C.E. Poverman is the author of On the Edge, Skin, My Father in Dreams, Solomon's Daughter, Susan, and The Black Velvet Girl. The Black Velvet Girl won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, while Skin was nominated for the L.A. Times Book Award. His stories have appeared in the O'Henry, Pushcart, and other anthologies. He has just finished a screenplay, Baby R, based on a story of the same title which appeared in Ploughshares. He is completing another novel, Grace and Her Sisters.

A Woman In Shades
an excerpt from Love By Drowning

posted Jun 28, 2011

Read more of Love By Drowning:
“Marlin” | “Held Under” | “Still No Call?”

Val walked toward the car, still caught by the glint of the quarter. Several years ago, Val tried to pick it up from the curb for several perplexed moments before noticing Michael crouched behind a tree and laughing at him; Michael had epoxied the coin to the cement. Since then, dozens of passers-by had done the same thing.

Val opened the car door, glanced up at the blazing blue sky of late May, and squinting against the white desert glare, he slammed the door and started walking. God, he hated it when Kazz threw Val's "negativity" at him. What could he ever say when she did that? Still, he couldn't help but wonder if there weren't something he carried which transmitted itself to Michael and which Michael translated into blind rage. Or, if Michael wasn't incubating what had shown up in Davis, though so far standard school tests had revealed nothing definitive one way or other. Maybe it was Val's fears which enraged Michael, fears which Val himself could not longer name or define...

After half a block, he cut down an alley—white dust, prickly pear cactus in bloom, profusions of purple bougainvillea and oleander along walls and back houses, glimpses of the blue of backyard swimming pools. Along the way, dogs threw themselves against their back fences, barked under gates—paws and snuffling noses, bared teeth—Val talking calmly to each as he passed. A startled moment of pleasure when he saw a thin coyote silently cross at the far end of an alley, disappear through the undergrowth of a vacant lot and down into the sandy traces of an arroyo. In the distance, the mountains to the north were flat, purple-brown as they burned up in the sun, almost as if air-brushed against the blue sky. By the time he reached Walgreen's several blocks away, he was sweating, calm and blank.

He sighed as he stepped into the huge drugstore and felt the cool, dry air envelop his moist skin. What was he here for? He started vacantly up a row, remembered: toothpaste. He puzzled over the choices, and picked a box. He walked a center aisle the length of the drugstore until he came to the glass doors of the dairy case. Ice Cream. The frosted metal of the shelves. He opened the glass door; a profusion of milky, frozen moisture rose and curled around his arm and chest as he reached in, chose a box of popsicles.

He started back down the center aisle toward the cash registers in the front, slowing to watch an old man reach for an Ace Bandage with trembling hands, the skin mottled dark brown. The man brought the bandage close to his eyes, turned it over in a microscopic investigation. Val noticed purple-black streaks, bruises, on his arms, perhaps from a recent IV. The man went to replace the bandage on the shelf and trembling, knocked several more down, the bandages rolling at his feet. Kneeling, Val picked them up and replaced them. The old man thanked him in a thin, quavery voice; Val touched the man's brittle shoulder, watched him shuffle toward the prescription counter.

Val turned toward the cashiers in front. As he passed an aisle, he noticed a woman at the other end. Large dark sunglasses, which didn't quite conceal a bruise, perhaps a black eye. From a boyfriend? Something about the woman. She turned and looked in his direction. She seemed to stiffen. Val felt a sudden burn of adrenalin push through his stomach, constrict his chest, felt his heart pound hard up into his neck, his ears.

The woman had several items in her hands. Suddenly, she turned away from him and thrust all of them onto the shelf in front of her, a number falling to the floor. She disappeared from the aisle.

Unable to move, Val looked to where she'd been standing.

Then he came to life and walked quickly to the next aisle—she wasn't there—and the next; he jogged the length of the aisle in time to see the woman walk through the Rapid Check Out, raising her hands to show they were empty, and rush out. She walked quickly to a white car. Val trotted to the front of the store, flung himself toward the doors when a clerk in a red vest suddenly stepped before him.

"Excuse me, sir!"

Confused, Val glanced at the man, who indicated the obvious, Val's hands. He looked down, then handed the cashier the toothpaste and popsicles. The cashier shook his head and stepped aside. Val pushed out into the heat and glare, squinted as the car bounced over a speed bump and sped toward the parking lot exit and street. White. Late model. Indistinct. Maybe a Chevy or Ford. The glass tinted dark black. Still walking quickly toward the car, Val felt someone or something suddenly jerk him back hard, spin him around. The tail of his shirt had caught on the handle bars of a bicycle in its rack. He reached back and freed his shirt—torn—rubbed his neck where the collar had cinched him.

