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The Perfect Space

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The house doesn’t look like anything special. There’s a patch of bright green mold creeping up the siding, torn screens on the windows, and a clump of shapeless nandina bushes growing along the front porch. The lawn is trampled and half dead, littered with toy trucks and Nerf guns and bicycles lying on their sides.

Eliot gets out of the SUV he rented at the airport and stands on the sidewalk. It’s only May but already hotter than hell. Heat so intense you can see ripples in the air above the baking asphalt. Humidity so thick you can’t even strike a match outside.

This isn’t the house he grew up in; he’s never lived here, not for more than a few days at a time. But it feels like home, like a place from his past, in all the little ways that cut like shards of broken glass under his feet. Which is maybe why he keeps coming back here: to remind himself of the person he used to be. All roads lead back to the beginning, in the end.

He knows he should have called first. Coming here was a spur-of-the-moment decision and he didn’t wanted to talk about it or ask permission beforehand. Only now he’s here and she’s going to be pissed that he hasn’t given her any notice. There’s no help for that.

He makes his way up the cracked concrete walk (step on a crack, break your mother’s back) and knocks on the front door. He can hear the TV inside and the sound of a child’s voice yelling. After a long couple of minutes the door is jerked open by a woman in a faded blue tank top and cut-off jeans shorts.

Eliot lets out the breath he’s been holding and tries to look relaxed. “Hey, Cady,” he says.

His sister stares at him for a long moment, her expression unreadable. “Son of a bitch,” she says slowly, shaking her head. “Thanks for the warning, asshole.”

He can’t help smiling. Her hostility is so familiar it’s actually comforting. “Thought you’d be glad to see me.”

“You know I am.” She steps forward and hugs him, fast and hard, letting go almost before he’s had a chance to hug her back. She steps back swiftly, putting distance between them again. “Hey, kids,” she yells over her shoulder. “Come and see who’s at the door.”

There’s a thunder of footsteps and then two little girls, aged eight and six, appear in the entryway. Their legs are pock-mocked with mosquito bites and their shirts are smeared with jam but Eliot still swears they’re the two prettiest girls to ever draw breath.

“Uncle Eliot!” they shout in unison and bound towards him. He kneels down, opens his arms, and sweeps them both up in a big bear hug. They smell like strawberries and Skin-So-Soft and they giggle and squirm in his arms as he squeezes them tighter, standing up and spinning them around until their delighted squeals make his ears hurt.

A four-year-old boy has silently followed the two girls and stands in the doorway, regarding Eliot with a serious expression. Eliot sets his nieces down and looks at the boy, his own expression equally serious. “Hey, little man.”

The boy frowns at him and moves behind his mother’s legs.

“He doesn’t remember you,” Cady says. “It’s been over a year.”

Fourteen months, to be exact. Way too long, and yet not long enough, in a lot of ways.

* * *

His sister knows him better than anyone else still living, which is part of the reason they’re not exactly close. There’s too many things they can’t talk about. Too many memories neither of them wants to revisit. Subjects that are too painful to broach. Shared history can be a bond, but it can also be gulf that grows between you.

* * *

It only takes his nephew a few minutes to warm up to him again. By the time they all migrate to the kitchen table Colton is insisting on sitting in his uncle’s lap. The coin trick Eliot learned from Nate probably has something to do with it. The girls are playing with the silver dollars he gave them, obsessed with trying to figure the trick out for themselves. Colton doesn’t have the attention span for that, so he’s smearing strawberry jam on graham crackers, dropping gobs of sticky fruit onto the vinyl tablecloth. He offers a dripping cracker to Eliot, who politely declines. Cady swipes a sponge across the tabletop to catch the mess as she sets a beer in front of him.

Cady’s husband Mike is on the road all this week, it turns out, which is just as well, because he and Eliot have never really gotten on.

If pushed, Eliot would be forced to admit that Mike’s not so bad, really. It’s just that Eliot doesn’t believe this skinny dude, whose hairline was already receding before he was old enough to buy beer, is good enough for his sister. A guy whose favorite restaurant is Applebee’s, who tells long, convoluted jokes with complicated set-ups that never turn out to be funny. A guy who’s away from home all the time working and still barely manages to makes ends meet.

