She was afraid.
He raised his hand, automatically, and she flinched—as though, instead of waving, he’d held up a gun.
Was she really afraid of him? He turned back to the shop, but the only other person in the woman’s line of sight was a young blonde, wrapped in a shawl on a nearby couch, frowning at her textbook.
When Mark turned back to the window, the woman had vanished.
He stood, peered out onto the sidewalk. At that moment maybe a dozen people milled outside, all dressed in dark coats, converging and scattering, getting in and out of cars, puffing steam. The silver scarf, that hair—he searched for them, but saw nothing. The woman was gone.
He dropped back into his seat, trying to place her, failing. He told himself that she must have made a mistake. She’d thought he was someone else. Or she could simply be a crazy; Columbus had its share. Still, her appearance and departure left Mark oddly shaken, maybe because the strange woman was of a piece with a morning that had already done its best to unnerve him.
Not forty minutes before, Allison had woken him from an endless nightmare—the pressure of her fingers in his hair as gentle, as unreal, as the sensation that had alerted him to the strange woman’s gaze.
It snowed, Allie had said, when he’d opened his eyes. Come see.
Mark had been dreaming of his son, Brendan, who had died on a cold January day several years before, just weeks after his seventh birthday. The dream was an enemy whose tactics were familiar, intimate. In it, Mark and Brendan’s mother—Mark’s ex-wife, Chloe—were still living in their old two-story brick house in Victorian Village, on the far side of downtown. In the dream their old, rambling home had become a labyrinth: Floors had traded places; new hallways branched into shadows; doors had been smoothed over into plaster walls. Brendan was still alive, running from them, laughing, calling them, always out of sight, but in this strange new house they could never catch him; they could never tell him to be careful, to wait for them, to take his time on the stairs.
And then Mark was awake, and seven years had passed, and instead of Chloe’s tear-streaked, panicked face beside him, he saw only Allison’s peering down at him, her dark eyes alight, excited by the snowfall.
Allie had spent the first eight years of her life in Southern California; even after more than two decades in Cleveland and Columbus, snow was still exotic to her, special. Whatever Ohio doesn’t have, she liked to say, it’s got snow and fireflies.
Get dressed, she urged him. Come play with me.
He didn’t want to. Allie knew about Brendan, about Chloe, as much as he could bear to tell her—but how could he make her understand that a second ago Brendan had been lost, that Chloe had been crying? That even though Mark was awake, he could still hear them?
He couldn’t make her—anyone—understand a thing like that. So he dressed, pulled on his boots, and did as Allie asked.
They lived in German Village, an old, historic neighborhood just south of downtown Columbus; they’d moved into their brownstone townhouse the previous summer, six months after they’d begun dating. The streets here were cobbled, and the brick houses were all a hundred years old, squared and serious and rising porchless from the streets; the sidewalks were overhung by enormous, steadfast trees. This morning’s snow, flat and heavy, gave the air a weird closeness, as though Mark and Allie walked across a soundstage. Strings of white Christmas lights glowed in their neighbors’ windows—but not yet in their own; they’d been too busy with work to decorate—and on the light poles at the corners. If not for the single set of tire tracks dividing the road, Mark wouldn’t have been surprised to see a horse-drawn carriage clattering by.
Allie kicked at the snow, shrieked away from clumps shed by tree branches, with a kid’s joy. Mark followed her, freeing himself from the dream, remembering himself.
He was thirty-eight. Chloe had left him six years ago, not long after Brendan died. He loved Allison Daniel now.
Mark couldn’t help his dreams, but his years of lonely grieving had taught him how to pull his mind back from its gray chasms and thickets, into the world where his body moved, where his heart beat and his lungs breathed in cold air; where a woman he loved frolicked ahead of him in the snow. This was his life, now. His new life.
He wasn’t so naive as to think anyone could simply choose to be happy—that was bullshit of the highest order, and he’d thought so even before his son had, in an instant, fallen down the stairs and out of the world—but one could choose paths that allowed for happiness. One could choose to accept any happiness one found. How many times had he and Allison, herself divorced, talked about this? Neither of them had planned for the other. Planning was impossible. Their lives, now, were wild improvisation.
Allison lifted a hand and smacked a low branch; snow sifted down. Watching her, he felt aching gratitude that, on a morning like this one, he was not alone.
Allison Daniel, he said.
She turned. Her cheeks and lips were a violent red; her black hair was speckled with snowflakes. Mark Fife? she said.
He reeled her in for a kiss. Her lips cold. The barest warm touch of her tongue.
What’s that for? she asked.
For weeks he’d been thinking of proposing to her. He could have asked, then; the words were close to the surface. Marry me. Please.
But he didn’t. That’s for Allison Daniel, he said.
You speak in riddles, she said. She thumped his chest with her palms. Come on. Let’s get coffee.
Just like that, his happiness clouded. Why hadn’t he asked? He had been sure, for some time, that Allie wanted him to. He followed her to the Cup O’Joe feeling as he had in his dream—silenced, as though a magician’s spell had sealed his lips.
Just before the strange woman stared at him through the window, Mark had been steeling himself, again, to ask. As they’d drunk their coffees he’d found his humor again; he had just been trying to convince Allison to call in sick to work, to stay home with him—Mark designed websites for local businesses, working out of his office at the townhouse, and his schedule was his own. Finally Allie had smiled and asked, What’s it worth to me?
She knew, he thought. Ask.
His hesitation registered; Allie’s smile faltered. And when, minutes later, she left for the restroom, he was sure—for a long, free-falling moment—that she had finally given up on him. That none of his thoughts were hidden from her. That she was really calling her sister from the alley, was right now telling Darlene, He’ll never ask. I’m wasting my time. Mark had to fight back an overpowering urge to weep.
But then the stranger had appeared. A cold finger had touched his neck. The unknown woman had stared at him—into him. Whatever she’d found there had caused her to run.
Allison returned now from the restroom, the soles of her snow boots squeaking; she picked up her coat from her chair, then saw his distress. “What’s wrong?”
His first instinct was to lie, to say, Nothing. But he made himself tell her about the woman. “She scared the hell out of me,” he said. “The look on her face—”
“Someone you knew?” Allie said. “Someone—”
“No,” he said.
Allie pulled a white knit cap over her black hair, tugged on her mittens. She was trying, still, to read the look on his face.
“It’s all right,” he said.
They walked the three blocks home, holding hands.
Someone he knew before? That was what Allie had meant. Only a few days earlier, she had been with him at the grocery when, by accident, they had run into the mother of one of Brendan’s old babysitters in the checkout line. The woman had been too slow to realize Allison was with Mark, that they were buying supplies for two. To remind herself that he and Chloe had split. When she finally had, she’d given both of them a quick, sour look of appraisal. A look that seemed to ask, How could a man like him—a man who had lost so much—dare to be happy again?
Allie had seen it, too. In the car she told him, It’s the judgment that gets me. Like anyone has that right.
She wasn’t judging, Mark told her, though he knew better. When the woman in the checkout line had last seen Mark, he had been sobbing at his son’s funeral. And now here he was: trim from two years of working out, wearing an expensive sport jacket and shiny shoes and horn-rimmed glasses, standing at the side of a woman not only obviously younger than poor Chloe, but untouched by grief.
Mark tried to bury thoughts like the one he’d had, then: that Allie didn’t know what judgment was.
The snow on the streets was bright; the rising sun’s light caught hold of every flake. Mark took Allie’s mittened hand; he steadied her, his fingertips touching the small of her back, as she climbed the steps to their townhouse door. He concentrated on these things: touching her, smiling. Again, he brought himself back.
What had happened this morning did not matter. He would ask Allison to marry him. She would say yes. Allie had trusted him enough to love him, and he owed her all of himself. He promised himself, then, that he would ask the right way—he would buy a ring, drop to one knee, say something to her profound and true. He would find the ring this afternoon while Allie was at work. She deserved the full ritual, the best gesture, not some half-assed declaration over morning coffee.
