Authors: J. J. Knight
Tags: #New Adult Contemporary Romance, #MMA, #boxing, #fighting
“Was it your idea?” I clutch at the rail. “Are you the one who found my mother?”
Eve walks over to The Cure and threads her arm through his. “Her name is Marianna. Geoffrey tracked her down. It wasn’t hard. Your birth records were in order, and she still goes by the same name. She moved here just two years after you were born.”
“And you hired her?”
“That was my idea,” Eve says. “I thought having you two in proximity might mean you would become friends first. I never thought you’d recognize each other straightaway.”
My legs feel wobbly, so I sit down on the stairs. “Colt did. He confused her with me.”
Eve lets go of her husband and sits next to me. “You’re a sweet and lovely girl. I’m very sorry if we overstepped. I thought it would go so differently.” She takes my hand in hers. “We don’t really need help here. We can manage on our own.”
“She’s a housekeeper?” I ask.
Eve nods. “She cleans houses for a living. It was easy to bring her on.”
“She left me in the hospital,” I say.
Eve looks up at The Cure. He clears his throat. “She looked for you.”
My head snaps up. “How do you know?”
“She paid for your birth records. Went to the hospital. But she didn’t think to check with the offices for name changes. She didn’t know that you weren’t Joanna Barnes anymore.”
I stand up. My mother tried to find me. I let go of Eve and dash for the front door. The Cure steps aside. In an instant, I’m down the steps and flying down the road.
But after only a block, I stop. She’s still sitting there on the rock. Like she’s trying to decide what to do.
I walk more slowly. The breeze picks up my hair. I haven’t tied it back in ages, not since the attack. But this woman, Marianna — my mother — has hers back.
She watches me approach. Her elbow pins the quilted bag to her side. She’s in a tight little knot sitting on that rock.
I halt next to a stop sign just a few feet from her and wrap my arms around the pole. I need something to hold on to. The world is shifting beneath me too fast.
“So, you’re Joanna,” she says.
“Is that your father-in-law? That difficult man?”
This makes me smile. “Not yet.”
A tendril of hair comes loose and blows across her face. As she pushes it aside, I see a gesture I’ve done a thousand times. It’s like looking in a mirror. “You seem to really love that boy up there,” she says.
I haven’t admitted this out loud to anyone, not even Colt. “I do.”
She nods. “I hope you’ve had a good life.”
I can’t tell her how awful things were. How Grandma died, then Dad, and I got stuck with Retta and Rich. It’s over now. It’s past.
“I’m in a good place right now.”
The unspoken question sits between us.
What about before?
We both know it. I can’t give it voice. She doesn’t want to know what her choices cost me. And I don’t want to revisit it.
She stands up from the rock, and I think she’ll leave me now. That this will be all I ever get of her. That she’ll disappear in the wind again, like my father told me was her nature.
But she says, “Walk with me a minute.”
I let go of the pole and fall into step beside her.
“When I was a young girl, I used to fly into these terrible rages.”
I halt immediately. Her too?
She stops and looks back at me. “I see you know what I am talking about.” She holds out her hand, just like Eve did in the hospital the day I met her. I stare at it a moment, but then I take it.
Her palm is rough and calloused. She has had a hardworking life. “I once hit a boy in elementary school and broke two of his ribs,” she says. “Luckily, he was a bully that no one particularly liked. So, I was more hero than troublemaker.”
We’re closer to the ocean than I realized. We leave the road and cross an expanse of dry grass that ends in sand. Beyond it, the water sparkles blue.
“Your father loved this about me, this unpredictable wildness.” She shakes her head. “But what works well for a girlfriend,” she looks over at me, “makes a terrible mother.”
We’ve made it to the sand now. A lone palm tree juts from the ground. No one is out. It’s just us on the beach for as far as we can see.
“You didn’t give yourself a chance,” I say. I don’t want to sound bitter. But she’s making her story sound all romantic and full of drama. “You left, plain and simple. You were a coward.”
She lets go of my hand. “I was that, yes.” She stops walking and faces me. “On the first night you were born, you cried and cried. Your father left to pick up some things for us. We hadn’t planned any of this very well, starting with birth control and ending with showing up at the hospital with only an hour until you arrived.”