Mike’s not exactly Eliot’s biggest fan, either. He’s defensive around his brother-in-law, like he’s always got something to prove. Which is probably Eliot’s fault. But it’s not like he can help that he’s bigger and stronger and better looking than Mike. He can’t help that he’s smarter and has more money and knows 22 ways to kill a man with his bare hands.

The thing that bugs Eliot the most, though, is that he knows exactly why Cady chose Mike and why she stays with him—or at least he thinks he knows. It’s because Mike is gentle. He’s the kind of guy who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly, who traps spiders in coffee mugs and releases them outside. Mike’s not a man who would ever raise his voice or his hand to anyone.

He’s nothing like their father. He’s nothing like Eliot.

And while Eliot’s glad as hell his sister’s with a man who’ll never hurt her, he can’t help but feel like that shouldn’t be enough for her. Cady deserves better than a man whose main selling point is that he’s not Dad. She deserves a better life than the one she’s got.

Once upon a time, his sister was someone who wrote poetry. She was one of those kids who taught herself to read at the age of three and always had a book in her hand after that. She underlined every word she ever looked up in her dogeared old dictionary and if you looked inside you’d find every page was covered with her neat blue ballpoint pen marks. She’d sit in her room for hours every night writing stories about heroes and heroines and true love and adventures. Adventures she never got to have for herself because she went to cosmetology school instead of college and married a truck driver at 22 and had three kids before she was 30.

“I got it!” Shelby, the younger girl, declares. “Watch this.” She pretends to palm the coin, but since she doesn’t know how she drops it very obviously into her lap. “Ta da!” she says, flourishing her hands.

“That ain’t how you do it,” her older sister Carly says.

“Don’t say ain’t,” Cady corrects her. She’s over at the sink, doing dishes. Just like Mom, she never seems to sit down for more than a minute or two at a time.

“Don’t say ain’t,” Shelby mimics in a singsong voice. “Don’t say ain’t, your mother will faint, your father will fall in a bucket of paint. Your sister will cry, your brother will die, and Eliot will bake an apple pie.”

Both girls dissolve into a fit of giggles. Colton joins in, even though he doesn’t really know what they’re laughing about, and their joy is so infectious Eliot can’t help laughing, too. Cady watches them from the sink, smiling and shaking her head.

* * *

This isn’t the house he grew up in, but it feels like home, or the closest thing he’s got to it. When he’s here he can pretend he’s the man these kids see when they look at him. Someone who loves. Someone worthy of being loved. He can forget for a while that he is a man who hurts people, that hurting people is what he’s about. What he’s made of himself. What’s been made of him.

* * *

Two hours later Eliot is lying on his back with his head stuck under the kitchen sink, trying to fix the disposal. He tries to help out around the house as much as he can whenever he’s here because it’s pretty much the only thing Cady will let him do for her. She refuses to take money from him, even when he knows she needs it. He has to be careful buying gifts for the kids, because if he sends them anything too expensive she’ll send it back with a terse note. She refuses to let Eliot buy their love. She says he has to earn it the hard way like everyone else.

Cady’s giving Colton a post-jam bath and the two girls are sitting on the floor beside Eliot with the toolbox, ready to hand him whatever he needs. He reaches into the trap and pulls out a wad of old spaghetti. “Think I found our problem,” he says, grimacing.

“What is it?” asks Carly, leaning forward in rapt attention.

“Corporal, we’re gonna need a bucket down here,” Eliot says.

“Yes, sir!” Shelby replies sharply, and scrambles to her feet.

“Sergeant, give me the longest screwdriver you’ve got.”

“Sir!” Carly slaps the screwdriver into his outstretched hand.

Shelby returns with the requested bucket and Eliot scoops the spaghetti out of the clogged trap.

“Ew, gross!” Carly says, peering into the bucket.

“What is that stuff?” Shelby asks.

“Lizard guts!” Carly declares.

“No, monkey brains!” Shelby says, giggling.

“What is going on in here?” Cady asks, coming into the kitchen with a freshly cleaned and de-jammed Colton on her hip.

