FOUR

Kat jolted awake, her eyes scanning an unfamiliar darkness, her heart pounding. Chills ran through her as an inhuman voice cried out in agony.

La la la la la la bamba!

She sat straight up in a bed she didn’t recognize, flailed her arms until they made contact with a lamp, and pushed in the switch with shaking fingers, somehow managing to keep the lamp from crashing to the floor. Kat blinked against the harsh light, eventually focusing on a pair of beady blue eyes staring right into hers.

Squaaaaaawwwwww! La la la la la bamba!

Oh my God! Help! Somebody help me! Kat covered her head with her arms and yelled as loud as she could, hearing the beat of what sounded like a million wings above her head, a loud cacophony of screeching, and an endless /scratch-scratch-scratch/ of agitated bird feet.

Didn’t we almost have it all!

I wanna dance with somebody! /Help!/ A door opened. A bony older woman in black spandex leggings and an oversized Cal Ripken baseball jersey appeared next to the bed. For crying out loud! You’d think you were being attacked by Freddy Krueger or something. These here are just a few harmless budgie boys.

Kat panted, her mind a total confused mess of dream and wakefulness, and it took her a few seconds to realize everything was real. The pregnancy test… being told she could only stay in school until she showed..

. Riley breaking up with her… seeing her dad and that woman together in the studio… destroying the sculpture… her mother sending her away… the ride in the semi… and this ladywhat was her name again?this lady who’d made Kat toast and told her to lie down.

I’m going to puke, Kat said.

Not in here you ain’t. The woman finished returning all the birds into their appropriate cages and double-checked the latches. You’ll have to learn to keep an eye on Boris, here. He opens his cage and then goes around springing everyone else free, singing Top Forty hits the whole while.

Where’s your bathroom? Kat knew she had no time for a chat.

The lady pointed into the hall. Second door on the left.

Kat leaped to her feet and barely made it into the bathroom before she tossed her toast. Her limbs felt so weak that she decided to stay curled up in a ball on the fuzzy pink bath rug for the rest of her life. She raised her head when she heard the shower running.

You’ll feel better once you have a hot shower and put on some clean clothes. You and I are about the same size, so I’ll get you something to wear.

Kat was rolling her eyes at the prospect of what fashion choices awaited her when a thin arm went around her waist and a strong hand pulled her to her feet. We’re gonna have a nice long chat, you and me, figure out what’s what. But right now, I’ve got to get over to the Sacred Heart o’

Jesus social hall. If I don’t show up at least fifteen minutes early, lard-ass Josefina Dubrowski will try to take my lucky seat, and I need every penny I can get my hands on for that start-up IPO next Wednesday.

Huh? Kat felt unsteady. She’d understood exactly nothing of what the woman just said, but Kat thought it might have had something to do with Jesus and some kind of birth control. She really should have paid more attention in family health class.

Then the lady did the strangest thing. She kissed Kat on the cheek and gave her a hug. Knockers up, hon. You’re going to be just fine. I’ll be home by eleven. /Miami Vice/ is on tonight, if you like Don Johnson, and what normal girl doesn’t? But don’t go opening any of the cages while I’m away, because you’re not used to the birdies yet. There’s some Tuna Helper on a plate in the oven for you.

The instant the lady closed the bathroom door behind her, Kat was back on her knees on the fuzzy pink rug, the pain of loss in her gut and the words Tuna Helper ringing in her ears.

How long till we get there?

Nola’s question snapped Kat out of the home movie that had been playing in her brain. She was surprised to find herself behind the wheel, and it took her a moment to remember that they were on their way to the hospital to check on her dad.

Kat put the Jaguar in fifth gear and let it loose on the country road, looking around her to get her bearings. The leaves of the Monongahela National Forest glimmered all around her like millions of gemstones in the sunset, and Kat felt guilty that all that extravagant beauty was wasted on her. She hadn’t even noticed.

About fifteen minutes, she answered Nola. When Kat realized what she’d just said, a lump of dread formed in her chest. In that amount of time she’d be at Davis Memorial Hospital in Elkins, where she would encounter a mother and father she hadn’t laid eyes on in twenty years. Her father would probably be hooked up to wires and tubes, and her mother would most definitely be hysterical. And the place itself didn’t exactly hold fond memories for Kat, since the last time she’d been there was for that fateful visit to the family-planning clinic, where she’d found out she was going to have a family she hadn’t planned.