It wasn’t until Mark was pulling the door shut behind him that he noticed the extra footprints leading from the sidewalk to the door. His and Allie’s had come and gone from the left. But another pair of prints—the size of Allie’s, or even smaller—approached their steps from the right, in and back out.
He glanced across the street, right to left. Then he closed the door. Before turning to Allison, he locked it.
Mark didn’t buy a ring that day, after all. By nine o’clock in the morning his work voicemail had amassed several messages—emergency calls, clients panicked by the impending holiday—and he ended up spending too many hours trying to figure out why a website selling imported balsamic vinegars wouldn’t display any images of the bottles.
In the afternoon Allie called from work to tell him two of her college girlfriends were traveling through town, on their way east to New York. Did he want to go out with them tonight? He didn’t; he disliked most of Allie’s college friends, though he tried to keep that from her. He was relieved, in a way, to say no—if he stayed home to work he’d have no reason to feel guilty about ring shopping, either. He told Allie to have a good time.
But the prospect of the empty townhouse, with nothing but work and cold drafty air and his cowardice and footprints in the snow to think about, proved to be too much for him. He had been a hermit for far too long after Brendan’s death; even when he wanted to be alone, now, he often failed at it. So when he knocked off at five he called his old friend and college roommate Lewis, then drove out to the recording studio in the neighborhood of Grandview, fifteen minutes away, where Lew worked as an engineer.
He found Lew smoking a cigarette beside the studio’s side door, halfway down a slick and shadowed alley; the ice by Lew’s feet was littered with cigarette butts, each sunken into a tiny crater, like dud shells on a battlefield. Lew had shaved his massive head cue-ball-bald, and it glowed whitely beneath the security light. Mark exclaimed over it as he knew Lew wanted him to, as they walked inside, down a narrow hallway and into the booth. “I’m an old man,” Lew said. “This hair-growing business is for kids.” Lew eyed Mark’s own hair, made a face. “I’m glad you called, stranger. I’m bored to fucking tears in here.”
Mark had roomed with Lew at Ohio State for three years, first in the dorms and then in an apartment off-campus; Lew had, in fact, dragged Mark to the party where he had met Chloe, had doubled with them on their first date. Since moving in with Allison, though, Mark had barely seen him. He had been troubled by this without making much of an effort to rectify it. But in Lew’s presence now he felt an old, welcome comfort. Going through college with Lew had been, much of the time, just like this: happy, profane talk; access into secret places, cool places, where shy, quiet Mark could never have found entry on his own.
Lewis was, really, the only friend from his old life Mark had kept. The only friend from that life who’d ever truly been his. Lew came with his issues—he was an unrepentant drunkard, for one, and Mark wasn’t—he didn’t drink at all, anymore—but Lew had been Brendan’s godfather, and had loved Chloe nearly as much as Mark had. Lew, more than anyone except maybe Mark’s father, knew the depth of his grief. Lew had spent countless nights with Mark after Brendan’s death, after the divorce, bringing Mark food, making him play video games or watch movies instead of brooding alone. Lew knew the depth of the pit out of which Mark had climbed. He knew what Mark’s happiness had cost him.
Mark understood, now, why he’d called. He hadn’t simply wanted company; he’d come to tell Lew he was going to propose.
They sat side by side in the control booth. Lew laced his fingers behind his gleaming head, his big wedge of a torso barely contained by a torn Stooges T-shirt. He told Mark about the band whose record he was mixing (terrible, just terrible), about other music he did like; as usual, he made Mark surrender his iPod, and while he talked he loaded music onto it from his laptop. Then he told Mark about his new girlfriend, a mechanic. “Her hands are calloused like a man’s,” Lew said. “I’m really questioning myself, here.”
“We’ll have to double,” Mark said. “Allie would like that.”
Lew’s palm rasped over his skull. “How is Allie? I haven’t seen her in ages.”
Mark hesitated. When Lew had first met Allie, last year, she and Mark had been on the tail end of a fight. Lew, maybe sensing this, hadn’t liked her at all, and Allie had been sharp with him when he told a dirty joke. The next day Lew had emailed him: There’s plenty of people you can fuck, if fucking’s all you’re after. So why pick a mean one?
The two had warmed to each other since. Even so, he and Allie almost never invited Lew over for dinner, and Lew, for all his promises, almost never invited them out. Mark hadn’t sat with Lew like this in, what—two months? There’d once been a time when Lewis crashed two nights a week on Mark and Chloe’s couch; when Brendan had run eagerly down the stairs every morning to see if his uncle Lewis was there and needed waking up.
The acoustics in the booth made Mark’s every word immediate and echoless. “Funny you should ask. I think I’m going to pop the question.”
Lew sat up straight. “For real?”
“I’m buying a ring tomorrow.”
Lew didn’t hesitate. He rose from his chair and wrapped Mark in his arms, slapped Mark’s shoulders. Up close he smelled of sweated-out beer. When they separated, Lew’s eyes were moist.
Mark began to tell Lewis about all the thinking he’d been doing. How much sense his plans made.
Lew laughed, shook his head. “You’re whispering!”
“I—I guess I’m nervous.”
“Why? Allie’s not going to say no.”
Mark shook his head.
Lewis smiled, sly. “You were nervous about Chloe, too.”
“What bullshit? The week before you asked her, you were like some dude on his last three days in Vietnam.”
Mark wished Lew hadn’t brought up Chloe, not now. He remembered telling Lew, all those years ago, that he and Chloe were engaged; he remembered saying, I need a best man; he remembered how crazy these sentences had seemed—and yet, at the same time, how they had felt ancient and right, as though the words I am engaged to Chloe Ross had the power to transform his puppet-self into a real boy.
“Just ask,” Lew said. He regarded Mark seriously for a long second. “You have my blessing, if it matters.”
Mark felt himself grinning. Apparently it mattered a great deal.
Lew insisted they celebrate; he locked the studio and they walked two blocks down the street to his favorite bar. There Lew ordered a beer for himself, and a Coke for Mark, and when he had his drink in his hand he shouted to the room that his oldest buddy was getting married, and a dozen drunken strangers whooped and toasted. Mark turned and bowed, wishing, as he always did in bars, that he still drank, that he hadn’t promised his father—and Lew—that he wouldn’t, ever again.
An hour and several drinks later Lewis embraced him again, heavily. “I’m so fucking happy for you.”
Mark rubbed the prickly top of his head. “I’m happy you’re happy I’m happy.”
Lew looked at him for too long. “So you gonna tell Chloe?”
Mark only hesitated a moment before saying, “I’ll have to, Lew.”
Lew’s smile contained as much maudlin tragedy as joy. “What’ll she say?”
Chloe and Allison had only met twice. Chloe had a boyfriend, a serious one, but even so she’d done everything possible to avoid referring to Allie in Mark’s presence.
“She doesn’t get to say anything,” Mark said, suddenly angry, as though Chloe had already begun to make the protest he knew she wouldn’t. Lew offered another sad smile—he knew Chloe well enough to know exactly what Mark was imagining—then drank deeply from his beer, and for a moment Mark was close to ordering one for himself. Why shouldn’t he? He was a different man than he used to be, a different man entirely.
But he did not. If he was different—if he was happy—it was because of decisions just like this one: hundreds of them, one after the other. And because of his father, who’d made him promise not to drink again, and because of Lew, who never pressured him, no matter how many times the two of them had gotten happily drunk together before.
He grew silent at the bar. The appearance in his mind of his father’s face, stern and kind, had shamed him; Mark realized he had to tell him this news, too. He was shocked, really, that he hadn’t talked to his father first. Maybe he could sneak away over the weekend to Indiana, where his father still lived alone in the same rambling farmhouse where Mark had been raised. He tried to imagine the look on Sam Fife’s face when he told him the news, and was seized again by unreasonable fear.