“What made you leave?”
“You wouldn’t stop crying. I got so angry. I felt such rage toward you.” She looks out to the ocean, the wind whipping the loose strands of her hair. Fine white lines around her eyes stand out in the sun. “I picked you up from the little plastic crib.” She hugs herself and rubs her arms, as if she got a sudden chill. “And I almost shook you. I was going to do it. I know I was.”
I stare at her. I imagine holding a baby during one of my rages. Anything could happen. I can feel her fear gripping me. I can see that baby in my hands, its head snapping back and forth because I can’t stop myself.
“So, you left.”
“I left.” She sinks down into the sand and wraps her arms around her knees.
“You could have gotten help. You could have asked someone what to do.”
She traces circles in the sand. “Yes. I could have.”
“Why did you look for me later?”
This gets her. Her fingers trail to a stop. “How do you know that?”
“Very persistent father-in-law.”
She nods. “I grew up. I figured things out. I didn’t know your father died until I searched for his records. But I couldn’t find you. The trail just stopped.”
“My stepmother made me change my name.”
I still tower over her. I don’t know if I can settle beside her. It feels like accepting her and what she did. And I’m not sure I can.
Her eyes rest on the frog pendant. “I remember that necklace,” she says. “Irene liked me. She thought I was good for your father.” Her hands trail through the sand again. “I’m sure she realized how wrong she was.”
“She never spoke badly of you. She would show me pictures of you and Dad.” Then Retta threw them out. The only images of my mother. But now that the real thing is in front of me, I see a hint of that youthful girl from the photographs.
The wind picks up and tosses the waves, sending them into frothy peaks of white.
“You have a brother,” she says. “He’s three years younger than you.”
My knees give out at that, and I sink into the sand. “What’s his name?”
Hudson. I have a brother named Hudson. Seventeen, the same age as when I left home.
I guess she didn’t leave him. “So, you felt better by the time you had him?”
“No. Things were worse. I left him with someone else to raise.”
“You ditched two of us? Didn’t you figure out what the hell birth control was by then?” I stumble to my feet again.
My mother jumps up too. “I had to leave him. I had no way to support myself. No way to keep him. His father was a monster. I just wasn’t willing to let the baby pay for what that man did to me.”
My breathing has sped up. “Where is Hudson now?”
“Here. With me. I got him back. When I figured things out. Then I went looking for you. But I couldn’t find you.”
I walk toward the water. I hope that the peacefulness of the ocean will calm me, but no, the waves are churning even harder than before.
My mother comes up beside me. “I know this is a lot. Tell your father-in-law that I will do the job. I’ll work in the house. Maybe you and I can find some sort of middle place. Not exactly family. But something more than strangers.”
A boat appears on the horizon, just a speck in the distance. I imagine swimming out to it and sailing wherever it takes me. This must be the way of thinking I inherited from my mother.
“I will tell him,” I say. I don’t really want my mother cleaning the house where I live. But I don’t have another suggestion. Maybe this situation is as good as we can do right now.
“Go take care of that boy up there. He looks like a good one.” She turns away from the water and heads back toward the grass.
I stay at the beach a little longer. The wind reaches its zenith, then dies down again. Maybe my father was right. Maybe she is the wind. And when she left me, she spun me into a hurricane.
My mother returns to the house the next morning to prepare breakfast for Colt’s family and me. The tiny dining room off the kitchen is quiet as she brings in a different dish for each person. Colt and I are given protein smoothies.
I can’t help but imagine all the breakfasts I missed, the food she has cooked all her life.
Eve is the first to speak. “Thank you, Marianna. I know our requirements are tedious.”
My mother just nods and sets a pitcher of orange juice on the table.
Colt reaches over and squeezes my hand. He looks better today than he did in the hospital. If you didn’t know what had happened to him, it wouldn’t be clear that a few weeks ago he almost died.