Are you sure you’re OK to drive, hon?

I’m great. /Poor Nola,/ Kat thought. She’d convinced her best friend to come along for a weekend of sweet revenge. So far they’d come up short on both counts.

I know this is turning into the road trip to hell, Kat said. I probably should have thought this through a little more.

Her friend dismissed her with a wave of her hand. The important thing is you’re actually here, right now, dealing with the luggage you’ve been carrying around all these years. You’re brave, hon.

Kat grinned, both at Nola’s usual mangling of the language and at her wishful thinking. Bravery had nothing to do with this trip. Kat was here to rub a few noses in the aroma of her success. She wanted to collect a few heartfelt apologies. She wanted to say a few things to a few people and then get on with her lifewhatever exciting, adventurous, wonderful life she decided she wanted to have.

Or is it baggage? Nola wondered aloud.

It’s baggage.

Right. Baggage. In fact, on /Oprah/ the other day they were talking about how facing your deepest fears head-on is the only path to inner peace and happiness. Nola checked her lip gloss in the mirror, then snapped the visor back into place with a chuckle. And I thought to myself, /Well, damn!/ No wonder so many of us are walking around so fucking miserable all the time. Who wants to do that?

Kat laughed. Nola had been making her laugh since their first day in English 101 at Baltimore City Community College fifteen years and three husbands ago. None of Nola’s marriages had resulted in kids, but she’d long ago volunteered to round out the trinity of mother figures in Aidan’s life. It never failed to amaze Kat how normal her kid had turned out, considering that he was raised by an unwed hillbilly teenager, a chain-smoking parakeet lady, and a tough little Italian girl with highly sophisticated street smarts and extremely loose morals.

Kat smiled to herself, thinking maybe that was why Aidan seemed so comfortable around women of any age, shape, ethnicity, or state of mindhe’d already seen it all.

Now, what I want to know is how come Riley Bohunk was the one who called the B and B with the news about your dad?

Kat had been wondering the same thing, and shrugged. He probably heard about it around town, found out where I was staying, and decided to let me know.

Must be hard to keep a secret in a place this size. Nola fluffed her newly cut and colored hair, and Kat had to admit that her friend looked like a million bucks. After being waxed, tweezed, exfoliated, manicured, foiled, trimmed, and polished within an inch of their lives, they both did. And the actual cost was only about thirty-five grand, including the week in the Royal Suite at the Four Seasons and the retail therapy sessions at Barneys. The XJ7 with the moonroof, the navigation system, heated seats, and iPod interface was a little extra.

News travels fast around here, Kat said.

So your parents probably know you’re back.

Oh yeah. I’m thinking that’s why my dad keeled over.

Nola stared out the window and craned her neck to see the top of the tree line. It’s real pretty here, Kat. If you like the country, I mean.

Personally, I’d go ape shit if I had to live outside of Bawlmer County.

I bet you can’t find a decent calzone within a hundred miles.

Kat chuckled. I would imagine you’re correct about that.

Persuasion sure is a weird name for a town, though. What’s the story with that?

Kat couldn’t recall the last time she’d thought about the fable. They teach every elementary school kid that this Scottish guy named Harmon McEvoy got a land grant and settled in the valley in the late seventeen hundreds. When he brought his wife here to join him, she completely freaked, refusing to live so far from civilization and so close to the Indians.

Nola threw up her hands. Like I saidno calzones!

Exactly. So Harmon built her a nice house and convinced her to stay. He /persuaded/ her to stay.

Nola pursed her lips and nodded. Huh. I bet if that Scottish dude looked like Riley Bohunk, then the girl would’ve lived in a teepee and been damn glad about it.

Kat shook her head, laughing. You’ve got to stop calling him that, Nola, or I’m going to end up saying it.

Well, he /is/ a hunk, and if you’d been more specific about his level of hunkiality we’d have made this trip a long time ago, and even though I am no longer interested in men and never will be again under any circumstances, I have to admithe’s hot.

Kat sighed. He really was something special. So smart. So intense. So gorgeous. Still is.

Duh. I think we’ve established that. Nola’s hand settled gently on Kat’s forearm. Are you sure you’re ready for this, hon?

Kat tensed, aware that Nola was asking about the encounter with her parents. I guess I better be, since we’re almost there.

