Two dangerous words. Very, very dangerous words. And damning, especially from the mouth of a child.
"You promised you would tell me everything. Do you not remember that conversation?"
Katherine Trudeau looked down her nose at her son. Jackson had just turned thirteen that morning, and he was hungry for the information he had been denied for twelve years of that short life. His brilliant blue eyes glinted with anger in sharp contrast to hair so dark it was almost black. "Well?"
"No," Katherine said. "I'm not going to tell you if you're going to act like this," she added, her voice rising with every word. "You don't need -"
"I know exactly what you're about to say," Jackson seethed, cutting her off. "You're going to say that knowing my father's name, for God's sake, will scar me for life. You're going to say that I don't need to see my father because you hate him. And do you want to know how I know that? I know because you've said it a hundred times. A thousand times. And I'm not going to hear it again."
That was the turning point in the conversation. The worst part of it was that it was all true. Katherine was indeed shielding Jackson from his own father because, in her mind, he was a truly despicable man. She couldn't even come up with a reason that he was so dreadful. He just was. And even though Jackson was being awful, she didn't want him to be poisoned by that man. She didn't.
As the blood rushed to Katherine's face, her fist swung. Jackson ducked, but instead of stepping to the side as he should have, he backed up, and his back was against the wall. Not a good position. He was hyperventilating, but Katherine wasn't about to stop. "If you want to see your daddy so badly, get out of my house," she whispered. "Get out of this room. Get out of this house. Get out of this town."
Swallowing, Jackson nodded and went to move away. Then Katherine went with an open hand, slapping the side of her son's face with such force that his head whipped around on his neck. Jackson made a sort of choked sound, but he didn't let the scream escape. That was synonymous to announcing defeat. His left cheek burned red, but the tears failed to roll. His hands trembled as he formed feeble fists in defense, but Katherine smacked them aside like the Hulk swipes at a car and grabbed Jackson's wrists. The boy struggled, but he was no match for the strength of ferocity.
"I am a single mother, you ingrate," Katherine said, her voice still menacingly low. She was much too good at proving the theory that a softer voice is far more terrifying than yelling. "I have provided for you. I have thrown my life away for you. And what do you want? Another parent. You want another parent. You don't care about me at all. You want your daddy. He might as well be a mythical creature to you, isn't he? If he is, he's Hell. He's Hades. Do you want that?"
Jackson dipped into the last reserves of courage he had left. "If he's Hades, you're Eris."
A crushing blow to his eye followed nanoseconds later. There was the splintering sound of cracking bone, and it was all magnified inside Jack's head. Stars, burning flecks of light, danced in his field of vision as darkness seeped in from the edges. He blinked, determined not to pass out from the strike. The pain itself was blinding even as his left eye began to swell shut. Now the tears came as he lost control, and he found himself screaming. With shame, he listened to himself shrieking, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" without any meaning attached to the words.
Katherine's hands had been on his shoulders, but she let go, stepping back in a way that didn't seem to be of her own volition. Her piercing stare was distant; she was looking past Jack rather than at him. There was nothing but the wall, papered in a fading floral print, behind him, and he didn't have to look to know that the wall wasn't what she was looking at. His mother wore the hooded gaze of introspection. "Get out of here," she whispered.
Obediently, Jackson did as he was told, remaining flattened to the wall and flinching every time Katherine moved a muscle. His head was pounding, but he still knew what he had to do.
Once he shut the door behind him, Jackson sprinted into the hot July day. Down the road, there was a pay phone, and that was where he was headed. He ducked into the booth and locked the door without anyone having seen him. When it was closed, the air inside was stifling, but Jackson took deep, shuddering breaths of it. The tears had been threatening him again, pricking at the backs of his eyes, but he was able to stave them off for a little while longer. Now he felt slightly dizzy, like his head was full of cotton, but he ignored it.
