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It’s like he didn’t even hear me. “Willa, you should have seen your sister…” This time he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s choked up. “I thought I knew how strong she was. How incredible. I had no idea.”
I swallow a sob. “She finds a way to remind you once in a while.”
“I’ll never forget again.” His deep, shaky inhale crackles through the line. “I have to go now. The nurse needs me to fill out the birth certificate. Jesus, a birth certificate. It might be the only kind of paperwork that doesn’t piss me off. You all right, kid?”
“I’m great. I’m so happy for you, Derek.” I feel someone step behind me and lay a hand on my shoulder. Without turning around, I know its Shane. Absently, I notice Orla has appeared behind the bar to replace him, possibly just returned from her break, and she’s watching me with concern. Correction, everyone in the pub is watching me. When I feel tears rolling over my knuckles as they grip the phone, I swipe at my eyes with the sleeve of my hoodie. Hesitantly, Shane pulls me into his side and I go without protest. “Hey, listen. Try not to turn Dolly into a law-abiding citizen before I have a chance to corrupt her.”
A rumbling laugh. “Don’t even think about it. She’s not leaving the house until she turns eighteen. And only then, after completing every self-defense class I can find.”
I release a watery sigh. “Sh-should I come home? I can—”
Shane goes stiff beside me, but I’m in no place to ponder that reaction.
“I knew you’d say that. It’s not necessary.” A chair scrapes back four thousand miles away. “You’ll be home soon enough. I’m off for a week and then Patti is coming over to help out while I’m at work.”
Patti, the ex-police dispatch operator who’d taken a shine to Ginger at a long-ago police gala, then quickly became an inevitability in our lives, sort of an adopted grandmother that asked too many uncomfortable questions. I hear someone call Derek’s name in the background. Not Ginger, probably the nurse.
“I have to go. You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. Will you have Ginger call me when she’s up?”
“Of course. Talk to you soon. Stay out of trouble.”
“Trouble finds me, you know that.”
“Bye, Willa.”
In my hand, the line goes dead, but I continue to hold it to my ear, imagining Derek bustling around the hospital room while Ginger sleeps peacefully in the bed. I want be sitting in one of the hard, plastic chairs in that room so badly, it’s a physical ache yawning in my stomach. I want to hold my niece. I want to look down at her and see the proof that Ginger escaped our past and made a happy life. I want to know it’s possible for me, too. But I can’t. It’s out of my reach.
Finally, Shane takes the phone out of my hand, and it drops limply to my side. With an arm around my waist, he walks me through the noticeably quieter pub toward the back hallway. I think he is going to leave me at the bottom of the stairs leading up toward the rooms, but he pulls me into the dark office instead.
I’m thankful when he closes the door and doesn’t turn on the overhead light. Fluorescent lighting and sniveling girl are an unattractive combination, even if that ambiance would probably help me pull it together quicker. In the pitch-black, however, nothing prevents the sob from shuddering higher in my chest and escaping through my parted mouth. Not even Shane’s presence. I cringe when I hear it. It sounds like weakness. But he’s pulling me against his chest and holding it in is no longer an option.
“All right, love.”
That’s all he says, yet somehow it’s the perfect thing. In this case, however, the perfect thing makes me cry all the harder. I don’t want to be comforted. I don’t deserve it. “I was supposed to be there. First babies almost never come early. I Googled that shit.”
“I need more to work with. Who had a baby?”
“Ginger.” Just her name brings on a fresh wave of tears. “She wasn’t due for another month. And I’m here in this rainy-ass country. When I should be there.”
He begins rubbing circles on my back with his big hand. “It does rain a lot.” For some reason, that startles a laugh out of me, but it’s far too tempting to bury my face against his neck and keep crying. I haven’t cried in a long time, not even over Evan, and I can’t seem to stem the flow of emotion. “You couldn’t have predicted it,” Shane says quietly, almost to himself.
I wipe my eyes on Shane’s hard shoulder and pull back shaking my head, even though he can’t see me. “You don’t understand. It’s our job to predict what the other will do. We’re both impulsive, and we can’t communicate worth a damn. Predicting is our how we operate.” My head falls back on my shoulders. “I couldn’t even get this one thing right. The one time she actually needs me, and I’m missing in action. God, I’m so f**king sick of not getting it right for people that matter. She was there for me through everything. She saved me.”
He’s silent a beat. “Saved you from what? Tell me, Willa.”
I laugh bitterly, hating the sound but unable to stem it. “I can’t.”
“Bullshit. Give me something.” He lays his rough cheek against mine, the gesture undermining his harsh words. Letting him stay there feels risky, yet oddly natural.
“Why do you want to know? Just so you can understand where your initial judgment of me went wrong?”
“I have a need to know. Beyond that, I don’t have an explanation.”
I take a deep breath and tell the first story that comes to mind. “Ginger bought me my camera when I was twelve. A Christmas present. She probably had to save the entire year to afford it. It’s not the best one, but it’s mine.” I squeeze my eyes shut, unable to believe what I’m revealing, but Shane’s heat combined with the dark is so inviting. “Ginger had to buy the same camera five times from a pawn shop in Nashville because our mother kept selling it to buy heroin.”
Shane doesn’t say anything, but his circling hand grows firmer on my back, massaging my suddenly tired muscles.
“Ginger never told me. Just kept buying the damn camera and leaving it in our room, under a pile of clothes or in the back of the closet we shared, teasing me about misplacing things. One night, she was working at the bar. Mom came home, high out of her mind, with two men I didn’t recognize. They tore my room apart looking for that camera to pawn it again. But Ginger had taken it with her to work that night just in case my mother came home. So it wasn’t there.”
Shane’s hand goes still on my back. My voice has gone hollow, almost unrecognizable. This could be my default voice for talking about Valerie. I wouldn’t know, because I try to avoid talking about her whenever possible.
“Drugs did funny things to her mind. She wasn’t thinking rationally, just knew she needed her fix. Otherwise she would have realized pawning your child wasn’t possible. She did her best to convince the owner to hold me for just a few hours, kind of like collateral on a loan. Thankfully, the owner kept Ginger’s number handy so he could call her whenever my mother came in to pawn the camera. My sister came and got me. We didn’t see our mother for a while after that.”