Kat? Nola adjusted her position in the deep bucket seat to face her more directly. Did you ever come close to coming back home? I mean, you always seemed so damned independent and sure of yourself, but wasn’t there ever a time when you just wanted to come home and tell them everythingwhere you went, what you were doing, show them Aidan? Weren’t you ever even /tempted/?

More than she’d ever let on, Kat knew. There were times when she’d been knocked to her knees with emptiness. She needed to feel Riley. She needed to hear her mom’s voice. One night, when Aidan was about two, Kat waited for Phyllis to leave for bingo and packed up the baby stuff and bolted. Kat made it to the corner of Eastern and Conkling and waited about fifteen minutes for the No. 57 bus that would get her to Union Station, and eventually Persuasion. But she turned around. She pushed the stroller through the neighborhood and went right back up the marble steps to Phyllis’ row house. Who was she kidding? She was already home.

If home was a place where you were loved and accepted no matter what you did, where there was no hitting and screaming and no secrets except for the ones you held far down in your heart, then the little row house at 456 California Avenue was the only real home she’d ever had.

Phyllis kept asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to write my mom, Kat said. But she eventually stopped. I guess she figured it was like talking to a wall.

Nola settled back into the plush leather and sighed deeply. I never really understood that part. I mean, don’t get me wrongit’s no coincidence that?dysfunction’ and?D’Agostino’ both begin with a /d./ But we’re still a family. Maybe we’re all misogynists, but we stick together. I couldn’t imagine just cutting myself off from them the way you did.

I know you can’t. And I think you mean?masochist.’

You may be right.

Kat watched the sun begin to slip behind the trees. She cracked the window, thinking that the air would blow away the pain. It did just the opposite. She smelled her childhood. Wet leaves, pine needles, mountain rain, rich soiland the stink of buried secrets. /This is a private family matter, Katharine, and everyone would misunderstand… Your father is a good man and he never means to hurt me… He’s under so much pressure with his art and I know I can get on his nerves… Why don’t you run on outside and play?… He works so hard to support us… He’ll be in a better mood tomorrow..

../ Kat pulled the Jaguar onto Randolph Avenue and spotted the hospital complex a few blocks away. She gripped the steering wheel hard, hoping Nola wouldn’t see her hands tremble. It had been many years since Kat had allowed her mother’s voice into her head like that, and it had arrived so sharp and lifelike that Kat almost expected to turn and see BettyAnn Cavanaugh sitting in the passenger seat next to her.

Kat dared to look but was greeted by a scowling Nola.

You just went white as a sheet and you’re shaking. I better drive.

We’re here, Kat told her, swinging into the hospital parking garage.

Let’s just get this over with.

Caroline Mathis, M.D., Ph.D., flipped the cell phone shut and took a moment to center herself. As much as she appreciated Madeline’s timely updates on Kat Cavanaugh’s comings and goings, they certainly wreaked havoc with Carrie’s peace of mind. She knew the secret to her success had always been balancea delicate titration of all elements of her life flowing together in a synthesis of logic and emotion, action and stillness, effort and acceptance. And that’s how she’d handle this latest snag in her plans. It never failed. She’d simply breathe the balance in, and breathe it out again. /That bitch-whore!/ Carrie shocked herself. She hadn’t meant to shout that out loud. She must be losing it. She hoped to God that her voice hadn’t carried through her office door. She smacked the intercom button of her speakerphone with the flat of her hand. Alice?… I’m sorry to ask you to do this at the last minute, but could you please cancel my lecture tonight at the Board of Medicine? Something’s come up in Persuasion.

Alice was quiet for a moment, then spoke softly. Are you all right, Dr.

Mathis? I thought I heard you yell in there. Is it the diabetes study?

Did I yell? Oh no! I just stubbed my toe! Can you believe it? Carrie jumped from her chair and began to pace in front of the wide bank of windows overlooking the West Virginia State Capitol.

Would you like me to reschedule?

Carrie stared, her mind a blur. /That bitch is going to ruin everything!

That bitch is going to ruin my entire lifeagain!/ Dr. Mathis?

Oh yes. Absolutely.

After the holidays?

Good. Good.

I don’t even think the board meets toward the end of the year, so should I try for January?

Carrie chewed on the inside of her cheek. She chomped down so hard she drew blood, but somehow she didn’t mind the pain. It cleared her head.

