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Chapter 14

On Thursday morning, I learned via email that either very many or very few people were interested in the fate of Cliff and Fatima: Dowry was out of print. A customer service representative from Heartland of Alberta apologized profusely for this inconvenience, and regretfully informed me that there were no plans for another print run. However, as a token of their appreciation, they would be happy to send me any other book from their selection of local romances (“sometimes love is just around the corner”) at half price, shipping included.

Having established that the still-unidentified driver of the beige Civic was not Anoushka Thomas – but was somehow connected to her – the thumbnail of the long-haired Indian woman was the closest link I had to the former, so I scanned the catalogue, not knowing what exactly I was looking for. There was a staggering uniformity of plots, if one could call them that, among the several dozen novels: some absurdly unlikely couple had fallen suddenly and desperately in love despite familial objections, cultural taboos, or some general incompatibility that their divorce lawyers would later file under that catch-all, “irreconcilable differences”. This homogeneity of plot was matched by a homogeneity of cover photos: some frail woman in the firm embrace of a barrel-chested Fabio clone, though the Fabios were occasionally wearing cowboy hats – and in at least one book, Stampede to My Heart, posed atop a horse.

The cover photos were small, but as far as I could tell, there was only one Fabio among them, whereas each book featured a different woman. Moreover, the women represented a surprisingly diverse cross-section of ethnicities, which I suppose was commendable on some level, even as I suspected that, for instance, The Rancher and the Geisha would not provide the reader with any deep insight into either of those professions. Nevertheless, if one believed that Heartland of Alberta did indeed publish books about “the desires that unite us all”, it followed that every woman in Alberta, no matter where she or her ancestors came from, harboured a burning desire to wed (or at least bed) a shirtless outdoorsman in a cowboy hat. Still, even $3.98 was more than I wanted to spend on any of these books, so I declined.

I searched the usual catalogues for the book, wondering if anyone had a stray copy they were willing to part with. The usual suspects didn’t: Chapters didn’t recognize the author, and neither did Amazon. No one on eBay or Craigslist both owned a copy and was willing to admit it.

Harsha was online, so I texted her with this development. She replied instantly.

Harsha: I might be able to score a free copy.

me: ??

Harsha: @232 sent me hers. I’ll send it to you when I’m finished with it.

Which seemed like an altogether better option than shelling out any amount of money, so I thanked Harsha, and requested that she not spoil the ending.

Thursday and Friday passed amorphously, and I vacillated between enjoying the relative peace and feeling anxious about it. Two of our testers had cleared out their desks the previous week, and from the looks of it, not voluntarily.

On Friday I headed for the train station directly from work, infused with the sense of unfocused anxiety that had first attached itself to me when I had started working with Roger, and had only grown since. But I was rested, and feeling relatively stable, two significant improvements over where I’d been a week earlier. I stared idly out the window for the duration of the trip, absently watching the beads of rain slide across the glass. When we pulled into the station, my father was already waiting for me, craning his neck to find me in the crowd.

We spoke little on the ride home. As we pulled into the driveway, my father said suddenly, “I forgot to tell you. Someone phoned for you the other day.”

“Phoned the house?” I repeated dumbly.

My father nodded as he exited the car. “I figured it must have been one of your old friends from school.”

“Did they leave a name?”

My father stopped in his tracks, as though the question required serious thought. “You know, I don’t remember,” he said. “Either he didn’t or he did and it wasn’t a name I recognized.”

I shrugged. “Couldn’t have been that important.”

“He said he’d tried your cell but his call went straight to voicemail.” At this he turned to face me, his keys in his hand. “You should leave your phone on, Kathleen. If there’s an emergency, how is anyone going to reach you?”

I opened my mouth to protest – I didn’t turn it off all week – but closed it before the words could escape. Instead I just lowered my eyes and nodded, and braced my hands against my legs to keep myself from shuddering.

A chicken dinner passed quietly, and I realized, belatedly, that while this Friday certainly found me in better form than last, little had happened during the week that made for safe dinner conversation; and I hadn’t taken the time to fabricate any convincing stories. I thought, not for the first time, that I needed a hobby I could talk about on occasions such as this one, but acquiring a hobby at this stage in my life was sufficiently out of character that it would probably just serve to worry my father. Unbidden, the question But what wouldn’t? surfaced in my consciousness, a flood of memories from the past twenty-five years on its heels. Had I made a single decision, small or large, during that time, without considering his reaction? Nothing came to mind. I cared about him too much to dismiss his concerns. And yet I couldn’t confront them directly.

My father’s voice yanked me back to reality. “What’s on your mind, ketzel?”

I shook my head impatiently, and forced a smile. “Just tired,” I said.

“You want to skip the game?”

“No, no,” I said. “After last week, I need to redeem myself.”

This elicited a grin. “All right then.”

I sat back, closing my eyes, as my father cleared the table and brought out the cards. He shuffled them slowly, handed them to me to cut, and then dealt them carefully. I saw his hands tremble as he slid the cards over one another. I wondered if he had been to a doctor recently. I wondered how I could raise the subject.

