“I know you didn’t. But you and Scott did drag us all into this shit. You did do that.”
“Look, the real reason I contacted you wasn’t for this stupid ghost hunt. It was for the gold. The plan was to locate it on this trip, maybe take a few bars out with us, come back later for the rest. I wanted to share finding it with you.”
“So you just used Emmett and June for their backcountry pass?”
“You have no idea how hard it is to get legal access to this box canyon, and they needed a guide anyway. Abby, I was gonna take care of you. Of your mother.”
“The time when we needed you passed a lot of years ago.”
“I know.” Lawrence sat down beside his daughter. “What did your mother think of your coming out here to see me?”
“Furious at first that you’d . . . after all this time . . . I tried to make her see it wasn’t a betrayal, just something I needed to do.”
“May I share something with you?”
He unlaced his boots, removed his wet socks, propped his bare feet on the hearth. “I was having my morning coffee the day you arrived in Durango, and I had this vision. Least I think that’s what it was. I was a few years older. A little slower. Little whiter. Through some unexpected windfall, I was living in a vast mansion up in the mountains north of town. The house had been built in an aspen grove near a river.
“It was early June, and around midday there was a knock at the front door. I walked through the foyer with a big grin on my face because I knew who it was. I was expecting them. This beautiful family stood on my doorstep—my daughter, her husband, their two kids, Molly and Larry. My daughter and I . . .” Lawrence cleared the emotion from his throat, spoke more softly as he continued. “We embraced, nothing held back. I shook hands with her husband, and he called me ‘Dad,’ and my two grandchildren ran inside and tackled me to the floor. See, this family had come to stay for a while. They had a whole wing of the mansion to themselves, and it was one of those perfect Colorado summers. I taught Larry to fly-fish in the river, and Molly loved to swim, so some days it was just the two of us, and I’d take her pool jumping at Cascade Creek, swimming at Haviland.
“In July, when the wildflowers peaked, we all hiked up to Engineer Meadow, and the flowers were more spectacular than they’d been in years. I showed my grandchildren how to identify the blooms. We even picked a bouquet for their mother.
“The evenings were best. After the kids had gone down, we’d have dinner on the back porch. Candles, wine, lots of laughter, watching the alpenglow fade out on the Needles, and then came the stars, and you couldn’t believe how many there were, and there was no bad history, no pain, and, Abby, you looked at me across the table like I was someone you loved.
“I came out of this vision or dream, whatever you wanna call it, overcome by a devastating emptiness, a sense of total loss. I’ve lived alone in Durango, in a two-bedroom Victorian on Third Avenue, going on twenty years now. I don’t have close friends. There are acquaintances, a brother I talk to on the phone once a year on Christmas morning. Occasional dates, but no real love life. My work’s been my life and love. I’ve demanded absolute freedom, lived on my terms, and I . . .” His eyes were welling up. “I’m just now, at fifty-two years old, beginning to understand what the price of my freedom is. And it’s this. I’ll never have a summer like that one I imagined a few days ago.”
The fire roared now, its heat thawing Abigail’s face, causing an itchy burn in her left cheek. “Lawrence,” she said, “that’s a real sad story. But there’s something you’re missing, and maybe if you figured it out, you might be on your way to changing some things.”
“What am I missing, Abby?”
She looked at his purple right eye, the line of dried blood cracking down his cheek like old plaster. “It’s still all about you. What you lost. What you won’t ever get to experience. It’s about you getting old, feeling empty. I was four when you left, and I didn’t hear from you again until you wrote me about this trip. Not on birthdays. Not on Christmas. Do you know I believed I’d done something to make you leave us? That it was somehow my fault?”
“Abby, you have to know that—”
“And that in some deep and broken part of me, I still believe that? You left us. Mom never married. Practically holed herself up in that house for years, thinking you’d come back. Maybe if I’d had a brother or a sister, it wouldn’t have been so god-awful lonely. When I got into Columbia, you know she had to come to New York with me? ’Cause I couldn’t leave her in Baltimore? ’Cause she had nothing? No one? I didn’t spend college in a dorm. I lived with my mother in a tiny Brooklyn apartment, through two suicide attempts, three commitments, every second spent studying or working so we could eat, so we’d have heat in the winter, waking up, middle of the night sometimes, hearing her talking in the dark as I stood at her door, realizing it was you she was talking to, like you were lying in bed with her. Like you loved her. Even speaking for you. Do you know what that’s like? To hear your mother re-enacting the first time you two met? Fantasizing about a man who’d left her twenty years ago? Look, Mom’s better now, and I’m a big girl, got my own life. This isn’t about me crying for the daddy I never had. But I wish you could’ve been there with me, just one of those nights, seen what you turned her into.”
Lawrence drew back. He got up and walked over to the empty window frame. Several rocking chairs creaked out on the back porch, pushed by the wind. Lawrence looked back at his daughter. Abigail stared up at her father. She wanted to see his face streaked with firelit tears. Wanted to catch just a glimmer of self-loathing or shame in her father’s eyes, though it wouldn’t have changed much. But it might’ve been a start.
Lawrence had gone hard. He scowled, as if deeply offended, and in the light of the flames, his face appeared faintly grotesque and very old.
Oatha Wallace walked into the saloon without bothering to shed his oilskin slicker or knock the snow from his stovepipe boots, tracking great clumps of ice and powder as he crossed the board floor. Lana Hartman sat at the piano, working quietly through the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
The young deputy still snored in drunken bliss beside the stove, wrapped in a bearskin robe, a spittoon between his legs.