An excerpt from Redemption Song
There he was. Right on time. Walking down the street with that pretty little girl, wearing her lime-green dress and those bright red sneakers. It was impossible to miss those happy colors. And what was he wearing? Jeans and a faded blue T-shirt—all laid back and punchy as though he hadn’t a care in the world. When was the last time Caía had worn anything but black?
How was this possible? The girl was clinging to him, trusting him to keep her safe. But how could anyone trust that man? What about him was remotely trustworthy?
Like a Nazi, he was hiding here in this sunny little village in southern Spain. But, then again, wasn’t this appropriate? He, the escaped villain; Caía, the harbinger of justice . . . although what justice should entail, Caía didn’t yet know.
She focused her attention on the varicolored pair, attempting to ignore the swarming pigeons. Some were perched upon the crenellations of an ancient, ruined fortress next to the coffee shop. Some hopped about, pilfering droppings from customers at Rincon Escondido—a small sidewalk café nestled along the path Caía knew he would take. Over the past few weeks, she’d studied his schedule, knew exactly where he would go and at what time.
Oblivious to the potential nuclear fallout of Caía’s wrath, old men dressed in black defied modernity, with bolero hats tipped slightly forward, shielding wrinkled old eyes from a ruthless afternoon sun. All the while sucking on unfiltered cigarettes, they baked themselves from the inside and out, putting out lung fires with baby cervezas.
Seated near the pigeon-infested fountain, a busker strummed his guitar beneath the shade of an orange tree. He stopped now and again to pluck up a cigarette he’d left burning at the edge of the fountain and slip the butt between his lips, sucking hard, before putting it down again to return to his guitar. He looked pleased with himself as he exhaled, putting nearly as much attention into his smoke work as he did his music.
All the while, black-clad servers with moist brows bustled to and fro, sliding cafélitos and small plates onto nearby tables. But, hey, at least no one was ogling their phones.
Distracted, or more like pretending at distraction, Caía tore a fleshy bite from the bollo in her bread basket. Crumbling it between her fingertips, she scattered the spongy bits alongside her table, watching in her peripheral as a fat, greedy pigeon rushed forward for a feast. But she never took her eyes off the man walking down the street.
Who was the girl?
Smiling, the child skipped along beside him, and seeing them together made Caía’s face burn hotter than the glowing tip of the busker’s cigarette.
Fury welled up inside her, so utterly potent in its incarnation that she had to suck in a breath. Tears pricked at her eyes. Anger stemmed the flow.
He shouldn’t get to walk any child across any street, most certainly not that child. He shouldn’t get to hold her little hand—or be the recipient of her sweet, innocent glances upward.
God help her, the sight of that child’s innocent smile threatened to empty Caía’s heart of all its animosity . . . except . . . she couldn’t let it go.
No. She wouldn’t.
Jack would never again get to look at anyone that way.
Jack. Jack. Jack. Jack.
She repeated the name like a litany in her head, as though she were in danger of forgetting it altogether. Right here and now, she longed to shout out his name—test the sound upon her lips. Jack! she wanted to scream. Would he turn around? And did he remember her son’s name?
My sweet, sweet Jack, Caía lamented silently.
How long had it been since she’d spoken his name out loud? Too, too long. And maybe she never would again. That possibility burned like acid in her gut. Because now who was left to hear what she had to say about Jack? Two short years, and people already turned away whenever she brought him up, casting sidelong glances at her that said, “Caía, oh, Caía, aren’t you over him yet?”
I am not.
I will never be over you, Jack.
But maybe that’s not what they were thinking at all. Maybe it was really their own discomfort over not being able to change the inalterable truth: Everyone dies. Even babies with their whole lives left to be lived. Even that little girl. Even Jack.
Or perhaps it was more like this: With kids of their own—especially ones who were struggling to maintain a grip on innocence—maybe it was a bit like peeping into Snow White’s mirror? “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” she could hear them all say. “Who’s the saddest, most pathetic parent of all?”
“Why it’s still Caía Paine,” the mirror would reply. “But beware . . .”