“Uncle Eliot found a nest of dead snakes in the pipes under the sink!” Carly announces.

“So,” Cady says as Eliot dumps the bucket of old spaghetti into the trash. “Who wants to go out for dinner?”

“Me me me me!” the kids all shout in unison, jumping up and down and waving their arms in the air.

“As long as it’s not Italian,” Eliot says, making a face.

* * *

When he was nine his father threw a plate of spaghetti at his head. When he was eleven it was a telephone. When he was thirteen, a lamp. His dad was a drunk and a bully, but he wasn’t a bully because he was a drunk. The old man was a mean sonofabitch even when he was sober.

* * *

Eliot is an extremely indulgent uncle. After they get back from dinner he lets the girls paint his fingernails and braid his hair while he sits on the living room floor watching “Yo Gabba Gabba!” with Colton.

When his phone buzzes he glances at it and frowns at the name on the Caller ID. He really doesn’t feel like answering it, but Nate told him to stay available. He’s still part of a team, he doesn’t have the luxury of just disappearing.

“Hang on a minute, sweetie,” he tells his manicurist, Shelby. “Yeah?” he says gruffly into the phone, mindful of the fresh polish on his nails.

“Yo, man,” Hardison says cheerfully.

“Is something wrong?” Eliot asks, because that’s always a possibility in their line of work, and just because he’s learned to live with the gnawing sense of dread doesn’t mean it ever really goes away.

“Naw,” Hardison says quickly. “Everything’s cool.”

“Then what’s up?”

“Nothing, man, it’s just … look, you kinda disappeared as soon as we got back from San Lorenzo and ... well, I just wanted to make sure everything was okay and all.”

“Everything’s fine,” Eliot says, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. He knows Hardison means well, it’s just that Eliot’s still not used to having people checking up on him and reading into his intentions all the time. “I just decided to get away for a few days between jobs, is all. I’m entitled to a vacation every once in a while, ain’t I?”

“Don’t say ain’t,” Carly whispers at him. Eliot smiles at her and puts his finger to his lips.

“Yeah, sure, man, course you are. Gotta recharge the batteries, right? Where’d you go anyway?”

“Like you’re not tracking the GPS on my phone.”

“Naw, man, that’s—that’d be uncool. I wouldn’t, you know, unless ... well, unless there was a reason I needed to. I know none of your passports got dinged, though, so unless you got one I don’t know about you’re still in the States. So what’s the Eliot Spencer version of a vacation getaway? Hey, did you go to one of those fancy spa retreats Sophie was talking about where you take mud baths and do yoga and shit?”

“Yeah, Hardison, I’m at a spa,” Eliot says, winking at Shelby, who’s waiting patiently for him to get off the phone.

“Yeah, maybe not. Probably more like some secluded beach somewhere, sipping a mojito while some hottie in a bikini rubs suntan lotion on your back. Am I right?”

“Something like that.”

“Mmmm mmm,” Hardison says enviously. “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Must be nice.”

“I’ll tell you what, man, it doesn’t suck,” Eliot says, watching Colton dance his ass off along with the weird monster-looking dudes on the TV.

“What’s that music I hear in the background? You at a club or something?”

“Listen, man, I gotta go,” Eliot says quickly. “I’ll see you when I get back, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, man, that’s cool. Enjoy your vacation,” Hardison says before hanging up.

“Other hand, please,” Shelby says, nail polish at the ready.

“Yes, ma’am,” Eliot replies obediently.

* * *

As he got older his dad rode him progressively harder. The better he was at anything, the more the old man tried to tear him down and convince him that he was good-for-nothing. The stronger he got, the more his father tried to pick fights with him and push him around, determined to prove he was still the biggest man in the house. Eliot was raised to respect his elders and turn the other cheek, though, so that’s what he did, even when the abuse was raining down on him like a poison that seeped into his bones and made him feel weak and worthless.

* * *

While Cady’s settling the kids down for bed Eliot goes out to the back patio and settles into one of the plastic lawn chairs. It’s hot and breathless outside, but thanks to the haze of industrial hydrocarbons hanging over the city the sunset is magnificent. The air is full of the hum of air conditioners and the buzzing of cicadas. A Robert Earl Keen song drifts over from one of the neighboring yards, along with the smell of charcoal smoke.

