Cold Springs Page 17


And still, every time he took out his key chain—there it was. He could envision the green door with its brass knob, brass numbers above the mail slot. He could imagine opening that door, calling up the stairwell that he was home.

What had Hunter said about not trying to salvage the past?

He and Chadwick had walked away from Southeast Asia together with never a flashback. They'd seen children who'd stepped on land mines, shriveled Vietcong body parts strung on jute necklaces like Mexican milagros, dead GIs Huey-ed into base, their bodies cooked from napalm Chadwick's colleagues had loaded onto planes. None of that affected Chadwick much anymore. None of it gave him the shakes.

But when it came to San Francisco—the house in the Mission—his hands still trembled.

He put his keys back in his pocket, walked down the hall to Olsen's apartment.

He had to knock several times before she answered.

She stood in the doorway, squinting, the room behind her a yawning darkness that smelled of sleep and rye bagels she'd bought in New York.

“Glad you're up,” Chadwick said. “Can we talk?”

“Are you crazy? I just went back to bed.”

“Your room or mine?”

She scowled. With her buzz cut, her shapeless fatigues, her harshly plain face, she looked about twelve years old. Chadwick wondered why young women who tried to look butch always ended up looking frail and vulnerable.

“Your room,” she decided. “It's probably cleaner.”

The comment forced Chadwick to think about what his room would look like—and it was clean, but like a hotel room, not a home. He had never asked for new furniture since the early shoestring budget days of Cold Springs. He still had the particleboard desk, the hundred-dollar double bed, the Sears CD player. The corners of the sheets, the clothes on the shelves were folded with military precision, but there was little of personal significance—just a few pictures, and a few essential books. Herodotus. Mark Twain. David McCullough.

He opened the sliding glass door to the porch, let in the smell of cedar, the distant rush of the river.

Olsen examined the photos on Chadwick's writing desk. Her fingers hovered momentarily over the picture of Katherine—a young girl of eight, the summer they'd planted morning glories, her smile wide with amazement, the flowers making a raucously colored arch around her body. Mercifully, Olsen's fingers moved on. She picked up an old group shot of Chadwick with a bunch of Laurel Heights eighth-graders, all of them in colonial costumes.

Olsen looked up at the present-day Chadwick, then back at the photo of him with the powdered wig. “Anybody ever told you—”

“Repeatedly,” Chadwick interrupted. “I look like George Washington.”

Olsen managed a crooked smile. “And these kids in the picture—”

“Students. Former students.”

“Why'd you quit?”

“My daughter was a student there,” Chadwick said. “She committed suicide.”

Olsen's lips quirked, like she thought he was kidding, and then, when she was sure he wasn't, she returned the picture to its place, carefully, as if it were a detonator.

“Katherine,” she guessed. “What Mallory was talking about that night in the car.”

“She took her own life while she was baby-sitting Mallory Zedman, overdosed on heroin while Mallory was watching The Little Mermaid. Mallory was six. We were gone several hours longer than we should've been. Mallory put in the call to 911.”

Olsen sank into a chair. She rubbed her palms on her cheeks, pushing up the corners of her eyes. “Christ, Chadwick. Okay. Fuck. I feel like a jerk now.”

“As you can tell, I'm a lot of fun to be with.”

“I've been mad at you for a week because you wouldn't talk to me about the Zedman girl. Wouldn't explain why you were acting weird. You left me in the car while you talked with her mom.”

“So don't quit escorting. I need your help.”

Olsen hunched over, laced her fingers together and stared through them.

Her hair gleamed in the light. Her skin had a yellowish hue to it, like half-churned milk. Once during the week, on the flight into La Guardia, a flight attendant had told Olsen, by way of a compliment, that she looked a lot like her father, then gestured at Chadwick. The comment weighed on Chadwick's heart like lead.

He remembered how many times he'd had to explain that he was Katherine's father. Yes—her, the Latina child. He'd learned to stare through people's momentary disbelief, their embarrassment and confusion. He remembered thinking that he would never be able to claim a resemblance to Katherine, so he would have to claim something else about her—common personality, or interests, or career. Someday, he'd thought, after she grew up, people would look at Katherine and think, She's so much like her father.

“I should have told you I was requesting a new assignment,” Olsen decided. “It's not you, Chadwick. It's me. I'm not cut out for this work.”

“I don't agree.”

“Oh, please. I can't do what you do—not the direct intervention.”

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“That's the job you requested.”

“I was unrealistic, okay? I wanted to be the rescuer, the one who whisked kids out of trouble. I thought they'd respond to me because I'd been there. I was wrong.”

She'd been there.

Chadwick remembered Olsen's interview, how she'd talked in vague terms about coming from a broken home, how that had gotten her interested in child psychology. Chadwick hadn't pressed her for details.

“You can't expect the kids to thank you,” he told her. “The more a kid fights, the worse she needs us.”

