Tom sat outside the apartment building, car idling as he took in the peeling siding and the scraggly stumps of dead grass. One of the first-floor windows had been broken and taped over. In a nearby window, a curtain fluttered, and eyes peered out before hastily withdrawing again.
He couldn’t help but think about the size of the check he wrote every month and compare it to the state of the building in front of him, and come up with numbers that didn’t add up. But that wasn’t what made his hands clench the steering wheel so tightly his fingers threatened to go numb.
That wasn’t what kept him sitting in the car as if his legs were incapable of movement.
He took a long breath in, held it for a count of four, breathed out slowly through his nose. He closed his eyes, reaching for the serenity that he had worked so hard to attain. It had been a long road to get there, but for the past few years, reaching that place of inner peace had come as easily as breathing.
But it wasn’t coming easily now.
He opened his eyes and looked out at the building again. His eyes sought out the windows three stories up. Apartment 3A—that was what Carrie had told him. He watched for any movement in the curtains, any hint of a small pair of eyes watching him. But the only movement was from the first-floor window again as the neighbor came back for a second peek, no doubt wondering what he was doing out here.
He let go of the steering wheel and let out his breath in a forceful huff. He had been a soldier, for God’s sake. He had been in firefights that hadn’t left his heart pounding this badly. He had stared death in the eye on more than one occasion; he could face one little girl.
Although she wasn’t so little anymore, was she?
This was his own fault, he reminded himself—no one but his. It would have been easy to blame Carrie for all the time he had lost, but he knew better than that. He was only facing the consequences of his own actions.
He took another deep, slow breath. It did nothing to calm the frantic pounding of his heart.
He pulled the keys from the ignition. In the sudden quiet, he could practically hear the drumbeat in his chest. He opened the car door and, before he could second-guess himself again, practically flung himself out onto the pavement.
He kept one foot in front of the other as he walked through the gate of the broken chain-link fence and crossed the sad excuse for a yard. Carrie buzzed him in, and he followed the stairs to the third floor, barely able to hear the stairs creaking under his feet over the sound of his heartbeat in his ears. He was so close. So close to what he had wanted more than anything for nearly half his life now, to the only thing that could make him lie awake at night cursing his past choices no matter how much time he spent meditating before bed.
He stopped in front of the door marked 3A, and lifted a shaking hand to knock on the door.
The door opened a crack, and an unfamiliar face peered out at him, watery blue eyes blinking up from a tangled nest of blonde hair. The door closed, and he heard the sound of the deadbolt scraping as she unhooked the chain. Only when the door opened again did he recognize Carrie.
As he stepped inside, his gaze swept over the scene in front of him. Assessing the situation, the way he had done a thousand times before—an old habit, and one his life used to depend on in his army days. Only now he wasn’t looking for threats, but for her. A figure sprawled on the battered couch, maybe, or a shy pair of eyes peering out from behind a door.
He saw no one. Only Carrie.
Looking at her now brought home how long it had been since he had seen her last. In the past thirteen years, she had aged twice that. Her hair hung in lank tangles around her face, and her clothes looked like she had grabbed them from the bottom of the dirty-laundry pile. Her eyes met his with a peculiar desperation that held none of the sharp clarity he used to associate with her.
“Tom. I’m glad you came.” Her voice wasn’t the one he remembered, that clear bell that had seemed to soar upwards like a bird when she was happy—not that there had been much happiness in their time together. This new Carrie had a voice that was rough and cracked, like an old woman who had spent too many years smoking. His gaze flicked to the table, where an ashtray rested, dusty with the remnants of several cigarettes.
He wanted to ask her what he thought she was doing, smoking while raising a child in a place as small as this. Now that he was paying attention, he could smell it, a grim miasma thickening the air. But he wasn’t going to begin with an argument. He wasn’t going to let himself fall back into old habits. Not as quickly as that. Not ever. He took a deep breath, counting as he let it out slowly.
