It’s now 3:00 a.m., and Severn isn’t home. This isn’t the first time I’ve waited up for her like this, contemplating all the horrific things that can happen to a girl of sixteen who’s bent on putting herself at risk just to annoy her father. Half a dozen times I’ve tried her cellphone, the one I insist she carries but she never turns on. I’ve even called the parents of most of her old friends, just to see if they have a clue where she is, but most of them simply say that they haven’t seen Severn for a long time, and that they’re so sorry about her mother and hope I’m doing all right. I murmur back my thanks, just as I always do when platitudes are cast my way like spare change to a beggar.
The last time I waited up for her, she finally arrived home at two- thirty. Instead of making excuses, she rolled her eyes and asked me what the hell I thought I was doing sitting up in the living room. Everyone else she knew stayed out late, and none of their parents stared at their watches all night waiting for them to come through the front door. I told her that I knew it had to be rough living with a father who actually cared where she was, but she’d have to get used to it, as embarrassing as that might be for her.
Although the thought makes me sick, I know that during one of her late-night excursions, my little girl has almost certainly found herself pressed against some boy with a hard-on and no fully formed idea of what to do with it. Maybe even Avery. Sure that Helen had talked with her about it before, I asked her once whether she was taking precautions. She looked at me like I’d propositioned her, like I’d violated the bounds of what any man should ask his daughter.
“Not that I think you should be in a position where you actually have to use precautions,” I sputtered.
God, whatever happened to that little girl I held in the crook of my arm at festivals in the park and sang silly songs with? The girl who wrapped her arms around my neck when I came home from school and blew wet raspberries on my cheek? Sometimes when I look at Severn now, she becomes unstuck in time, and I see her at sixteen, ten, and six all at once, her present and past selves superimposed, each blurring the other.
My first class is at eight-thirty. I’ve changed the lesson plan, and I know I won’t be able to sleepwalk through it. I should go to bed, I tell myself. What will another late-night faceoff resolve? I’ll demand that she give me a full accounting of where she’s been. She’ll stonewall me, then seal herself in her bedroom before I get the full story. She knows I’m growing weary of the fight, and I think she resents me all the more for it.
It’s at times like these that I sense Helen looking over my shoulder. She wouldn’t have let Severn brush her off so easily. There was a kind of détente between the two of them. They had their yelling matches, but they also had a tacit understanding of when an argument had gone too far. Within hours of a blow-up, I’d find Helen curled on Severn’s bed, offering her fashion advice or helping her rehearse lines for the school play. The ebb and flow of the relationship between a mother and her daughter is something no man can fully comprehend, much less replicate. My problem is that Severn and I have no neutral territory, no middle ground where we can meet under a flag of truce, and so we remain locked in an unrelenting war of wills.
I pour myself another cup of coffee and pretend to mark grade ten history tests at the kitchen table. My mind plays tricks on me at this time of night. As I shuffle through my papers, I see a shadow move out of the corner of my eye, and my brain reflexively concludes that it’s Helen investigating why I haven’t come to bed yet. She’s been so long a part of my life that all but the most conscious part of me is convinced she’ll suddenly reappear. At this point, I usually remind myself that it’s just an illusion, like the phantom pain of an amputee whose foot was long ago consigned to medical waste. This time, though, I let the fantasy linger before I shatter it, and memories coalesce until she almost becomes whole before me. I feel her touch, smell the warmth of her skin. She wants me to put the papers away. She takes my face in her hands, lowers herself onto my lap. And then it all evaporates, and I feel the same sickening sense of free fall I did when I drove home from the hospital the morning she died.
A cold sweat clings to the inside of my shirt. It was at this very table that Helen first told Severn about her diagnosis. Helen explained to her as best she could about the surgery and the chemotherapy treatments, about how the doctor said there was still hope they’d caught it in time. I could see the fear in Helen’s eyes as she tried to convince us that everything would be all right. Severn could see it too. She looked at me, seeking reassurance that Mom had got it wrong, that it was all a misunderstanding that could be explained away. When Severn read the forced optimism on my face, I think she stopped hearing anything Helen was telling her. I saw a panic building inside her. Her eyes converged on empty space as she tried to grasp how this could possibly be happening to her mother. All she could comprehend was that her world, with all its unassailable assumptions about the future, had just fallen into the sun. Shaking with shock and anger, she turned and left the room. Not a word of solace or comfort for her mother. As we heard Severn’s bedroom door slam shut, Helen’s brave facade dissolved and she collapsed into a series of heaving sobs. The two of them couldn’t face each other for a long time after that. I’m not sure that I’ve fully forgiven Severn for her behaviour that day.
I should sell the house, I tell myself. Escape the apparitions that drag me into a pit of stillborn futures. I should leave town, find a new home for us. Somewhere they never knew Helen, and where Severn isn’t simply the poor, motherless girl. I imagine myself sitting in another kitchen, at a table I didn’t buy with Helen, looking at walls that aren’t covered with her wreaths or copper moulds or stencilled borders. But the walls of this imagined room are bare, as sterile as an oncologist’s waiting room. And where once an unrelenting throb of memories filled me with pain, a consuming emptiness now exists, like a cosmic black hole the size of a nickel, swallowing me from the inside.
