If i could stay, p.6

If I Could Stay, page 6

 

If I Could Stay
 



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  Jack sat across from me, amusement lighting his eyes and tugging at his mouth. Tracy had retreated to the office to fix something on her mother’s computer.

  Finally, Adeline said, “Well, Celeste, I think you and I can help each other out. You need a place to stay?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I do.”

  “I have a good feeling about you, and I’ve told him that if you cause any trouble, I’m blaming him, so it’s his responsibility to make sure you don’t take off with the silver.” She said it with a smile and a twinkle in her eye, but I got the impression that the warning was real. She knew she was taking a chance on me, and she had probably already assigned Jack to be my watchdog. “I don’t expect you’ll give me any trouble on that account.”

  “No, ma’am.”

  “Good. Because I’m ready to have someone at my beck and call. My kids all love me, they do. But I know that all my projects drive them a little nutty. So you can camp out in my guest room and eat my food if you think you’d like to stick around and help me pretty up my house. And I’ll even pay you a little if you’re willing to do extra errands and running around for me.”

  “I’d love to, if you’re sure it’s not too much of an imposition.”

  “Not at all.” She patted my knee. “I’ve got plenty of space, and if I have you around”—she paused to lean forward and fix me with a conspiratorial look— “then I can do whatever I want with my home and my things, and my kids won’t be able to complain about it.”

  I laughed. No doubt Adeline was going to give me a run for my money.

  We agreed that I would move in the next day, and said our goodbyes.

  When the door shut behind us, I turned to Jack. “Oh my gosh, she’s hysterical.”

  “She’s a character, no doubt.”

  “I’m worried I’m not going to earn my keep. I can’t imagine she has that much for me to do.”

  “From what Tracy says, Adeline always has ideas for projects and reorganization and decluttering. She’s a little bit of a hoarder, and she’s perpetually going through her things.”

  “But she said she’d even pay me a little bit. Is Tracy okay with that?” I asked as we each climbed up into the truck.

  He buckled in and cranked the engine. “Tracy and her siblings live in perpetual fear that Adeline is going to take a fall, break a hip, and be lying around for hours before anyone finds her. I’m fairly certain that what little Adeline will pay you is well worth the peace of mind that you’ll be giving her kids.”

  My skepticism was not assuaged. “Are you sure?” I asked as we pulled away from the curb.

  “She’s fallen before,” he said, cutting his eyes over to me. “They were lucky that Tracy was there when it happened.”

  I nodded. “Got it.”

  “Do you think you can handle a little old lady with a big personality?”

  “I’ll do my best.”

  “That’s the spirit.” Jack tried to keep up some pleasant conversation as he drove me back to the hotel, but the whole situation had just become so strange that I couldn’t make myself act normal. It was a relief to pull up in front of the hotel. I grabbed my bag of Goodwill fodder and reached for the door handle.

  “My shift starts at eight tomorrow, so I’m going to have to pick you up at seven if we’re going to get you over to Adeline’s beforehand.”

  “I’ll be ready,” I assured him. “It’s not like I have a whole lot to pack.”

  He tipped his head. “I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

  I slid out and was about to close the door, but first I had to ask, “Why are you doing this?”

  “Doing what?”

  “This.” I gestured around me, hoping to encompass the whole ridiculous situation. “All of this. Why are you going so far out of your way to help me?”

  He rested his arms on his steering wheel and looked at me. “Because you need it.” There was genuine sympathy in his voice, but no condescension or pity.

  “You know this is far beyond the call of duty, right?”

  He shrugged. “From what I can tell, you’re a good person in a bad situation. You’re willing to work, and I don’t mind helping those who want to help themselves.”

  It still seemed way too generous, but I knew I wasn’t going to uncover all his motivations tonight. “Okay. Thank you, Jack,” I mumbled.

  “Welcome, Angel.”

