With a weary sigh, Kate shut and locked her outside door. Hefting the overnight bag over her shoulder, she made her way out to the curb, where a nervous looking M.T. stood, beside an equally unsure Penny.
Or maybe they just appeared tense to Kate, who was feeling a little, well, panicky herself.
“Tell me one more time,” Kate said, shoving her bag in the backseat of the car. “That I’m doing the right thing here.”
M.T.’s face gave nothing away. “Kate…”
“She’d go and see him anyway,” Penny intruded, leaning up against the trunk of Kate’s car. “You know Janessa. It’s much better that she’ll have you there.”
M.T. nodded. “That’s true.”
“But—shouldn’t her mother be involved in this?” Kate whined, all her second-thoughts springing hurriedly to the surface. It had been three days since Janessa had turned up at her door, asking her to go to Coventon, to help her track down her father. “Shouldn’t she be the one taking her…?”
And though Kate was honored—truly, honored—to have been the one asked to take the girl, she was worried, scared. There were so many pitfalls facing them. And she had a terrible feeling about the outcome of an impromptu, unannounced visit to the man who’d abandoned his daughter thirteen years ago….
“What if it turns out badly?”
Maggie smiled sadly, as if she too shared Kate’s thoughts on the matter. “Then she’ll have you to lean on.”
Penny nodded eagerly. “You’ll be there to help sweep her back in the car…”
“But we’re talking about Janessa here,” Kate cried, shoving her hands through her hair. “There’s an equally good chance that she’ll just run away from me—”
Maggie bit her lip. She wouldn’t say it out loud, but Kate could see it on her face: the pastor was worried.
“I doubt she’d do that,” Penny improvised drily. “After all, she’ll need you to take her back home.”
“But she may very well shut down,” Maggie countered, despite the glowering look Penny sent her. “Forewarned is forearmed, Kate. Brace yourself for that. Let her react the way she’s going to react.”
“Though it may sting at the time, she’ll need to know that you won’t turn away from her—no matter what she says or does,” M.T. finished. “What Janessa needs to know most of all is that you’ll still be there to love her. She hasn’t had a lot of that in her life.”
Kate felt her stomach pinch, restricting her breathing for a second. “You know, I really do love her,” she whispered. It was the first time she’d said it out loud.
Maggie reached out her hand, placing it comfortingly on Kate’s shoulder. “What you’re doing for her—she won’t forget it, even if she doesn’t yet know how to show her appreciation, just know that it means the world to her.”
“Yeah,” Penny murmured. “I was there when she got the news, you know. It was earth-shattering for her. The fact that she asked you, that she trusts you enough—don’t underestimate your value to her in all this.”
Kate opened her mouth to speak but whatever she was going to say was cut short by the sudden appearance of a shadow against the walkway. Turning her head, Kate quickly caught a glimpse of Janessa walking toward them from the street, her shoulders hunched in her typical pose, a ratted backpack riding low on her shoulders.
“Showtime,” Penny muttered. Stepping forward, she gave Kate a quick hug. “You’ll do great,” she whispered in her ear before stepping back.
Then it was Maggie’s turn for an embrace. “I’m so proud of you Kate.”
“Thanks guys,” Kate said, her voice quiet so it wouldn’t carry over to the surly teenager.
And then all three of the women shifted their attention, each smiling tremulously as they turned to watch Janessa beat a grudging trail up to Kate’s car.
“All set?” Penny asked when Janessa was close enough to hear.
Stopping dead at the sound, she looked up, a horrified expression playing out on her face. Her eyes took an accusing expression when they landed on Kate. “I thought it would just be us going?”
“It is,” Penny assured her. “Mags and I are only here to wish you both well.”
“God,” Janessa said, throwing open the back door of Kate’s car to chuck her bag inside. Slamming the door shut again, she rolled her eyes. “We’re only going to be gone for like two days—chill out.”
Penny’s mouth thinned, but before she could open her stiff lips in retort, Kate rushed forward, speaking over her.
“Did you talk to your mother?” she asked.
Janessa shrugged. “Yeah.”
“And?” Kate raised an eyebrow. “What did she say? Is she okay with this?”
Janessa shrugged. “She didn’t really care. Told me good luck tracking the bastard—” M.T.’s eyelids flinched at the vulgar term, “—down and, if I did happen to trip over his body, I should get back the money she’s owed.”
“Oh,” Janessa added darkly, as if she couldn’t resist poking at Kate. “And she laughed. A good, long laugh. Told me I was headed for heart-ache but if I was stupid enough to invite it upon myself, she felt it wasn’t worth the effort to change my mind.”