I check the clock on the microwave. Five-fifteen.
She’s been run down by a drunk driver. Some paroled sex offender’s raped her and slit her throat. The police will be calling any second, wondering why I didn’t bother to pay closer attention to my only daughter’s safety.
As much as I despaired of the possibility earlier in the night, I begin to hope she’s with Avery, who’s become the least of all the evils I can imagine. I’d called his mother at about ten-thirty, after ruling out all Severn’s old friends. It was a conversation I hadn’t been looking forward to. I was almost glad there was no answer, except that it left me no closer to finding Severn.
I’ve worked myself up too much, I tell myself. Severn will walk through the front door the moment I’ve given up on her, as if to prove a point. This is another one of her tests. She’s waiting for me to blink first, just as I always do. I should go to bed and turn off all the lights. That would show her.
Instead I pick up the phone again.
Avery’s mother answers after only a couple of rings. I expect her voice to be thick with sleep, but it’s not. When I tell her that Severn hasn’t come home, there’s a wary pause.
“I thought so,” she says, as if I’ve just confirmed some suspicion she hasn’t bothered to share. She tells me that when she got home after work, both Avery and the car were gone. His toothbrush and contact-lens case were missing from the bathroom. He’d taken clean underwear, socks, a few shirts, and a tote bag.
“I don’t suppose you’ve noticed if any of Severn’s clothes are missing,” she asks, knowing full well I wouldn’t have, even if I’d looked. Because I’m a man. The implication is that I’m negligent for not having an inventory of her wardrobe ready for just such an emergency. It’s not as if I buy her clothes for her. Nor would she want me to, thank God. And when it comes to laundry, she’d be mortified if I handled her bras and panties, which is just fine by me.
Avery’s mother and I promise to call the minute one of us uncovers a clue that points to where our kids have headed. After we hang up, I go and stand in Severn’s bathroom, trying to decide whether the right numbers of lotions and hair clips are sitting on the vanity.
I’m not sure what I thought would be waiting for me when I stepped inside that Imprint store two days ago. Maybe an eagle-eyed security guard on the lookout for Cruickshanks set to storm the battlements one more time. Jittery staff who’d recognize me as the husband of that lunatic woman with the car. An irate manager eager to finally extract her pound of flesh. At least some lingering scars from the fury our late Toyota brought down upon them. But there was none of that. Instead what I found was a cheerful display trumpeting new arrivals near the entrance where our front bumper once came to rest, as well as a company of fresh-faced young staff, most of whom were probably still in high school when Helen mounted her glorious assault. The place was obliviously going about its business, with no thought to the past. I was just another customer. It was like being a veteran in a Remembrance Day parade that nobody had come to watch. The least the store could have done was have someone give me a dirty look, something to show me that Helen had stung them hard enough that they couldn’t simply forget her after a quick repair job and a fresh coat of paint.
A young woman in an Imprint golf shirt greeted me with a standard-issue smile at the information desk.
“I’d like to see the manager,” I told her.
As I waited, I surveyed the store. Past the magazine racks, in the upscale coffee bar, university students pretending to study were on the make. I’d heard tell that some arts students bought second-hand anatomy books and carted them to places like this just so they would be confused for medical students by eligible members of the opposite sex. Pretending to be something they’re not. In a way, this whole town was about being mistaken for someone or something else. London, Ontario. Not to be con- fused with the other London, the real London. Certainly not by airline ticket agents and baggage handlers. John Graves Simcoe must have been awfully homesick when he named this place. What possessed him, as he gnawed on that first supper of porcupine, to ennoble a mosquito-infested tract of wilderness with the same name as the capital of the empire he served? Not a castle, cathedral, or manor home in sight. His homeland so far removed in time and space that it could be only a faint, teasing memory. Perhaps it was his attempt at satire, a veiled record of his dissatisfaction with his superiors at home.
The voice sounded familiar but out of place. I turned to see Will Graham, Helen’s right-hand man from the days of the family bookshop on Richmond Street, in a yellow Imprint golf shirt. He was a little greyer around the edges than I remembered. Yellow wasn’t his colour.
“It’s been a while,” he said, shaking my hand and patting me on the arm.
Will had jumped ship and gone to work for the competition when the family bookshop was going under. Not that he’d had much choice, given how few hours Helen was offering him near the end. Still, to Helen it had been an act of betrayal rivalling Macbeth’s. I knew that Will hadn’t made the move without remorse. Small and intimate, Donnelly’s Books had been home to him, the kind of quirky place he’d wanted to own himself one day.
“So you’re manager here now,” I said.
“Assistant,” he said, correcting me politely, and overlooking my unintended reminder of how short of his goals he’d fallen.
“You know why I’m here, don’t you?” I asked.
He took me gently by the elbow and steered me past the magazine rack. “Let me buy you a coffee,” he said.
