Fall With Me
I’m almost finished mucking out the barn when Griffin appears and leans over the stall door, arms hanging down.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he says. “You need any help?”
“No.” I keep my back to him. “Almost done.”
“Want to go for a swim after this?” I feel his hands on my waist and I stiffen.
“I don’t think so. I’ve got some stuff to do.”
“Hey.” Slowly, he turns me around so I’m facing him. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” I shake my head and smile, even though the smile feels forced. “I was just . . . I don’t know. Thinking that maybe New York wouldn’t be such a great idea right now.”
He touches his forehead to mine. I stand like that for a few seconds and then pull my head back.
“What about New York isn’t a good idea?” he asks. “We don’t have to go, if you don’t want to. But I think you’ll have a good time. I know I’ll have a much better time if you’re there.”
I let go of the pitchfork, and it falls onto the shavings with a muted thump. “Listen,” I say. “It’s not actually New York. I mean, it kind of is, but it’s like, I’m your girlfriend. I’m your girlfriend and you want me to go to New York with you and meet your parents.”
“And that freaks you out a little?”
“Well . . . yeah!”
I wonder if it’s incredibly shitty of me not to tell him that the whole reason I started being nice to him in the first place was because I wanted to find out information about his father. If it wasn’t for wanting to know that, I’d probably still be hating him. The basis for our relationship is a lie, and I can’t help but think that means the whole thing is going to blow up in my face.
He brings his hand up to the side of my face. “Does it feel like things are moving too fast?”
“It feels like things are just . . . moving. In a direction that I never thought would happen. I mean, I didn’t expect for this to happen. None of this. I thought this was just going to be my boring summer before I went back for my last year of college. This was not expected.”
He smiles. “Are you telling me you don’t like surprises?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Jill, if you don’t want to go to New York, you don’t have to. Or, if you want to come to New York but not meet my family, you don’t have to. Or, if you want to come to New York and pretend the whole time you don’t know me, we can do that, too.” He leans down and kisses me, really just rests his lips against mine for a few seconds. “Mmm.”
“It’s not that. I . . .” The words are there, on the tip of my tongue. I think your father had something to do with my dad’s death. And I need to find out. At the same time, I’m scared to, because if he does, what does that mean for us?
Chapter 25: Griffin
SFO is one giant clusterfuck. I’ve never minded airports, regardless of the holdups, the delays, the bitchy TSA workers, or the shitty, overpriced food, but by the time we make it through security, Jill’s shoulders have inched their way toward her ears and she’s too wound up to even sit down.
“Come here, sweetheart,” I say. “Let me give you a shoulder rub.”
“No, I’m fine.”
So I sit, and I try to envision exactly how this little trip of ours is going to go. I’ve talked with Mom about it, but haven’t had any further communication with Dad. Whether or not Mom passed on the specifics of our travel plans is hard to say, and really depends on her mood. It’s possible she told him everything—mistakenly believing she was rubbing in his face the fact that we were coming back to see her, but then again, it’s also just as likely she hasn’t breathed a word. That would actually be better; taking him by surprise might be our best option.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m so eager for Dad to be there, other than I want him to see that I did get my life together. I have changed. You did not think I could, but look. I have.
We take a cab to the penthouse. It’s early afternoon, so it’s hard to say whether Dad will be home or not, but when the elevator lets us off on the top floor and I hear Debussy being pumped through the speakers, I know that Dad is home.
We leave our stuff in the entranceway, and I lead Jill through the maze of rooms, aware, for maybe the first time, how over-the-top everything is here. The Persian rugs. The marble, the crystal chandeliers. The fucking gold-framed oil paintings. I glance at Jill, but her expression is hard to read. She doesn’t look impressed, so that’s good.
“I bet my dad’s in his study,” I say.
“Great,” she says. “Let’s go there.”
She seems rather eager to meet him, which should please Dad at least. Look, Carl, here’s someone who’s actually excited to see you. Though I’m sure once she’s been around him for a few minutes, that will change rather quickly.
The heavy mahogany door to Dad’s study is open partway, and I push it open the rest of the way.
“Hello, Dad. Looks like our paths are going to cross, after all. This is my girlfriend Jill.”
Dad’s back is to us; he’s pouring himself some cognac, Hennessey XO, his favorite, which of course he won’t offer to us, but something very odd happens when he turns to face us. A strange expression crosses his face, and he almost drops his balloon snifter. This is interesting; Carl Alexander could be three sheets to the wind and he would never, NEVER fumble his cognac. He recovers, though, and holds out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, Jill.” He continues to stare at her, and I continue to stare at him, because he seems completely ill at ease. Is he really so flummoxed by the fact that I have a girlfriend? That she exists? That this wasn’t just some little stunt I pulled?
“Have we met before?” he asks. “You look very familiar.”
He smiles as he says this. Jill does not return the smile. In fact, her mouth is set in a tight line, and she’s looking rather uncomfortable, or mad, or some combination of both.
“Hello,” she says finally.
They stand there and stare at each other.
“Well, this is cozy,” I say, after the silence has stretched to almost a minute. “Is Mom here?”
“She’s out shopping, but I expect she’ll be returning shortly. She knew you were coming.” Dad sets his glass down. “Perhaps we should all go out and get something to eat when she returns.”
I try to keep my jaw from falling to the floor. “Okay,” I say. I look at Jill. “That sounds good. Do you feel up for it, Jill?”
