Read The Year She Left Us Online

Authors: Kathryn Ma

The Year She Left Us (20 page)

BOOK: The Year She Left Us
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I put my hand into his. We both were quiet. I had more questions to ask but, for once, I didn't.

“I've never told the whole story to Noah,” he said. “Not the part about his mother. I've tried to apologize for the rest. It was an accident, like you said. I've learned to accept that.”

From the strain in his voice, I didn't believe him, or maybe he wasn't feeling guilt so much as raw hurt. I hadn't expected the suffering he was showing. I'd thought eighteen years was long enough for grief like that to fade, but Steve's pain was so present, it felt as if it had taken a seat at the table.

“Wendy blamed me,” Steve said. “Blames me. But Charlie never did. She cried when I told her, but she was strong. She said to me, ‘Wasn't that just like Aaron? He was out of control, except when he wasn't. That's exactly why I loved him.' I felt bad not telling her about Noah.”

“Maybe she knows,” I said, hoping it was true. I didn't want the responsibility anymore of knowing about Noah when Charlie didn't.

“Maybe,” Steve said, “but whether she does or she doesn't, when she gets the chance to meet him”—he looked meaningfully at me—“she'll be totally kind and totally honest.”

“It's getting late,” I said. I got up and took Poppy out; when I got back, Steve hadn't moved from the table. His glass was full again, his hand on the bottle.

H
e didn't invite Noah again, and Peg didn't push him. I worked my two jobs and read books in the basement. I found the public library and started hanging out there. I liked the steady stream of people and the kids lying on their stomachs looking at picture books and asking questions in stage whispers that carried across the room. Big windows looked out onto the water and the mountains. Snow capped the peaks, but the streets were black with rain. It was mid-November; I'd been in Juneau almost two months. My moods were the colors of winter—gray, silver, and white—narrow in range and chilly at the heart. I didn't often let myself think of home, and when I did, it was as though Charlie and Les and A.J. and Gran were on a trip without me. I was the traveler, but I was suspended in motion. Perhaps I was waiting, though it didn't feel like that, either. Winter held me; ice fields hemmed me in. I had bought a long plaid blanket shawl, ugly but cheap, at the Salvation Army, and I drew it around me like a character in my book wrapping up against the damp. After reading my way through the Ericssons' box of science fiction, I had gone to the library and started in on Dickens, Gran's favorite, so maybe I was missing home more than I cared to admit. I had my nose in
Bleak House
, drawn to the title, struggling with the tale. Had I known it was about lawyers, I wouldn't have started the thing, but I liked the feel of the big, fat book in my hands. The light from the window changed on the page I was reading. When I looked up, Noah Streeter was standing in front of me.

“Hey,” he said. He looked surprised to find me there.

“Oh, hi.” I looked back down at my book, same as the way he'd ducked to his map the day I'd served him at the Statehood.

“I'm researching a paper,” he said. “I have to go over to the City Museum.”

I peered up at him, curious, and he asked if I wanted to come. He said he wanted to talk to me about something. It was late afternoon; the early hours of darkness stretched before me, so I closed my book and buttoned up my jacket. We walked in the blowing wind, not saying very much. He was writing a paper about historic preservation and wanted to look at old photos. When we got to the museum, it was closed. It was too cold to stay outside, so we went into the closest café—I didn't want to go to the Statehood, where Steve might come in from the rain.

He studied his tea while I hunched over my coffee. His hair had a funny pouf on one side from wearing a watchman's cap. He looked as lopsided as I felt. I pulled my own cap lower on my head. I noticed again his long knuckly fingers as he dragged his tea bag out of its cup like an anchor. Cold seeped under the doorway; a sagging strand of Christmas lights made the place bleaker.

“Steve keeps calling me,” he said. “He wants to get together.”

I looked at him and shrugged. “He misses you. He's says you're like family to him.”

I saw his jaw tighten. “He says it would be nice for me to show you around Juneau.”

“I didn't ask him to do that,” I said hotly. I was appalled that Steve was using me to get to Noah.

He crossed his arms and settled back in his chair, a fake move if I ever saw one. “He said I should get to know you, because one day, I might want to meet your mother. I must have questions I'd like to ask her. About my father.”