Will is a purebred book hound. He’s one of a dwindling species of book merchants who read everything they sell. I used to play a game with him back at the old shop. Each time I had a few minutes to kill before Helen knocked off, I’d drag out an obscure volume from the back shelves and ask him whether he’d read it. Without fail, he’d give me a synopsis of the text, offer his sly appraisal of the work, and throw in a few shocking tidbits about the author. It didn’t matter if it was the latest new-age take on the Kama Sutra, a Mavis Gallant anthology, or a medieval pilgrim’s guide to cathedrals. I used to think he was snowing me, until I perused a few of the books at home. Then I didn’t question it any more.
He sat me down in a quiet corner, at one of the few tables not taken over by students. Before he started talking, he studied my face, assessing the ravages of my year as a widower and single parent.
“I want to apologize, Irving. They’d already called the cops when I came on for my shift. When I saw it was Severn—”
“She didn’t deserve any special treatment,” I said, perhaps a little too abruptly.
“What’s it been now?” he ventured. “A year?”
I remembered then that he’d spoken to me at the visitation, sounding equally earnest in his sympathy. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t recall much about that day, except the closed coffin and Severn stiff and brittle beside me as we endured wave after wave of condolences.
“How are things at home?” he asked. He expected the real story, unlike most people who asked.
I shrugged. “She’s a teenager who’s angry with the world. Hardly sets her apart from the crowd.” I realized I was drumming my fingers on the table. I curled them in a fist and set them on my lap, out of view.
I could see that my answer didn’t satisfy him. I was being too glib for his taste. But I wasn’t about to relive the past year with him. “There was a boy with her,” I said, getting back to business.
He blew on his coffee. “You want to know if he put her up to it.” I said nothing. I didn’t have to. He understood me. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.” “Why not?”
“You want a biscotti? I should have asked when we were get- ting the coffee.”
“Will,” I said impatiently.
He let his eyes wander through the store as if he was looking for a volume that would help him find the right words for what he had to tell me. But there was no inspiration on the shelves. His gaze settled back on me.
“I don’t think the boy was all that interested in the book,” he said. “But Severn was.”
“How can you be so sure?”
He sat there sizing me up, deciding whether to be straight with me. Finally he got to his feet. We left our coffees on the table, and he led me back through the stacks to the information desk. He pulled a hardcover from the shelves where they kept special orders.
“I set it aside,” he said, then handed it to me. “Have a look at the author.”
The title was Northwest Passage. I read the name below it and felt my cheeks burn. “He was in the store autographing copies that day,” Will explained. It was as if a long-buried prehistoric beast had reached out of the dirt and grabbed me by the ankle, pulling me down into a terrible volcanic layer of my past. Jack Livingston’s smug face smiled back up at me from the jacket flap. His photo was an old one, even though the novel was new. He looked just as he had the night Helen brought him home all those years ago—a man of forty, with Samson-like hair and a supercilious glint in his eye.
Will’s lips twitched sympathetically. He knew that Severn’s shoplifting was the least of my concerns now. “He signed it.”
I opened the front cover. There was Jack’s signature, and above it the words “Dear Irving—Glad to have you on the voyage.”
Will eyed me cautiously. “The book’s outselling Atwood and Ondaatje,” he told me. “It’ll probably be nominated for the Governor General’s Award. You can take it, no charge. With the inscription, it can’t be sold or returned to the publisher anyway.” And then he added meaningfully, “I think you’ll be interested in the story.”
I handed it back to him without even reading the synopsis on the inside flap. It wasn’t hard to figure out from the book’s title where Livingston had got his inspiration, but I wasn’t about to let the bastard taunt me any further. Not after nearly twenty years.
I’ve just hung up from calling in sick to school when the phone rings. It’s Avery mother.
“They’re in Toronto,” she says.
She explains that she remembered Avery has a debit card for one of her accounts. She checked the Web for recent transactions and found that he spent fifty bucks at a bistro in Toronto. In the Beaches, to be more precise. It was more than he’d spend on a meal if he were on his own. A piece of shrewd detective work I wouldn’t have expected from a woman I’d always taken for a bit of a flake.
“It’s not far from his dad’s place,” she says. Avery normally visits his dad on weekends, she adds. She’s tried the condo, but there’s no answer. Dad’s often out of town on business, but Avery has a key.
“What’s the address?” I ask. “We still can’t be certain that Severn is with him,” she says. “It’s a place to start.” I can tell that she’s not keen to have me banging on the door to her ex’s condo. “There’s a blizzard on the way,” she says. “They’re advising people to stay off the roads.”
“I’ve already booked the day off work,” I tell her.
Despite her misgivings, I can sense that, like me, she’s not happy simply waiting by the phone. “We go together, then,” she says.
I’m not particularly enthusiastic about having her along for the ride. At the best of times, the drive down the 401 takes two hours. We’ll feel obliged to fill the long silences, to try explaining our messy lives to each other without really wanting to. Still, I don’t see a way around it. She’s not going to let me look for her son without her. And without the address, I might as well be searching for a contact lens in a snowstorm.
“I’ll pick you up in ten minutes,” I tell her.