t was a little yellow house, just four rooms and a wreck and a half, but it was close to the center of town and enormous compared with the houseboat. He and Beth didn’t need much space anyway; from living on the boat, she tended to stay within three feet of him no matter where they were. Right now, in fact, she was where she’d been spending a lot of her time since Taryn had left: clamped to his leg.
“Honey, maybe you want to go play with your horses so Daddy can set up your bed,” he said.
But she just clung to him more tightly and shook her head no.
He sighed. “Well, maybe you can help me? You can hold the pillow here, while I connect the pieces of your new big girl bed.”
This at least she agreed to, but still stood right beside him, bending when he bent, stepping when he stepped. At this rate, it was going to take him till Christmas to set up the house.
Was this normal? He was worried that it wasn’t, but he told himself it was, that the child was naturally sensitive, that she’d been through a lot with Taryn’s comings and goings, with her breaks with sobriety, even with sanity. Any child would take that hard, but Beth was particularly tender.
But she had one parent who was completely there for her, loving and present, and surely, in a pinch, that was enough? It had been enough for George and for his siblings, their mother warm and loving enough to make up for their father’s benders. And then, when their mother died at 58 from breast cancer, George himself had tried to fill her role, shepherding his sisters and brothers through high school and off to college. One was a doctor now, one a lawyer, one a teacher, all gone to live far from this sorry place. George was proud of the part he’d played in their success.
Or had he? Maybe he’d had little to do with it, maybe they would have done just fine on their own. He barely heard from any of them now from one month to the next, would scarcely recognize their spouses or children on the street. What he would give to have his mother alive now, for her to know Beth and to sit with them, not even having to say or do anything, really, on a Sunday afternoon.
His phone, jammed into his jeans pocket, buzzed.
“It’s Cora. I thought you’d want to know: They found Darrell and Juliette. They’re fine.”
He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. At most other times, he would have been out there searching along with the family and everyone else in town. But not now, with Beth so needy and everything in their life so tenuous.
“That’s wonderful,” he told Cora. “I’m glad to hear everyone’s all right.”
“LaTonya’s here,” Cora said. “The kids are sleeping now. But I just wondered whether you might want to come over later, for a little celebration.”
He looked around his little rented house, with its torn carpeting that needed to be tacked down and its walls that had to be patched and painted and its kitchen cupboards that needed to be scrubbed if not torn clear out and tossed in the garbage. Then he looked down at Beth, who was gazing up at him open-mouthed.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I have Beth, and there’s just so much to do….”
“Oh, come,” Cora said. “That’ll take care of dinner. And there will be plenty of people to look after Beth.”
Stay here alone with his little girl and wash walls? Or sit with a beer in a big group of people, eating food that hadn’t come out of a KFC bucket?
He’d be there, he told Cora. In fact, he couldn’t wait.