  I waved and went inside. Accepting Jack’s help tomorrow morning was necessary, but then that would be the end of it. He wouldn’t have to cart my sorry butt all over town, and he wouldn’t have to keep feeding me. If I were really lucky, he’d forget all about me, forget about the car and the mystery and the intrigue.

  Yeah right.

  I could dream, though.

  ***

  The next morning, when Jack pulled up in front of the hotel, I was ready and waiting by the doors. My messenger bag was slung over my shoulder, and my bag of slightly used clothing was looped over my arm. I ran out and jumped into his truck before he had to chance to cut the engine and come looking for me.

  “Morning,” I said as I buckled my seatbelt. “Thanks again for giving me a ride.”

  “I’m happy to do it.” He dropped the car into gear. “Should we stop for some breakfast?”

  I shook my head. “I had the free breakfast here.” Being more in debt to him wasn’t on my to-do list, so I’d been sure to get out of bed on time.

  The short drive through town was oddly strained. In my peripheral vision, I kept catching Jack looking at me like he was going to say something, but then he’d face forward again. He was probably trying to figure out a way to get more information out of me. It had to be eating at him that he didn’t know who I was, why I was running, why my car had been burned, or why I was essentially homeless and penniless.

  He’d just have to live with his disappointment.

  As soon as he came to a stop in front of Adeline’s house, I threw my door open. “Thanks again. I really appreciate it. Bye.”

  His hand was on the key, like he had been planning to turn off the car and probably come inside with me. But I didn’t want that. Jack had turned into a weird combination of a crutch and a liability, and I really needed to get rid of both.

  “Oh. Right,” he said. “No problem, I—”

  “I don’t want to keep you from work.” The work that he had more than half an hour to get to. “Have a good one.” I shut my door and waved before jogging up the front walkway.

  I rang the doorbell, and it was a solid two minutes of feeling Jack’s gaze boring into the back of my head from his truck before Adeline opened the door. She had on a muumuu, and she carefully maneuvered her walker out of the way while giving me a big smile and welcoming me into her home.

  My first order of business was to set up my room. Adeline didn’t do stairs, so I pretty much had the entire second floor to myself. Unless you count the massive pile of boxes occupying most of the bonus room.

  Adeline pointed me to the linen closet and I put some sheets in the wash so they’d be ready to put on the bed later. I went ahead and tossed my Goodwill clothes in as well before stashing my hotel toiletries in the bathroom. Then I went down to see what project Adeline wanted me to tackle first.

  She had a little alcove above her corner fireplace where an average person would put a decorative vase or a family picture. Not Adeline. She wanted me to convert it into a doll-sized tea room. No joke. She had the china dolls, the little table and chairs, and the place settings all ready to go. She even had the fake miniature cake to put in the middle of the table. But first the little alcove would need to be painted, a tiny chair rail installed, and a miniature chandelier hung.

  The whole concept cracked me up.

  Adeline was—in a word—awesome.

  Weird and quirky, and yes, maybe a little bit crazy. But awesome.

  The woman knew what she wanted. And what she wanted was to be surrounded by whimsy.

  ***

  It wasn’t har
d to see why Tracy had been willing to hire me. Adeline had all kinds of ideas for decorating and rearranging, but no ability to do them herself. She never ran out of things for me to do, and each project took three times longer than it could have simply because she wanted to see how that thing would look if it was a little closer to the left, and does the large candy dish or the smaller one look better in that spot, and on and on. I didn’t mind, though. I figured she’d earned the right to be particular, and she was pretty hilarious to talk to as well.

  Nearly a week after moving in, I was up on a ladder, arranging things on her plant shelves. “I love your high ceilings in this entryway,” I told her.

  “Aren’t they nice?” she said, beaming as she always did when I complimented her things. “Though, I think they could be better. I have a friend who’s an artist, and I tried to convince her that she should paint my ceiling. You know, like those ceilings in Europe with the naked men on them.”