Mark looked away from the television behind the bar—he’d been idly watching a Buckeyes basketball game—and found Lew gone. The noise in the room rose up, like flooding water, and his throat closed; he looked right and left, and finally—there—saw Lewis outside on the sidewalk, talking with a woman in a long leather coat, smoke streaming from his nostrils.
Mark sat back down on the stool, his heart beating too fast. For the second time that day, he wondered how on earth he’d managed to become the person he was: a man who felt like weeping whenever someone he loved left the room.
Mark spent the next morning, a Friday, at home in his upstairs office, debugging a website for a store that imported wooden toys from Holland—cups and balls, floppy wooden dolls with joints made of string, little horses with manes of yarn and painted-on smiles. He didn’t care for the store, or the job. He had visited the place in September, and made a show of admiring the dolls before taking digital photos of them. The owner, an old Dutchman, had smiled to see one of them in Mark’s hands.
You have children? he’d asked. Please take. With compliments.
No—no children, Mark had stammered, too loudly. Sorry.
The man’s eyes had softened with sadness, with pity, and Mark had only communicated with him over email since.
But his work today was pleasant. Mark’s visit with Lew had reinvigorated him; he had promised himself that if he slammed through the morning’s calls, he would take the afternoon off to price rings. Lew had even offered to come along. And Allison had kissed him deeply on her way out the door—a promise, Mark was pretty sure, of lovemaking to come that night.
But at midmorning he remembered with a lurch that he owed Chloe a call. In less than two weeks it would be December 18—Brendan’s birthday. For the last few years—since they’d decided to be civil with each other, to be a part of each other’s lives—they’d had dinner together on that night. If his plans came to fruition, he might very well have to go to that dinner and tell Chloe he was engaged.
The thought dropped into a black hole in his mind. He didn’t place the call.
A plan came to him. Instead of ring shopping this afternoon, he would do what he ought to have done days ago: He’d drive the three hours to Indianapolis and surprise his father at work—Sam taught history at Butler University, but had no classes on Fridays; he’d be holed up in his office until the evening, working on his latest book, about the politics of the Colorado gold rush—to tell him about Allison.
Immediately Mark felt better. He had spilled his plans to Lewis; they were real now, and his heart sped up as he imagined telling his father, too. He’d been neglecting Sam too much, and now he could make amends. He could be the good son his father was always telling him he had.
He called Allison from the road to tell her what he was up to. “Are you okay?” she asked, after a pause.
“I’m fine,” he said brightly. “I just haven’t seen Dad enough lately. This will be a nice Christmas present for him.”
Allison and his father had met a few times; Sam, in fact, had driven to Columbus to help them move into the townhouse. She’s a peach, his father had said that night, as he and Mark stood sweaty beside the moving truck. Sam had thought awhile longer, then added, A real peach.
“Promise me you’re all right?” Allie asked.
He wished, for the thousandth time, that he wasn’t as transparent as everyone in his life found him to be. That he wasn’t the sort of man who would always have to reassure people he was fine.
“I’m just fine,” he told her. “I promise. And maybe me and Dad’ll shop for you.”
This cheered her. “Give Sam my love,” she said. “And get me something good.”
The drive from Columbus to Indianapolis followed a stretch of I-70 so straight, Mark could have safely slept behind the wheel. Cold rain and sleet pattered on the windshield. He drove past mile-wide fields, black frozen soil speckled with bent and broken cornstalks. Small towns that seemed embarrassed by their own off-ramps. A wide, straight brown river, like an interstate flowing south, its banks harboring occasional pockets of ice. An exit with a truck stop and a Stuckey’s. Mark plugged his iPod into the stereo and played loud rock and roll—Led Zeppelin—and sang along to keep himself awake.
An eternity later the Indianapolis suburbs appeared in the west like Columbus’s in reverse—the same strip malls, the same truck stop and Stuckey’s floating out of the rain. The same endless suburbs. Finally he crested a rise and saw the buildings of downtown Indianapolis, clustered and glittering.
Mark loved Columbus, his home for so long, but the sight of Indy’s skyline still warmed him. When he’d been a teenage boy—skinny, long-haired, fancying himself an artist—he used to flee the cornfields and tool around the downtown streets in his rattletrap Dodge Challenger. He’d imagined himself an adult, living in a warehouse loft, someplace with high ceilings and billowy curtains and a procession of beautiful young women in his big bed, admiring him while he painted.
He could never pass the city without remembering this. Every time he did, he felt guilty, but not because of the foolishness of the fantasy. He felt, rather, as though he’d run into an old girlfriend in line at the bank, someone he’d cruelly left, who’d cried when he’d done so. Who wasn’t ready, now—who wouldn’t ever be ready—to hear him say, I’m getting married again.
The interstate curved north, away from downtown. To the right of the highway loomed Methodist Hospital, which Mark could never see without thinking of his mother; she had been treated for lymphoma there, had succumbed in a room on one of the upper floors, when Mark was a senior in college. Mark and Sam and Chloe had all been with her. Sam had held one of her hands; Mark had held the other, his eyes closed, listening to her shallow breaths. Finally the next breath had failed to come, and the moment had stretched out longer and longer, and his father had said, Oh, no—
Mark knew, now, why he’d been hesitating to propose.
His mother had been dead more than a decade and a half, yet his father had chosen to remain single. Mark had decided upon a course of action that Samuel Fife, PhD, had never seen fit to take.
Chloe had told Mark, once upon a time, that he was just like his father. He’d protested; then, as now, comparisons to his father alarmed him. This was during the summer after his mother had died, when Mark and Chloe had lived with Sam at the farmhouse for the summer months, taking care of him. When Chloe had told him, they’d been alone in the house, curled together in the narrow guest room bed while Sam was away on errands. He’d been staring at the ceiling, Chloe’s head tucked against his chest, worrying aloud about his father’s state of mind.
I see where you get it, Chloe said suddenly.
Your ability to love, she told him. The people you love, you love completely.
He hadn’t known what to say.
I’m sad for your dad, Chloe told him. But I’m glad we’re in love like he was. Is. I mean, this is pretty rare. Don’t you think?
He had thought so, had told her so then and there. At the end of the summer he vowed it, slipping a ring on Chloe’s finger in a Columbus rose garden.
But Chloe had left him. They hadn’t even made it a year beyond Brendan’s death when she’d cast him loose. We’re not the people we were, she’d told him. If we ever were.
Mark was not a husband. He was not a father. Not anymore.
He was free. The thought came sneakily, as it always did, but when it had arrived he could only clench his teeth and accept it: His wife and son had left him alone. He was a new man. His own man.
He could do whatever he wished.
Ten minutes later Mark had parked the Volvo on Butler’s campus and was inside the long, low limestone edifice of Jordan Hall, climbing wide stone steps—slightly concave, slippery with wear—to his father’s office on the third floor.
Sam Fife had worked in this building since before Mark was born. If the downtown skyline had regressed him to sixteen, the inside of Jordan took him back even further, to the age of ten. The building, he’d told his father then, smelled like thinking. It did still—a happy smell, of books and people and their heated thoughts. History, the parts of it they’d never scrub or remodel away: decades’ worth of pipes and cigarettes, once smoked openly; musky perfumes and colognes; industrial cleaners; heavy paper, glue, and leather; spilled ink; tweed in need of a wash.
From twenty feet down the hall he saw that his father’s door was open. Laughter burst out of it. Mark stood in the doorway, summoning his younger self’s doubtful courage. His father sat at ease behind his desk, fingers laced behind his head, loafered feet propped up one of his open drawers. He wore a terrible multicolored sweater, and—he did this every winter, and every winter it never failed to surprise Mark—he had grown a small white fringe of beard, at odds with his ever-balder head. His desk, as usual, was neatly organized and dusted. Shelves of books lined the walls, so densely they might have been painted on, all the way into the corners.
Another professor, Mitch Doyle—round and asthmatic, wearing a black sweatsuit and a Colts cap—sat in the stuffed chair in front of the desk, his cane across his knees. Both men smiled, at Mark’s appearance—was he a student, needing something?—and then his father dropped his feet. “Mark! Oh my goodness!”