He picked up the receiver, fed the phone a few quarters, and dialed a number from memory, crossing his fingers once he had punched in the last number. If he hoped hard enough, his mother's friend might answer her phone. Rhonda had said that if Katherine didn't tell him about his father, like she had reckoned would happen, she had the information and would gladly give it to him.
"Hello?" said Rhonda, her deep Southern accent booming through the receiver.
"Hi," Jackson managed. "It's me, Jacky." He didn't know why Rhonda always called him Jacky, but he found he didn't mind it too much. "You were right. Mom didn't tell me," he continued. On the last couple of words, the shakiness made his voice wobble. Thankfully, it would just sound like static on the other side.
"Of course she didn't," Rhonda replied. She let out an enormous sigh that sounded like a prolonged burst of interference. In real life, that sigh sounded more like the kind a lion would release once it finished a bloody meal. "Did she tell you anything at all?" she inquired.
In an attempt to lighten the situation, Jack replied, "Does, 'Get out of my house' count?" It was a miracle that his voice didn't crack when he tried to force laughter.
The remark achieved the desired effect. Rhonda laughed, her jollity larger than life. "No, sonny boy, that doesn't count, and you know it. You're smart for being thirteen, and you know that, too. Now, this is my birthday present for you, okay? I'm gonna tell you everything I know."
Jackson smiled thinly in the phone booth. Behind the frosted glass, his twisted, swollen features were invisible, but he knew he looked hideous. "Thanks, Rhonda."
"Save the thanks for later, Jacky. I don't even know if this number's right anymore, but I know the name is, at least. Your daddy's name is Chris Ripley. I should know, because your momma talked about him all the damn time. He should still be living in Colorado, in a little place called Vail, and if he is, I can guarantee you that at the very least, the area code is right. You got a piece of paper?"
Jack nodded, forgetting he was on the phone. Realizing his mistake, he answered, "Yeah," fishing a sticky note and a pen out of the pocket of his shorts. He listened as Rhonda read off the number twice, his heart pounding in his ears. "Thanks, Rhonda," he said when she was done. "Thanks a lot."
"Happy birthday, Jacky," Rhonda replied. Without another word, she hung up. Such an abrupt end to the conversation felt a little odd, but Jackson shrugged it off, seeing as Rhonda's behaviors were often far from typical. Digging more quarters out of another pocket, he put down the receiver and caught the unused quarter that was ejected from the machine. He probed his eye with his finger and winced. It was only going to hurt a lot more later. Picking up the receiver again, he dialed what was hopefully his father's phone number.
With each repetition of the sound, Jackson's hope melted away, an icicle in rising heat. When it was almost gone, someone picked up.
It was a woman's voice, clear and soft yet low. Jackson imagined that a supermodel was on the other end. That was the only conceivable explanation for a voice like that. "Hi," he answered. His palms were sweating and his entire body was quivering. "Are you … Do you know Chris Ripley, by any chance, ma'am?" The question wavered as it was spoken, but at least it got out.
"Yes, I do," the woman answered. "I'm his wife, actually. What do you need?"
Jackson froze. The woman on the other end of the phone, the supermodel, was his father's wife. The revelation was almost too overwhelming. He wondered whether she'd figured out that he was just a kid yet. "I … Um …" He froze. He hadn't thought that far ahead. "My name is Jackson, and -"
"Stop right there," the woman said, her tone not forceful but astonished. "Jackson? Jackson Trudeau? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God," she breathed.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm Jackson Trudeau."
There was silence on the other end for a moment, and then a long, composing sigh and a whisper of, "Dear God." Another sigh, this one less explosive, followed. "Happy birthday, Jackson," she said finally, her voice surprisingly even. "I would tell Chris, but he's working right now. Do you want me to ask him to call back later?"
If it had been an ordinary day, and if it had been safe for Jackson to take a call on the phone in his mother's house, and if it had been safe for him to even be in that house, he would have said, "Sure". But he couldn't. He couldn't go back. Not today. Maybe not for a long time, if even ever. When Katherine had gotten so angry, he could tell that she'd had it bottled up for years. She'd never truly been able to handle the fact that Jackson was his father's child as well as hers. "Thank you, ma'am, but no," he replied. "I'm calling from a pay phone."