  I was so startled by the idea of Adeline wanting naked men painted on her ceiling that I had to steady myself on the ladder before turning to see if she was being serious.

  She just continued as if everything were normal. “She seemed a little scandalized by the idea, but I’ve been a widow for a long time and I’ve gotta get my kicks somehow.”

  I laughed for the next five minutes.

  ***

  MARCH

  Adeline had the ability to put me at ease. With all of her chattering and anecdotes, and—frankly, crazy—stories, it was easy to let my guard down. I just had to be sure not to let it down too much. She remembered to ask me about my life and family once in a while, and I was sure to give vague answers like, “My father was really strict but he took care of me,” and “I hardly see my sister any more because she lives so far away.”

  Once in a while, I wondered if Jack would show up to check on me or drop by to see Adeline, but I went into my second week of work without seeing him at all. Hopefully, he considered his duty fulfilled and—so long as I did nothing illegal—we’d never need to see one another again. And I had no plans for illegal activity.

  Well. Almost no plans. I still hoped to get my hands on my other IDs.

  Though, it didn’t escape my notice that Adeline had a lot of nice things. A lot. So many that if some were to go missing, she probably wouldn’t have noticed. There were tons of boxes upstairs, full of fancy figurines and collector dolls, and I was pretty sure that one box was labeled “Grandma’s silver tea set.” By far the most tempting item was the violin I found stashed away in the corner of her storage room. The case was old, but when I opened it, the instrument was in great shape. It was beautiful and my fingers reached out, longing to take it in my hands and try it on for size, see how it sounded. I pulled my hands back. In all honesty, I probably wasn’t ready for that. Yes, I ached to play again, but that ache was also tainted by the memories of my father demanding that I play for his business associates. I had talent and I worked hard, but I hated being put on display. Every time he asked me to play, I tried to get out of it, and every time I failed.

  Still, I considered taking the violin, just like I considered taking the cut crystal and the old pocket watch.

  I considered it all because I was tempted. I could have sped my departure by weeks or even months by simply borrowing a few things and taking them to the pawn shop. Adeline probably wouldn’t have missed them. She might never have known.

  Still, I would have known. And every time my thoughts started drifting in that direction, it was my father’s voice that whispered the justifications. The voice of a father who was a master manipulator. The man who would bail people out of bad situations and then turn around and ask for “favors.” He would make a malpractice suit disappear, and the doctor would have to come running any time my father needed someone to stitch up his guys. He saved people from all walks of life, and the favors he asked for in return ran the gamut. He needed people to move product, look the other way during an inspection, leave a door unlocked, pilot a getaway plane, give him information about when a container ship was arriving, or falsify police reports.

  Any thought that ran through my head in the voice of my father was one that warranted immediate dismissal. So I left the silver, the violin and everything else where it belonged, because I wasn’t my father.

  Plus, I didn’t want to let Adeline down. She made me feel oddly safe. I had a new name. I worked for cash. There was no signed rental agreement. There was no record of anything. I had thrown out the clothes I’d been wearing that night as well as my purse, paranoid that it could have some sort of tracker on it. The only things I’d kept were the few dollars I had saved and the picture of my mother. Everything else in my possession, I had obtained after coming here.

  Living in an obscure town with a widow who didn’t know my real name was probably as safe as I could be right now. Unfortunately, it didn’t get me any closer to Greece, which somehow had become my ultimate goal.

  The idea had been gaining mass in my head ever since Jack had asked me where outside the country I wanted to live. I had been wondering every day if maybe Renee had made it there. Maybe she was waiting in some little house on the Mediterranean, hoping I would find her.

  It was a completely unrealistic dream. I knew that. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. So I’d just have to keep biding my time, get a little nest egg, find another ID guy to make me a Grecian passport, and then—just maybe—I could move completely beyond my father’s reach.