Kate swallowed. She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond to that.
“She also gave me some money for the motel we’re staying at,” Janessa admitted, dipping her fingers into her jean pockets to produce two crumpled-up fifty dollar bills. Thrusting them toward Kate, she said: “Mom insisted. Said it was more than fair, since you were the poor sucker being dragged to Coventon in the first place. She said there was no reason you should pay for it, too.”
Kate was oddly touched—she guessed. She’d still never really met Janessa’s mother. Except for that one time earlier this summer when Kate had driven Janessa home after the church’s talent show and Ms. Cooper had just been walking up the porch steps herself, clearly just getting in for the night… But other than a nondescript wave, she hadn’t seemed inclined for a chat. Jumping out of the car, Janessa had practically begged Kate not to get out of the vehicle too. “She probably stopped by the bar on her way home from work,” Janessa had stated tonelessly. “No point talking to her now.”
And that had been that.
Janessa’s mom (Cathy, Kate believed was her name) had never shown up to any of the church functions Kate more-or-less drug Janessa to. She had never been in attendance at any of the school activities, either. Janessa always walked wherever she was going…
Talking the money Janessa proffered now, Kate nodded awkwardly. Though she didn’t need or want it, she had a feeling Janessa’s pride was at stake here. “Tell her I said thank you.”
Janessa shrugged. “Whatever.”
“All right then,” Kate said, clearing her throat. She nodded toward her small sedan. “Should we hit the road?”
Janessa’s only response was to walk over to the passenger side, open the door, and quickly bend herself inside its plush interior. Then she slammed the door shut, her eyes staring straight ahead.
“I guess that’s a yes,” Kate muttered to herself, sparing M.T. and Penny one last wave before getting in herself.
Still standing on the sidewalk, Penny and M.T. watched Kate’s car slowly roll away from view. Turning toward one another, they shared a knowing look.
“Think she’ll be okay?”
“Janessa?” M.T. asked.
Penny hitched one shoulder. “Her too.”
M.T. stared out toward where the car had sat only minutes ago. “As long as they stick together.”
The car ride to Coventon passed in a relatively boring fashion. After a couple of failed start-up attempts at conversation—particularly about Janessa’s dad and what she remembered about him—Kate had finally given up.
Janessa wasn’t in a chatting mood.
Kate had a feeling all of the girl’s energy and concentration was being consumed by her ever-increasing anxiety—there was no room left for listening, engaging. Kate could hear it in the slightly labored breathing of the passenger sitting beside her, see it in the ramrod straight way she held her body, feel it in the hard, unblinking way she stared out the windshield mirror.
And it only got worse with each mile that Kate ate up.
Bit by bit, Janessa turned into a stone.
But the third hour of this silent road trip, Kate could feel a headache beating at the base of her neck. They were less than twenty minutes outside of Coventon. Her own nerves were starting to sing now. Other than the heavy metal music that Janessa preferred, she’d had nothing but time to think:
The private investigator, after Penny called him to enquire further about what he’d found out about Janessa’s dad, had been a wealth of information. Apparently, Paul Cooper worked in a paper plant, frequently pulling the third shift. Almost every morning, when he punched out for the day, he could be found at a little diner across the street (and every evening too, when he’d stop back in for supper before ambling over for his night shift. Very exciting stuff here.)
He lived alone, in a rundown apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood. He was a lousy drunk; the investigator had found empty bottles littered across the floorboard of his truck, and even more spewed out across his living room coffee table (when he’d snuck a look in through the man’s windows). His weekends were taken up at Joe’s Bar where, according to the locals, he drank himself almost to the point of being passed out.
Rinse and repeat.
As far as the PI knew, Paul Cooper didn’t have any other children. He wasn’t currently dating anyone. He didn’t appear to have any friends. Other than the rare weekend out at the racetrack, his paychecks went to rent, beer, food, and more beer.
The untold story of Paul Cooper.
Boring. Sad. Not exactly the makings for father of the year.
Remembering this, Kate’s resolve weakened. What were they doing? This was a mistake. She should just turn the car around now…
“How are we going to find him?” Janessa asked, her voice shocking Kate out of her musings. “When we get there, how are we going to find him?”
Kate took a deep, calming breath. She couldn’t turn back now. It was important to Janessa and even though there was a part of Kate that agreed with the girl’s mother—at least the part about how Janessa was walking into heartache—she had said she would do it, and she was going to make good on that promise. Janessa needed to do this, and Kate needed to be the one there in case it didn’t end well.