“Hey, Pop,” Mark said—his father hated the nickname, but Mark could already see worry seeping into his face, and he wanted to calm him. “I was in the neighborhood—”
“Mitchell! It’s my boy!”
“So it is,” Mitch said, struggling to rise. “Good to see you, Mark.”
“Oh my,” his father said, and came to Mark’s side—as always, comfortingly tall.
“I’ll see you, Fife,” Mitch said, wheezing out the door. “We’ve got graduate committee on Monday, anyway.”
“If I’m interrupting,” Mark said.
“Oh no,” Mitch and his father said all at once. “Sit, sit,” his father said, and Mark settled into the vacated chair, while his father shut the door. He rolled his eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “Did I tell you Mitch is our new department head?”
He had, but Mark made a face anyway. “What’s that like?”
“A roiling, acid hell. Good Christ, the meetings take forever now.”
“You should be head,” Mark said.
His father didn’t want to be in charge of anything, but he liked to be told he ought to be. “Six more years to retirement,” he said, smiling grimly. “Mitch is a small price to pay for routine. But who cares! You’ve driven out to see me.”
“Something’s wrong.” Sam’s face tightened. “Has something happened with Allison?”
“No! We’re fine, Dad. I just wanted to talk some things over. Get out of my head a little.”
This was old code. Sam had been the first to use it, in the year after Mark’s mother died. Later, after Brendan, Mark adopted the phrase himself.
Sam squeezed Mark’s forearm. “Of course. Would you like to walk with me? Final papers are due—if we stay here we’ll be beset.”
His father shouldered on first his sport coat—green tweed, shot through with brown—then an overcoat. Mark followed him down the hallway. A dozen students, milling at the top of the stairs, brightened, and his father greeted them all.
They walked outside into a speckling of cold rain. His father touched Mark’s elbow, guided him down a branching sidewalk to a side street, toward a coffee shop he liked. “It is Allison. When I said her name I saw it on your face. Tell me.”
Sam was bracing himself for bad news. He had seen Mark’s mother through a year of cancer; he had answered the phone seven years ago to Mark’s choked voice telling him Brendan had died; he had seen Mark through a divorce from a woman both of them had loved. Now Sam only wanted to know that things, always and forever, would be all right.
“I’m buying a ring,” Mark said—though his throat tried to close around the words. “So yeah, I guess we’re all right.”
“You guess?” his father said. He used the Voice—the timbre, dripping with friendly sarcasm, that brought students to full attention—Mr. Shields, you’re paying attention. Please define noblesse oblige. You guess? Or you’re certain? Take your time. This is history; it’s not going anywhere. “You guess,” his father said again, laughing. “Stop.”
Sam embraced him. His father’s coat smelled like the farmhouse, like mothballs in the closet, like safety, like Sam; Mark closed his eyes, grateful, lost. “I’m so glad,” his father said. “You deserve this.”
Sam drew back, his eyes blinking rapidly behind his glasses. Deserve, Mark thought, and fended the thought away with a sudden, snappish fury. It left in its wake the bleary sadness with which Mark was too familiar. They walked along in silence, Sam’s hand on Mark’s shoulder.
The café was a small, square shop inside a bland, featureless storefront at the eastern edge of campus. Inside, though, it was close and warm; the smoky, greasy smell of roasting beans hung close to wooden rafters deeply carved with generations of initials.
As they waited in line, Sam asked, “Will you be staying tonight? I could cook—”
Mark’s plan had been to drive to Indy and back in a day, but now that he was with his father, he was tempted; he missed the farmhouse, its high ceilings and plastered walls and rooms full of books, his father’s turntable playing crackly jazz.
He had spent years, now, saddened by the thought of Sam alone there. His father wasn’t a hermit by any means—he went to dinners with colleagues; he went to concerts. But most nights he stayed at home, sitting in a deep leather recliner, grading papers or listening to his records through old headphones he’d bought in the seventies—they dwarfed his head—and drinking a single martini made with scientific precision. His nearest neighbor was half a mile down the road. Which was still dirt.
“I can’t stay,” Mark said, with genuine regret. “Allie’s going to want me home tonight.”
His father nodded, but his disappointment was evident. They each filled a mug, then took a seat by the window. “Now,” Sam said, “will you please tell me everything?”
Mark laid out his case: He and Allison had lived together for six months. She was thoughtful, calm—older, it seemed sometimes, than he was. Her divorce, he thought, gave her some common ground with him. But she was playful, too, and sharp as a tack. With her he felt something like peace.
“I love her,” Mark said. Again, louder: “I love her a lot.”
His father’s eyes flicked up to Mark’s, then back down to his drink. “What will Chloe say?” he asked.
Mark was stung, just as he’d been when Lew asked the same question.
Sam said, quickly, “I shouldn’t have—”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t know. Chloe’s got Steve now—”
“The restaurateur.” His father pursed his lips carefully around each syllable.
“Still,” Mark said.
Sam still called Chloe on her birthday and on holidays, to check in, to tell the mother of his grandson that she was still a part of his life. Mark would never have known about these calls if Chloe hadn’t mentioned them. Chloe still loved her father-in-law, too. That summer after Mark’s mother died, when they were all holed up together in the farmhouse, Chloe had taught Sam how to cook; she’d gone through Mark’s mother’s clothing for him, boxing it up for Goodwill. Sam loved to read aloud, and every night after sunset, the three of them sat on the big stone porch and drank wine and listened to his father read Great Expectations, Sam always sitting on the left side of the porch swing, as though his wife would, at any moment, emerge from the house and fill the empty space to his right.
There’d never be a good time to broach this. “Dad. Can I ask you something?”
“You never remarried.”
Sam’s brow knit; he frowned into his coffee.
His father had had dates. He’d mentioned them in passing, with an odd formality: So-and-so mentioned that to me at dinner, one night last July. He was a good-looking man, well known and well liked. Once Mark had become an adult, he’d realized his father had a dirty mind, that he was capable of the same appalling jokes with his friends that Mark traded back and forth with Lewis. He and Mark had seen each other through losses they’d each barely borne. But after all this time, Sam still never mentioned his private life to Mark, as though he worried that the tending of his emotions was business too private for his son. Mark had never found a way to tell him otherwise.
“Ever been tempted?” Mark asked.
His father looked briefly from side to side—a simple reminder of where they were, how much he could say. Figured—Mark had finally gotten the guts to ask, and he’d done so in a place where Sam had an automatic out.
But then Sam said, “Well. I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m seeing someone. At the moment. Now.”
Mark rocked back from the table. “You are?”
“Yes. And”—his father had blushed a deep crimson—“I don’t know how to describe this. We don’t want to marry. But we’ve discussed, ourselves, what we’re doing, in those terms. We’ve spoken of… of permanence.”
“Helen Etley.” After a pause, he added, “Political science.”
“A little over a year.” His father crumpled his napkin into a ball, rolled it between his palms. “I’m a coward.”
Now Mark was peeved. “What’s so goddamned scary about—”
“Everything’s scary. Good Lord, Mark. Think about it.”
His father’s most cutting phrase. In other words: Don’t be stupid.
His father kept spilling details. Helen was twelve years younger—
“Keep your voice down!”
—and she’d been hired three years ago, from Penn State. She’d looked for a job in Indianapolis because her elderly mother, newly widowed, lived in town. Helen was smart, classy—his father used that exact word. They went to plays and jazz concerts together. She had no interest in living outside town, but they had begun to consider living together, in some fashion. Those negotiations were ongoing.
“In some fashion,” Mark said.
“Do you disapprove?”
“Dad! No, I don’t disapprove. Maybe, you know, if I had a chance to meet her, that question might actually mean something—”
“I want you to meet her.”
“I’d like to.”
His father let out a tremulous laugh. “I’m happy,” he said quietly, as though he might be arrested for it.
