Cold Springs Page 6


There was a spoon on the floor, and when Mallory picked it up, it was warm. She dropped it.

“Katherine?” she called, trying very hard to say the th right. Her teacher had been coaching her on that sound. They played a game with flashcards. Math. Bath. Katherine.

Mallory pressed on Katherine's shoulder, called her name again. But Katherine kept sleeping.

She didn't want Katherine to be mad at her.

She went back into the living room. She curled up in the big black chair and rubbed Katherine's necklace between her fingers. There was a silver rectangle on the necklace, with words on the back, but Mallory couldn't read many words yet. She was in kindergarten.

She watched more of the video.

Maybe her parents would come back soon. If Katherine was asleep, it must be time for bed.

But they didn't come back.

The video ended. There was fuzz on the screen.

Mallory tiptoed back into the bedroom. There was something funny about Katherine's face now. It was as if Katherine were taking a nap in a swimming pool, at the bottom of the shallow end. Her skin looked that color.

Mallory tried to wake her up, but she couldn't. Katherine's hand was really cold.

Mallory's stomach felt like she'd eaten too much candy.

She was scared Katherine would wake up and get mad, and her eyes and her mouth would be like that dark house. Mallory tried to think how to call her parents. She knew her own number at home. She had memorized it. But her parents wouldn't be at home. They were at the school party. They'd said.

There was one other number her mother had taught her for emergencies. Mallory was scared to get in trouble for calling it, but she was more scared to be alone with Katherine sleeping, her face the wrong color.

She stood on a kitchen stool so she could reach the phone. She dialed—wrong at first, 119, and nothing happened. Then she remembered the nine went first, and she dialed again.

The woman on the other end of the line asked Mallory a question she didn't understand, but Mallory told her what the problem was, anyway. Carefully, she said, “Katherine won't wake up.”

The woman asked her some more questions. She told Mallory not to hang up, but Mallory was scared by her tone—hard and not friendly, just like a robot's. Mallory hung up. She went back into the living room, and turned the big black chair around, facing the bedroom doorway. The phone rang, but she didn't answer it. She knew it was the woman with the hard voice—and she didn't know what else to say to her. Just hurry. Tell my parents to hurry.

She held Katherine's necklace in her hand, wrapping and unwrapping it around her wrist. The silver smelled like vinegar.

Mallory wasn't sure what she was waiting for. Katherine to wake up and answer the phone. Her parents to come home and answer it. Someone. Anyone.

Years later, Mallory would wonder if she'd ever stopped waiting, if she'd ever left that black chair, staring at Katherine's doorway, waiting for someone who would never come back.

PART II

2002

1

Talia Montrose was an hour away from a whole new life.

She had twenty grand in a leather satchel in the trunk of her LeBaron, a receipt in her pocket for two hundred thirty thousand more, just deposited in a brand new BofA account.

Her old checking account was closed, her meager savings liquidated. She'd quit her job at Pay-Rite, told her general manager, Caleb, to go fuck himself for once instead of the teenage cashiers.

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Talia had three sets of winter clothes, a photo album, a box of Tampax and a down ski jacket, all folded tightly into a single paisley suitcase.

Her palm was still warm from the rich man's handshake—her fingers cramped from signing and initialing the contracts. She could still smell his cologne—alien and spicy, like a Middle Eastern drink. She could still see the cold eyes of the Mexican who stood behind him.

After making sure she understood the deal, making sure she had signed in all the right places, the rich man had smiled, and given her the satchel, and said, “Off you go.”

Too easy. She was still in shock.

Eight A.M., Vincent would be waiting for her at the Pancake & Chicken House on Broadway. Vincent had a gun. He could protect her, and the cash. They would turn the LeBaron toward Tahoe, and they would never look back.

So why was she going back to the house—the place she had been so anxious to be rid of?

She turned on Poplar, drove through the neighborhood she knew too well—the grave-sized yards, the pastel siding, the aluminum-foiled windows and cement flower planters that looked like Easter baskets. Brand-new cars and satellite dishes marked the drug dealers' houses. Old Mr. Benjamin was out in his white tank top and his U.S. Navy cap, watering his grass.

Wasn't a bad-looking neighborhood. People heard West Oakland on the news, they heard about the homicide rate and drugs and gangs, they thought about a war zone—fires in trash cans and burned-out buildings and evil-looking kids with machine guns.

Truth was scarier than that. Truth was West Oakland looked like a normal place. Clean, tidy, most of the residents hardworking, decent people. You had to look close to spot the bullet holes in the doorjambs and the windowsills. You had to be unlucky, or just plain stupid, to catch a drive-by. And the kids—you couldn't tell the dangerous ones by looking at them. Talia knew that firsthand.

She took a left on Jefferson, past the homes of childhood friends—more and more of them dead, the older she got. She passed places where she'd grown up, raised her children, met her men.

Six houses down on the left, the great brown stumps that used to be her palm trees years ago rose up in the front yard like a leper's fingers. The house's siding, once bright yellow, had faded to the color of stained underwear, tattooed with rust from the years it had spent under a ton of Johnny Jay's ornate metalwork. The roof sagged. Half the windows were webbed with cracks.