Val shaded his eyes and thought he saw a sticker on the bumper. Rental car? He caught several numbers of the license plate. He stared after the car as it turned into traffic. In a moment it was gone. He reentered the drugstore. The cashier still held the popsicles and toothpaste, had an attitude as he watched Val.

"Sorry. You've seen me in here before. You know I'm not a thief. Thought I saw someone I knew."

The clerk reluctantly surrendered the items to Val, who looked around, drew a pen from a display, tore a piece of paper from a spiral notebook, and wrote down the license numbers he'd been able to get. His hand was shaking.

Catching his breath, he made his way to where he'd seen Lee Anne—it was her, wasn't it? Or was he completely losing it? What would she be doing here? And at a drugstore eight blocks from his house? She wouldn't be. Impossible.

But if it weren't Lee Anne, who was it? Why would a stranger have run from him once she saw—and seemed to recognize—him? No, the woman—it had to have been Lee Anne—must have recognized him. And been surprised. Val stopped where she'd been standing and looked at the things she'd pushed back onto the shelves. Shampoo. Ibuprofen. Tampons. Nail polish. Personal things. They might have been anyone's.

Another possibility occurred to Val. If it had been Lee Anne, maybe he was supposed to have seen her—maybe she'd been waiting for him to leave his house, then gone into the drugstore by another door, gone to an aisle where he'd see her. But why would she do that? That was too paranoid.

She had sent him postcards for the entire time he'd been married. And he had no idea, really, why she did that either. But she had a reason. And perhaps she had a reason for doing what she'd just done, letting him catch sight of her; perhaps it was part of the same reason. Her card: dreamed of you. You were standing in my house. I forgive you nothing.

Val walked to the cashier, paid him, and stepping outside into the heat, walked home through the same dusty alleys; though the same barking dogs threw themselves at the same back fences, Val barely heard them.


Kazz fingered the rip in his shirt, stretched it out. "What happened to your shirt?" She took the bag.

"Oh, just stupid of me, caught it on the handlebars of a bicycle as I was walking by the drugstore.

"And here, your neck. You're raw and bruised."

"It's where the shirt pulled."

"Lately, I think you need a bodyguard.”

Kazzie disappeared, returned with Michael and passed out popsicles. Then she was drawn to sit and watch Julia Child. With his huge feet on the floor beside her, a head taller, Michael sat incongruously beside Kazz, just as he had as a three year old, quietly watching Julia Child burble on, taking it all in with subdued attention, the close-ups of sauteeing onions, now the adding of chicken stock.... He seemed miles away and like a completely different person than he'd been half an hour ago. The three of them quietly ate their popsicles.

Kazz came out of her absence long enough to say, "You're mother still hasn't called."

He went down the hall to the den, closed the door, slumped in an easy chair. Val saw the woman in the drugstore. He'd had a second before she'd turned and looked his way. The shape of the head. The black eye. And then the way she'd moved—was it Lee Anne? Or had he just been primed by the postcard. Would he have thought she were Lee Anne if there'd been no card? Or if the woman hadn't bolted out of the store?

Val reached into his pocket and brought out the crumpled paper with the license numbers. Four out of six. Not much good. He pulled the phone book to him and looked in the yellow pages under rental cars. In the next room, he could hear Julia Child's muffled laugh.

He went to the first one listed, dialed and said, "Uh, hi, I'm a waiter here at La Ventana... a woman forgot her purse at lunch... I ran out to tell her, but she drove off. I got a few of her license plate numbers. I thought the car was one your rentals." He ticked off the numbers, gave Lee Anne's last name.

There was the sound of computer keys clicking and then the voice came back, no, there was nobody by that name renting a car from them... Val called several rental car companies—National, Avis, and Hertz, but there were no cars rented by anyone with that name; maybe she'd used her husband's last name. Which he didn't know.

He circled the den. He was running out of time. Maybe Kazz was right. Maybe he was losing it a little, waiting for his mother's call, imagining whatever might be happening to his father. Maybe he was putting something into the air he wasn't aware of—and had upset the house. Michael. Kazz. Both of them. Negativity? Was he any more positive or negative than the next person? How could a person know something like that about himself?