“Well,” Kate said slowly. “At this rate, I figure we’ll make it to Coventon at just about six o’clock, and according to the PI Penny hired, your dad can usually be found at a little diner nearby, having dinner then.”
She winced. They were going to surprise attack him. He had no idea they were coming. He had no idea his daughter was looking forward to seeing him—none of it. When the girl’s had discussed the best way to handle the situation, the PI (who had a sort of slimy appearance, but was nonetheless expert on the subject) and told them this was the best way.
“Otherwise you take the risk he’ll run.”
“That seems a bit dramatic, doesn’t it?”
“Not in my experience,” he assured them. “Either that or they tell you they’ll meet you but never show up. Believe me, this is how it’s done.”
So that’s how they were doing it.
These thoughts took Kate the rest of the way to Coventon. Sneaking a glance at Janessa when they passed the town’s Welcome sign, Kate saw that the girl’s eyes were wide, unseeing, her breath whooshing noisily out of her mouth.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Kate asked, as she nosed her way toward the diner’s address. She had it converted to memory by now. “It’s not too late to change your mind…?”
But Janessa only shook her head. “No. Let’s do it.”
Pulling up to the curb of the diner in question—it’s grimly, greasy exterior only matched by it’s recycled inside, the booths ripped and worn, faded, the cracked linoleum underfoot spotty with dirt and debris—Kate smiled encouragingly at Janessa before alighting from the car.
Walking slowly inside, she felt her heartbeat kick up, her forehead breaking out in sweat. Kate had been sent a picture of Paul Cooper, which made it all the easier to spot him as she and Janessa entered the dimly light café, her eyes quickly roaming over the miscellany of baseball caps, flannel shirts, and workmen’s boots.
He was sitting in the last booth off to the left, a cup of coffee resting in one beefy hand.
Now that they’d found him, Janessa didn’t seem to know what to do, how to approach him. Walking slowly toward the table, with each step Kate could actually see her nerve leaving her. They hadn’t exactly rehearsed this part. They probably should have. When she’d finally been forced to come to a stop, her body hovering over his table, eyes unable to rise much further than the floor, Janessa seemed to freeze.
Paul Cooper, sensing her shadow, glanced up, a question forming on his thick black eyebrows.
“I…erm—” Janessa’s breath came out in a squeaky blast of air, her body shifting from foot to foot as she stood there. “Um…”
Bloodshot eyes narrowed in her direction, a thin mouth pulling down at the interruption. “Yes?” He asked briskly.
“Ah…I, uh.” Janessa’s face flamed a deep red color.
Paul frowned. “You okay, kid?”
“Speak up. I can’t hear you.”
Janessa swallowed. Kate wasn’t sure what to do.
“Janessa,” she finally said, her voice pitched nervously.
“My name…” Janessa looked pleadingly at Kate. She nodded. “My name is Janessa Cooper.” The words were weak, watery, but still they had the desired effect.
She had the man’s attention now. With a rattle, he set his cup of coffee down on the table. “Janessa?” He asked softly, shaking his head. “Well, I’ll be….”
“Can we sit down, perhaps?” Kate asked, her voice intruding for the first time. Looking at Janessa’s shaking form, she was worried that if the teenager didn’t take a seat soon, she’d fall over.
“”Course,” Paul invited, but there was a certain reserve in the way he said it.
Sliding in after Janessa, Kate waited for someone to speak.
Janessa looked down at the orange tabletop; Paul seemed content to stay silent.
“Do you—do you know who I am?”
Paul grimaced. “You’re Cathy’s daughter.”
That made Janessa’s chin jut out. “I’m your daughter.”
Paul waved his hand through the air. “Sure. Sure, well…”
An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment.
“Your mom sick or something?”
Janessa eyes lifted. “What?”
Paul shrugged. “Is this about that child support? Do you need money?” He turned to Kate. “You her lawyer?”
Janessa’s eyes grew large in her pale face. “No.”
“Then what?” And, as unlikely as it would seem, Paul looked genuinely curious. “What are you doing here?”
Janessa seemed to shrink back against the vinyl upholstery “I just, I came to see you. That’s all.”
“Oh.” His face hardened ever so slightly.
“I wanted to,” Janessa’s voice shook. “I don’t know. Meet you, I guess.”
He sighed. “I see.”
“You know, mom used to tell me you were dead. It was only a few months ago that I learned the truth.”
Paul didn’t seem unduly upset by this information. “That was probably for the best.”
“To lie to me?” Janessa’s voice was ominous.
“Sometimes it’s better than the truth.”