At this point, both of Caía’s parents were gone. Gone—a euphemism for dead. But dead was dead. And yet, there must be a bright side to being six feet under. Neither of her parents would ever get to witness a world without Jack. Bleak, empty—so at odds with the bright blue day, with all the twittering birds. And all that laughter.
The lady at the table behind Caía giggled, and the easy chatter that followed gave her a stab of envy—an ugly sensation that cast shadows over the powder-blue day. Like a dirty chimney, the smoldering exhaust of her anger obscured the sun, spreading despair and lowering clouds until they pressed firmly against the pate of her head. Speaking too softly for Caía to hear actual words, their tone nevertheless said it all. They were lovers, flirtatious and familiar. Another stab of envy—and anger—accosted her. She was a great big ball of fury—a hot mass, burning like the sun.
No, her anger was more like a tsunami, threatening to devastate everything within its path. Gathering far at sea, it nevertheless gained momentum, like a cyclone, powering toward an indeterminate shore. When and where—and how—it would descend, Caía had no way of knowing. All she knew right now was that every day that passed without relief only made the impending disaster more terrifying. Because there he was. That man. Walking that sweet kid across a busy street, without a care in the world. So damned full of himself that he was oblivious to everyone around him. Certainly, he had never noticed Caía—not once.
She watched as he led the child across the street. Cars crawled past on the narrow road, so slow she imagined their tires melting into the gaps between hot cobblestones.
It could happen now, as the girl lifted her red sneaker onto the curb and the heinous thought made Caía’s heart hurt.
Symbolically, she picked up the newspaper she’d been reading and rolled it up, twisting it at its center. This was her soul now. Wrung dry. Every time she watched that man walk that child across the road . . . a little more of her humanity was squeezed away. Because in her mind, she heard the screams of passersby—or maybe they could be her own? She imagined again that terrible thud, the sound of metal crunching bones. She could hear it plainly, and saw it as clearly as though she had been there . . .
But you weren’t there, were you, Caía?
In fact, no, she wasn’t around to see the sun winking against a silver bumper stained with blood. Jack’s blood. Her sweet little boy.
Jack. Jack. Jack. Jack.
Pinching the bread cruelly, Caía hurled more bits onto the sidewalk, keeping her eyes fixed upon the man and the child.
The girl turned another adoring smile up at him, laughing over something he said, and she suddenly jerked her hands free, clapping them together, and Caía’s heart leapt into her throat. But that man—yes, she knew his name—seized her hand back.
So, now you pay attention.
Now it matters to you that cars are screaming past.
Except, no they weren’t. Not here.
More screams battered Caía’s brain, but these were screams of anguish. And yes, they were her own. An image blinked out from the depths of her consciousness, a ferocious but frightened blood-spattered face, with pale blue eyes peering out from the veiny cracks in a bathroom mirror.
Violently thrusting the memory aside, Caía sat back, watching the pair escape, all the while voices shrieked in her head. Oh, my God, Caía! What have you done? Don’t move.
And then, in the background, she’d overheard her husband’s frantic conversation with 911, distorted by a Xanax-induced high. Hurry! It’s my wife. She’s . . . bleeding.
Caía swallowed. Maybe it had been right for Gregg to put her away, but she hated him for it nonetheless. The truth was that Caía didn’t quite trust herself, even now. Certainly, she didn’t want to see that little girl get hurt, but she did want him to suffer—as Caía had suffered. She wanted him to cry and scream and moan, and beat his head against a wall, railing all the while about the injustice of it all. “Life isn’t fair!” she wanted him to scream.
No, it wasn’t. By God, it wasn’t.
And, yes, okay, so maybe she did want him to have to go identify that child’s body. She wanted him to cry himself to sleep every night. Every. Night. She wanted him to refuse to eat and lose twenty pounds, so all his friends would worry about his health.
She wanted him to sicken his partner with overwhelming and endless grief, and then she wanted everyone to abandon him for what he couldn’t forget.