Dr. Mathis?

January would be perfect, Alice. Thanks.

Alice went quiet again. Would you like me to come in for a minute?

Carrie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Alice meant well. She’d been Carrie’s assistant for eight years now, ever since she’d joined the Department of Health amp; Human Resources while still working toward her doctorate in public health policy. Carrie knew that Alice had been instrumental in her promotion to executive director of the Division of Rural Health. Alice certainly had provided a shoulder to cry on during last year’s wedding fiasco, but deep down, she was a busybody. She was so interested in every single little detail that you’d think /she/ was the one getting married in less than three months!

Actually, I’m on my way out.

Carrie hit the off button on the speakerphone and grabbed her jacket and briefcase. She wouldn’t even have time to change her clothes before she had to hit the road. If she made it out of Charleston before the evening rush, she could get to Persuasion in a little over two hours.

She truly looked forward to the day that they could end all this commuter relationship nonsense. Riley’s talents were being wasted in that town, and that stupid clinic would have done nothing but seal his low-class fate. With that in mind, Carrie had already found a dozen potential jobs for him here in the capital city and she was confident he’d eventually come to his senses. With a little luck, she could wrap up her rural diabetes management study right about the time Riley relocated hereand they could put that silly little town and all its history behind them, for good.

Carrie gathered her briefcase and purse, a twinge of guilt tickling at her as it occasionally did. Some people might think it was unethical the way she’d used legislative sleight of hand to get Riley’s clinic funding killed. But anyone making that judgment wouldn’t understand that she had Riley’s best interests at heart. She loved him. She knew what was good for him. She was good for him.

The nurse at the triage desk pointed to a row of mint green fabric curtains, informing Kat and Nola that Virgil Cavanaugh could be found in evaluation room B-4. It took exactly eighteen steps to get there. Kat counted. She laughed at herself for being such a baby about this. Her parents were just like everyone else. Just people. Not monsters. They’d made some serious mistakes a long time ago, but maybe they’d just done the best they could. Kat was no longer a childshe was a grown woman. She could handle this.

Kat gripped the edge of the curtain and pulled it aside. The first thing she noticed was a pale old man on a gurney, his eyes closed and his body still. The humming and beeping of monitors were the only indication he was alive. The next thing she noticed was that her mother was nowhere to be seen.

Kat sat down in one of the small plastic chairs over by the sink. Nola sat next to her.

That’s Virgil, right? Nola whispered, reaching for Kat’s hand.

That’s him.

Kat couldn’t take her eyes off the man who lay under the pale yellow blanket. His body looked… /reduced/ somehow. Virgil Cavanaugh had never been a huge man, but he’d been strong and he’d been mean, and Kat had always thought that his meanness took up space in the world. People seemed to keep their distance from him. The dean at Mountain Laurel had always humored him, because Virgil’s name lent credibility to the college’s small art department. His students respected his talent but never liked him as a person. It had always been that way.

Kat leaned forward in the chair, trying to get a closer look. Her father’s hands appeared knotted and limp, nothing like the powerful and graceful hands that had once made wet clay and hard marble submit to his every whim. His skin was decorated with a web of tiny broken capillaries and sagged from the bone of his cheeks, jaw, and elbows. For a moment, Kat imagined that his meanness had faded along with his youth, or had even disappeared altogether sometime in the last twenty years.

A vision shot through her brain with such force that it knocked the wind from her. She was looking down at her own young hands, knuckles blanched because she held a mallet so fiercely, and she raised that mallet above her head and brought it down on the clay figure of a woman. The woman’s face flew across the studio. Kat raised her arms again. And again. And again. Until there was nothing but clumps of clay on the floor.

Kat nearly jumped when the curtain flew open and a big, smiley nurse barreled into the tight space, greeting the women cheerfully before she went to the patient. Well, Mr. Cavanaugh, it looks like we’re going to be admitting you so that you can get a cardiology consult. How does that sound? We’ll have you settled upstairs quicker than you can say ?tiddlywinks.’

A vile hiss seemed to float up from the bed. /Tiddlywinks, my ass./ That comment was followed by a wheezy cough and then more gravelly words: No nurse should be as big as a heifer like you. Cuts back on patient confidence.