Eliot can remember summer evenings when twilight seemed to last forever, when he and Cady would go out to the back stoop (usually to get away from the sound of their parents’ fighting) and stare up at the sky. They’d sit side by side, their knees touching, their feet dirty and bare, and wait for the first star to come out, arguing over who’d seen it first and who got to make the first wish. It feels like a lifetime ago, when they still believed in things like wishes.

The patio door slides open behind him and Cady comes out to join him, flipping on the outside light. She puts a cold beer in his hand and settles into the chair beside him with a weary sigh. They sit in silence for a while, side by side, and the three feet of space between them feels more like a mile. There are no stars peeking through the polluted sky overhead, but even if there were, Eliot knows neither of them would bother making a wish anymore.

After a while he catches her looking at him. “What?” he says defensively.

“Nice nail polish,” she says, smiling the way she always used to do whenever she found something to tease him about.

“Brings out the color in my eyes, don’t you think?” He fans his fingers out near his face.

She tilts her head, appraising him. “Your hair’s too long. You look like a goddamn hippie with those braids.”

He brushes his hair back from his face. “Why do you think I’m here? I need my free haircut.”

“Cheapskate,” she says, even they both know how far it is from the truth.

Hardison asked him once why he wears his hair so long. Eliot refused to answer, of course, but he knows most people assume it’s a vanity thing. The truth is, he’s got a well-earned aversion to strangers standing behind him with sharp implements, thanks to a particularly unpleasant experience in a Chicago barber shop. Cady’s the only person he trusts enough to cut his hair, so it only gets cut when goes to visit her. Which means it doesn’t get cut very often.

She gets up and goes into the house, coming back out again with a towel and a comb and a pair of barber’s shears.

“Not too short,” he says as she carefully unwinds the braids her daughter has left in his hair. “Just like last time.” Okay, so maybe at this point he’s gotten used to having long hair. Maybe it is kind of a vanity thing after all.

The neighbor’s radio is playing Johnny Cash now and he closes his eyes and breathes in the scent of fresh mown grass while Cady goes to work on his hair. It’s the closest he’s come to relaxing since Nate first mentioned Damien Moreau’s name. All the dread and apprehension that Eliot carried around for all those months is finally gone, but it’s been replaced by something darker and deeper: shame.

“Something’s different since the last time you were here,” Cady says, like she’s reading his mind. She doesn’t phrase it as a question because she doesn’t ask him questions about his life. It’s part of their unspoken bargain.

“What do you mean?”

She runs the comb through his hair, gently teasing out a tangle. “You seemed—I don’t know—happier, I guess, the last few times you were here.”

“I’m doing fine,” he says. “Really.”

“Okay.” She has to know it’s a lie, but he knows she won’t call him on it.

Whatever Cady thinks about his chosen profession, she’s always kept it to herself. She doesn’t know exactly what he does, but she knows enough to know she doesn’t want to know too much. When he shows up at her door with a haunted look in his eyes, fresh scars and bruises marking his skin, she pretends she doesn’t notice, just like she pretends it’s not strange that she doesn’t know where he lives or that the only way she has to get in touch with him is a cell phone number that always goes straight to voicemail.

He used to tell her all the secrecy was for her protection, that the less she knew about him the safer she was. But it was also for his protection, because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to look her in the eye anymore if she knew all the things he’d done, all the bodies laid at his door. He was afraid she wouldn’t want him around anymore, wouldn’t want him around her kids.

And even though she doesn’t have his reasons for keeping secrets, it’s not like Cady’s that much more open than he is. She’s never liked talking about herself, not to him, anyway. He doesn’t even know if she’s happy. If there was ever anything seriously wrong he’s not sure she’d tell him about it and he doesn’t know if that’s his fault or hers.

“I’m living in Boston now,” he says out of the blue. It’s the most he’s volunteered about his life in years and he’s not even sure why he said it, except maybe he’s trying to prove he really is doing okay.

Her hands still for a moment. “I hear it’s nice there,” she says neutrally.

He shrugs. “It’s not too bad. Cold as hell in the winter, though.”

