THREE

Life got complicated for Kat at about 9:30 P.M., October 3, 1987, out on the quarry road, on a blanket spread out in the grass next to Riley’s rust-bucket Chevy Nova. It wasn’t the first time they’d enjoyed such a swanky dateit was closer to the 157th time. Mostly, they’d get out there and do nothing but talk, discussing everything from the cosmos and Carl Sagan to Lisa Lisa amp; Cult Jam. Sometimes, they’d get carried away with those hot and sweet kisses Kat was sure had never been equaled in all of human history. Then Riley would be sure to get his hand up her shirt or down her pants, and she’d be making a beeline for his button fly. But they’d made a pact with each other. Either she would slow him down or he would slow her down, because as much as they wanted each other, what they really wanted was to graduate from Cecil H. Underwood High School with excellent grades, go to good colleges, and get out of Persuasion forevertogether. Every one of their dreams depended on it.

Kat turned off the faucet in the claw-foot tub, then eased herself down into the bubbles, leaving her nose just above the waterline. She obviously needed to talk with Riley, tell him everything. But after his questions about Aidan, she had to wonder how much Riley already knew and how he could have possibly found out.

He knew how this whole mess started, of course. On that chilly October night, the two of them burned with the wonder of each other. Their big plansalong with basic common sensewere suddenly no match for the beauty and intensity of that first taste of sex. /Just this once, Kat. Oh God, I’m going to die if I can’t get inside you/. In those minutesall five of themnothing mattered but the spark they’d ignited between them, the lava of lust, the head-exploding, skin-on-skin confirmation that they were meant for each other, for all of time.

Three months later, Kat got her wish to leave Persuasion, but there was no fanfare to mark the occasion. She left home on a bitterly cold January eveningjust walked right out the front door of her house with her mother’s blessing and the image of her father’s ugliness still fresh in her mind. She was outside the city limits in a little over an hour, curled up in the passenger seat of an 18-wheeler delivering lumber to Baltimore, sick as a dog the whole way. She had eighty-three dollars in her pocket but was rich in luck.

Kat let her head sink down below the bubbles. She held her breath for as long as she could, squeezing her eyes shut against the memory. How ignorant she’d been! What would have happened to her if Cliff Turner hadn’t been the one to stop for her? It made her nauseous to think how stupid she’d been that night, her thumb out in the wind and her face frozen with tears, just begging for the world to eat her and her baby alive.

She pushed her head out of the water and gasped for air. Whether a random occurrence or part of a grand plan, the fact was her entire life hinged on the fact that good-hearted Cliff had spotted her on Highway 3, put on his brakes so fast they squealed, and waited for her to run along the shoulder until she caught up.

He’d felt sorry for her; that’s why he’d been so nice. He stopped at an all-night McDonald’s for her to use the restroom and to get something to eat. He even paid for it. Then, on his way to the shipyard, he dropped her off at his sister’s row house in the High-landtown neighborhood of Baltimore. A skinny woman in her fifties came to the door in pink sponge curlers and a lime green terry-cloth robe. She seemed pleased to see her brother but annoyed that he’d blocked most of the street with his rig and interrupted her coffee date with Bryant Gumbel. All these years later, Kat still smiled when she recalled Cliff’s introduction: /This here’s my sister, Phyllis. This is Tina and she’s a pregnant runaway from Iowa/. Actually, Kat had told Cliff she was Gina from Ohio, and she’d adamantly denied being pregnant, but since all of it was a load of crap, she didn’t bother to correct him.

Phyllis put her hands on her skinny hips and looked Kat up and down.

Well, come on in, Tina. Hope you don’t have a phobia about birds.

Phyllis made a skillet of ham and fried potatoes for breakfast, but all Kat could hold down was toast with a little strawberry jam. Then Phyllis took her to the upstairs sewing room, where there was a twin bed covered in a faded purple flowered coverlet, one window, and only three parakeet cages, which Kat would soon learn was close to solitary confinement for any of Phyllis’ birds.

Kat slept for twelve hours that first day, and stayed for seven years.

She swirled her fingertips in the bubbles, watching them pop and disappear, wondering for the millionth time what Riley had done with his life. He’d never left Persuasion, obviously, but was he married? Did he have other children? Was he happy? Did his family still own that huge old house on Cedar Street? Was Big Daddy still mayor?

Anda question she rarely permitted herself to askwhat happened with her parents? Did her mother ever think about her? Did she ever miss her or cry for her at night? Did she ever regret the way she’d sent her only child away?

Did the beatings ever stop?

The loud pounding Kat heard was not the sound of her memory. Someone was banging on the door.

Hon! Open up! It was Nola.

Kat! Please! It’s an emergency! The second voice belonged to Madeline.

Kat jumped up, sloshing water over the sides of the tub and nearly breaking her neck when she lost her footing. She tumbled onto the bath mat, bubbles running down her skin, then lunged for a towel. Coming! I’m coming!

On the way to the door, Kat grabbed her purse, thinking that she could at least save something from the fire. The rest of her belongings would have to burn. Kat was breathless when she finally got the door unbolted and open.

Sorry to bother you, Madeline said, which struck Kat as an odd way to inform her the place was on fire.

Nola touched Kat’s wet arm. It’s your dad, Kat. He’s had a heart attack.

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