CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: I AM
I am the worst father.
Bella promised it would get easier. She lied.
A little girl with tangled hair stomps her feet and raises her voice until her face is beet red. I won't let her have an ice cream cone. At 8:17 in the morning. She is nothing like Will.
This is what I get for braving the grocery store without reinforcements. I want to pretend like she doesn't belong to me.
She begs and pleads, promising to sleep in her own bed all night long for the rest of her life if I buy her a chocolate chip ice cream cone. This is my life now.
"I said no."
She screams. As loud as she can scream.
I throw her over my shoulder. "We're going home." Her legs flailing, I swear I can actually feel my blood boiling.
I leave a full cart of groceries in the middle of aisle seven. People are staring and making comments loud enough to be heard.
She's always been this way. She's bullheaded and emotional. She's loud and demanding and proud. She's my daughter and most days her stubbornness is charming. Today, I want to leave her on the curb with a cardboard sign that reads: free four-year-old.
I march towards the front doors. The toes of her shoes jam into my ribs. I want to pull the little shoes from her feet and throw them at the pimple-faced idiot grinning behind the ice cream counter.
The door doesn't open right away because this is the country and nothing works how it's supposed to. I stand on the rubber mat. And now I'm the one stomping my feet. Like a child.
"God damn it." You useless piece of fucking shit.
"I'm telling on you," she cries.
Go for it.
The door finally slides open and I'm stomping into the morning sun, blinded by my whole fucking life.
She goes quiet. I can feel the fight drain out of her. And I stop walking.
Memories are strange.
An old woman with eyes that haunt sits against the building, surrounded by cardboard.
"Spare some change?" Her voice is sweet and doesn't match her face.
The skin under her eyes makes her look a hundred years old. Her teeth are rotted out. She doesn't look at me. She looks at my daughter and smiles, all gums and dirty wrinkles.
Her sign reads: trying to get home.
She's an honest liar.
I thought I had forgotten, that she was gone forever. But I will somehow always know her.
I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do so I start walking. I hold my daughter tight.
She turns in my arms, looking over my shoulder to stare. "Maybe she wants some ice cream, Daddy," she whispers against my cheek.
My heart stops beating and my legs stop moving.
And just like that I'm walking back toward the store.
"Where we going?"
"We're going to get the woman some ice cream."
All that happened five minutes ago is forgiven. I shift my daughter to my hip as I stand in front of the ice cream counter. I lock my knees to keep myself upright.
"Does she want chocolate chip, Daddy?"
"No. Strawberry." She doesn't question me. "What kind do you want?" I ask, even though I know I shouldn't.
"I want strawberry like the lady." The lady.
My hands shake as I hand the smirking fucker a twenty.
"Can I carry two ice creams, Daddy?"
She holds a cone of strawberry in each fist. And I carry her back into the sun.
Before I know what's happening, she's crying. A smashed scoop of strawberry ice cream lies on the cement.
I set her down and she reaches to pick it up, nearly dropping the second cone.
She's a pint-sized disaster with her tear-stained face and mismatched clothes. Some days, I'm good at this. Today I feel like a total failure.
"She can have this one, Daddy," she whimpers, holding out the salvaged cone. She has the sweetest voice and the biggest heart.
I kneel down until we're almost nose to nose. I brush the hair from her face and tuck it behind her ears.
"I think she'd like that."
We walk hand in hand up to the cardboard jungle.
She startles, even though she watched us approach.
"We got you something," my daughter says almost shyly. The first subdued moment of her life.
For a second I worry that she's not actually going to give the cone up. But she does. She holds it out.
Filthy, leathered hands take the ice cream. The lady holds the cone so tight it looks like it's going to crumble in her paws.
"What's your name, Honey?"
"People call me Blue." People.
The lady doesn't laugh like I expect. She isn't cruel. "That's a nice name. Blue reminds me of the ocean. You ever been to the ocean, Blue?"
"We have to go," I interrupt. I can't do this. I don't tell her that she's not named after the ocean. That she's named after a jay. She doesn't deserve to know.