"Why?" she asked. "Do you not have a phone at home? If you don't, that's fine, but …" She trailed off, unsure how to complete the statement.
Jackson exhaled audibly. Part of his mind told him not to tell this perfect stranger what had transpired that morning, but the other part of him knew that he would be telling them both later anyway and that any other explanation, unless worded with great care, would be a lie. So, quietly, his voice quavering, he told her everything. Before he finished his account, he was hiccupping in an effort to keep himself from sobbing. The floodgates broke anyway, and tears streamed down his cheeks, burning the tender skin of his eye and the left side of his face.
His father's wife, whose name he still had not yet gleaned from their conversation, was speechless for a long few seconds. Jackson had to feed the phone another quarter in the silence. Eventually, she murmured, "Jackson, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry you had to go through that." There was a hitch in her voice as she spoke that was evidence that she had more to say on the matter, and she wasn't going to say it. "Where are you? Is there a place you can stay safely for the night?" she asked instead.
"I think so," Jackson answered, thinking of Rhonda for a second or two before discarding the idea. She would fret far too much over the mess that was his eye. "What's your name, ma'am?" he asked suddenly. The idea had just been on his mind before she had last spoken.
"It's Daniele. You can call me Dani," she answered. It sounded like the name of a model. "I should have said that earlier," she added apologetically. "Where do you live, Jackson?"
There was another long silence in which Dani seemed to be pondering the best course of action. "I'll be there soon. Will ... will you be OK in the interim?"
"How long is the interim?" Jackson inquired despite the fact that he'd intended to thank her a hundred times. If it was going to be a long time, he would definitely have to find a place to stay.
"About six hours," Dani replied. "Chris won't be home for another few days … Wait. Wait. Hold on. He's closer to you than I am. Can you stay for a couple of minutes? Call back in five."
"Just call me Dani," she said. Before Jackson could respond with something along the lines of "Thank you", she'd hung up.
Dani paced around the kitchen of the modest townhouse she shared with Chris. Her mind was reeling with all she had just been told and the sheer reality of it. She knew that if she dwelled on it too long, she would be overwhelmed. As it was, she was fighting the urge to sit in a corner with her knees up to her chest and cry. With an unsteady sigh, she picked up the phone again and dialed the number Chris had given her if she needed to call him while he was in Virginia on business.
He picked up on the first ring. "Hey, baby," he said. "What's up?"
"Do you have a few minutes?" Dani asked. "Because I've got a lot to tell you."
"Yeah. I have some time. What's got you so worked up? You need to breathe."
"I'm not going to breathe until Jackson is safe with either you or me," Dani said fiercely, her protective manner more than a little maternal.
Chris made a strangled sound like the lovechild of a gasp and a shout. "Excuse me?" he asked. "How did you find him?"
Dani didn't realize how much a story could hurt until she told her husband what his son had told her not an hour before. Her chest was tight and she felt like she was going to throw up.
Softly, Chris mumbled, "Dear God." Dani imagined him running his fingers through his dark hair and pacing as far as the cord of the phone would allow him to. "So he's out there without anyone to turn to. What a mess. What a goddamn mess." He sounded like he was in shock, his tone distant and empty. Dani knew that would change the moment he laid eyes on Jackson.
Then he started to yell, holding the phone away from his ear so as not to expose Dani to the full force of his anger. "I knew this was going to happen! I knew it and I did nothing! Nothing! I didn't try to contact Katherine. I didn't even try to contact Jackson, for Christ's sake! I am a failure as a father, and this is what I've done!"
Within those few sentences, sheer rage gained dimension. "Oh, God," he said. "What … What have I done? Dani, what have I done?"
Dani could hear the oncoming tears in her husband's voice. "Chris," she said soothingly. "It will be OK. It will. I promise. Will you be able to break away?"