“Dad. It’s okay.” And it was. It absolutely was.
“Mark,” Sam said, still blushing. “You’re happy, too? Tell me you are.”
Mark swallowed a lump. “Yeah.”
“I like Allison,” his father said then, catching his eyes. “I see in her what you do.”
Relief weakened him. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Bring her out soon. Please? And—we’ll have dinner with Helen.”
Mark raised his mug; his father raised his; they clinked the rims together.
They fell silent then. Mark looked around him, at the chattering, impossibly young students. He watched a couple some tables over; they were stripping off their wet coats, smiling at each other with rapt intensity, unable to contain the joy in each other’s company. The girl—the woman—was a tall, willowy blonde, smiling wide, her glasses still dotted with rain. The boy beside her was spindly, hunched, blinking too fast, his hand never leaving his love’s elbow. As though, if he stopped touching her, she’d vanish.
Mark couldn’t watch them. He turned back to his father—but Sam was staring out the window, holding his mug halfway between the table and his lips, smiling a private smile.
Sam canceled his office hours, then drove Mark to nearby Broad Ripple, to a store that sold good antique and secondhand jewelry, owned by a friend of Helen’s. Sam stood by the door, his hands in the pockets of his overcoat, while the owner—a short, plump woman with long salt-and-pepper pigtails and a merry smile—showed Mark tray after tray of rings. His father had guided Mark well—Allie would love this place, and the woman who ran it. “Do you know the size of Allison’s finger?” she asked. Mark shook his head no. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “It can be resized. The right ring is the right ring.”
Finally he saw it: a small sapphire on a platinum band. Both colors fit Allie; her look was wintry in all the ways her heart wasn’t.
The ring was elegant, understated, not too expensive, but certainly not cheap. He handed the woman his credit card; she smiled warmly, winked, and he remembered planning his wedding with Chloe—the way everyone they’d dealt with had offered them signs and codes, as though they were joining a cult. You’ll know all our secrets soon enough.
When they were in the car, Mark forced out his last question: “Would Mom like Allie?”
His father clicked his seat belt into place, his eyebrows drawing together. “Of course she would. Allie would make your mother laugh. They’d play euchre.” Sam grasped Mark’s knee and shook it from side to side. “Mark. It’s okay. We trust you.”
Mark beat Allison home by forty minutes, but well after dark. In that time he took a shower and put the ring into the pocket of his jeans. While he waited for her, he opened his phone. He’d gotten one message while showering, from a number he didn’t know.
His nerves got the better of him; his mouth was sour; he quickly ran upstairs and brushed his teeth again, then swished mouthwash between his cheeks. He patted his thigh; the ring was still there. Then, pulling aside the downstairs curtains to check the street, he dialed his voicemail.
The message began to play: He heard a woman’s voice, high-pitched, hesitant. “Um. Mr. Fife. I really need to speak with you. My name is Connie Pelham. I have—I have an issue to discuss with you. It’s very important. My number is—”
She recited it, carefully, but her voice shook, as though she was near tears. In the background Mark thought he heard the voice of a child. Then a long silence. Perhaps a deep intake of breath. “Please call,” the woman said.
To erase this message, press seven. To save it, press nine.
He pressed nine, confounded. The woman didn’t sound like she had business for him—and no one who did ever called him this late in the evening, not on a Friday. She’d sounded nervous…
He remembered again the woman who’d stared at him through the window of the coffee shop. The one who had run away from him in fear. This couldn’t be her, calling, could it? The thought was ridiculous, and yet he found himself uneasily mulling it over, all the same.
A key turned in the front-door lock, startling him. Allison stepped through the door, bundled in her coat and bearing armloads of shopping bags, shivering theatrically. She saw Mark standing at the top of the stairs, and smiled.
Mark put the phone in his pocket. His fingers touched the thin, cool surface of the ring.
And this was why he had done the right thing, why the strange woman didn’t matter, why his doubts didn’t matter: because here was Allison calling out, “You’re home!” Here was Allie, climbing the stairs, meeting him. His Allie, holding out her arms, smiling, kissing him, taking him in.
They did not sleep for many hours.
“You’re sure?” Mark repeated, at one in the morning, Allie naked and straddling him. “Say it again.”
“Yes,” Allie said. She stared into his eyes, bent forward, bit at his lips, dug her nails into his shoulders. If he concentrated he could feel, against his bicep, the slight ridge of the ring on her finger. She ground down against him. “Oh, yes.”
At two thirty in the morning Allie got up and rustled around in the kitchen downstairs; sex made her ravenous. Mark lay sleepily on his belly. He was engaged—but even now, inside his head, the words sounded unreal, the wild hope of a child. He thought back to the tawdry way he and Allie had met—they’d trysted in a hotel room in New Jersey, after knowing each other all of six hours. Now look at them.
Ten years ago he’d been married; he’d had a toddler for a son. If a time-traveler had told that long-ago Mark Fife where he’d be in a decade, what lay between him and his future, he might have cut his wrists in the bath.
Allie returned to the bedroom with a glass of water for him, and a glass of wine for her. She brought with her the sharp tang of sex, of sweat; it mixed agreeably with the wine’s bouquet. She sat beside him; he kissed her dry knee.
She said, after a sip, “You know it’s okay with me if you have some wine.”
He remembered how close he’d been to ordering a beer last night with Lew. Whatever danger he’d felt then was gone now, banished. He had come all the way into his new self; a little wine couldn’t hurt him. “I only ever get wine,” he said. “That’s got to be the deal, okay?”
He’d never told her much about his drinking—only that he didn’t like himself drunk, which was true enough. That for a long time he’d been drunk too much.
Allie studied his face. “Okay.”
He sipped from her glass. It was a good red—Allison made a study of wine—and he nearly shuddered in pleasure. “Tell me what I’m tasting,” he said.
“Wine,” she said, shrugging. “Merlot. I’m not one of those people.”
He laughed. “Yes, you are.”
“I’m not supposed to tell you. You’re supposed to decide for yourself.”
He took another sip.
“Boysenberry,” he said.
“You’re also not supposed to make shit up.”
She took the glass back from him. “We’ll go to a tasting.”
She reclined against his chest. “So I said yes.”
“I remember. Thank you.”
“I’ve been wanting you to ask,” she said. “And I wanted to say yes before I asked you some things. I wanted you to know I want this, more than anything.”
She’d turned serious just as he’d made himself relax. “Ask me what?”
“Well… are we having a wedding?”
He was abashed not to have much of an opinion. He’d envisioned himself asking, envisioned them living together—but a ceremony?
She turned toward him. “I’d like to have one.”
Now Mark did have an opinion, which was that his last ceremony had driven him nearly crazy and cost almost twenty thousand dollars. “You okay with small and cheap?”
She laughed. “I’m very okay with that.”
“Excellent. So where should we do it?”
He was thinking about some small, bland public office; a bland public officiant.
“Tahoe,” Allie said, without hesitation.
So much for cheap. But he said “Sure” anyway.
Allison loved Lake Tahoe, and had hung pictures of it all over her old apartment. She’d gone there for a vacation, by herself, after her divorce, and had fallen in love with the mountains, the waters. She told him she’d thought seriously about making a clean break, moving to Sacramento or even Reno.
Mark had never even been to California. The thought of the wedding, though, excited him. It was going to be a good time. Almost no one he knew besides his father and Lewis and maybe an uncle in Portland would make that trip.
“Blue skies and water,” she said. “We could rent a cabin and honeymoon there, too.”
“Hell,” he said, “We could move out there.”
She made a quick, surprised noise. He was as shocked as she was, but he didn’t retreat.
“Why not?” he said. “Everything’s wide open for us. You know?”
“Yeah. I mean, why are we staying in Columbus? I can do the business anywhere. You hate your job—”
“Wait,” she said. “Colorado.”
“You’d like that better?”
“I like Denver,” she said. “A big city. Better for business. And the mountains are right there.”