“I’m glad you called.” He didn’t let himself add finally or after all this time, or remind her of how long he had been asking her for this. What was done was done. His life was nothing but what he had made of it, and in any case, he was here now. In a moment, he would look into his daughter’s eyes for the first time, and hold her in his arms, and everything would be all right. His life’s one missing piece would fall into place at last.
“I’m sorry I waited so long. I should have let you see her. I…” She hesitated. Her eyes dropped.
“It’s all right,” he assured her. “I understand.” And he did. Maybe it would have been easier if he could have hated her for it, but it wouldn’t have been honest. If there was one thing he had come to value in these past years, it was honesty—the ability to look at the world with clear eyes and accept what he saw. Including his own worst aspects. Including the parts of himself that had led them to this place.
“I looked you up online, you know. A couple of years ago. I saw that you had taken over your great-uncle’s business. I remember how you used to talk about that place, how working on furniture with him was the only place you really felt comfortable when you were younger. I’m glad he left it to you. There was an article in the paper about you, too—about the medals you earned in the army. You…” She shifted awkwardly, her gaze flicking to the scars on his face and then away again. “You’ve come a long way since we were kids.”
It was… if not an apology, then something like it. His heart warmed. He wished he could return the compliment, but looking at her and at the state of the apartment, the words caught in his throat. No doubt she had come a long way in these past years, too, but it looked as if it had been in the wrong direction.
“If you need more money, all you have to do is tell me,” he said instead. “I’ll send you whatever you need. I want her to…” I want her to have the childhood I didn’t have. I want her to have everything. “She should be living someplace safe.”
“Raising a kid isn’t cheap,” she said, a defensive bite in her voice. “I’ve done the best I could for her.”
“I know you have. All I’m saying is that I’d like to help.” It wasn’t as if his own finances were limitless, especially now that he had lost his only employee. He didn’t begrudge Aidan his career change—he had gone back to school to be a teacher, which would suit him much better than restoring furniture with Tom ever had—but without help, Tom had needed to cut down the amount of work he took on by a third, and keeping the business running wasn’t cheap. But he didn’t need much. A roof over his head, rice and beans for dinner, and even those things were negotiable if it meant his daughter could live someplace where the walls didn’t seem ready to crumble in at any moment. “Whatever she needs, whatever you need… please just tell me.”
She shook her head wordlessly. He didn’t know whether that meant she didn’t need help, or that she wasn’t willing to ask for it. He would send her more money next month, he decided. As much as he could afford. If she didn’t want it, she could send it back.
Maybe next month, he could drop off the check in person, and take his little girl out for ice cream afterward. Was she too old to enjoy going out for ice cream with her dad? There were so many things he didn’t know. So many things he would have to learn.
He scanned the apartment again. Still no sign of its second inhabitant. “Can I see her?” he asked, trying not to sound too eager.
“I…” Her gaze darted away like a skittish animal. “Tom, I…”
Something cold reached up from the pit of his stomach to wrap around his heart.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I… I didn’t know what to say.”
He tried to breathe—slow inhale, hold, slow exhale. Accept what comes, he told himself, the way he had so many times before. But he could see what was coming, barreling down on him like a train, and dread trapped his breath in his chest. This wasn’t like the time when a group of drunk teenagers had broken into his shop in the middle of the night and smashed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of his clients’ furniture. It wasn’t even like the times Aidan had disappeared for the night to wrestle with his personal demons from the inside of a bottle, with Tom left watching the clock as it moved from 2 to 3 to 4 in the morning, and wondering if this would be the time Aidan finally drank himself to death.
This was his daughter.
“Where is she?” Tom demanded. The voice that left his mouth wasn’t his own. It belonged to another version of himself, a man he had put to rest long ago.
At last, Carrie met his eyes. He could have told himself the fear he saw there was only her nervousness at facing him again after so long. But he believed in honesty, and he knew raw terror when he saw it.
“She’s gone,” Carrie whispered. “And I need your help to get her back.”