I flinched at that, and he noticed. He was wrong if he thought I was worried about protecting Charlie. I had as many questions as he did, but no one whom I could ask.

“In case it isn't clear,” he said, “I don't want to meet your mother. If she comes up here, tell Steve I won't meet her.”

“Tell him yourself,” I snapped. “You already know how to hurt him.”

Noah straightened. “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“He knows you blame him for getting your father killed.”

“Is that what you think? I don't. I never have.”

“That's not how he sees it.”

“You're lying,” he said.

“I'm not the one punishing Steve for an accident years ago.”

Noah glared. His face was white with anger. His mouth worked; I saw the rim of his eyes redden. “What do you know about it,” he said.

“I'm an orphan,” I shot back.

“It's different to lose a parent who wanted you in the first place.”

I gave a sharp laugh. “Your father wanted you so badly, he left you for my mother and me.”

His eyes widened. He looked like he might throw his tea in my face.

We both got out of there as fast as we could.

H
e came to see me the next day at the Statehood. I told him I was working and I didn't want to talk. Give me two minutes, he said, then Connor bustled over, slapped Noah a big hello, took the towel out of my hand, and waved us to a quiet table. Shawna brought us both coffee, and I had to sit down. Noah said that he wanted to apologize, that he'd said things he had no right to say. He owed a lot to Steve, who'd been a friend to his father. He stopped at that. He was calm as he said it. But his face was white. He still had one arm down the sleeve of anger.

I sat silently for a minute, not knowing what I should do. I didn't want to be nice to the guy, but I could see he was trying. Connor was shooting us anxious glances from behind the counter. He'd seen how Steve had begged Noah to come to dinner.

“Hang on,” I said, and stood. I wasn't going to apologize back, but I could bring him a cup of tea. This time, Noah thanked me when I put the honey on the table.

“Anyway,” I said, “you don't have to worry that Charlie is coming to visit. She knows if she comes, I'll leave before she gets here.” Noah took a breath; seeing that, I was able to take one, too. “So you knew about Charlie?” I asked.

“Yeah, sort of. Not really, but . . . the name. I know some stuff. From before.”

His mother had told him all about Charlie, he said, the woman who'd messed up his parents' marriage. He knew she'd adopted a baby. His mother said the baby turned out to be a huge mistake—she couldn't raise the kid by herself, and she didn't have any money. Her family refused to help. She latched onto Aaron, and he, stupidly, went along with it for a while until he got away and realized the whole thing was crazy. He went back home and begged for a second chance.

“They were back together when Dad died,” Noah said. “That's why my mom was so destroyed. They had worked things out; he was coming home soon. He promised to get a law firm job in Seattle so he wouldn't keep taking cases all over the country.”

I had a red coffee stirrer stick in my mouth, which I chewed ferociously as he talked to keep from jumping up and shouting.

“That's not what happened,” I said.

“What part?”

“The whole thing! For one thing, my mother wasn't some greedy gold digger. She works incredibly hard. She's a lawyer, like Aaron. That's how they must have met.”

His eyes narrowed. “You weren't there. How do you know what happened?”

“You weren't there, either.”

“Did your mother tell you?”

I squirmed and said no. I wanted to correct him, but I held back. Steve had said that he was discreet with Noah, and I knew I shouldn't betray him. Besides, what did it matter? Both Noah and I knew only what we'd been told.

“Your mom was partly right,” I said. “My grandmother thought I was a very big mistake. She didn't want my mom to adopt me.”

“I grew up feeling guilty that my mom got stuck with me.”

“I'm supposed to feel grateful that my mom got stuck with
me
.”

At that, he laughed. I forgot myself for a moment and rested my hand on the table. I saw him look at the gap of my missing finger, flick his eyes away, and return for another look. I shifted my arm so that my cuff crept over my hand. No version of the truth would take that hole away.

C
hristmas approached, and I bolstered myself by shrugging off holiday cheer. I would wait it out—I had gotten good at inertia. Steve and Peg were leaving, going to visit Peg's family in Minnesota. Peg asked if I didn't want to go home; they could find somebody else to take care of Poppy and Jackson, and to check the pipes and the mail. I could tell she wanted me to visit Charlie. “Holidays are a hard time to be apart from those who love you,” she said.