Janessa would not cry. “I don’t understand.”
“I wasn’t nobody’s father. I’m still not,” Paul said, his words brutally cruel. “Listen, kid I left because it was the best thing for you and your mom. I wasn’t fit—”
“The best thing for me?” Janessa’s eyes flashed. “The best thing for me?”
Paul shrugged. “I couldn’t take care of myself, much less someone else. She probably thought telling you I was dead would keep you from doing exactly what you’ve gone and done….”
“What I’ve done?”
Paul made an offhand gesture. “Your mother—I knew the two of you would be just fine without me, better off actually….”
“Oh yeah, we’ve been just dandy,” Janessa returned, her face twisting over the words. “Mom’s had to work two jobs my entire life, just to pay the bills. And when she’s not doing that she’s down at whatever bar has the best special until she’s so drunk she forgets how much she resents me and everything I robbed her of…”
Paul had the grace to look ashamed. “I never meant—”
“And believe me I prefer it that way. A blacked-out mother is much better than the alternative. ‘God Janessa, I should have had an abortion, that’s what I should have done. I’d’ve spared us both this kind of life,’ or ‘Jesus Janessa, can’t you do anything right? I’ve given up everything for you: youth, beauty, money. Can’t you at least do better than C’s and B’s in school? I’ve sacrificed too much to be raising an idiot.’”
Kate could feel something unfurl itself in her chest at the words. The hateful, hurtful words. She’d known Janessa’s home-life wasn’t great but this—did her mother really say those things? Pushing back the emotions pulsing up her throat, Kate waited for Paul to speak.
But he didn’t. It was Janessa who broke the silence.
“Didn’t you ever wonder about us?” she asked plaintively. “Didn’t you ever wonder about me?”
“Well sure, of course I did,” Paul lied.
“Then why didn’t you ever call? Why didn’t you ever come back?”
“I told you, I wasn’t the fatherly type.”
“Listen, Janessa…” Paul took a deep breath. “I’m sorry if I’m not measuring up your ideal—I know I’m not the father you were hoping to find here today. I’m not even sure how you did find me,” he added, half under his breath. “But that’s exactly why I took off. I was never going to be good for you. So I left and I never looked back. Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?”
Deftly, he threw money down on the table, signaling his intent to leave. Reaching for his jacket, he scooted out of the booth, but not before adding: “I’m sorry, kid. Really sorry. But you should forget about me. It’s for the best, I promise.”
And with that he gained his feet, turned and walked away. Without a backward glance.
For a minute no one spoke. Kate hardly dared to breathe. Then, finally her eyes slithered bravely to the side, her gaze zeroing in on Janessa’s face: the pale, dusky color of her cheekbones, the unmistakable glaze of wet tears shining in those big blue eyes, the tense, hard way she was breathing in and out. Janessa’s lips were pulled down, a mutinous line drawn against a hard countenance. Her body seemed to be made of glass and even the tiniest movement and she’d shatter all over the floor.
She’d just been rejected by her father. Again.
Kate’s heart rocketed against her chest. Her fingers practically itched to reach out for the girl….
“Janessa?” Kate asked quietly. The girl’s eyes slowly rotated to take in her face. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” And then, before she could help herself, Kate felt her arms rising, curving to either side of Janessa’s shoulders…
“Don’t touch me!” Janessa’s body jerked, convulsed.
At the sharp command, Kate’s arms dropped back down to her sides.
“I don’t need your pity Kate,” Janessa snarled. “That’s the absolutely last thing I need from you,” she insisted.
Kate breathed slowly. “Okay.” Placing her palms flat on the seat, she was just on the point of sliding out of the booth—to give Janessa her space or to take herself to the bathroom for composure, Kate wasn’t sure—when she heard it. The muffled, low sound of a sob breaking out against Janessa’s tightly closed mouth.
Head whipping around, Kate had just enough time to take in the crumbled expression on the girl’s face before Janessa suddenly threw herself at Kate, her scrawny arms snaking around Kate’s neck to hold on tight, her face pressed hotly against her shoulder.
With something akin to disbelief, Kate felt her own arms wrap themselves around Janessa’s back, her mouth making soothing noises as her arms rubbed comforting circles there. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so, sorry.”
“No one wants me,” Janessa cried. “No one ever wants me.”
“That’s not true,” Kate returned. “I want you.”
Janessa buried her head against Kate’s collarbone. “For now, maybe.”
Kate tightened her hold. “Always Janessa.” She rested her chin over the young girl’s head. “Forever.”
“I love you, Kate.”
She took a deep, steadying breath. “I love you, too.”