He sat back down, opened the yellow pages to resorts, and called several hotels, simply asking if there were a Lee Anne Wilder registered. He was in the midst of his eighth call when he pressed down the button and swept the phonebook onto the floor in a crumpling of pages.

He dialed his mother at home and let it ring for a long time, but there was no answer.


Seated between Michael and Kazz in the cool of the movie theater, body a showered essence, Val held Kazz's hand, the tart sweetness of a hard candy lingering in his mouth. On screen, something big was happening, but Val, through the narcotic pay-off of sun and heat and running exhaustion, the vast glaring space of afternoon light filling him from within, allowed himself the pleasure of fitfully abandoning the movie, let himself drift in and out of its sound and images, let it become something else altogether. He gave himself over to the pleasure of feeling Kazz and Michael on both sides of him, the momentary safety of their enveloping presences.


Kazz pushed open the front door, took several steps and then stopped in the front hall. She listened. She held her hand out for Val and Michael to stop behind her.


She took another step forward.


"Sssh." She listened. In a hushed voice, she said, "Someone's been in here."

Michael brushed by her. "Suuur—ure, Mom. Que traes tu? He went down the hall to his room.

"Someone's been in here," she repeated and circled through the living room, the kitchen, bedrooms, pausing, picking things up, putting them down. Val followed her.

"How do you know?"

"I can just feel it. Something's different."

She sniffed the air, picked up a perfume bottle. "Don't you smell it?"

"No, I don't."

"Someone's been in this," she pulled the glass stem from the bottle. "It's still in the air."

Val sniffed. He shrugged.

She looked down at the folded laundry. Most of it had toppled to the floor.

"These clothes... they were stacked on the chair."

"How can you remember where every little thing was?"

"Because I folded them earlier."

"Maybe the pile just fell."

"No, it didn't just fall. Someone knocked it over."

Val decided to humor her, and checking from room to room, he returned.  "Nothing missing. And there are no forced doors or windows."

Kazz said flatly. "Someone's been in here," and started folding and re-stacking the laundry. Val started to ask if she wanted him to call the cops, but what was there to say? Again he walked slowly through the house. The woman with the sunglasses and bruise this afternoon in Walgreen's... He felt something pushing at the edge of him. Too unreal. Something else going on there which had nothing to do with him. Had to be.

It was just one of those Kazzie things. Let it go.


Restless, Val turned onto his back, felt the darkness thicken. He stood. He went into the other room, sat at the kitchen counter and dialed his mother. Still no answer. He abruptly hung up, walked into the bathroom, peed. Recoiled. Some kind of twisted, dark animal—a mouse?—had fallen into the water, drowned trying to claw out. Val saw it was a used tampon, supersaturated with blood, the string tailing out. He quickly flushed the toilet.

In the living room, he turned on the pool light; radiant, nerve-white, it burst into the underside branches of the olive tree. Someone in here earlier? Val walked down the hall to Michael's room, panicked at his empty bed. Michael? The moon and stars and planets glowed pale on the ceiling where they'd been since Michael was a toddler. A blade of hall light hit Skully and Muldar, who stared out from an X-Files poster. Beneath them in small letters: "the truth is out there." A second poster caught a skateboarder, arms outspread, in midair: stamped diagonally, it said: DESTROY EVERYTHING.

Resuming his search, Val glanced onto the back porch, but no, Michael's bicycle was still there. He paced frantically back and forth through the house several times within a spiral of panic before he was jolted to realize that there was a foot, it was Michael's, that he was sleeping on the sofa, half buried in cushions. Something let go in him, anger, relief; he looked down at Michael flung into sleep. For years, Val, too, had done this, slept on sofas, under tables, curled up in corners, as if to avoid being who he was, to experience the disorientation and temporary release of waking up strange to himself. For now, Michael had created the perfect obstacle between them: a boat.

Val looked Kazz's way in their dark bedroom, quietly reached behind the art books and found the manila envelope. In the living room, he switched on an overhead spot which fell in a circle on the dining table. He quietly closed their bedroom door.

He spread Lee Anne's postcards on the table. Fitful fragments. Days, weeks, months, years between. He sank to one knee on a chair, placed his elbows on the table, and scanned them. Across the room, Michael breathed thick and deep from the sofa. Val watched him uneasily for an instant. Michael murmured something, sighed and swallowed, rolled over.

Val picked up a card and read:

those first moments when I walk out from the river bank I kneel I put my eyes to the ice look down below feel something moving know I don't have to stay here any longer

It ended abruptly as did all of the cards, leaving him now, as when he'd first received it, to wonder, what ice? And where? And did she mean that literally, ice? And what was moving?