"Bless you," she says to me, like I'm a kind-hearted stranger. "Strawberry is my favorite."
We walk away before she tries the ice cream. Before I lose it.
"I know," I say under my breath. Blue looks up at me, somehow understanding that this isn't a time for questions.
For the first time in a long time, I want a drink. The thought is fleeting. But it's there. And it's followed by a long list of justifications.
But my crazy thoughts have nothing on the round face staring up at me.
I kneel down again, needing to be on her level. "Thank you, Blue."
She only laughs.
A dandelion grows through the crack in the sidewalk.
Blue reaches out to touch it.
"Don't pick it."
But it's already been done.
She looks up at me, unapologetic for everything that she is, the dandelion pinched between her fingers.
She holds it up. "Make a wish, Daddy."
I take it from her and quickly tuck it behind her ear. Today doesn't feel like a day for wishes.
I rub her head, as if she's a puppy. She lets me.
We walk to the car and I can't help but turn to look for the lady with the ice cream.
I try not to stare back but maybe I'm not trying at all. She looks so small, folded up on the sidewalk. I wonder how she's survived, what's her poison, and if she lets herself remember.
I force myself to look away.
I buckle Blue in and my hands won't stop shaking.
My knuckles turn white as I grip the steering wheel.
"Start the ignition," Blue demands.
"Where do you learn these words?"
"Will knows all the words in all the world."
"She does, doesn't she?"
"Maybe just all the country words. Daddy, did you know we live in the country?"
I start the car and a drink is not what I need. "Oh yeah?"
"What makes it the country, Blue?"
She thinks about it, her face scrunching up until her eyes disappear. "The birds and the grass and the oaks. And don't forget the ducks. Except we don't have ducks." Her eyes shine. "Did you know that once upon a time you and Mommy had ducks?"
"Who told you that?"
"Will. She tells me all the things. Can we go home?" she shouts.
I take one last glance at the lady in the distance as we pull out of the parking lot.
My eyes shift to Blue in the rearview mirror. She's quiet as we drive, watching the passing trees. She's never quiet.
Her name isn't actually Blue. It would be cruel to name your child after a color. I already have one child named after a tree.
She's mischievous. She's a thief. She has a tendency to go rogue. But I love her. And I probably don't tell her enough.
Storm clouds move in quickly as we drive.
I can't get those eyes out of my head. The way she looked at me like I was a stranger. All this time I thought I wouldn't know her if I passed her on the street. It never occurred to me that she wouldn't know me.
Blue is rarely quiet. I should enjoy it, but I can't help myself. "What are you thinking about?"
"Me too," I admit to her.
"Did she never brush her teeth and they all falled out? You're supposed to brush your teeth before you get into your bed and before your daddy reads stories."
I don't know how to explain to my four-year-old that some people don't have beds. That some people have habits instead. That I could have been some people.
"I love you, Blue."
We're not home for thirty seconds before she's banging on Will's door.
Will pops her head out and pulls Blue into her room before slamming the door. She's good to her sister. Most days.
This house is too small for us. But I know now that it's not a house that makes a family.
I try to avoid the creaky spots as I walk down the hall. The door is cracked and I wait for a minute, standing perfectly still.
I can feel it under my skin. I can feel it waiting for a trigger. Waiting for nothing but a lapse in judgment. Waiting for a lady on the sidewalk who's just passing through.
I push the door open slowly, letting my eyes adjust to the dark.
The shades are drawn, the room covered in shadows. I close the door as slowly as I opened it and disappear into the dark.
I lie down next to my wife, studying the lines of her face.
She stirs, blinking sleep away. "Where did you go?"
"I took the wild one to the grocery store." I kiss her lips.
With her eyes closed, sleep threatening to take her away, she mutters, "Did you get everything put away?"
"She started throwing a fit in the middle of the store. You said I'm not supposed to just give her what she wants when she does that. So we left."
And now she's awake. "She's a monster."
"By the way, I think we have a visitor."
"I caught Will smuggling snacks into her room in the middle of the night. Wren's case worker should be calling soon."