“You have friends there?” she asks. They don’t have conversations like this; it’s new territory for both of them.

“Yeah,” he says, thinking about Hardison calling to check on him. “I do.”

“How about a girlfriend?”

“I do all right,” he says, smirking.

She snorts in amusement. “Still leaving a trail of broken hearts in your wake, I’ll bet, just like high school.”

“That was you,” he says. “You were the pretty one, I was the smart one.”

“Screw you,” she says, helping herself to a sip of his beer. “I was the smart one.”

* * *

Growing up, his sister didn’t feel the full force of their dad’s temper the way Eliot did. Not that the old man didn’t make her cry plenty of times, but he never raised a hand to her.

It took Eliot years to figure out that it wasn’t his fault his father hated him, it wasn’t because of anything he ever did or didn’t do. It didn’t really have anything to do with him at all, it was just that Eliot was a boy who was growing into a man, which was all it took to threaten his father’s delicate sense of his own manhood. He understands now, in a detached sort of way, that most of his father’s behavior was motivated by self-loathing. It’s not an excuse, it just is what it is.

* * *

When he gets up in the morning the kids are camped in front of the television. He finds Cady at the stove, making pancakes and looking so much like his mom that it hurts a little. For a moment the frame flickers and Eliot can see his mother bent over that old O’Keefe & Merritt with the built-in griddle, reaching up to brush away a wisp of honey-brown hair that’s come loose from her ponytail. And now it’s Cady reaching up to tuck the same honey-brown hair behind her ear as she frowns down at her Teflon pan.

He remembers when his sister was so beautiful that all the neighborhood boys would follow her home from school and Eliot had to chase them out of the yard with a baseball bat. Now she just looks tired, like their mom always did. Raising a houseful of kids pretty much on your own will do that, he supposes.

He commandeers the spatula and shoos her away from the stove. While he’s keeping an eye on the pancakes he finds an omelet pan in one of the cabinets and starts to scramble some eggs because there’s no way he’s eating a giant pile of carbs and sugar for breakfast.

“Mom always used to cook her eggs in bacon grease,” Cady says, watching him.

“Yeah and Mom died of cancer in her fifties.”

“I think the two-pack-a-day habit might have had something to do with that.”

“The bacon grease didn’t help, though, did it?”

“Maybe, but her eggs always tasted great.”

He turns to look at her and is surprised to find that she is smiling. He tries to smile back, but mostly he just feels guilty and sad. He turns back to the stove and flips the pancakes, which have achieved a perfect golden brown.

“I’m sure your eggs are fine, too, though,” Cady adds, just to bait him.

He picks up a dishtowel and wings it at his sister’s head. “My eggs are fucking awesome and you know it.”

* * *

He was in Honduras, quietly quelling a coup d’etat, when his mother died. Lung cancer. No one caught it until it was way too late. When she refused chemotherapy the doctors didn’t even bother to argue. Two weeks later she was admitted to the hospital. Three days after that she was dead. He didn’t find out about it until a month later, when he finally got back to the States and checked his messages. He hadn’t even known she was sick.

His mom was smart and kind and never wanted anything for herself. She was funny, too, when Dad wasn’t making her cry. The lipstick she always wore left a dark red ring around the filter of the Tareytons she smoked. She made a killer pineapple upside down cake and still believed in love even though she’d married a mean sonofabitch.

Cady held the funeral without him.

* * *

Eliot finds a whetstone in the garage and takes it into the kitchen to sharpen Cady’s knives for her, because he can’t abide a dull knife.

A dull knife is always more likely to cut you than a sharp oneIt takes more force to cut with a dull knife, increasing the chances you’ll lose control of it. A sharp knife requires only the slightest pressure to get the job done, so even if does slip it won’t cut as deep.

Cady’s in the kitchen making cupcakes from a mix for the kids to decorate later and she doesn’t say anything when he carries all her knives over to the kitchen table and sits down.

He learned how to sharpen knives when he was in the service. There’s something almost meditative about it. Keeping the angle just right, drawing the blade down the stone in long, even strokes. Knowing when to stop.

After a while he glances up and catches Cady looking at him, an odd expression on her face. “What?” he asks.