Kat thought she’d fall off her chair. Nola’s fingernails dug into Kat’s hand. But the nurse continued adjusting his oxygen line and responded calmly. Listen up, Prince Charming. You might be old and sick, but that doesn’t give you the right to be a bastard.

Kat gulped. Her father had just rolled his head to the side and allowed his stare to land directly on target. His eyes pierced hers. Go on and tell her, KatharineI’ve always been a bastard. Go ahead. You know the story. /Jesus-Hang-Gliding-Christ,/ Nola mumbled.

I sincerely apologize for him, Kat told the nurse, hearing the weariness in her own voice. It occurred to her that she’d yet to say one word to her father and she was already exhausted by his company. Why had she come here? What the hell had she been thinking? She hated this place, and this place hated her. She already knew with certainty that this whole trip had been a mistake and she hadn’t even gotten to the best part yether mother. How much worse would it get? Right then and there, Kat promised herself that her next half-tipsy, spontaneous road-trip fantasy would remain a fantasy.

He’s right, Kat said with a sigh. My father’s always been a mean and nasty bastard.

The nurse’s eyes got big and she forced a smile. Well, then. The doctor should be here any minute to chat with you nice people. She swept through the curtain and was gone. It flung open again so quickly that Kat figured the nurse had forgotten something.

The instant the doctor entered the small space, Kat’s heart stopped.

Forget her dadshe was the one who was going to need a cardiologist. She watched the tall, handsome, dark-haired doctor grab the patient’s chart and begin to flip through the pages.

Kat fought to get enough breath to say the word: /Riley?/ Hell-lo! Nola sing-songed.

Riley raised his midnight blue eyes to Kat. In that split second, she was sixteen, in his arms, laughing, her heart wide open and her whole life ahead of her. But she blinked and the illusion was gone, and she was looking into the eyes of a tired guy in a white coat with a stethoscope slung around his neck, the words /Riley Bohland, M.D./ embroidered in red on the left chest pocket. He’s going to recover, Riley said.

Kat nodded. I’m glad one of us will.

Their eyes locked. Nothing else existed except the force of that gaze, the power in it. Riley looked away before Kat could decide what it was that she’d caught a glimpse of. Regret? Longing?

Virgil let out a raspy laugh. Well, looky hereit’s Romeo and Juliet after taxes.

Riley clipped the chart to its hook at the foot of the hospital bed and ignored the comment. All right, Virgil. We’re taking you up to the cardiac unit and let them poke around a bit, do some tests. Could be you’ll need a catheterization to unblock your arteries. We’ll know by tomorrow.

Riley turned to Kat, all business. Would you like to help him get settled in his room?

Kat suddenly felt ill. She stood up and motioned for Nola to get to her feet, too. There was no way in hell Kat was going to hang around to comfort Virgil or deal with this cold, hollowed-out stranger who was once Riley. I think my mother is better suited for that job. We need to be getting back to town.

She’s not here, Katharine.

Something in her father’s voice made Kat freeze. She looked at him, scanning his eyes for an explanation of whatever his voice had just revealed. There was nothing.

Where’d she go? The cafeteria?

Her question was met by absolute silence. Kat noticed Riley raise his chin and breathe deep.

Depends on your views, I suppose, her father said. But no religion I ever heard of offers a cafeteria option for the afterlifeit’s usually just heaven or hell. If I had to pick, I’d say heaven, but then, me and the Almighty aren’t exactly fishin’ buddies, so what do I know?

It felt like the floor dropped. Or the whole world. And Kat was relieved to feel Nola’s steady hand at the small of her back.

So that was all there was. That cold night when her mother shoved some cash into her hand and dismissed her own daughter like she was an annoying Jehovah’s Witnessthat was all there’d ever be for them. Nothing would ever be fixed. Nothing would ever be taken back. Nothing would ever heal.

Nola tried to direct Kat back toward the chair. Maybe you should sit down for a minute.

Kat jerked away and took a step toward Riley. She looked up at him, furious. When? How?

About a year ago. Cancer.

We’re not staying. Kat pushed her way toward the curtain. She had to squeeze by Riley to get out of the room, and her hand brushed the front of his upper thigh. She thought she’d die. Or collapse in a heap. But she would never/never/let either of those men see her cry.

Her mother was dead. She’d waited too long to come home.

Riley called after her, Kat! Please wait!

Let her go, she heard her father say. You know she had no business coming back in the first place.

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