hen it came right down to it, there wasn’t that much to take. His medical bag, of course. A few clothes, his favorite old ones he’d never be able to duplicate. Beth’s toys. Family pictures, the ones that didn’t break his heart. HIs passport.
“Where’s Mommy?” Beth asked, wide-eyed.
“Mommy had to go away again,” George said, packing the little girl’s stuffed animals in a laundry bag. “She’s not going to live with us anymore.”
“She said she was going to live with us now forever and ever,” said Beth, tears pooling in her eyes.
“It’s better if it’s just you and me,” he said. “Mommy’s too sick to stay with us.”
“She’s not sick,” said Beth. “She said she was all better.”
“Just be quiet now and find everything you want to take with you,” snapped George, instantly sorry. He put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder and squeezed by way of apology, but there wasn’t any time to stop and spend time soothing her. Taryn had texted him that she’d be late, her hairdressing appointment, if that had ever existed at all, stretching to fill the whole day. Where had she really been? Up at one of the meth cabins in the hills, smoking her brains out? Selling the pills she’d stolen from him, or fucking some lowlife in exchange for more?
He shivered at the thought of it. Never again. This was it. The end.
“Come on,” he said to Beth. “Time to go.”
The wind had whipped up outside, which was what gave him the idea. At first, he’d imagined waylaying Taryn outside, telling her it was over, he didn’t want her back in.
But she would fight that, he knew, yell and scream, and Beth would hear, and it would be an even worse nightmare than it already was.
Then he got the idea to pack everything up and take Beth into town, stay at the Barstow or wherever, until he was able to find another place for them to live. Let Taryn have the houseboat. Let her cook meth in its kitchen, blow the whole fucking thing to smithereens. As long as she never tried to be part of his life again, she could have everything he owned, everything he cared about — everything except Beth, that was — and do whatever the hell she wanted with it. He’d built this place after falling in love with her, as a home for their happiness. Now he never wanted to set foot in it again.
But then, when the wind started howling in advance of another spring front moving in from the plains, when he heard the creaking of the ropes straining against the old wooden pillars of the dock and felt the lurch of the boat on the waves, he had another idea.
Outside, a horn sounded. Taryn had taken the car, LaTonya was a work, he hadn’t been sure who to call.
Then he remembered Cora. He should look in on Senior anyway, and George guessed Cora owed him a favor, though he felt much more comfortable on the giving than the receiving end of those. But he knew he had to act now or he’d lose his nerve once again, find himself falling back as he’d done so many times before into Taryn’s arms. Believing her lies, giving her just one more chance, letting himself love her when he knew he’d be safer drinking lighter fluid.
He hoisted his daughter into his arms. “Let’s go, sweetheart,” he said, into her sweet-smelling hair.
Cora’s car was warm against the spring chill of the evening and he buckled Beth into the back seat. Then he ran back and retrieved their suitcases, stowing them in the back beside Beth.
“Thanks for coming to get us,” he said to Cora.
“That’s all right,” she said. “You got me away from my crazy family.”
“I’ll be there in a minute,” he told her. “I just have to do one more thing.”
He remembered the day he’d tied the houseboat to the dock, fashioning the knots so strong that nothing could ever loosen them. He’d practiced those knots when he was a boy, dreaming of sailing around the world. His guide had been an ancient book he’d gotten for a nickel at a library sale, the elaborate knots undoubtedly long since outmoded on the high seas. But he’d practiced them at night, in his bottom bunk, until he could do them when there wasn’t even any moonlight, his fingers tracing the loops and the lines.
Anyone else on earth would need a hatchet or a torch to undo this knot, but George knew there was a trick, and in less than a minute the first big rope was loose, one corner of the boat already pulling away from shore, and then he had the second one free too.
He thought he’d need to push the boat out into the lake, had imagined even jumping into the lake, wading out as far as he could, maybe even swimming alongside it as he towed.
But nature took care of what he knew in his heart he’d never be able to manage under his own steam, the boat drifting from land and then, caught in a current and propelled by the wind, moving out into the water more quickly than he would have thought possible.
“Goodbye,” he said aloud, hearing his voice catch in his throat.
He was mortified to feel tears spring to his eyes and thought that he could easily break into sobs right here. But he couldn’t let himself do that. Beth was waiting, Cora was waiting, Taryn might be just around the bend at this very minute.
He half-jogged to the car, willed himself not to look back.
“I had to do that,” he told Cora, in the car.
She put the car in gear, pulled away. “I understand,” she told him. “I had to do something like that recently myself.”