“Vancouver,” he said. “Let’s apply for Canadian citizenship. Get the fuck out of Jesusland.”
“New Zealand,” she said. “Citizenship’s harder, but they might need tech professionals.”
“There you go,” he said. “It’s settled. New Zealand.”
She nestled closer, took the glass back from him, and drained it.
“Okay,” Allie said. “Here’s the tough one. I don’t even know—”
He smiled. “Ask anything.”
“I just want you to know, I don’t know which way I’m leaning. There’s not, like, a right answer.”
“Okay,” he said, mystified.
But then, in the pause, he guessed it.
“Kids,” Allison said.
He’d thought this over before. Of course he had—a thousand times since Brendan had died, yes, but in particular during the last few months with Allie.
They’d even discussed it once. Allie had been off the pill when they met, but went back on when they agreed they were serious. Mark had told her, then, that he wasn’t sure he could ever think about children again. It’s not a priority for me, Allie had told him. I mean, who knows?
Which wasn’t the same as saying she didn’t want children at all, was it? He wished there was more wine in Allison’s glass.
“What do you think?” he asked. Because he was a coward.
“I might,” she said finally. “Right now, no. I always figured if I did, it would be later.” She lifted his hand and kissed the tip of his thumb. “But hey, I’m thirty-four—”
“Almost an old woman.”
She curled tightly beside him. “I mean, could you—do you want to have another one?”
She misunderstood his hesitation, and winced. “Mark, God—another one. That sounds so—”
Plenty of times before, he’d been driven to rage by the exact same question. But never with Allison—and not now. “It’s okay,” he said. “In the spirit of honesty, I have no idea how to answer.”
“Bill wanted kids,” she said. “I kept putting him off.”
She’d told Mark this before; Allie liked, or needed, to tell him what an utter disaster her marriage to Bill had become. He’d always wondered if he was supposed to reply by cutting down Chloe. Sometimes he did—Chloe had left him; he had a lot to complain about—but most of the time he didn’t. Couldn’t.
She said, “Now I don’t know. Over the past few months—” She sat up straighter. “All of a sudden I can see it. I mean, me with a kid.” She waited a long time before saying the next part: “Us, with a kid. I mean, I know you’re a good dad. I think we’d be good parents. Together.”
His mouth was dry. “You think so?”
“Yeah. I do.” She met his eyes. “I wouldn’t want to get married if I didn’t think we could pull it off. Parenthood. If.”
He chose his words carefully. “I wasn’t as good a father as you think. And I wasn’t as good a husband.”
Allie started to disagree, but stopped herself. She had barely met Chloe, but he’d told her plenty about the end of their marriage. Certainly Allie saw the trouble on his face every time he came back from one of his and Chloe’s infrequent dinners. Allie’s marriage may have been awful, and the one time Mark had met Bill he hadn’t taken to him, but he’d never been tempted to hate the man. A bad match, that was all, and if Bill ever asked him, he’d say so. Mark, however, suspected Allison had an entire manifesto prepared for Chloe: Let me tell you about the ways you fucked over Mark, you crazy bitch.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” she said, her voice husky.
He kissed the top of her head. The few sips of wine he’d drunk had left a faint, warm cloud of serenity behind his eyes. Had going dry all these years left him so much of a lightweight?
“We’d be good at it, right?” Allie said. “If?”
He had to give her an answer. It wouldn’t be fair, if he didn’t. And at the moment the answer was easy to give.
“We’d be great,” he said. “But not yet, okay? I want some time just for us.”
Her eyes were damp. “I want that, too,” she said, and turned to kiss him.
Mark had expected the wine to put him to sleep, but instead he lay wide awake, Allison snoring beside him, thinking about the strange woman who’d called him. He thought about his father and his father’s new girlfriend. He thought, for as long as he could bear to do it, about having a child with Allison.
Mostly he thought about Brendan.
In fact, he did what he was often prone to: He lost himself in a guilty fantasy, one that both pleased and sickened him. In this fantasy Mark and Chloe had divorced, and Brendan—who had never died—lived with her. And because it was a fantasy, Brendan had not aged, either; instead of a quiet, withdrawn teenager (because, had he lived to see his parents’ divorce, he surely would have become one), the Brendan whom Mark imagined was still seven, still the spindly boy he’d been the day he fell down the steps. His hair was still unkempt, needing a cut; he was still wearing the gray Buckeyes sweatshirt and jeans he’d had on when Mark found him at the base of the steps, crooked and boneless and still.
But he was alive, this Brendan, and Mark was visiting him and Chloe at the old house, where they still lived, and he and Brendan were sitting side by side on the old porch swing, and it was springtime and the trees were budding, and Brendan had his hands folded in his lap, and wouldn’t lift his face, as Mark explained that he was going to marry someone new; as Mark told him, You’re really going to like her; as Mark said, You don’t ever have to call her your mother; as Mark said, I’ve been lonely without you and your mom, you know that. Inside the house, Mark knew, Chloe was crying.
He said to Brendan, Maybe someday you’ll understand, but by then Brendan was gone from the swing, and inside the house, at its center, where the stairwell was, Chloe’s cries built to a terrible, grinding scream—
Mark started awake. Allison shifted beside him but didn’t open her eyes. He’d drifted off without turning out the bedside lamp. Allison’s ring glinted, where her left hand lay flat across his chest. Chloe, wherever she was, was not screaming. Mark was here, in his new life, happy. And his boy—the truth of it descended upon his chest like an iron bar—was still dead, still gone.
Mark and Allie spent the next week cementing plans for the wedding. They called friends and family—mostly Allie’s—spreading the good news. They nailed down preliminary details: They’d be married at the end of the coming summer, on September 5. The ceremony would be held on the western shore of Lake Tahoe, in a private lodge overlooking the water; they’d been lucky to book the place, even this far in advance. The guest list would be small. Lewis would be Mark’s best man; Allie’s sister, Darlene, would be the maid of honor.
By Saturday night they’d hastily developed a plan to introduce Mark’s father to Allison’s family. Sam drove to Columbus the following afternoon, and that evening both families toasted Mark and Allison’s good fortune over dinner at the townhouse. As always Mark admired his father’s civility; Sam charmed Allie’s mother and sister, and managed not to argue with Allie’s father about politics—he chose, instead, to tell folksy stories about the Colorado gold barons that Mark could tell were really about the Bush administration. Mark spent much of the night talking with Darlene’s dreadlocked boyfriend, Tim, who asked him for business advice—Tim and Darly were thinking about acquiring chickens, selling organic eggs. After dinner Sam helped Allison with the dishes. Mark heard them laughing in the kitchen: Allie chastising Sam for not bringing Helen, his father’s embarrassed protests.
It wasn’t until Monday that Mark listened again to the message the strange woman, Connie Pelham, had left on his phone; he did so while walking across the OSU campus, killing an hour while his father had lunch with an old colleague. He listened again to her sad, tentative voice, the sound of her child in the background.
By now he had convinced himself that Connie Pelham was someone who thought he owed her money. He’d been over and over his records, had found nothing—but he’d made mistakes before. Two years after Brendan had died, Mark had worked for a friend’s web-design start-up; it had failed after only a couple of months, bankrupting the friend. Mark’s name had turned up on forms it shouldn’t have, and he’d had to hire a lawyer to disentangle himself. Maybe Connie had something to do with that mess.
It didn’t matter. He had done nothing wrong; he wasn’t going to go out of his way to seek her out. He deleted the message, and her number.
And anyway, he had a much more unpleasant call to make.
Mark sat on a bench by Mirror Lake and dialed Chloe. She wouldn’t answer; she was teaching her second graders. Even so he struggled, leaving his message. He told her he was sorry he hadn’t checked in on her in a while—and, right away, wished he hadn’t; she would hate that kind of language from him: checking in. He told her he hoped she was well. That he hoped they could have dinner soon, to catch up. A week from tomorrow was December 18, Brendan’s birthday (and here Mark stumbled, as he always did, even though they’d almost always met on that day); he really hoped she’d have the time to meet, around then. If she wanted.