I picked up my hand, sorting and willing myself to concentrate. Seven of diamonds face up; I had a seven of clubs and a nine and ten of diamonds. I picked up the seven, tossing a jack.

My father wrinkled his brow as he studied my discard. I tried to guess what he might be holding that would make this a difficult decision. Possibly nothing. He fingered the jack, but then shook his head, drawing a card from the top of the pile and offering me an ace.

The phone, sudden and brash, preempted my decision. I jumped involuntarily at the intrusion, my cards flying out of my hand. I realized, with some emotion that I couldn’t identify but that manifested itself as queasiness, that the ringtone had been unfamiliar to me. No one ever called my father’s house.

My father rose, slowly and calmly. “Probably for you,” he said. “I told your friend the other day you’d be over tonight.” He picked up the phone, greeted the caller, and passed it on to me.

“Hello?” I said.

“Kathleen! Good to finally talk to you.”

I didn’t recognize the voice. My father had sat back down, and was watching me intently. I chose my next few words carefully. “This isn’t a good time right now, but I’ve been trying to reach you, Manny. I understand you couldn’t get me on my cell.”

There were a few seconds of silence, and I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction, which I suppressed for my father’s – benefit? protection? “Oh, no, it’s nine-one-five, not one-nine-five,” I continued. “That’s why you couldn’t reach me. Can this wait until tomorrow?”

“I know exactly how to get in touch with you,” hissed the caller. “You and – your father, is it? Not many Kovalevskys in the book. Sounded too old to be your husband, or your brother.”

A chill ran through me. I suppressed a shiver. “I’m not on call tonight and I don’t have my files with me. If it’s an emergency, Anoushka can probably help you. You have her number, right?”

“Listen to me,” he hissed. “I understand you’ve been looking into me. I’ve called to let you know that your services are no longer needed. What would be a fair price for the work you’ve done? I’m feeling very generous, and I’m sure we can arrive at a figure agreeable to both us.”

My heart was thudding wildly. A few feet away, my father looked on. “No,” I said evenly, “I plan on seeing this project to completion. It’s more work than I’d anticipated, but don’t worry: the original contract will cover the additional services.”

“This is not how you want to play this,” he snapped. I snuck a sideways glance at my father, who showed no sign of having heard. “I’m making you a one-time offer. You can take it and come out ahead, or you can fuck things up for everyone. And I mean everyone. Here’s a free tip: instead of worrying about strangers, worry about your old father, in poor health, all alone in that house on Greenwell Street.”

I felt my heart bang against my chest. Slowly, I turned toward my father, who continued to watch me, alert, unaware. “You’re right,” I said finally. I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples, trying to keep this double conversation straight. “I probably don’t need to talk to her. If this can wait and you want to talk to me again, I’ll be available on Monday at the office at a quarter to nine.”

“13249 Greenwell Street,” hissed the caller. “Don’t be an idiot.” He slammed the phone down.

“Okay, I’ll talk to you on Monday,” I said. My heart continued to race. “Take care.” I replaced the receiver, walked back to my seat, and gathered my cards, sorting them slowly. “Ace of hearts,” I said, mimicking thoughtfulness.

After too much time, I reached out for the ace, and saw my father studying me. “Client?” he asked.

I nodded.

“From Calgary?”

“Yeah, the seed co-op.”

“Calling you here? Must have been important.”

I shrugged. “He thought it was.”

“What was it, that it couldn’t wait until Monday?”

“Oh…” I took the ace, slid it between two random cards, folded and refanned my hand. “He seems to have lost access to the customer records, and they open for business an hour and a half before we do, so he wants to make sure he has them by Monday.”

“And this is what he called here two nights ago for?”

“I don’t know. He didn’t say.” I heard myself becoming impatient, and softened my tone. “It might have been something else that he resolved in the meantime. He’s a nervous sort, worries a lot, even when there’s nothing to worry about.” I smiled, and gave a wink. My father’s face remained stony.

“I thought you said the other week that right now you were just in the training stage, that they weren’t going to start using the new system until they opened their Vancouver office.”

“Yeah, well.” I had no answer to that. “I thought so too. Listen, what difference does it make?” I closed my eyes, angry at myself for the way I was handling this. Someone had just obliquely threatened my father. What was the proper way to deal with that? Not this. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m dealing with some unpleasantness at work, but it’s mine to deal with. Let’s just continue the game, okay?”

Hands shaking, my father set his cards on the table, face up. He shuffled his chair forward, stared into my eyes, and spoke as though I hadn’t apologized to him. “What difference it makes,” he said slowly, “is that you’re lying to me. You haven’t been yourself for weeks, and now you’re lying to me.” He spoke dispassionately: two simple facts, one then the other, laid out on the table in front of me, clear and indisputable as a winning gin hand.

I nodded, and set my own hand down. “I’m sorry,” I said again. I forced myself to meet his eye. “You’re right: it’s something else. But it’s something I need to take care of on my own. Okay? Please trust me on this. I can take care of myself. You don’t need to worry about me.”