I said I'd be fine staying on my own. “I've never had a white Christmas before.” She didn't look happy. I wondered how much longer she would let me stay in her basement. Steve didn't mind, though. He said that he loved Christmas in Juneau because lots of people left and things got nice and quiet. I teased him when he said that. He liked his house crowded and his town empty.

I had one moment of weakness, two days before Christmas. Sleet was falling, making it too wet and miserable to go out. By then the sun was setting at about three o'clock in the afternoon, so it was dark way before it was time to go to bed. The week before, Steve and Peg had cut down a spruce tree and brought it into the house; the living room smelled like a Yuletide forest. I'd been reading all day, and my restless mind was seeing alphabet instead of words. I tried writing in my journal but gave up quickly. The first month in Juneau, I had written every day about the strangeness of the place, but it didn't seem strange anymore. I didn't put on music or the TV; I had lost my headphones, and the holiday programs sucked. Poppy lay sleeping. The silence throughout the house felt like smoke coming back down the chimney—a trickling at first and then an alarming presence. I hadn't spoken to anyone in nearly three whole days. I thought about home and how Charlie would be decorating the tree all by herself, or maybe Les would be over to hold the stepladder while Charlie put up the star. Without letting myself think, I picked up the Ericssons' phone, but at the last second I called A.J. instead.

She answered. I hesitated. She guessed right away.

“Ari! Is it you? How are you? Where are you calling from? Is it cold in Alaska? Can you talk? I can't talk. Let me call you right back.” I put down the phone; she wouldn't be able to call me because I had blocked the Ericssons' number.

For the next three hours, I tried not to think of home. A.J. was probably on winter break with her parents. Maybe Brent was there, too; he liked hanging out with his sister. Hearing her voice had given me a jolt, the way my finger sometimes shocked me.

Around nine, I called again. A.J. answered right away, her voice muffled. She was in her bedroom, hoping I'd call back. She was whispering, so I whispered, too; it felt as if we were twelve and staying up past our bedtime. I told her that I was good, that I was happy and working. “I'm getting outdoors,” I said. “Come up this summer and we'll go hiking.” She asked, Did I promise? “Or maybe I'll go back to China,” I said, but the words sounded hollow.

“I talked to WeiWei,” A.J. said, dropping the whisper. “She says hello.”

“You didn't tell her about me, did you?”
About Kunming
, I meant.

“I only said you left without saying good-bye. Nothing about the other stuff.” We both fell silent. Finally, A.J. said, “She told me to say she's sorry she never called you. Are you still there?”

“I'm here.” Poppy stood and shook herself all over and drew close to let me bury my hand in her coat. When I'd first gotten to Juneau, Peg had told me that Poppy was her personal mood ring: “If I'm angry or upset, Poppy comes to find me. Not like Jackson,” she had laughed. “He's your typical royal cat.” I bent to scratch Poppy behind the ears, and she lifted her nose to me.

“So WeiWei's good?” I asked.

“So
good. You can't believe how much they have her doing. Everyone wants her. She hardly has time to sleep. Her sister is really sweet; they Skype'd me together. WeiWei bought a brand-new house; she wants us to visit. She said she'll take us on a personal tour of the studio.”

“It sounds like more excitement than I can handle.”

“Don't be jealous,” she chided. “You should see how happy they are.”

“I have to go now. I'm really glad you called.”

“You called me,” A.J. said tartly.

“Anyway, I miss you.”

“Miss you, too. And so does your mom. You should call her.”

“Please don't tell her I called,” I said. “Please, please don't tell her.”

“We'll see,” A.J. said. “Don't ask me that again. I'm not going to see her soon anyway. We're going skiing next week.”

I spent the next hour on the living room sofa, watching the tree lights blink. I strained to hear sounds of cars or voices, but the only thing to listen to was the click of Poppy's toenails. While I lay there waiting, life was happening to other people. At ten o'clock, I couldn't stand myself any longer. I put on a jacket and trudged through the dark into town.

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