When he’d finished he sat watching the water of the lake, the semicircle of ice that obscured it. As students he and Chloe used to walk here, holding hands, kissing when they were alone. They’d probably sat on this very bench and made each other promise after promise.
I’ll always want you. I’ll love you forever. Of course I want kids.
Had he picked this spot in order to make himself sadder? He was capable of it.
It took her two days, but Chloe finally left him a message in return. Sure, she said, let’s have dinner. I’m free—I’m free that day. Tuesday. She sounded frustrated, her voice pinched, a little hoarse. I’ve got to run.
She paused a long time, and his heart beat faster and faster. Was something wrong? Did she know about Allison already? What was she about to say?
Okay, she said at last, like the closing of a door. Bye now.
The following Sunday night, while Mark browsed alone at the Barnes and Noble at the Easton Town Center, killing time while Allie shopped for her mother at a crafts store nearby, Connie Pelham appeared in front of him.
Despite a nice dinner out, and the lingering excitement of the engagement, Mark was enjoying his solitude. The past week and its phone calls and its endless planning—not to mention a dozen emergency jobs his clients had called in between Wednesday and Friday—had exhausted him. An evening shopping for books and maybe a new CD was exactly what he needed.
His enjoyment ran deep. In the chilly, numb year after Chloe left him, Mark had gotten into the habit of visiting any number of bookstores around town, especially in the evenings, when he was most often at loose ends. He liked to wander the shelves, nursing a coffee, picking up books—fiction, usually, or history—without even looking at them. He’d close his eyes and lightly run his fingertips across the spines, until a book felt right, pushed subtly back. He’d stay until the bookstore closed, before returning, reluctantly, to his tiny apartment, or to an all-night diner (anyplace where he had to seem normal, composed—anyone but the man he was), where he read whatever he’d purchased ravenously, without allowing his own thoughts any time or space to intrude.
He was glad to be back in this place, now, as himself: happier, more relaxed, needing no trickery to distract him from his life. Even so, he had to admit he missed those old days, just a little. Especially that odd period of months when he had begun, slowly, to accept what had happened to him. When the pain had begun to subside; to recede, tide-like.
Once, during the spring when Brendan was five, Mark had taken him to Goodale Park, to learn to throw a Frisbee. Brendan, while running headlong across the grass, had turned an ankle; fifty feet away he’d collapsed as though shot, and had begun to wail. Mark had run to him, put his arm around Brendan’s shoulders, let him sniffle into his chest—and then Brendan had surprised him.
It feels so good, he said.
Twisting your ankle feels good?
No, Brendan said. That hurts worse than anything. But when it goes away? That feels better than anything.
He’d laughed, turning his ankle from side to side, the laces on his sneaker flopping and dirty. Mark had laughed, too.
A woman’s voice said his name, then: “Mr. Fife?”
Mark turned, startled, and saw her, five feet away: the woman who’d stared at him through the coffee shop window. Here in front of him, she was younger than he’d thought—younger than he was, maybe—but this was the same round, tan face; the same narrow brown eyes; the same dark halo of curls. She wore the same black coat. Only the color of her scarf had changed, from silver to cerulean.
She still, however, looked frightened of him. Her eyes darted across his face; her hands worked and twisted. He wondered if she wasn’t just a random crazy, after all, about to harangue him about the evils of the Democrats, or to ask him over and over what time it was. The crazies liked bookstores—he’d noticed that, when he was crazy and spending a lot of time in bookstores himself.
“I’m Mark Fife,” he said.
The woman drew back—fearfully, Mark thought. “I’m Connie Pelham. I called you?” Her voice—it was indeed the same voice that had left him the odd phone message—was high-pitched, quavery. It sounded, he thought, like her hair—curly, too large, out of control.
She offered her hand, awkwardly, and he nearly fumbled his coffee trying to shake it.
He didn’t know what else to say, so he asked, “Connie, have we… met?”
Connie Pelham glanced out the bookstore window, toward the parking lot, at the cold rain that had fallen steadily all evening, refracting each headlight in such a way that the window seemed broken into jagged shards.
“No,” she said. “I’m—no. We haven’t. Not really. I’m—I’m doing some amateur detective work, I guess, but I’m not very good at it.” She took a deep breath, as though summoning will. “Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Mark?”
Detective work? “What’s this about? Do I owe someone money?”
“No! It’s not like that. I don’t work for anyone.” She smiled. “I’m just me.”
And who was that, exactly? A woman frightened of him before, frightened of him now. Any curiosity he felt was undone by deep misgiving.
Connie glanced at the window again. “I’m sorry,” she said, when she saw him staring. “My—my ex-husband is due soon. He’s dropping off my son.”
He remembered the child’s voice, speaking behind hers on her phone message. This strange woman had a child, and he did not.
“Ms. Pelham, what’s this about?”
She nodded, as though listening to a voice inside her. “I’ll just say it. Mr. Fife, I live at One Fifty-six Locust. In Victorian Village.”
He started. Connie had just given him the address of his house—his and Chloe’s old house, from the old life. The place where they’d lived with Brendan, where Brendan had died.
She said, “My—my ex and I bought it nine months ago from Margie Kinnick. I—your name was on the papers. I found your picture online, on your website? I’ve been thinking about whether or not to call you. Then I thought, no, I ought to tell you in person. I saw you at the coffee shop when I went to find your address, but I saw you in the window—you remember?—and I got nervous, and I thought, I can’t do this, I should leave this poor man alone—”
Her voice hitched, as though she might cry. His misgivings curdled into alarm, and he scanned the store, hoping to see Allison, returning for him.
“—But then tonight, I saw you walk in through the door, and I thought, that’s him, and then I thought, maybe it’s meant to be, you know? Maybe I’m supposed to talk to you?”
Connie smiled, then—suddenly, weirdly hopeful. “Do you think things are supposed to happen?” she asked. “Like in fate?”
Mark heard this question more frequently than he could bear, from friends and strangers alike, as though it might comfort him. They asked the man whose mother had withered to a moaning skeleton before dying whether he believed God had a plan. They asked the man whose son had broken his neck falling down the stairs whether or not he believed things happened for a reason. They asked a man whose wife had abandoned him for her grief what he thought about fate.
“No,” he said tightly. “I don’t.”
Connie frowned. “Well, I do. And seeing you here is—I guess it’s no stranger than anything else that’s happened.”
He heard his father’s voice: You guess?
Mark could guess, too. Connie could only want to talk about one thing, couldn’t she? Weeks after Brendan’s accident, he and Chloe had put their house on the market—they couldn’t bear being in it anymore, surrounded first by their son’s toys, his strewn clothes, and then by the absence of them. They couldn’t bear the walk, every day, up and down the narrow stairs. Their own echoing voices.
But no one would make them an offer. Turned out there was a law—for three years, you had to report to buyers if someone had died in the house. Mark and Chloe had resigned themselves to a year—but three? Three seemed impossibly cruel.
Then after six months of silence, their realtor, Margie Kinnick—dear Margie, who’d been so friendly with them when they bought the place, who for years had stopped by to visit whenever she was on their street—had offered to buy the house from them. She was in the market for a place in the Village, she said; she’d always loved their particular house. Her heart broke for them, she said. Why not make a deal that would help everyone? They’d sold the place to her for less than its value, with relief.
Mark hadn’t spoken with Margie in ages; he’d simply assumed she still lived at the old place. Just last year he’d gotten a Christmas card from her, with 156 Locust as the return address.
So Margie had sold the house to Connie Pelham. And—Mark guessed—she hadn’t said a word to Connie about its past. Someone in the neighborhood must have tipped Connie off, told her the history of her expensive new house, the tragedy that had occurred there. And now this woman who believed in fate was playing amateur detective. Seeking him out.