“Just wondering if there was any way you could look more menacing right now.”

“Your knives were dull,” Eliot says, frowning down at the blade in his hand.

* * *

His sister doesn’t know exactly what he does for a living. She doesn’t know about all the terrible things he’s done, the bodies laid at his door.

But she knows about the first terrible thing he ever did, because she was there. She knows exactly what he is capable of and what kind of man he is, no matter how hard he tries to keep it hidden from her. Maybe that’s why he comes back here whenever he starts to doubt himself. Because his sister is the one person who always sees him clearly, for better or worse.

* * *

Eliot fills the kiddie pool in the backyard and then hooks the sprinkler up to the hose while Cady helps the kids change into their bathing suits. The sky is startlingly blue and clear and there’s one fat, fluffy cloud overhead that looks a little like an elephant if you squint your eyes just right. He and Cady sit in lawn chairs in the shade sipping iced tea and watching the kids play in the water while dragonflies hover over the wet grass.

“No, ma’am!” Cady yells at one of the girls. “What do you think you’re doing? Don’t you push your brother!”

“How’s the wagon running?” Eliot asks, wondering if he should change the oil for her while he’s here.

“Not too bad,” Cady says. “Mike got it tuned up at the beginning of the year.”

Eliot wishes she’d let him buy her a new car. She’s been driving the kids around in the same old Subaru station wagon for years and he’d feel a hell of a lot better if they were in something sturdier that wasn’t in constant danger of breaking down on her.

“I took the kids up to see Dad last month,” Cady says, slapping at a mosquito on her ankle.

Eliot doesn’t say anything. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his father in almost 20 years and he’s not going to ask her how the old man is doing, even though he knows she wants him to.

“He’s not doing great,” she tells him, even though she knows he doesn’t want to hear about it. “He keeps forgetting things.”

Eliot looks out over the back fence and wonders how he’s supposed to feel about that. He’s not happy about it, but he’s not sad, either. He doesn’t really feel anything. As far as he’s concerned, the old man ceased to exist a long time ago.

His t-shirt is sticking to his skin like glue and the iced tea suddenly tastes bitter in his mouth. “I’m gonna go start dinner,” he says, pulling himself to his feet.

“You better watch it,” he hears Cady shout at Colton. “I see you hit your sister again and you’re getting a time out, mister.”

* * *

Growing up with a bad-tempered drunk teaches you how to gauge the temperature of every situation. Eliot doesn’t remember what his parents were fighting about that night, but he remembers that things got heated than usual. He was in his room ignoring his homework when he heard his mother’s sharp cry of pain. By the time he got to the living room his mom was on the floor clutching her face and his dad was rearing back, all set to hit her again.

Eliot didn’t think, he just reacted. All the anger and fear and resentment that had been building up over the years exploded out of him. He wasn’t tall but he was on the football team and he’d put on a lot of muscle over the last year. He hit his dad with the force of a freight train and didn’t stop hitting him until the sound of his sister screaming at him to quit finally punctured his rage. Eliot looked down at his father—a bloody, broken mess curled up on the floor and whimpering like an injured animal—and all he could feel was hate.

Like father like son.

If you push someone hard enough they’ll always reveal what they’re made of. The man that’s deep inside surfaces eventually, no matter how hard you try to keep him buried.

* * *

There’s a picture on the fridge of Shelby sitting on a pony. She’s wearing a pink princess dress and a rhinestone tiara and she’s smiling from ear to ear. Eliot’s staring at it when Cady comes into the kitchen to wash out her iced tea glass.

“Is that from her birthday party?” he asks.

“Yeah, last month.”

“I wish I could have been here,” he says guiltily. He’s missed every single birthday, every Christmas. He always sends gifts for the kids, maybe even calls if he can manage it, but he doesn’t do holidays.

“She knows,” Cady says, stealing a piece of the carrots he’s been chopping.

“I had to work.”

“You said.”

“It’s hard for me to get away.” He doesn’t know why he feels the need to justify himself, but he does.

“I didn’t say anything.” She never says anything. She doesn’t have to. He can feel the weight of her accusations anyway.

“You were thinking it.”