But how could anyone expect Caía to forget? Really, how did one carry a baby in her belly for nine whole months, watch him grow, year after year—thirteen to be exact—and then just . . . forget? How do you do that? How did you change diapers, buy little shoes, pinch toes . . .?
“How do they feel, Jack?” she remembered asking him when Jack was three. The memory was as clear as the Mirrenish nose upon Caía’s face.
“Good,” he’d said, clapping his little hands.
Of course, it was “good.” As it always had been for Caía, everything was always good for Jack. He was a bright, carefree child.
“Hmmm,” she’d said, examining those brand-new sixty-dollar sneakers. They were fire-engine red. “I don’t think there’s enough room, Jack.”
He would outgrow them in but a few short months, at most. Even at half off, they were still expensive. As much as they had loved her, her thrifty old-world parents would never have splurged for pricy brand-name shoes for a three-year-old, especially since he was bound to outgrow them so soon. Caía might have considered herself a bit more spendy, but she still had an awful lot of her parents’ frugality. When she and Gregg went looking for houses in Chicago, Caía had been drawn to the more modest homes in Roscoe Village, fixer-uppers that needed TLC. It was Gregg who’d insisted their neighbors all be white.
“I wike dese, Mommee!” Jack’s excitement was evident in his rosy little cheeks.
Caía had pursed her lips then, trying not to grin, wholly resigned to buy her son the sneakers, whatever the cost. But she peered up at the saleswoman and asked, “Do you have these in a seven, please?”
The woman shook her head. “No, sorry. That’s all there is . . . what you see here on the rack . . .”
Beside her, Jack did a little dance of joy, if you could call it dancing. He looked like a toddler jogging after a tangle with tequila. Once again, he said, “I wike dese, Mommee!” Fist closed, all his heart in the declaration.
Of course, any resistance Caía might have contemplated crumbled on the spot. “Okay,” she’d said, relenting. And she’d smiled up at the saleswoman, and said, “We’ll take them.”
“How could anyone say no to that sweet little face?” the woman replied. “He’s so adorable, I could just eat him up.”
Apparently, wanting to eat up children and puppies, and anything else too cute to bear, was a thing—a scientific thing. Caía read somewhere that a researcher at Yale had discovered—by what means she had no idea—that these dimorphic expressions were a helpful tool for parents in helping them constrain out-of-control emotions.
Unfortunately, nothing could help Caía control the fury she was feeling now. And only now did she realize that she should have learned to say no. Gregg should have said no. Nobody had ever said no.
The lime-green dress was scarcely visible now amidst a sea of earth tones. No longer bound by business suits, Nick Kelly had traded his Chicago streets for cobbled lanes and modestly dressed men and women, strolling to and from a mercado, instead of the Mercantile Exchange. Straining to see through the gray, Caía lost the pair when a tall, willowy Spanish woman swept into view, wearing a swingy red Gitana skirt that effectively obscured the last trace of green.
Caía sat back, frowning. So, that was that. Her job was done for the day, her raison d’être complete until 8:45 a.m. the following day, when she would once again make her way to the plaza beside Colegio la Sala Santiago. And there, she would wait until he arrived to walk the girl into her class, and then she would wait, again, here at this café to watch them pass in the afternoon.
For more than three weeks this had been Caía’s schedule—simply observing, mind you. This was all she was doing. In fact, she liked to think of herself as a private investigator, despite no one paying her to do the job. She was good enough to be one, because, after all, she had located Nick Kelly here against all odds. He’d left no forwarding address, no client number, nothing.
“I’m sorry, miss,” the receptionist had said when Caía worked up the nerve to call his office. “What did you say your name was?”
“Beth Smith,” Caía lied, because there must be a million Beth Smiths living in or around the Chicago area. At least one of them must have been Nick Kelly’s client.
“I’m sorry, Nick Kelly is no longer with us. But I can transfer you to Sam Starr, if you’d like. He’s taking Mr. Kelly’s clients.”
Sam Starr? What kind of a name was Sam Starr?