She shook her head. “The things Mallory said to me in the car while you were in the school . . . Not a thing about your daughter. Nothing about that. But vicious things. She reminded me—”

Olsen stopped herself.

Out the window, a trio of buzzards had gathered over the river, circling for breakfast.

“Kids like Mallory,” Chadwick said, “they've learned they can make authority figures cave in if they just act outrageous enough. That's terrifying power for an adolescent. They love it, but they hate it, too. So they keep getting wilder, hoping to find the limits. They need to hit a brick wall—somebody who finally says, ‘This is it. This is where you stop.' When a kid fights, she's testing to see if you're for real. Remember that. Remember you're basically dealing with a scared child, no matter how big or loud or out of control.”

Olsen was staring at the picture of Chadwick in his colonial outfit—the Father of his Country. Chadwick suddenly hated the picture.

“Some of those things Mallory told me,” Olsen said, “some of it was about you. You and her mother.”

Chadwick made a conscious effort to keep his eyes on hers. He knew he should be open with her, like he should've stayed on the line with Sergeant Damarodas, like he should've confessed his secret to Norma, that cold night, so many years ago, before everything came unraveled.

But it was hard. It was like forcing his hand to touch a hot stove plate.

“I need to go back to San Francisco,” he told her. “The boy Race—I need to find him, ask him some questions. I'll have to do that during the workweek, between escorts. I'd rather have you with me than someone new. You, at least, know some of the background.”

Olsen traced her knuckle along the frame of Katherine's photograph.

“That day in Oakland,” she said, “you hesitated long enough for Race Montrose to shoot you. I almost watched you die, Chadwick.”

It wasn't a question, not even an accusation. Just an expression of sadness, of concern, and before he knew it, he was putting his hand to the hot stove plate—telling her a story he'd never shared with Ann, or Norma, or anyone.

“In 1973,” he said, “Hunter and I were in the Air Force, stationed in Thailand. We were eighteen years old, security police. Officially, the Vietnam War was over. Officially, none of us were even there. We spent a year in Korat, guarding planes that officially never dropped bombs on anybody.”

He paused. He wasn't sure why he was telling Olsen this—a woman he'd only known two weeks—but something about her drew it out of him, like snake venom.

“Hunter and I were on perimeter duty one night. We'd had an intruder a few nights before—an NVA with a claymore wired to his chest whom we shot fifty yards from the fence—so we were both on edge. We were at the far end of the base, a hundred yards from anything, when this figure rose up from the rice fields only a few feet away, pointing a pistol right at us. I got off one round with my sidearm and Hunter opened up with his M-16 and the guy fell. Only later we found out we'd shot a local villager kid—maybe twelve, thirteen years old. The pistol was a piece of junk, wouldn't fire even if it had bullets. I don't know why he did it. Maybe an American had done something to his family. I don't know what the hell he was thinking. But when they brought his body into base, I could see the .38 hole I put in his chest, just above his heart.”

Chadwick paused, listening to the rush of river, impossible to separate from the roar of blood in his ears. “I don't think about that kid often. I'm not saying I could've done something differently, or that I haven't had kids point guns at me in this job since then. But if I hesitated a little in Rockridge . . . now you know.”

Olsen's eyes were molten glass—not yet hardened into anything definite. “Is that why you work with kids?”

“What?”

“Because of that boy. Is that why you became a teacher?”

“Maybe. Maybe partly.”

“The pickup still bothered me, Chadwick, okay? Mallory Zedman bothered me.”

“Don't run away from that.”

“You don't understand me.” She stopped, seemed uncomfortable with what she was about to say. “What you do—you go from crisis to crisis. You're always at the point of intervention. If I kept doing that, moving on from kid to kid, I would be running away. I need resolution—I need to help one kid at a time. That's why I've requested a counseling position. I've specifically requested Mallory Zedman.”

Chadwick felt as if she'd passed her hand through his chest—gently, like a ghost's hand—and given his heart a squeeze.

“You'll be a good escort,” he managed. “I want to work with you.”

Olsen rose.

“I think you're a good person, Chadwick. But I can't. I'm sorry.”

Long after she was gone—after the uncomfortable handshake and the good wishes and the smell of her soap and rye bagels dissipated—Chadwick stared out at the long shadows the morning sun was slicing from the woods, and he felt the full weight of the problem he had willingly hung around his neck—Mallory Zedman.

There was no difference between that name and the .38 Smith & Wesson revolver locked in a case under his bed, the colonial photo on his desk, or the old house key in his pocket. Some things, once they are slipped on your chain, can never be removed.

8

Mallory dreamed she was six years old, sitting shotgun in the old Toyota, waiting for Katherine.

Her teeth chattered. She sat on her hands, pressed her back into the cracked vinyl seat, tucked her chin into her collar, but still the night cold pervaded her clothes—working its way into her jacket, under her T-shirt, slithering against her skin like dry-ice vapor.

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