“Let me pour the coffee,” he said.
Returning a minute later, he set both mugs on the coffee table, but chose to sit in a chair facing her rather than beside her on the sofa. Some distance might be healthy for him. He was feeling entirely too much for a woman he had seen briefly two weeks ago, then had dinner with tonight. Barely an acquaintance.
Except, he reminded himself, for those half-dozen phone conversations, some which had been an hour or more long. Except for the fact that he’d kept the photograph of fifteen-year-old Maddie hanging where he could see it daily for twelve long years.
Nell cautiously sipped her coffee, then offered him a hesitant smile. “You remembered how I like it.”
“Being observant is a requirement for my job,” he said, too abruptly.
Her smile went away and after a moment she nodded.
“Yes, memories stirred, but nothing meaningful. When I saw the house, I knew it. I could have walked in, closed my eyes and gone right to my bedroom, or to the drawer where Mom keeps the silverware. If I’d opened the refrigerator, I wouldn’t have had to think to know the milk would be on the door and which shelf the margarine would be on.”
He nodded. Memories like that were as much physical as anything. Like riding a bike, something you could do without even thinking.
“I could see the ways they’d aged since then. And...okay, I never even thought of casting myself into their arms. Which would suggest they never were huggers.”
“Probably.” He hoped someone since then had loved her enough to give her plenty of hugs. The contained way she carried herself made him doubt that had ever happened, though.
“No alarms,” she said. “I mean, it all felt scary. You know?”
Colin nodded. She had hidden her fear, but he’d known it was there.
“I think, if either of them had ever hit me or...or anything like that, I would know.” Those big caramel eyes pleaded for his agreement.
“Is there anything like that in the memories you do have?”
She shook her head. “But none of them are important memories. The kind of thing you expect to hold on to, like birthdays or winning the big game and Daddy grinning with pride, or...” She seemed to run out of ideas. “They’re random bits. A voice, the way Mom turned her head to look at me. Dad telling me what to do. Sometimes the memory is more me in relation to them than actually seeing them, if that makes sense. Like when I passed the turnoff to Mount Bachelor. I felt myself slumped in the backseat of the car, wishing I could have stayed home because I hated my ski boots and knew I was going to be cold and that I’d be stuck alone anyway because I was scared of the steep runs. I knew Dad especially was disappointed because I was timid and not the kind of athlete Felix was, and Mom would be irritated because I’d probably forgotten something like my gloves or goggles or I’d have to go to the bathroom even before we headed up the hill and they’d all have to wait for me.”
He had no trouble seeing skinny, almost-homely Maddie sunk in misery. The unhappiness infusing her voice rang painfully true. Her body language had changed as she talked, too. She had curled into herself, as if she’d gotten lost in the memory until she couldn’t separate who she was now from the young Maddie.
What she was describing wasn’t abusive by anyone’s standard, but it fit with the unhappiness and doubt he had seen in her eyes back then, in every photo published in the newspaper or on the ubiquitous flyers that said, Have You Seen Our Daughter?
“But surely I wouldn’t have run away just because my parents weren’t the warmest people on earth.” Lines crinkled her forehead as she looked at him in perplexity. “And...wouldn’t I remember if there was something really bad? Wouldn’t it make more sense if that was what I did remember?”
“No.” He knew he sounded harsh, but he was battling an inexplicable desire to blunder over to her and take her in his arms. “When memories get repressed, it’s always the bad stuff, Nell. We can stand a lot of unhappiness. It’s the unbearable that gets shoved deep.”
She shuddered. “I’ve always known,” she said after a minute, “that what I don’t want to remember is bad.”
Colin had never much liked touching other people or being touched. Too many years on his own, he guessed. He liked sex as well as the next man, but never let relationships become intimate in other ways. Sitting on the sofa at the Dubeau home tonight, holding Nell’s hand, he’d been stunned by the realization that he hadn’t held anyone’s hand since Cait was a little girl. But Nell... He wanted to touch her.
Or was it Maddie?