Where was "here"? He read a succession of cards:

that empty bottle of Clairol in the trash was a mistake the only one or else maybe not

something is always moving one part of me always in disguise from another, that part scares me, which one meant to leave the Clairol, I know but don't know

Two days later, she'd written:

you know, too, but don't know.

At the time Val had been sure that she referred to the picture she'd given him of Davis. Had it been a taunt? What did she think he knew? He picked up several more cards:

I was driving and pulled over onto the shoulder then I knew you had a son

That postcard was postmarked five weeks after Michael had been born; it had shaken Val for days afterward, that she had somehow known.

Another card:

in all fairness to you, let me say I think you saw it, the truth of something about me right away

I leave him, but I can't stay away, I come back everyone asks me why, after all is said and done, I am the last to know, it is because he is exactly wrong, I don't know, someday I'll know

Val sifted through a dozen more which made little sense, read:

Moira's piano came a few weeks ago already it came out of the back of a truck it was wrapped in a quilt I told him I couldn't have it in the house and it didn't matter because it came in anyway it's been weeks of nightmares it just sits there on the other side of the room Moira's Steinway


Once I thought you were my way out. I still think

And it had abruptly stopped, though she had still mailed the card. Out of what? To what?

Some weeks ago there'd been a card with one word:


And then the card, today.

To each card, Val had shaped and reshaped a dozen explanations, enlarged a theory, felt each slip through his fingers. Together, the cards seemed to cover a time from when she'd left some frozen place and gone somewhere; there was something inside—or was it outside her?—that followed her or stayed with her. She'd married a man she detested and who somehow frightened her and to whom she'd left and come back. She continued to resent him, Val, long past any reasonable period of time. There were cryptic references to things he just didn't understand. What, for instance, was the big deal about a piano in the house? Or why was an empty bottle of Clairol a mistake? And what damage was she talking about? Beyond everything, never mentioned but always there, was Davis.

Of course he had thought of writing her back, but something always abruptly warned him: whatever you do, don't contact her. It was as if all the fragile boundaries which he had carefully constructed within himself would dissolve in an instant if he did. And even if he wrote, he didn't believe he could trust anything she'd answer. And what was his response? Why do you write me these cards? What do they mean?

He picked up one of her cards:

some day you'll have to answer me, meantime, your silence is a connection between us impossible to break

Michael suddenly sat up, opened his eyes wide, stared right at Val, but looked through him, and said something. Val swept the cards into a pile... Michael mumbled, swung a foot to the floor, brushed his chest, and eyes still open, fell back and rolled over. A cushion fell to the floor. His breath deepened into a long sigh.

Tomorrow, after Kazz left for work in the morning, he'd burn the cards, be done with this.


Val cut off the shower, dried himself, and wrapping the towel around his waist, stepped out of the bathroom into the droning, high seriousness of "All Things Considered". The sofa was vacated, a pile of cushions on the floor beside it—Kazz had finally succeeded in getting Michael up, and somewhere he was dressing for school. Or, more likely, he'd reappear in the clothes he'd slept in.

Val looked down at his folder and notes. He had an in-service to present at school today–developing trust in the classroom. He turned as he felt Kazzie behind him, sensed what was coming even before she spoke.

"Your mother called while you were in the shower..." She reached for his hand. Her voice went tight. "She's moved your father from the hospital to a hospice." She took a breath.

"A hospice, Kazz?"

"A hospice. She's sorry to have been out of touch, but she's just been overwhelmed the last few days."

A wave of cold nausea went through Val.  A hospice? Somehow he'd imagined the call might come as it had so many times before, he's doing okay, the doctors are amazed... He heard himself say, "How'd she sound?"

"You know your mother. Just doing whatever has to be done, being tough about it."

Val gazed across the table. "Where is she? Does she want me to call her back?"

"Well, there kind of is no back right now. She's in and out, taking care of a lot of things while she looks after your father."

"Where's the hospice?"

"I wrote down the details and directions."

"And what did she say about him?"

"He's spiking high fevers and suddenly much worse. They've got him dosed heavily with morphine."

"Did she have any idea how much time was left?"

"She wouldn't say, but I have the feeling it's only a few days.”

Again, Val pushed back nausea. He looked at the clock. "I'll get this meeting over with and then book a flight to New York. Did she say she wanted me to come?"

"Not directly. But she did say, 'The hospice is open twenty-four hours.'  I think that means she wants you there. Why else would she say that?"