Finally, the tiniest of smiles touches the corners of her mouth. “Yes,” she says. “I do.”
Chapter 26: Jill
It was the look that crossed Griffin’s father’s face when we stepped into his study. He knew who I was. Everyone has always said how much Dad and I looked like each other, and Carl’s reaction only made me more certain that he knows something about Dad’s accident.
Griffin seems equally perplexed, though I’m not exactly sure why. After Carl invites us out to lunch, we go into the living room to wait for his mom to get home. And when she arrives, it’s clear that, looks-wise, anyway, it’s she who Griffin takes after.
She’s tall, and has the same jet-black hair, which has been swept up on top of her head. Her eyes are a paler shade of blue than Griffin’s, but her nose is the same, and the mouth.
“Darling!” she exclaims, dropping an armload of shopping bags. “I was hoping I’d be back before you got here. I just spoke with your brother; he’s stuck in meetings downtown and won’t be able to make it, but he told me to send his regards. And that he’ll try to catch up with you later.” She gives him a hug, the bangles on her wrist jangling. “How was the flight? How long are you here for? What plans do you have?”
She lets go of him and he turns to me. “Mom, this is my girlfriend Jill. Jill, this is my mom.”
I stand up and we shake hands. She appraises me, quickly, coolly, but apparently she deems me acceptable because she smiles.
“It’s lovely to meet you,” she says.
“I thought we could all go out and get something to eat,” Carl says, appearing in the doorway. “We can go have a nice lunch and get all caught up.”
“Let me just go freshen up,” Griffin’s mom says. She gives him a kiss on the cheek and leaves the room in a flurry. Carl, Griffin, and I stand there, saying nothing.
“Did you have a place in mind?” Griffin asks.
“There’s a good steakhouse that just opened,” Carl says. He looks at me. “Do you eat meat, Jill?”
“Then I think this is the perfect place.”
Griffin’s mom comes back a few minutes later and we leave, Carl keeping his eye on me the whole time.
Lunch is like a game of cat and mouse that only Carl and I are aware we’re playing. He asks me questions and I give him vague answers. Where did you grow up? What does your father do for work? How did you meet my son?
Griffin and his mother seem oblivious, though occasionally I’ll catch Griffin looking at Carl in surprise.
“So what is it that you do?” I ask after our salads are brought out.
“I’m a businessman,” he replies, as vaguely as I responded to his questions.
“Clearly a successful one,” I say.
He pauses, his drink halfway to his lips, and he gives me a look as though he can’t tell if I’m being sarcastic or not.
“So, I must’ve missed it, but tell me again,” Griffin’s mom says, “How did the two of you meet? Was it over in Thailand?”
I defer to Griffin on this. Carl downs his drink and says nothing.
“Well,” Griffin says. “My Thailand trip got cut short, actually. Another story for another time though.” He shoots a look at Carl, who has folded his hands in front of him and is looking off into the middle distance. “Jill and I met out in California, near the horse ranch she works at. The place I’ve been working at, too.”
“Oh, darling, you got a job! You didn’t tell me that.”
“Yeah, it’s actually a lot of fun. I’ve been having a good time.”
His mom smiles and pats his arm. “You always did like being outside. A job and a girlfriend! How lovely.”
Carl is mostly quiet for the rest of the meal. Whenever I look in his direction, though, he is looking right at me, and he doesn’t avert his gaze when I return the stare. I’m still not sure if he knows exactly who I am, but just the way he’s acting tells me that he knows something.
I wake up while it’s still dark, and for a while I lie in bed next to Griffin and watch the sky turn from inky, midnight blue to a light gray. If I’m going to do something, I might as well do it now. There might not be another chance.
I slip out of bed. Griffin stirs but does not wake. His mouth is slightly open, one arm thrown above his head. He looks entirely at peace.
I walk down the hallway to Carl’s study. I pause outside the door and listen; everything’s quiet. I peek in. The built-in bookshelves are lined with leather-bound tomes. The desk sits at the back of the room, by the windows. There are paintings on the walls, and I wonder, as I step into the study, if there’s a safe hidden behind one of them.
I go over to the desk. I don’t know what I’m looking for, maybe something that might somehow shed some light on anything, but I am suddenly overcome with the certainty that there is something, and I’ll know it when I see it.
I open a few drawers. There are papers, documents, one drawer full of pens and paper clips. I ruffle through the papers and see nothing that really makes any sense. I get to the bottom right hand drawer and pull. It doesn’t budge.
I straighten, and look around the room. If there’s a key, he probably keeps it on him, or in his briefcase or something. I open the top middle drawer again and extract the silver letter opener. Picking locks was never one of my specialties, but I’d done it on a few occasions and hoped I might get lucky once more.
I slide the letter opener into the lock when I hear a noise behind me. I freeze, thinking that maybe it’s someone just walking past the study, but out of the corner of my eye I see Carl step into view.
“Isn’t this interesting,” he says. “I’d ask you what the hell you thought you were doing, but I don’t think you’d give me an honest answer.”
I stand. “I’m looking for something.”
“For something,” he repeats. “And what might that something be?”
I say nothing.
“I knew you looked familiar,” he continues. “You’re a dead ringer for your father. And then I asked Griffin what your last name was. Freyss-Charon . . . your father was Michael Charon, wasn’t he?”