Sometimes, it seemed to Caía as though names might be labels—as though God—or one of his administrators, filed people into categories. Starr, yep. He’ll be successful. Give him everything he wants. Paine. Nope. Poor thing. Go ahead, kill her son.
“Uh, no, thank you,” Caía had said politely, and hung up the phone.
Undeterred, she’d sent Nick Kelly an email that bounced back with a message to please direct all future correspondence to email@example.com. And then she’d sent an actual letter—the kind that couldn’t be marked as spam—on the off-chance someone might know where to deliver it. For all intents and purposes, Nick Kelly had vanished so swiftly that by the time Caía was released from the hospital, there was no sign of him, except for the For Sale sign in his front yard. Well, she took that number down, and called. And called. And called. Disguising her voice every time, she’d called until she’d gathered enough information to deduce where he’d gone. Lying was so easy, once you realized it’s what you had to do. So, here she was . . . across an ocean, and she still hadn’t quite figured out what to do . . .
Where do we go from here, Jack?
A junky silence was her answer. Cars buzzed past. Bicycle bells rang. Women chattered. The busker played on. But the one thing Caía needed to hear—her son’s voice, even if it was only in her head—was missing, leaving her with a deafening silence.
Please, Jack . . .
Caía blinked her tears away, focusing on her mission. The girl might be Nick Kelly’s daughter, but she looked nothing like him. Besides, Caía had no reason to believe he had ever had a wife or child. Somehow, despite everything, he didn’t seem the sort of guy who acquired one without the other, mostly because he didn’t seem the type to leave anything to chance. He would carry a rubber with him, always. He would make sure his girlfriend stayed on the pill. And he might even ask before sex, every single time, “Honey, did you take your pill?”
So, of course, he would be selfish and self-concerned. Children wouldn’t fit into his “plan.” He would have a neat, clean house, with servants to polish his hardwood floors. Brazilian hardwood, no doubt, because he wouldn’t care about the environment, or the legalities of obtaining it. And then he would keep his cell phone right up his ass so he never missed a call.
But . . . if all this were true, who was that child?
Sweat trickled between Caía’s breasts, and a cold, damp film materialized above her upper lip. It was blistering hot today—too hot to think.
“¿Algo más?” the waiter asked.
Caía turned her gaze up to meet the waiter’s dark eyes, plucking her blouse away from her damp flesh. “Gracias, no,” she said, and laid a guilty hand over the rolled-up newspaper she had twisted in anger.
The waiter smiled, indicating the bowl in front of her. It was still full of gazpacho and probably tasted wonderful, but Caía had barely touched it. “Delicioso,” she lied, and added, “So good I will be back again tomorrow.”
The waiter furrowed his brow.
That’s right, she would come again mañana. And every day thereafter. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she was compelled to do something. For Jack’s sake. For the time being, this was it. This was her cowardly, screwed-up way of dealing with her son’s death.
Caía pushed the bowl away, and the waiter took it, setting it alongside the table to brush the crumbs from Caía’s tabletop into her wasted soup. Pigeons waddled about his feet,and he glanced up through dark lashes to meet Caía’s gaze, as though to scold her for the congregation. There were at least six pigeons now, waiting for more crumbs. “Son como ratas,” the waiter groused, locking eyes with Caía as he finished wiping her table.
Caía nodded, realizing only belatedly that she had lured them into the café from the fountain. Son como ratas, he’d said. They’re like rats.
Gathering up her purse and her newspaper, Caía ducked inside to pay her tab, and then she made her way over to the fountain.
The stone fount was empty. There were droppings all over it. One lone bird shat as Caía watched and scooted over to unveil its dubious artwork. The busker smiled up at Caía, winking as he snatched his cigarette, and Caía turned away, annoyed by the puffs of smoke that wafted up into her face.
She’d read in the paper that they were installing bird feeders with Nicarbazin, a form of birdie birth control to control the population. City council members had originally advocated rounding up the birds and shooting them—a far more immediate answer to their problem.
She imagined Nick Kelly at the end of a shotgun barrel, and the image made her neck tight. Now, he was a rat. And what do you do with rats? You exterminate them.