Place wasn't worth a quarter million, even if the rich man's bullshit was true about a redevelopment project. No, this wasn't going to be the next Emeryville. They weren't going to put up any fucking artist lofts here. He'd just paid her off, plain and simple—paid her to go away. And she'd jumped at the chance.

She backed the car up the driveway, took her satchel out of the trunk. No way she was gonna leave that much money unattended.

The autumn air felt like satin.

A pumpkin was smashed on her porch. Somebody had put a paper black cat on the door, too. Not her, she hadn't been home in four days. Been planning with Vincent, doing his coke, dreaming of fifties and hundreds. They wouldn't have gotten any trick-or-treaters here anyway. Never did.

She put the key in the lock and found the door was open. Damn. She hoped the kids hadn't trashed the place. She figured the deal was final with the house, but she didn't know—hadn't understood half the stuff she signed. She didn't want anything going wrong.

She stood in the living room and wondered why she felt guilty. Wasn't a thing here except hardwood floors, the old green sofa, the particleboard table. Morning sun was soaking through the windows, filling the old gray curtains with light.

She had lived her whole miserable adult life in this house, failed over and over with her children, her relationships. Her first husband, Johnny Jay, the metalworker, spent years caging up the house in decoration, as if it could make up for the fact that he couldn't keep Talia home with his manhood. Her second husband, Elbridge, gave her four more children and a world of hurt before getting himself shot to death. A dozen other men—Bill, the night manager at the Pay-Rite, who supplied her kids with prescription drugs; Ali, the Nation of Islam bodyguard with his friggin' bow tie, who thought Johnny Jay's metalwork was satanic and worked every weekend to tear it down, painted Talia's bedroom for her and paid the utilities and turned out to like little girls better than he liked her. And those were only the highlights. All of them had left marks on Talia, and her kids, and this house.

So why was she back here?

She thought about Vincent—with his gun, his silver tooth and his brilliant smile. Doorman at the Royale Club, he had some fine manners. He'd been nice to her—even nicer since she'd told him about the money.

Maybe her luck would change. Maybe Vincent would be the right one.

But Talia knew her optimism was a disease. She had been suckered by men again and again and again, allowed herself to keep trying because hope was all she had to feed on. She had children for the same reason. She couldn't afford them, couldn't commit to them, couldn't support them. And yet she had them. In the end, they hung around her neck and weighed her down.

Could she leave her children behind? The answer came easy—she already had. One dead. Two in jail. Another dropped out of school and moved away. The one who did make it through school—well, the less said the better. All of them dealing drugs, gang-banging at one time or another. Even her baby, Race—she just didn't know what to do for him. Mostly he took care of himself now—staying with friends, or at Crazy Nana's place, or sometimes here. The money in her satchel told her she'd better go along with the plan, take Race with her, get him away from that rich man's daughter. But Vincent wouldn't like it. Race wouldn't give up the girl. Even after getting kicked out of that school of hers, Race had gotten closer to her than ever. He would never agree to leave, and he was too big to force.

Besides, this house had bought Talia a ticket out of West Oakland. Selling it was the only thing she'd ever done right. She'd scraped to buy it in the first place. She'd saved, she'd done honest work. Now she was getting a good payoff—four times what she put in. It was the first fair thing, the first good break she'd ever gotten. Who could blame her if she took off by herself—started fresh? She wasn't doing her kids any good anyhow, and everybody knew it.

She went into her bedroom and found it messed up—two sleeping bags on the floor in front of the old TV. Race and his girlfriend been staying here. There were her clothes, her purse, that little necklace. No sign of the kids. Last night being Halloween and all, they probably stayed out causing trouble, left in a hurry to catch a ride, left their things behind. The girl was just like Race that way; she'd leave her prissy ass behind, it wasn't attached. Still, they'd been here, maybe every night Talia had been gone. Taking advantage.

Fifteen years old and sleeping together. They said they weren't. Swore up and down. But Talia had been about that age when she met Johnny Jay, yeah, and it pained her to remember.

Out of habit, Talia knelt down and looked through the girl's purse. Nine dollars. She put it in her pocket, thinking to herself it was funny, with a goddamn briefcase full of cash, she was still trained to lift what she could from the girl's wallet. Every dollar counted. And wasn't the girl staying in her house? Why should Talia feel guilty?

She lifted the girl's necklace, read the inscription on the back of the silver charm, For Katherine Elise Chadwick, on her thirteenth.

Girl had some nerve, bringing that name back into this house. But what did Talia expect? Sending Race to that school wasn't no accident. Wasn't about giving him no education, neither. Sending him there was payback, and it wouldn't stop with those kids messing around together, especially now that Race got himself kicked out of the school. The last nine years, Talia had been riding the edge of a thunderstorm—hair prickling up on her arms, the air smelling like hot metal—just waiting for the violence to start. And she knew when things were about to turn violent. Lord yes, she'd had experience with that. She couldn't hold it off much longer.

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