Cold Springs Page 20


Olsen smiled at her—but the smile seemed cold. She seemed to be examining Mallory like an exhibit, a piece she'd added to her freak collection.

No way was Mallory going to have that lady as her counselor.

“To the wall, Zedman!” Leyland shouted again.

Dr. Hunter stopped talking to his guest. If he stepped in, it was all over. Mallory would be forced to obey, bent into any damn G.I. Joe position Hunter wanted, and—if Mallory didn't get another slap in the face like seeing Olsen—Mallory might even grow to accept it.

She couldn't believe she'd been concerned with Morrison, felt good that the fat slob had gotten over the stupid wall. Mallory realized she'd been on the verge of giving in to the program, of cooperating.

Seeing Olsen again, she had a target for her anger. Mallory remembered the plane trip—how Chadwick had reassured her, treated her with firmness but respect, which had somehow been a worse trick, a worse lie than if he'd treated Mallory like these bastard instructors did. Chadwick had tricked her into thinking that Cold Springs wouldn't be so bad. Chadwick had manipulated Mallory's mother into sending her here—Mallory's mother, who'd always liked Chadwick, who'd shown him more affection than she'd ever shown Mallory. Chadwick had probably sent Olsen here to keep an eye on her.

“Zedman!” Leyland yelled.

Hunter's guest asked him something too quiet to hear, and Hunter answered, “Watch.”

Mallory took a step forward, then another, her whole body trembling. She would not be an exhibit. She would not play their game.

One of the boys, Bridges or Smart, yelled, “Zedman, get back here!” They knew Mallory was about to earn them extra hours of drill time.

They'll make good white levels one of these days, Mallory thought, but not me.

She stepped toward Olsen. “You did this to me!”

The drill instructors were still yelling, but out of the corner of her eye she could see the enforcer, the staff member with the body bag who was always on the periphery, ready to move as fast as the Grim Reaper whenever things got out of hand. The bag was for Mallory. The whole force of the camp would come down on her if she didn't obey.

But Mallory couldn't. She had remembered herself now.

“Fuck you!” she shouted at Olsen. “Tell Chadwick—tell him I'm glad Katherine's dead. Tell him I said that! You tell him!”

A white level pinned her arms, held her back while the guy with the body bag came forward.

She hated that she was crying, but she couldn't stop it. If they put her into that bag, she would find a way to kill herself. She would never run their damn obstacle course again. She'd die if she spent another day in solitary.

Mallory kicked as they fastened her legs.

“You lied!” she screamed at Olsen.

Olsen said nothing.

Mallory's only satisfaction was the sadness in her eyes, as if Mallory had really damaged her. But on second thought, Mallory wasn't sure if that look in Olsen's eyes was new.

The gag went over Mallory's mouth, the enforcer and the white level dragging her toward the cinder block shed under the cypress tree, where she would be spending more time in the dark.

The whistle blew. The course resumed without her. And Hunter and his guest went back to their conversation, Hunter gesturing toward Mallory as if she'd just provided a testimonial for the program he was trying to sell.

9

Norma's house on Telegraph Hill was a peeling wedge of white stucco, like a slice of bride's cake, scrupulously preserved until it had petrified into something inedible.

She hadn't always thought of it that way.

Years ago, fresh from her first big commission, she'd loved the house John had found for her. It was spacious, clean, quiet, secure—everything the townhouse in the Mission had not been.

Now, however, she dreaded coming home.

She spent the afternoon at Laurel Heights, working with Ann and the school board and David Kraft—Katherine's old friend, her first boyfriend. Norma sat in meetings about rebuilding the school, gave updates on the fund-raising, and every time David smiled, she thought about her daughter—how she had never graduated, never gone to college or had a job. Then Norma drove home to her beautiful empty house, her ears still ringing with the sounds of children.

She was torturing herself needlessly. She knew that.

But she wanted to help Ann. She found herself neglecting her paying accounts, spending way too much time on the pro bono work for Laurel Heights.

Whenever she talked it over with John—who still knew more about the school's finances than she did, had set up all the accounts—he seemed mystified by her commitment.

Of all people, John said, you should be rooting for her to fail. What has she not taken away from you?

Norma understood what was on the line for Ann. She'd seen it in the faces of the board members—Ann was in trouble. Families were worried about the school's dilapidated facilities, the program that seemed stuck back in the late 1970s when Ann had seized the helm, and the amount of time it had taken Ann to meet her capital campaign goals. Parents had heard about Mallory's problems, the weapon that had been found on campus—and they wondered uneasily if it wouldn't just be easier to move their kids elsewhere.

If Ann's building program finally succeeded, she might turn things around, head the school until she retired, leave a permanent legacy. Otherwise, she had given her entire professional life to Laurel Heights. What would she have to show?

Norma also had less altruistic reasons for helping.