"We can't keep doing this."
"What are we doing, Edward?" There is an edge to her voice and she thinks this is my fault. "If you don't like it, then change it. It's that simple."
"It's not simple at all."
"Edward, I'm giving you permission to make it simple."
She disappears from our bed and into the bathroom. And I know that I'm the one making this difficult. I'm the one who is afraid. I'm the one who can't stand to let Wren down.
A soft sound comes from the corner of the room. I freeze, listening. Waiting to move until I know she's really awake.
And when she doesn't stir I let out a breath and walk over to the bassinet just to make sure she's still breathing.
I watch our baby sleep. She is so tiny. And so perfect. And so brand new that I haven't ruined her yet.
I will never forgive myself for missing this part with Will.
"Blue may have been a surprise, but we worked hard for you," I tell her. And somewhere inside of me it feels like a goodbye.
I leave her in her basket even though I want to pick her up and hold her tight against me. She's innocent and if I walk out the front door right now she won't remember me.
And I wonder how old I was when my mother walked out for the last time. And I wonder who I would be if my father had walked. If she had been the one to stay. If they'd both walked and I became part of the system.
I reach out, my hand hovering next to her cheek. I trace the outline of her face without touching her.
I let her sleep, and I disappear from the dark room.
I knock on Will's bedroom door. She opens it after a long minute and a lot of hushed whispers. She looks nothing but guilty. And it strikes me how grown-up she is. And I wonder how I've missed it.
Blue sits on Will's bed, a shit-eating grin on her face.
"I'm just painting Blue's nails," Will lies.
"Where's Wren, Willow?"
She opens her mouth in mock offense, rifling through a drawer pretending to look for something.
"It's a secret," Blue whispers.
"Blue!" Will shouts in her face. Blue covers her own mouth with her hands, her eyes popping out of her head.
"Will and Blue, out."
Blue runs out quickly but Will is slow to follow. "She just missed us."
It stabs me right where she intends it to.
"Where is she?"
She doesn't answer. She's too loyal. She leaves without a word.
I look around this mess of a room that hasn't been cleaned since Bella's mom left.
The closet door creaks open and there Wren stands, her arms crossed and her jaw set.
"If you're going to yell at me, get it over with." She sits on Will's bed, her shoulders sagging like she doesn't care about anything I'm about to say.
"How did you get here?"
She glares at me. "I took a bus."
"By yourself, in the middle of the night? Jesus, Wren." I take a seat next to her.
"It's not a big deal. It's just a public transportation." But she's the liar.
"You're twelve years old!"
"And you're a hundred, so what?"
"You can't keep doing this."
"I can't stay there!" Her tears well up, threatening to spill, as she looks away from me. I watch her chin quiver and I hate Alice for losing custody.
I hate Jasper for relapsing.
I hate Rose for being dead.
I hate myself for letting her float around in foster care.
"I hate you," she says quietly. And it's fair.
"I don't hate you, Wren. I could never hate you."
"You are a liar," she says slowly.
That word cuts me open.
I bump the side of her knee with my own. "Says the sneak." I try to smile at her. But it doesn't work. This isn't a joke.
Her tears fall quickly and silently.
"You left me to be just like her."
"You left me to die."
I shake my head, trying to keep my calm. "No."
She holds out her hand. "I need bus money to get back."
"I'm not putting you on a goddamn bus."
"Perfect, I'll walk."
"Wren, stop it."
"No. You stop. I'm not getting into your car. You can't drop me off on the doorstep of a couple of strangers who think I'm their daughter. I'd rather be hit by a car while walking in the middle of the street."
"Don't say that."
"Don't say what? That I'd rather be dead than go back there?"
"Just stop it."
"I get it, okay? You have your perfect family and I might ruin it."
"It's not like that. It's not that simple. It's not…"
She stands in front of the closed door, her hand on the knob. "I haven't even met her yet. Your new baby. I haven't even seen her."
And I realize what my life looks like to her. And I see the longing to belong and the realization that she doesn't.