I have no chance to talk to my mother alone as she bustles about. We load up the rented Mercedes and head to the facility where Colt will go through rehab. He gets progressively paler as we bounce along the roads. There is little city here, no wide smooth roads and very few highways. I can only imagine how much pain he feels as the ride jostles him. I’m not even sure what sort of workout he can do yet or if there is any timetable for his return to the cage. Or if he will be able to at all.
But the gym is bright, and a whole staff of people wait for us, not inside, but out on a railed porch. Killjoy is with them, and the two rehab specialists. Then a half-dozen others who look exactly the way I might have pictured as living in Hawaii. Dark hair, beautiful bronzed skin.
Colt manages to hide any discomfort as he gets out of the car. We’re both in our blue fight suits, the way The Cure wanted us to look. A photographer snaps pictures as we approach the new team. Publicity. Colt is barely walking again, but we have to put on a show anyway.
One of the men steps forward, a huge smile across his broad face. He extends a hand and greets each of us. “I am Akoni,” he says. “I am very pleased to have both Gunner and the Hurricane here at my gym.”
We follow him inside. The setup is basic, nicer than Buster’s but certainly not at the level of Colt’s private gym. I realize Colt was right. We are here in Hawaii for me to be near my mother, not to take advantage of the best facilities in the world. I glance over at The Cure, who stands near the door, his hands clasped behind his back.
He did this for me.
Colt strips down to his fight clothes, although he keeps a T-shirt on over the bandages. The two rehab trainers fit him with some stretchy compression-belt thing, I guess to keep him safe as he works.
Killjoy comes over to me. “They’re going to be handling Colt for a while,” he says. “I’ll take over your training. How’s the range of motion on that shoulder?”
I roll my arm in big circles. I still feel a twinge when my arm is up and slightly back, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. I’m not terribly enthusiastic about resuming my own training. I already turned my hurricane over to Colt.
But we work out like we once did, in the easy days, before the world crashed in. Squats across the mat. Kettlebell lifts. Bag punches. My strength and speed are a little less, but they will be regained.
It’s the fighter’s heart that I know I’ve lost.
Colt is on a padded bench, hanging on to a loop of rope. One of the trainers has the other end, and they’ve started him on assisted sit-ups. I can see in Colt’s face how much pain he’s in. Once again I remind the universe,
my strength belongs to him
At the end of that first day, Colt doesn’t even try to look smooth or unaffected by the workout. He lies down in the back of the car, his head in my lap. I run my fingers through his hair, now thicker and longer than I’ve ever seen it. I can see the little boy in him, the way he wants to quit. And me not crying when I recognize it is pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
The Cure and Eve drop us off at the house. They have some dinner to attend. Colt’s father doesn’t look at him as we struggle to get out of the car.
I hold on to Colt as we negotiate the broken sidewalk. I don’t know how we’ll get him up to the second floor. I’m crazy with anger that they’ve put him up there.
My mother is inside, cooking something with garlic. When she sees me struggling with Colt, she hurries forward. “Let me help,” she says.
Beads of sweat are running down his face, and his hands are clammy and cold. We take each step one at a time. Finally, we make it to the landing and into our room. Colt seems to want to fall on the bed, but I don’t let him, easing him down carefully. When he is settled, I turn to my mother. “Thank you,” I tell her.
“I’ll bring up some dinner in a while, after he’s rested,” she says.
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I want to.”
Her hair is swept back again, another pair of earrings dangling down. Looking at her makes me feel as though I’ve passed through a time portal and seen my future self.
“The first day was hard, I guess,” she says.
“Yes, it was.”
She heads back downstairs.
I step into the bathroom and wet a cloth with cool water. Inside is a basin, a bottle of antiseptic, and a sponge much like at the hospital. No showers for Colt yet. It makes sense. I will have to help him.
Colt isn’t asleep, but isn’t really awake either. He barely stirs when I wipe his forehead and neck and take off his shoes.
I’m weary too, but it’s a good tired. The end of a hard day’s work. I know Colt needs to heal, to sleep, to be restored.
I curl up next to him, my hand on his chest. As always, I find his breathing to be a miracle.
No heartbeat. No respiration.
I will never stop hearing those words in my head.