She stares at him. “You don’t know the first thing about what I’m thinking.”

“You’re right,” he admits. “I guess I don’t.”

* * *

“I ever see your face again I’ll kill you,” Eliot told his father in a low, dangerous voice. “Don’t you ever fucking come back here. This isn’t your home anymore, you understand?” And then he hauled the old man off the floor and shoved him out the front door.

Cady wanted to call an ambulance but Eliot wouldn’t let her. “Let him get himself to the hospital,” Eliot told her. “Let him die in the street for all I care.”

“You can’t just throw a person away like a piece of trash!” Cady screamed at him as the tears rolled down her face.

“Watch me,” Eliot said, and slammed the door on his father forever.

* * *

They’ve just sat down to dinner when Eliot feels his phone start buzzing in his pocket. He excuses himself when he sees the name on the Caller ID and steps into the next room before answering. “Parker? What’s wrong?”

“Why would you assume something’s wrong?” She sounds breathless and irritable. But she’s not the type to call just to chat and Hardison usually handles all the team communications, so what the hell else is he supposed to think?

Is something wrong?” he asks.

“Not really.” A pause. “Sophie told me not to call.”

“What aren’t supposed to call about?” he asks impatiently. His pork chops are getting cold and he’s not really in the mood for Parker’s crazy.

“I’m bored.”

Eliot rubs his forehead. “You called me because you’re bored?

“Sophie said you needed a break.”

“Sophie’s a smart lady.”

“Did you need a break from us, Eliot?”

Yes, he thinks.

But that’s really not it. It’s more like he needed to give them a break from him. Or something. It’s hard to articulate. All he knows is that he feels like he’s failed them all in some spectacular way and he can’t face them right now. It was fine when they were in the middle of a job, he could push through it, but as soon as the job was over it was a different story and he had to get away.

So he says, “No, Parker. I needed a break from the job. Change of scenery, you know?”

“Not really.” Another pause. “You left without saying goodbye. You’re coming back aren’t you?”

It takes him off guard, coming from Parker, of all people. And just that quickly he realizes how much he misses her, how he much misses all of them. “Course I am. Nate said we should lay low for a couple weeks, so that’s what I’m doing. I’ll come back as soon we’ve got another job.”

“That’s good,” she says. “Everyone’s acting weird. It’s not the same without you here.”

* * *

Everything changed after that night.

Dad must have believed Eliot’s threats, because he never did come back. Mom took to her bed for two weeks and when she finally got up again she wasn’t the same. She stopped laughing, stopped smiling, stopped talking for the most part. She was a like ghost haunting the place, like someone who’d had a piece of her soul removed. Cady became cynical and snappish. All luck was bad, as far as she was concerned, everything was a game that was stacked against you. She gave up on poetry and lied about her age to get a job at Dairy Queen. She came home late every night smelling of french fries, her Keds so caked with grease they’d leave oily footprints on the floor.

That was when Eliot stopped sleeping. His face, which had once been open and sweet, took on a twisted, bitter look. He’d lay awake at night, staring up at the ceiling, and practice looking blank, like there was nothing he cared about in the whole wide world.

* * *

The next morning they load the kids into Eliot’s rental car and drive down to the beach. The Gulf’s a murky blue-gray this close to the Ship Channel but it’s warm as bath water under wide blue skies.

Eliot hammers the umbrella into the sand while Cady unfolds the lawn chairs and weighs down the corners of the beach blanket with everyone’s shoes. Too impatient to wait on the grown-ups, Carly grabs her brother by the hand and runs into the water, laughing and squealing as the waves knock them over. Shelby hangs back, though, reluctant to get more than her toes wet.

“What’s the matter?” Eliot asks her. “You don’t like the water?”

“I’m scared of sharks,” she whispers, her voice barely audible over the roar of the sea.

“Someone’s been watching too much Discovery Channel,” he says. “You know you’re more likely to win the lottery than get attacked by a shark?”

“Momma won’t buy lottery tickets. She says they’re a tax on stupid people.”

Eliot has to suppress a smile. “Okay, struck by lightning, then.”

She looks up at him with wide, trusting eyes. “Aren’t you afraid of anything, Uncle Eliot?”