She swings the door open and there stand Will and Blue, their naive, hopeful faces smiling up at her.
Wren shakes her head and Blue starts crying. Will glares at me and I am unforgivable in her eyes.
I watch Wren pick Blue up and it feels like my ribs are being crushed. Like they're cracking in a hundred places.
"Girls," I say, because I don't know how to explain any of it to them.
But they don't want to hear it.
"I hate you," Will whispers. She means it too.
My fingers pick at the lining of my pocket.
And I need to go for a drive. Just a drive.
My footsteps are loud, so loud I feel like I'm shaking the whole house. I am the big bad wolf and I have to get out of here before I blow this house to the ground.
I have the front door open and I can feel the finality of walking through it.
"Edward?" Bella's voice snaps me back.
I stop, my forehead pressed against the doorframe.
"Where are you going?"
"Out," I tell her.
She won't stop me. She will let me go and that will be it.
The sound of the rain turning everything to mud is pulling me out the door. But I have to look at her face.
"I swear to God, Edward," she whispers, her jaw clenching, her eyes broken, our baby in her arms.
I look back at the rain pelting the driveway. This morning I was fine and now I'm drowning.
It's just a drive.
We live in the country. In a nowhere town where the birds circle overhead and the hills roll into each other like ocean waves against the shore.
Our life together is simple and complicated. I don't say enough. I say too much. I love her too hard and when she does it back I panic.
It's just a drive.
She watches me. She doesn't beg me to stay. She doesn't threaten me. She knows what will happen if I walk out. We both know.
I hold on to the doorjamb for dear life. "I'm sorry."
"Tell me," she says firmly, her voice shaking. "Tell me what you're apologizing for."
But I don't know.
"It's not just a drive." She says it. I think it. We're both right.
And I can't walk out that door. I won't.
The rain gets louder. I grab the door handle and while I want to slam it shut, I can only manage to close it slowly.
I stand against it, staring at Bella.
"Are you going to talk to me?" She doesn't beg.
Wren, Will and Blue stand in the hall, lined up in a row, silent and watching with their matching expressions and arms hanging at their sides.
Blue looks to Will, who looks to Wren. Wren looks straight at me. She has always seen me. The good and the bad. But she doesn't see a junkie. She sees a man.
She sees the man I want to be. She sees the man who might already exist.
I watch as Wren reaches out for the baby. I watch as Bella hands her over, looking back and forth between me and Wren, her eyes settling on my face.
I follow her to our bedroom.
She paces. I sit.
"Explain to me what just happened," she says, trying to keep her calm, her sanity, her whole life.
A million things just happened. Nothing happened at all. That's how it works.
"I saw my mother today."
"Edward…" The fight falls from her face.
"At least I think it was her."
She is quiet and I make the mistake of seeking out her eyes. I do not want to see myself through her eyes. "Don't look at me like that. She's nobody."
I watch as she crosses the room to stand in front of me. She touches my hand and I want to pull away but I don't. "We both know that's a lie."
We both know.
"Once, when I was small, I was running around the front yard and I fell. I fell into this short picket fence that wrapped around some flowers." I look up at Bella's face. "I guess she had flowers."
"Edward," she whispers, and I don't know what my own name means.
"I nearly lost an eye." Her thumb rubs over the side of my face. "She screamed at me before carrying me inside and I remember her begging me to stop crying. My father must have been out."
Bella's hands frame my face.
"She let me eat the entire carton of her strawberry ice cream. And then I watched from the window as she tore out all of the white fencing. And you know what?"
"What?" she says, trying not to cry.
"I think she loved me."
"Edward…" she says again. Edward. But it's not pity in her voice.
"My mother, she was swearing and sweating as she pulled those posts from the ground and piled up the pieces by the trash. She loved me in her own way. I'm pretty sure I believe that."
She brushes the hair off my forehead. "I believe that too."
"Then explain it to me. Explain why I wasn't enough to save her."
"Edward, you of all people know that addiction doesn't operate on pragmatism."
"I don't even know what that word means."