My father reached for his cards, brought the deck close to him, and inelegantly jammed the two piles together. His arms were shaking wildly. Some stray cards flew out of the deck, and he dropped the rest.

“Dad?” I wanted to reach out to him, but I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t move. “Dad? Are you all right?”

His mouth opened and closed in jagged lines, as though the act of producing words was suddenly an effort, no longer instinctive. “Your mother,” he said at last.

I sat frozen.

“‘You don’t need to worry about me,’” he repeated. “That was…” he swallowed, closed his eyes, shook his head, as though shaking away something much greater. “That was the last thing your mother ever said to me. ‘I’ll be all right, you don’t need to worry about me’.” He was shaking again, his whole body this time. I had seen my father shake like this, years ago. Not illness; grief. A quarter century of grief. Relief and horror washed over me in equal measure. “And I believed her. No,” he corrected himself immediately, “I didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe her. But I accepted it, because I didn’t know what else to do.” He shook his head again, and stopped, drawing deep, laboured breaths. “And I still don’t know what to do. But, Kathleen.” He looked at me heavily, twenty-five years younger and a hundred years older. “Kathleen. I can’t watch you like this and say I believe you when you say nothing’s wrong. I can’t do that again.”

He was staring at me, but I couldn’t meet his gaze. “Dad,” I said. My voice was thick; I cleared my throat. “Dad.” I forced myself to glance up. My mind flashed back to that day twenty-five years earlier: my father, sitting on a bed as strangers flitted around us, looking so much smaller, calling to me: Come here, Kathleen; come here and give me a hug. And me, obliging, even though more than anything else that had happened that day, it was this sudden reversal, my father calling on me for comfort, that had made me realize that my parents couldn’t fix everything for me.

I walked over to him now, wrapped my arms around him. He turned in his chair to face me, and pulled me close. “It’s not like that,” I managed finally. “It’s not. I promise.”

After a minute he released his grip, and I pulled myself back up as he remained seated. I needed to give him more. “Work has been stressful,” I said finally. “And – and, I was in a car accident last month. It – no one was hurt, but dealing with things has turned out to be more complicated and time-consuming than I thought it would be. But I’ve got things under control.” I stopped there. I couldn’t get into any more - the crimes involved, including my own complicity in some of them; multiple women and children, vanished without a trace; the veiled threat just a few minutes earlier. But put that way, it didn’t seem so bad.

“In Calgary?” The desperation had left my father’s voice. I saw his shoulders relax. I nodded. “And the person just calling, it was about that?”

“Yeah, part of that. Like I said, no one was hurt, but…” But what? “But the folks at the other end of things have been giving me a hard time.” A partial truth.

“How so?” He tilted his head toward me. Curiosity now, not worry.

“Insurance, paperwork, that sort of thing.”

A few seconds passed. I had brought my father back into the present; he had pushed me into the past. “Cookies for dinner,” I said suddenly.

My father jerked his head up. “What?”

“The last thing she ever said to me. ‘You can have cookies for dinner.’ In exchange for me…for me letting her rest.” I didn’t say anything else. So many years later, that was the part that I still couldn’t forgive.

I had been eating them, a stack of chocolate chip cookies on an orange plate, when my father had walked in. Two things were different: one, it was quiet – my mother’s records were always playing when she and I were home alone, but this one had reached the end and I wasn’t allowed to touch the record player on my own, even though I knew how to use it, so all I could hear was my chewing – and two, I was eating a big stack of chocolate chip cookies.

Mummy said I could, I told my father, before he could ask.

My father took off his shoes, set his coat over his arm. Did she now. Walking over to me, leaning down, looking deep into my eyes to see if I was lying.

Not quite four, I often made up stories, but my father could always tell which ones were true and which ones weren’t. My father knew everything. But You can have cookies for dinner sounded like something made-up, which was why it was so special. I was only ever allowed to have cookies after I finished my dinner, and then only two, never a whole stack. But now, sitting in a quiet house with my father standing in front of me, I was starting to wonder. Was it a trick? The whole thing hadn’t seemed right from the beginning. Now I didn’t know what to do.

Yes, really! I insisted. She said you were going to be late for supper again and she was going to take a nap and I said I was hungry, and she said if I was good and let her sleep I could have cookies. And if I didn’t tell you. I added this last part hastily, the whole story tumbling out of me like an avalanche. And suddenly I was scared, because I wasn’t supposed to tell my father about the cookies and now I had. But if I hadn’t told him, then he’d have thought I was lying. Was I in trouble?

My father smiled, and ruffled my hair. Okay then. He wandered to the back of the house, to the bedroom, and returned a few seconds later.

You said your mother was taking a nap.

Uh-huh. My mouth was still full of cookie. Should I stop eating them? My mother said I could, but my father didn’t seem to want me to.

She’s not in bed. Are you sure she didn’t go out?

I shook my head. No, she’s taking a nap in the bathtub. She said not to wake her up.

And then he was running, and then he was screaming, big wet choking noises, and I knew that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t agreed to have cookies for dinner.

I looked up at him now. “It won’t come to that,” I said. “I promise you, Dad, it won’t come to that.”

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