“Course I am,” he tells her. “Everyone’s afraid sometimes. The trick is not to let fear make your choices for you.”

Her forehead furrows like she’s thinking hard about what he said. After a minute she nods and says, “Okay,” slips her tiny hand in his, and lets him lead her into the water.

She’s nervous at first, and clings to his leg when the first few waves hit her, but pretty soon she’s so busy playing in the surf with her brother and sister that she forgets all about her fear. They wade out until the water’s nearly chest-deep on Eliot and the kids swim like seals, diving under the waves and bobbing back to the surface on the other side. Eliot tosses them high into the air and their laughter is so loud it scares away the seagulls.

For lunch there’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the kids and chicken salad for the adults. Afterwards, they collect shells and sand dollars by the bucketful and build a castle in the soft white sand while Cady dozes under the umbrella, a romance novel propped against her chest.

Eliot loses himself a little in the cries of the gulls overhead, the sound of the waves, the feeling of sand between his toes. He feels lighter than he has in ages, like he’s made of pure air.

He feels lucky to be alive.

* * *

Cady was there the night Eliot committed his first unspeakable act of violence. She knows what he’s capable of, what kind of man he is inside. And yet she loves him anyway. Just like she loves their father, even though she knows what kind of man he is, too.

* * *

They pick up fried chicken on the way home from the beach. After dinner, when they’re cleaning up the dishes, Eliot’s phone rings again and Cady raises an eyebrow. He’s never gotten this many calls around her before.

It’s Nate’s name on the display so he ducks out front to answer it

“There’s this job,” Nate says by way of greeting. “I’m thinking of taking it.”

Eliot sits on the front stoop and watches the guy across the street pushing a lawn mower back and forth across his yard. “I thought you said we were laying low for a couple of weeks.”

He can practically hear Nate’s shrug over the phone. “Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe we’d be better off getting back to work.” He pauses. “You ready to get back to work, Eliot?”

Eliot thinks about it. Thinks about Hardison checking up on him and Parker calling because she missed him and Sophie trying to get everyone to give him space. He thinks about Nate in a warehouse in Virginia, asking Eliot to do something he’ll never be able to forgive himself for.

“Yeah,” Eliot tells him, deciding not to let fear make his choices for him. “I guess I am.”

“Good,” Nate says. “Pack a warm coat.”

When Eliot hangs up the guy across the street has finished mowing and switched to a leaf-blower. Somehow the whine of the motor is so much more grating than the lawn mower was. He wonders when people stopped using brooms and rakes.

The front door opens and Cady peeks her head out. “You off the phone?” she asks.

“Yeah.”

She slips a beer into his hand and sits down beside him on the stoop. They sit side by side, their knees touching, their feet dirty and bare like the kids they once were.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he tells her. “Something came up.”

She nods, not even a little bit surprised that his departure is so abrupt. That’s what he does, drops in and out of her life without warning.

“Are you happy?” he asks. His voice sounds strangely hollow to his own ears.

She looks at him sharply. “What kind of question is that?”

“Are you happy with the life you got? Is this—” he waves his hand, encompassing the house and the car and the neighborhood around them “—what you wanted?”

“Of course it is. I love Mike, I love my kids.” She pauses. “I wouldn’t change anything because then I wouldn’t have them.”

He thinks maybe he sort of understands, but not really. He loves the hell out of those kids, but he’s been here two days and he’s already starting to feel trapped. The truth is he’s relieved Nate called.

“I saw Aimee a couple years ago,” he says, because the idea of of an ordinary life—one with a wife and kids and a lawn that needs mowing—always makes him think of Aimee. Of what might have been.

She gives him a wry, sympathetic look. “What was that like?”

“Awkward as hell.”

They sit in silence for a minute. Then she says, “I know you don’t believe this, but love is real, El. It’s as real as the dirt under your fingernails and the ground beneath your feet. Maybe one day you’ll find that out for yourself.”

She doesn’t say she loves him, but he knows it’s true all the same. Some things don’t have to be said out loud. Not to family, anyway.

“First star of the night,” she says, nudging him with her shoulder and pointing up at the sky. “Make a wish.”

He does.