Long Bright River

—I haven’t, I say.

* * *

The whole time we’ve been talking, Kacey has been sitting up on the bed. Now she lies down awkwardly on her side. Head on pillows. She’s tired.

* * *

—What happened at the party, I say finally. At Lynn’s birthday party.

* * *

—Ashley asked me how I felt about inviting Gee, says Kacey. Lynn and Gee see each other, you know. I hadn’t seen Gee in years but I said sure, why not. One of the steps is about making amends, and I have a lot of amends to make, and I figure I could start with Gee.

That night, at Lynn’s party, Gee was great. I mean, she was ornery, she was herself, but she was pretty nice. She said I looked good. Asked what I was up to. I told her I was on methadone maintenance but that I’d been clean besides that. She said I was doing good. Told me to keep trying. Just don’t fuck it up, she said, because Gee is Gee.

By the end of the night I had decided to tell her about the baby. She was going to find out sooner or later, I figured. Might as well break the news. I walked outside with her and stood there with her while she waited for the bus.

Gee, I said, I have to tell you something.

She turned on me with this look of absolute horror.

Oh no, she says. Please tell me you’re not gonna say what I think you’re gonna say.

I started to feel nervous. My hands were shaking, I was sweating.

What do you think I’m gonna say? I said.

Gee’s got her eyes closed now. She’s just saying, No, no.

I’m pregnant, I say.

And Gee actually starts to cry. Have you ever seen her cry in your life, Mickey? I’ve never seen her cry in my life. She puts her face in her hands. I don’t know what to do. I put my hand on her back.

But as soon as I touch her she whirls around on me and brushes my hand off her. She lost it, Mickey. She screamed so loud. I thought she was going to hit me. She told me she was through with me. She goes, Who’s gonna be this baby’s mama when you start up with that same old shit? She told me she was done taking care of other people’s babies. And that you were too. She told me you had enough trouble on your hands without taking in another little bastard of mine. She used that word. Bastard.

* * *

Kacey pauses for a second, waiting for me to react, before continuing.

* * *

—She said, I’m not gonna watch you do to this baby what your mother did to you.

* * *

—Did you hear me? Kacey says to me.

* * *

I nod.

* * *

—No, Kacey says. No. Do you understand?

—Understand what? I say.

* * *

    —I knew you wouldn’t notice it, Mick. But I’ve always wondered. To you, is what Gee said. Not you and Mickey. Not you girls. Not to us both. To me.

I said to Gee, What do you mean, to me? And she said that Mom had been getting high when she was pregnant with me.

But not Mickey? I said.

Mick, I swear to God she smiled.

Not Mickey, she told me, like she was satisfied to be telling me this. Lisa started that shit after Mickey was born.

* * *

I wait a moment, letting the information settle.

Then I say, Oh, Kacey. She could have been lying to you. She could have been trying to scare you. I wouldn’t put it past her.

But the question lies there, between us, hovering.

Kacey shakes her head.

* * *

—I wanted to believe that, she says. That she was lying.

I thought about it while I was walking away from Gee. She was still shouting at me. She was saying, I feel sorry for that baby. I feel sorry for that child.

I thought about it all night. I couldn’t sleep.

Ashley didn’t know what had happened between me and Gee. She didn’t know any of this. In the morning, I left a note for Ashley, saying I was safe. Then I snuck out before anyone was awake.

I took the bus to Fishtown. I walked to Gee’s house. I figured she’d be at work. I was right. I knocked a few times, but she didn’t answer.

I haven’t had the keys to her house in years, but you know the alley door comes loose if you hit it hard enough, so I popped the lock and walked through the alley to the back of the house. I checked the back door and it was locked. I broke the glass and let myself in.

I know it was wrong of me. I don’t care.

I went down into the basement. I just wanted to know if it was true, what she said. It had become important to me to know.

You know that filing cabinet Gee has in the basement? There was this folder in it, in the bottom drawer, called Girls.

I pulled it out. There was a big stack of documents in it. Your birth certificate was in it, Michaela Fitzpatrick, and a photo of you from the hospital, and your birth weight and length and all, and a few papers certifying that you were healthy. That was it.

Mine was different. My birth certificate was in there, just like yours. But my discharge papers were like an instructional manual. Care for the substance-dependent newborn. It said I might be more irritable than other newborns. That I might cry more. There was a prescription for phenobarbital. So I guess I’ve been using since I was born.

* * *

I know that paperwork, I want to say. I received a similar packet when I took custody of Thomas.

I stay quiet.

* * *

Kacey goes on.

—I kept looking through the filing cabinet. And I found other stuff, too. I found this whole folder marked Dan Fitzpatrick, says Kacey.

* * *

I nod.

* * *

—You know this part, says Kacey.

* * *

I nod again.

* * *

    —You found them. The cards and the checks.

—I did, I say.

—That’s good, says Kacey.

She pauses, thinking.

—I guess I left them there on purpose, she says. I guess I thought you might find them there, if you were ever looking for me.

* * *

—I needed to leave, says Kacey. I needed to get out of that house. I took all the paperwork from the hospital where I was born, and I took one of the cards from Dad. A birthday card he sent to me when I turned sixteen.

I left Gee’s house a mess. I didn’t try to hide from her that I’d gone through her things. I didn’t care. I walked back through the alley and left. I walked all the way down Girard to the on-ramp to 95 South, and I stuck out my thumb, and I hitchhiked to the return address on the card I was carrying with me. I didn’t even know if he lived there anymore. But I was desperate.

That was at the beginning of November. I’ve been at his place ever since. He’s been taking care of me, Kacey says. Making sure I have what I need. Making sure the baby will have a good home when she’s born.

* * *

She looks at me, and for the first time I register the presence of fear in her expression.

—We’ll have everything we need, she says.

And I tell her, Kacey. I believe you.

This is not something Kacey asks for. But I have the notion, suddenly, that I should bring her to see Thomas.

Quietly, the two of us walk toward his room. Quietly, I open the door. Low light from the hallway spills in. By that light we can make out his shape in the bed, a landscape of covers and sheets and pillows and, curled inside them, my son.

Kacey looks at me, asking permission, and I nod.

She walks to the foot of his bed and kneels down before it. She puts her hands to her knees and gazes upon him. She stays like that for a long time.

* * *

We had five books in the house as children. One was the Bible. One was a history of the Phillies. Two were Nancy Drew books that had been Gee’s when she was small. And one was an ancient compendium of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, wildly illustrated and frightening, full of witches and woods. The same one I gave to Thomas, this year, for Christmas.

In this volume, the story I liked best was the one about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It frightened me: the way he came from nowhere to lure the children away. I was frightened, too, by the helplessness of the parents, the way the town failed them, the way they, in turn, failed their children.

Where did those children go, I wondered. What was their life like after they left? Were they hurt? Was it cold? Did they miss their families?

I have thought of this story every day of my life on the job. I picture the drug as the Piper. I picture the trance it casts: I can see this trance quite clearly every day that I work, everyone walked around, charmed, enthralled, beguiled. I imagine the town of Hamelin after the story ends, after the children and the music and the Piper have gone. I can hear it: the terrible silence of the town.

* * *

Now, looking at Kacey as she kneels at the foot of the bed, repentant, I see the possibility, very faintly, that one day she might return.

* * *

Then I look at Thomas, and I am reminded, as always, of the ever-present threat of departure, of permanent loss. It hovers there, foreboding, a faint, high melody that only children can hear.