“Mr. Fife,” she said, “can we sit down?”
He wanted to run from her.
“Sure,” he said, his voice soft, conciliatory. His angry-client voice. “Sure, Connie.”
She led him to the café at the front of the store, and asked again if he wanted a drink, then looked so sad and dismayed when he held up his coffee cup that he almost ordered another just to keep her from crying. She left him to stand in line, casting nervous glances both at him and out the front windows.
When she was in line he took out his phone and texted Allison: Come get me. Urgent. A middle-aged man with a ponytail was setting up an acoustic guitar amplifier in the corner of the café. The music would provide a good excuse to break away, even if Allison didn’t come.
Connie returned with a mug of tea and smiled. “I wish I could have coffee, but it’s too acid.”
“Ms. Pelham,” he said, “look, I—”
“I know. I’m a crazy woman and I should just go away. I know. But I have to ask you something. Something really important.”
She placed her hands around her mug and looked down into the steam. As though it contained a sign. God’s plan, just visible in the depths.
“Mr. Fife. Did you have a son? A little boy?”
So he had been right.
“I did.” His voice measured. “My ex-wife and I lost our son in 2001. His name was Brendan.”
Connie lifted a hand to her mouth. “Oh God.”
“Ms. Pelham,” Mark said, “you have to understand. I really don’t like to talk about this.”
She closed her eyes. “And it happened—there? In my house?”
Her house. The same old voice that had spoken to him during his long years of grief offered up its familiar whisper: Unfair, unfair.
“Yes,” he said. “It happened at the house.”
She was crying, now, tears rolling out from the corners of her eyes. “Where?”
“The stairs,” he said. “He fell down the top flight, onto the landing.”
She was shaking her head.
“Look,” he said, “I had no idea Margie would—would choose not to disclose something like that.” He added, quickly, “It’s not the house’s fault.”
Connie dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. “It’s a good house. And I sank—my husband and I put a lot of money into it. It’s a good school system. I mean, we wanted that for our son.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “So did we.”
Didn’t she know about libraries? Couldn’t she have looked up the article in the Dispatch?
“Ms. Pelham,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I really don’t like talking about this, okay? You have to understand—”
Connie plunged forward as though he hadn’t spoken. “My son, Jacob. He’s almost nine. Two weeks ago I got a call from Parkhurst Elementary. From Mrs. Dane?”
Mark didn’t know her. Brendan hadn’t lived to be nine, to have Mrs. Dane as a teacher. But he nodded helplessly.
“Jacob kept falling asleep in class, and he told her he was too scared to sleep. So I asked him about this, and Jacob—he tried to lie, and tell me he was sleeping fine. But I kept pushing him, and pushing him, and finally he told me the same thing—that he was too afraid to go to sleep. So I asked him, Why was he afraid?”
Don’t say it, Mark thought.
“And Jacob said, ‘Because of the ghost—’ ”
He stood, too quickly; his chair clattered backward. “That’s enough.”
“—The ghost of the little boy who used to live here.”
Connie’s frightened moist eyes. His own breath. The slow bubbling murmur of the voices around them. A guitar string plucked, plucked, tightening into tune.
“Never speak to me again,” he said, then turned and left.
An older couple at the next table was staring at him; the woman’s hand covered her mouth. He walked quickly past the registers to the front door, a sick taste tightening his throat. Connie Pelham might have said something to his back as he pushed through the doors. Outside the cold wind had strengthened; sleet cut at his cheeks. He looked back; Connie was walking toward the doorway after him, her eyes sparkling with tears.
He reached into his pocket, to call Allison, but then a horn honked to his left: Allie pulling up to the curb in her Honda, peering at him through the streaked windshield. He jogged to the passenger door—slipping briefly on a patch of slick black ice—and ducked into the warm car.
“We have to go,” he said.
“Just go, okay?”
“Okay,” Allie said. She put the car into gear and pulled away from the bookstore. Connie Pelham emerged, her face twisted, Mark thought—he watched her in the passenger mirror, the reflection threaded over with quicksilver rain, cold and sluggish—twisted up in rage, or grief, or both.
On the drive home he told Allie what had happened. She listened carefully, frowning, and when Mark told her the worst part—when the word “ghost” left his lips—she erupted:
“Oh my God! She didn’t say that.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Not much.” He shook his head. “I ran for it.”
“She just came up to you?” Allie glanced over at him. “How’d she find you?”
This was a good question. Connie Pelham knew where they lived; those had to have been her footprints he’d seen, just after she’d spotted him at the coffee shop. Mark had never told Allison about them, and now he began to feel a little sick. Had Connie been following him? Things happened for a reason, she’d said. He bet they did.
When Allie parked in front of the townhouse, Mark half expected to see Connie Pelham already standing at the doorway, wringing her hands. But when they walked to their door, no shadowy figures emerged from the alley. He locked the door behind him, and shut all the downstairs blinds.
In the bathroom he pressed a scalding washcloth to his face. Replayed what Connie had said to him: The ghost of the little boy who used to live here. Brendan, a ghost.
Preposterous. Worse. And yet the implications of the idea—ocean-size, icy-cold—touched at the shore of his mind, and he felt an appalling fear, old and familiar. The horrible crash on the stairs. The silence. The world he knew suddenly crushed to flinders in the palm of a giant’s hand.
He breathed in and out through the washcloth until it cooled.
When he entered the kitchen, a few minutes later, Allison asked, “What did she expect you to do?”
“I didn’t talk to her long enough to find out.”
Connie had told him she was waiting for her son. A young boy—the one he’d heard on her phone message.
“I bet the kid heard something at school,” he said.
“She has a son. He goes to Brendan’s old school. I bet he heard something. Or one of the neighbors told him. ‘You live in the house where that kid died.’ Something like that. And then he ran with it.”
The more Mark thought about this, the more he was sure of it. The adults in the neighborhood would only speak about what happened among themselves, quietly, respectfully. The neighborhood children, though—the news that a little boy had died would have been passed down among them, in the back of the school bus, at slumber parties. Brendan’s old friends were just starting high school, now—but that didn’t mean they, or their younger siblings, would never cross paths with Connie’s boy. And if Jacob Pelham was young enough—how old had Connie Pelham said he was? Nine?—he could easily have lost himself in a story like this. Lying awake, staring into the shadows of his high-ceilinged room, thinking about the little dead boy.
Mark said, “It makes sense. The kid’s folks are split. He’s alone with his mother in a big old house. He made it up.”
“Sure.” Allie was still mad, her brow knitted. “But for that woman to—to just say that, to your face. I want to call the cops on her.”
Mark thought of all the times Chloe had gotten a hair up her ass, taking offense at some slight against Brendan, real or imagined. The ferocity she’d unleash. “Maybe Connie’s just—I don’t know. You get protective of your kid. If she truly believes this—”
Allie gave him a look. “That doesn’t excuse her.”
“I’m not saying it does. But parenthood’s a weird place.”
Her voice tightened. “I’m not saying it isn’t.”
Since the night of their engagement, they hadn’t talked any further about the subject of children—not even when Allison’s mother had looked into Mark’s office and cried, Oh! This would make a wonderful nursery! But he hadn’t avoided the topic on purpose, and just now he hadn’t meant to shut Allie out. He’d only been thinking of Brendan, of all the times he used to wake in the night, afraid of imaginary monsters. Of all the times Mark himself had woken, panicked by Brendan’s cries.
Allie began to wipe down the countertops. “Do you think she’ll try to contact you again?”
“Allie, she’s come to the house before.”
“What?” Allison turned to him. “When?”
Mark told her then about finding the second set of footprints, the morning Connie had spied on him through the coffee shop window.
“Call the police,” Allie said.
“I don’t know if that’s necessary.”
“She can’t come here again, Mark.”
“No, she can’t. But—look, what would I even tell the cops?”
Excerpted from You Came Back by Coake, Christopher Copyright © 2012 by Coake, Christopher. Excerpted by permission.
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