"I don't know. I really, honestly don't know," he replied. Then, as if talking to himself, he added, "If he's in Atlanta … Getting there won't take long … Maybe …" His voice rose in volume again. "I … I won't be able to," he said, his voice breaking. "Today … Today is a terrible day to be conducting any business, but it is … fuck this!" he shouted. "Fuck this! I'm leaving. Fuck this. Fuck everything. I'm leaving." He hung up then, and Dani could only sigh.
Chris was going to be angry at himself for at least a few more days, if not longer. Though he now ran the risk of getting fired, Dani knew he didn't care. No matter how much money he was making - and it was a lot - he was still stuck in a dead-end job. He wanted out. This served as an excuse to run. He would later be hit by a bullet train of remorse for even second-guessing leaving that would manifest in tearful apologies and days of moping around. It had happened before. (Not this specifically - this was something Dani would readily admit was a first - but something similar. She had called him in the middle of a meeting, and he had considered staying for the last fifteen minutes of the meeting before getting up and walking out the door. For days afterward, he had told her he was sorry for ever having put work before her about five hundred times.)
Dani picked up the phone again when it rang.
In the airport, Chris sat with his head in his hands once he reached the right gate. After all this time, he was finally going to see his son again. When he'd woken up that morning to find out they were both gone … Suffice it to say that had been the worst day of his life.
Yes, he'd done wrong before. Everyone did. He'd gotten in a few fights with Katherine. They were nothing serious. They started most often with the question, "When are we going to get married?" At that point, he had barely been making enough money to pay the rent on a crappy apartment in Denver, and would say so, which always proved to be a big mistake. (Jackson had been, too, in a way, but he was different. He was a happy accident, worlds away from a mistake.)
Now a headache pounded in his skull. He hated flying, but if he was going to reach Jackson before Katherine found him, he needed to move. He had packed in a frenzy, leaving a good amount of stuff behind, but he'd moved. Reaching into his pocket, he swallowed a couple of tablets dry, prepared to suffer for it later. His hands shook as he screwed the cap back onto the bottle. He was afraid of what Jackson would say to him. He was afraid that Jackson would be angry at him for leaving him behind. If he was, Chris knew he would deserve the pain, but he also knew that it would hurt. He hoped Jackson wouldn't mind Dani, too. It occurred to him that he'd forgotten to ask her if he had seemed all right with her existence. He didn't know what he would do if that wasn't the case.
That would all be figured out once he got to Atlanta. For now, he wasn't going to think about it. What was the phrase? Ah. He would cross that bridge when he came to it.
Jackson paced nervously at the baggage claim. He knew from Dani where to look.
• Baggage Claim C
• A Concourse
• Flight 26702
Those three specifics were written on another sticky note that Jack held in his hand. It was faded from rubbing, since he'd fidgeted with it on the entire bus ride to the airport, but still legible. He didn't write down his father's description. It was going to stick in his mind no matter what. Dark brown hair, light blue eyes, tall, slender, and a smile to light every room in the known universe, was what Dani had said. Wearing a suit, without a doubt.
On the arrivals board, the number 26702 flashed. Jackson kept his eyes open for the battered forest green case Dani had told him to look for. His stomach felt not as if butterflies were in it, but like angry bees were staging cage matches in it.
Then he saw him. A man in a dark blue suit, impeccably creased, lifting an old case from the conveyor belt. He had been so sidetracked in his anticipation that he had forgotten to look.
For a moment, he considered shouting "Dad!" or something along those lines, but reconsidered the notion. Instead, he walked up to Chris Ripley and tapped his elbow from behind. A mere moment after doing so, he was wrapped in the warmest hug he had ever felt in his life. "Hi," he murmured.
When his father let go, he had tears in his eyes. Gently, he brought his hand up and stroked Jackson's unharmed cheek. "I'm sorry," he whispered, bowing his head. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"It's OK," Jackson replied.
Somehow, it was.