  ***

  I hadn’t always lived under my father’s thumb. There had been a reprieve for the two years before my mother died. An all-too-brief reprieve, when my mother, my sister and I left my father and lived on our own.

  All my memories from before we left—the memories of living all together in Dad’s house—were dim. I wasn’t sure if they were the normal dim of being so young, or if there just wasn’t much good to remember from when Mom and Dad lived together.

  I remembered one night when she was tucking me in before she left for some sort of party. She had on a red dress that was satin or silk. Her outfit I could remember perfectly, but I couldn’t remember the expression on her face. Had she liked the parties with my father? Maybe she’d hated them. Maybe she’d been afraid long before she took us away. I would never know. I had been too young to know that I should ask the question.

  I was seven when mom herded Renee and me out to the car, being sure that I had my stuffed cow, and told us to buckle in. My dad stood on the front porch, a cigar held in one hand as he watched us go, his face impassive. It was April and school wasn’t out yet, but Mom said she couldn’t do it anymore.

  Mom called it a trial separation. Renee called it freedom.

  Our new apartment had been small, at least compared to what I was used to. It wasn’t until years later that I realized it was a luxury apartment in the Hamptons. All I had known at the time was that I got to play on the beach. I made friends. I ran and yelled.

  My mom had smiled. She wore sundresses and sandals instead of the satin evening gowns and designer pant suits I was used to. It didn’t take me long to get used to this new version of Mom.

  Dad would come visit us once in a while. Renee was never around when he showed up, but I stuck close to my mom’s side. He always asked her to come back, and I always wondered why he didn’t just come live with us there. Didn’t he know we were happier in the apartment? As a seven- and eight-year-old, I’d thought the location made the difference. Kids are funny that way.

  6

  I JOLTED AWAKE, my heart pounding as I looked around frantically, trying to remember where I was while listening for whatever sound had roused me. I fell back into my pillows, willing my pulse to slow as I realized I was in Adeline’s house and it was probably six or seven in the morning.

  Then the noise—a banging I didn’t recognize—came again and I threw my blankets back, slipping silently to the floor and padding to the door. I put my ear to the wood, listening for the sound of footsteps coming up the stai
rs. Straining to hear the sound of any voices or maybe the click of a gun safety. There was another bang and an odd scraping sound. Was someone putting up a ladder? Someone heaved a sigh that was really more of a moan. Clearly, whoever was out there wasn’t in stealth mode.

  Anyone looking for me would be well trained. They wouldn’t be banging around, and they certainly wouldn’t be grumbling to themselves. My eyes shut and I leaned my forehead against the door, telling myself that everything was fine. I only allowed myself a moment before I straightened and stepped back from the door, trying to gear myself up to open it and see for myself that I wasn’t about to be hauled back to my father.

  I held my breath and eased the door open a crack.

  A tall ladder had been set up in Adeline’s two-story entry, making the top of it level with the railing that lined the landing. Jack perched at the top of the ladder, unscrewing a lightbulb from the chandelier.

  I let the door snap shut, sagging against it in relief as I forced steady breaths in and out of my lungs. I sat down with my back against the door and pushed my hands into my hair. I hadn’t been this jumpy since the first few months after I’d run away. Yes, I was always paranoid, always vigilant, but for the past three years, it had been only precautionary. Not like this. Now I had the image of Silas striding toward the salon. I had the image of my car, burnt to a crisp, that Jack had shown me.

  I brushed at my face, trying to get rid of the light sheen of sweat that had broken out.

  “Celeste?” Jack called from beyond my door.

  Only then did I realize that I hadn’t been quiet about shutting my door. No doubt he had heard it and wondered if I was spying or hiding or whatever else off-duty cops suspect.

  Talking to him was not on my to-do list, but it was probably better to just get it over with.

  I pushed to my feet, ignoring the slight tremor in my limbs, and grabbed a sweater to put on over my tank top. Then I shook out my shoulders before opening the door while trying to look casual.

 

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