“From when you were ten years old? I doubt it.”
“I’d have been safer if I’d moved farther away. I told myself I didn’t know where I was from, but...” She tried to reach for calm, even though this touched on the fear that had always lived inside her: What if someone recognizes me? “I suppose I wasn’t very brave. I was running away but clinging to the familiar at the same time.”
“Most kids who run away get hauled home. The ones who don’t often stay on the streets. They don’t go to college, build a solid life for themselves. If they manage to find that kind of security, they don’t reach out to help kids as lost as they were. Don’t tell me you weren’t brave, Nell.” His voice roughened at the end, making it hard for her to form a rebuttal.
“Don’t make me out to be more than I am,” she said at last. “I did things...”
“Yeah.” Now she heard a tenderness she had no defense against. “I know you must have. Fifteen years old and afraid to turn to any adult? How much choice did you have?”
Did he really understand what she’d been trying to tell him? Nell couldn’t tell, and lost the courage to elaborate. She didn’t even know if it mattered. Maybe it didn’t matter what she had done. Maddie Dubeau was the one he longed to bring home, not Nell Smith. She couldn’t afford to let herself forget that.
“I should go,” she said. “I’m working in the morning.”
“I suppose I should get to bed, too. I’ve probably dumped enough on you for one night anyway.”
“You didn’t dump. I asked.” She hesitated, then closed her eyes. “Thank you. For telling me all that. It helps, knowing your life hasn’t been trouble-free, either. Which means I’m not nearly as good a person as you’re trying to make me out to be. I should wish you had a perfect childhood with a loving family, and you made all that up to convince me we were, I don’t know, fellow travelers.”
He laughed. Really laughed, rich and deep. “I’m not trying to fit you for a halo, Nell.”
“I’m not an angel. Don’t call me that.”
She was as shocked at her sharpness as he must have been.
“I won’t,” he said after a discernible pause. “It didn’t occur to me.” He was soothing her again, much as he had that night he frightened her in the parking lot. Using his voice to convince her he was harmless, that he would never hurt her.
She wondered if his mother had been afraid of him.
Breathing fast again, she said, “I really have to go.”
“Would it help if I came back to Seattle, so we could talk face-to-face?”
Yes. Oh, yes. Please. As her lips formed the words, her eyes stung. She was torn between a desperate desire to see him again and terror that was just as strong. His willingness to let her take their conversations at her own pace had been the reassurance she’d needed. If he had pushed too hard, insisted on trying to delve into her memories, or had shown up unexpectedly, she would have known she couldn’t trust him.
“No,” she made herself say. “I like talking to you, but...”
“All right, Nell. I promised. No pressure. I just find...” He hesitated. “I’d like to see your face, that’s all.”
Her shakiness wasn’t only about panic now. She wanted to see his face, too.
“You’ve been really patient.” He had been. “Given me a huge amount of time. There must be a million things you’d rather be doing.”
“No.” The certainty in his voice was rock-solid. “There is nothing I want more than to help you feel ready to come home.”
Would she ever feel ready?
A sound slipped out that might have been a laugh.
No. Facing her past would be harder than anything she’d done since she escaped from the trunk of the car and shivered her way through that cold night, not knowing who or where she was, only that she didn’t dare go back.
But Nell knew again that if she didn’t reclaim the part of her that was Maddie she would be continuing to live only half a life. Now that she knew she was also Maddie, now that she’d seen pictures of her parents and even the house where she’d grown up, she couldn’t block out the past the way she had.
“I think,” she heard herself say in a voice that shook, “I might come to Angel Butte.”
“I don’t know if it’s home. Nothing I do remember makes me think it is. But maybe...maybe whatever or whoever I was running away from will have shrunk like your dad did. I want to find out there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.”