"It means, it's not about you," she sighs. "It means her demons were more than she could bear. It means you're enough. You're enough for us and that's all I care about." She is begging me to understand. Now she is begging.
I pull her against me, pressing my face into her neck. I try to imagine my life without her, and it's easy. I remember it. I lived it.
But we're no longer two kids from the country who fucked it up.
We're a family.
I hold her and she holds me back.
"Edward, what happened with Wren?"
"I don't know what's right. I don't know what we should do."
She knows I'm lying. She doesn't even have to say it.
My wife has a pink scar on the inside of her left knee. I've never asked her how it got there, but every time I lie to her I think about that scar.
"She's always been a part of this family, Edward, whether on paper or not."
Maybe I needed to hear her say it out loud.
"What if it's the wrong decision?"
"It's not. We both know it."
"What if we can't get custody?"
"Then we keep fighting. That's the only choice we have." She makes it sound so simple.
"Where did you get that scar?"
She's confused, the worry firmly planted between her eyes.
I place my hand along the side of her knee. I know exactly where it is.
"I don't know," she shrugs. "It's been there as long as I remember."
"I've always wondered."
"And it took you this long to ask?" She thinks I'm crazy.
Some scars sit on the surface.
"Go for a walk with me, Bella?" And now I'm the beggar.
"I don't care."
"And the baby?"
"We'll bring an umbrella. Please."
The clouds have already broken up by the time we get three girls and one tiny baby bundled up. I hold her against me. She'll know me. And I'll know her. She won't look for my face in every stranger she passes on the street. Today, it's that simple.
Will runs wild in the wind, her little sister on her heels, their rubber boots stomping over the star thistle as they chase the wet crows back to their oaks. A pair of vultures sit on the fence posts, their wings stretched wide. Both girls stop as they see them, staring until they fly off.
Wren watches from the swing set, her long legs touching the ground. She thinks she's grown up. She knows more and she's seen more than she should. But she also has an innocence about her. She trusts and she loves and she says what she wants.
I take the empty swing next to her.
"I'm sorry," she says, like she has something to be sorry for.
"I'm sorry too."
And right now, that's all that needs to be said.
Will and Blue watch us and I know what they're thinking. I know what they're hoping for. But they don't know about juvenile courts and the potential red tape that's ahead of us. To them, it's simple. We're family.
Maybe that's all that matters.
I worry about all of them in different ways. Mostly, I fear that one day they will wake up and the addiction that lives in their genes will creep into their lives. But they will never, ever be alone in that battle if they have to face it. I tell myself that.
I worry about them falling for boys who love them the way that I love their mother. More than that, I worry about them falling for boys who don't love them nearly enough.
Bella and I fight about stupid shit. All the time. And then we make up.
The junkie lives inside of me. The junkie will lurk until the day I die.
I am an addict. But that's not all I am.
I am a college graduate.
I am a husband.
I am a father.
I am selfish.
I am a liar.
I am brave.
I am an honest man.
I am trying.
This life? It's a different kind of drug. And I'm addicted.
Susan, you have taught me more than you could ever know.
Kim, you gave me the confidence to write this crazy, out of order story.
Peri, sweet Peri, thanks for being my cheerleader.
This story took me years to write and for a while I pretended not to know why. Honest Liar is both real and complete fiction. It's about me and my parents and my sisters and probably every person I've ever met. Hopefully the real parts are the ones that stuck to your ribs.
My father lives alone in the country, in a nowhere town, in a house with peeling pink wallpaper and wall-to-wall pink carpet. The pool is filled with weeds and the star thistle has swallowed everything else. He is still fighting his demons, grieving his losses and drowning in regret.
I'm not an addict, but I was raised by one. I've always said that I don't believe in villains, but I'm a hypocrite. While I find it easy to see the humanity in a stranger, I struggle to forgive the people close to me who are simply doing the best they can with what they've been dealt.
This story was my way of letting it go. Our lives are complicated and nonlinear. We all have our poisons. We all have our stories. I wanted to write this one down. Thanks for humoring me.