Val walked around the table, straightening his things. "She didn't mention if he—if my father—asked for me—or wanted me to come?"

The silence lengthened between them.

"No, Val, she didn't." Kazz said softly. "I get the idea—I mean, he's on morphine, how aware can he be?" She hesitated. "But whatever was wrong between you, I'm sure he'd want to see you now."

She nodded. Whatever was wrong, Val didn't know the answer to that. He wanted to know his father had asked for him.

Val pulled out the phone book, sat at the counter, and turned to the yellow pages. Airlines. He went back and forth through them, but couldn't bring the words into focus. Kazz gently placed her hand on his shoulder and slid the book to her. "I'll take care of that for you—why don't you get dressed? Did you get some coffee?" He shook his head no. She placed a cup in front of him. He peered into the grain in the counter, lost to himself.

Michael came in, lank hair darkened with water, parted in the middle and combed out full length so it almost touched at his chin and hid his face. He went to the cabinet, got a bowl, filled it to the top with cereal, and without managing to look at anyone, poured so the rising milk forced cereal to overflow and sprinkle the counter and floor; then, dumping two heaping teaspoons full of sugar on top, he walked to the TV and turned on "Bobby's World". His neck was burnished dark from dirt and the metallic green from his neck chain, and he had resisted all attempts by Kazz to get him to bring a wash cloth into contact with it.

Receiver to her ear, Kazz looked up. "Maybe you'd be more comfortable in a white shirt, Michael. It's supposed to be 103 today."

Never taking his eyes from the tv screen, Michael went on eating his cereal.


Val stood before the closet, stared blankly at several shirts, put his hand on one. Drew it out, looked at it, put it back. Took another, pulled it off the hanger and no happier than he'd been than with the first, put it on. Slacks. Socks. He was pulling on the second sock before he noticed a hole in it. He slid into his shoes and stood, changed his mind and took off one shoe. He looked across the room at the picture of Davis. One shoe on and one off, he rose and walked over to the picture. Davis. His hair blown back in the wind. The smile. Triumph and contempt. The spray smoking up around him and Davis bursting out of the dark for a single moment in the flash, the ocean huge and black beyond. Val raised the picture and looked at it. When he turned, Kazz and Michael were standing there.

Kazz said, "Michael's leaving for school."

Val walked toward Michael, tried to kiss him.

Michael ducked his head.

Kazz said, "Kiss your father. He won't be here when you get back."

"Why not?"

"He's flying East to see his father."

Michael didn't say anything.

Val said, "He's sick."

"Yeah, I know. He's got cancer. Is he going to die?"

Val nodded, said softly, "He's going to die."


"Very soon, I'm afraid."

Standing, absurdly, one shoe on, one shoe off, Val took a step toward Michael; as Val leaned over to kiss him, Michael averted his face.

Val gazed down at the sock with a hole in it, slid his shoe back on. Michael started out of the room. He stopped and looked back at Val. Val said "It's okay, Michael. I love you whether you kiss me or not."

Michael looked pained. Kazz shook her head and followed him into the front hall—Val felt the suction of the front door opening, heard and felt its slam. From the window, Val watched Michael walk toward the street. He stopped in front of Celestino's house and looked down into the carport at the boat, a great naked longing on his face, and then he turned and shouldering his backpack, he cut diagonally across the street for the opposite corner where he would wait for the school bus.

Val said, "I can't bring myself to get that boat for him."

"I don't think it's really just about the boat, what he wants. He's been asking me a lot of questions about you and Davis. I did the best I could. I never knew Davis. It's not about Davis, so much either. He just wants something from you."

She reached up and touched her hand to his cheek. "Listen to me a second. I have a reservation for you on an American West flight at 1:15. You'll pick up the ticket at the counter. Gets into New York around ten p.m. That okay?"

"That's fine. Thank you. I'm going to drop off my lesson plans for a substitute. Matter of fact, I'd better make that call now."

"I'll leave work and meet you back here after eleven and help you pack and get yourself together."

"You don't have to."

"I know I don't have to. I want to... I'll drive you to the airport." She put her arms around him and hugged him and he felt shaky and then forced himself to pull back.


He was sitting in the chair when Kazz pushed open the front door, brought a sense of expectation, freshness, her movement through the world which Val always loved. She dropped her purse on the table, walked past him, " Val?" She turned and saw him, stopped. "Packing going okay?"

Val nodded. "Pretty much done."