When she thought about jackhammers breaking up the playground, bulldozers plowing a muddy path up the side of the hill, trampling the azaleas and hydrangeas that had been there for eighty years—she felt a dark satisfaction, the same satisfaction she felt sitting up at night, in her bathroom, counting sleeping pills in her palm, wishing she possessed her daughter's courage.

She couldn't end her life. It wasn't in her nature. But she could bury her memories of Laurel Heights—raze the place that had gobbled up all of her ex-husband's time, ruined her marriage, failed Katherine so miserably. She could help replace it with something clean and huge, empty of history, just like her house.

It started to rain as she turned on Greenwich. Red-faced tourists huffed up the hill, their cameras wrapped in plastic bags, Bay Guardian newspapers wilting over their heads. The Rastafarian flower seller who sometimes gave Norma free roses was hastily loading bouquets from the sidewalk into his van.

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When she saw the black BMW in front of her house, her heart developed a caffeine flutter.

She pulled into the driveway.

John came out her front door, smiling into her headlights.

She shouldn't have been surprised. John and Ann both had keys. Mallory, too—for that matter. Hadn't she made it clear to all of them—this was their home as well as hers? She wanted them in her life. She wanted to be neutral ground, a conduit through which they could interact.

And today was Wednesday—her night for dinner with John. But that shouldn't have been until later, and they usually met at a restaurant.

So what was he doing here?

At least Pérez didn't seem to be with him. That's one thing she had put her foot down about—John was never to bring that man to her home.

Pérez scared her on some instinctive level. She knew he was Mexican, but his military bearing, his cruel eyes, brought back too many childhood nightmares, stories her grandfather would tell her about Castro's soldiers.

She pulled her satchel out of the car, tossed it to John. “You were cleaning house for me, I hope?”

Despite the smile, he looked tired, angry, as if he'd just gotten through yelling at someone. “Like you need housecleaning. Five years, Ms. Reyes—when are you going to move in?”

She punched his arm. “What are you doing here?”

“Come and see.”

Inside, candles on the dining table. A takeout Chinese dinner—white paper boxes, chopsticks, an uncorked bottle of Chardonnay. The doors of the back deck were open on the rainy evening. The Bay glowed below, the soft neon of the city illuminating the wake of the Sausalito ferry.

Music was playing—not John's favorite classical. He knew that would remind her too much of Chadwick. He'd picked Los Lobos, La Pistola y el Corazón—music she'd once daydreamed to. She must have told John she loved this album. She should have been flattered he remembered.

But the music brought back memories of the bougainvillea out her old kitchen window, Katherine playing in the backyard, Chadwick grading papers at the yellow Formica table, massaging her ankle with his toes. She swallowed back her sadness. “I hope we're talking Szechwan.”

“Only four-pepper items.”

“Ay, qué buena. What's the occasion?”

He pulled out her chair, poured her some wine. Only after she'd sat, allowed him to serve her some chicken and peanuts, did he say, “I'm apologizing.”

“For what?”

“Mallory being taken away. You knew. You didn't tell me.”

Norma felt heat collecting in her cheeks.

“It's okay,” John said. “I was mad all week. Then I realized—Ann put you in a hell of a position. You couldn't betray her confidence. Wouldn't be fair of me to expect that, would it? Just promise—if I ever put you in a bind like that, force you to choose between us, you'll tell me. Okay?”

Norma took a shaky breath.

Something bothered her. Behind the diplomatic, carefully rehearsed words, John seemed . . . hungry. Grasping.

“I'm sorry,” she said. “If it helps, I told her she was crazy.”

“Mallory's my child, too. Yet I'm allowed no say in this?”

His smile seemed dangerously thin.

Norma thought about the night of the auction, John and Chadwick sparring drunk in the school playground—how ridiculous they'd looked. It never would've occurred to her to be scared of John Zedman.

Then again, she'd never been scared of anything with Chadwick. As mild-mannered as he was—come on, you'd have to be nuts to challenge a guy that big. That feeling of safety, of immunity from danger—she'd taken it totally for granted until she became single again.

Now, alone with John, she felt a little shiver of fear up her spine, even though she knew that was absurd. The guy was one of her oldest friends.

She speared a chunk of chicken, nudged the fleck of red pepper off it. The food was too spicy even for her. It wasn't much of a meal, or an apology. More like a gourmet punishment.

“I thought you forgave me,” she told John.

“I do. I'm just wondering—you know. You let her call Chadwick? I mean—what was that . . . temporary insanity, Norma?”

She folded her napkin, got up from the table, picked up her plate. “Thank you for dinner, John.”

“Whoa. I'm just trying to sort through things. Okay?”

“Don't lay a guilt trip on me. I'm not—”

She stopped herself.

“You're not Ann,” he finished for her. “I know that, Norma. God, I can see that.”

She went to the kitchen counter, set her plate down.

“Come on,” he coaxed. “Finish eating.”

She poured her wine into the sink, froze when she felt John's breath on her shoulder. “What was it like—” he asked, “seeing Chadwick again?”

She turned.

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