Kazz picked up his shirts and walked into the other room. Val heard the ironing board squeak and ratchet. In the bathroom, Val dropped toiletries into a plastic bag, wrapped them up, tossed them into a carry-on bag. He stuffed socks, underwear, a light jacket into the duffle, running shoes. Running? All he could think of was the word "hospice".

Suddenly, he returned to his closet and pushed his clothes down the length of the bar with a screech of hangers. A filing cabinet. He opened the drawer, groped under several files, and pulled out a video tape. Printed in block capital letters, the label read: JUNE 11, 1984. MARLIN.

On top, the note from Magnus' wife:

I've thought about you every day for the last ten years and struggled with whether or not I should send this. I know you blamed yourself for Davis, but I think the tape shows something else. You have been in my prayers.

It had come five years ago, and Val thrust it out of sight, had not been able to bring himself to look at it, knew that no matter what it did or did not show, she was wrong.

Kazz walked past him with the shirts. She stopped when she saw the tape in his hand. "Val. What are you doing with that? You're not taking it with you?"

"I think so."

"Why?” She held the ironed shirts in front of her. Her voice was soft, intense, pained. "Why?"

"I don't know."

Kazz shook her head in disbelief, extended her hand for it. "That should have been thrown out the day it came. However well intentioned, she never should have sent you something like this ten years later. God, if there's one thing that's been in the middle of my life with you... " She came to him and put her arms around him. "I'm sorry."

She went to the bed, cleared a space, and with her lips tight, she started expertly folding his shirts, the sight of which filled him with tenderness and self-reproach. When she finished, she said, "Okay, pants, shoes... You've got most everything packed?"

He nodded.

She tucked his shirts into the duffle, went out. He heard the ironing board creak. He looked into the kitchen. She was ironing one more shirt. He reached behind the art books in the shelf, drew out the manila envelope—Lee Anne's cards—and pushed it down toward the bottom. Reached over and took the picture of Davis off the dresser and carefully laid it in on top. From the other room, she called, "Let me make you something quick—you can eat on the way to the airport."


Val took several bites of the sandwich, and then unable to swallow, folded it back into its bag. Kazz glanced at his face. The air conditioning rushed into the car as she drove, neither of them speaking, trailers, industrial parks, low income housing passing as they left the center of the city behind and drove south. When they could just begin to make out the silvery drift of planes flashing in the sun far ahead, Kazz said, "Are you going to go see her, Val?"


"The woman who writes the postcards and never signs them. The ones that are in the manila envelope in your duffle."

"I'm going to see my father, Kazz."

"I was just trying to pack your shirts so they wouldn't crush and I found it." Val looked ahead. She said, "I know that you've kept that envelope behind the books. There was really no need for secrecy. You never hid the cards when they came and she made sure to write on cards so that I could read them, too. Somehow what she wanted. Disruption. Really, there's no secret there."

"No, there isn't."

"You're the one who knows her, Val. The only question is why did you feel a need to save and keep them hidden?"

"I just didn't want you to worry about..."

"That was really considerate of you. They're all postmarked North Cove, Long Island—it's not far from where you're going."

"You know why I'm going East, Kazz. There's only one reason. That's all."

Kazz slowed as she entered the airport complex, eased over for Departures, made her way up the slowly ascending ramp, pulled to a stop.

She turned to Val. She was silent, then said with difficulty, "I know this may sound odd, but are you with Michael and me anymore?"

He looked into her face. What was she seeing in him that he didn't see about himself? "Why would you even ask me a question like that?"

"I have this dreadful feeling. Your taking out that video tape, and those terrible cards. I know the last few days have been hard, stress, your father, waiting, not knowing. But I've felt you pulling so far back."

"Kazz... I'm going to see my father and do whatever I can for him and my mother and I'm coming back to finish the school year."

She leaned across the front seat and kissed him. He hugged her. She said, "Oh, God, your body is just so tense."

"I'll call you when," he hesitated, "I know something."

They pulled apart. She opened her purse and drew out a small box, gift wrapped, and handed it to him. "What's this?"

"It's for your birthday... you're not going to be here. Open it now." Val peeled off the wrapping, opened the box. She smiled. "It was Michael's idea."

Val fit his thumb to the hole in the blade, pushed it open—the serrated blade snapped into place. He pressed the release and closed it. "It's a boat knife. I guess he hasn't given up."

"Tell me you love me."

"I do love you." He kissed her stiffly. "Thank you so much for the present. Tell Michael I love him. Thank him."

Val kissed Kazz again and then stepped out of the car into the heat.