card, and we could get cheap drinks. And no college boys breathed on us there. The locals were actually pretty nice.” Heather swallowed hard and pursed her lips. “Look, Nick, Marissa was there the night of the fire. And she was with an older man.”
“Was it her dad?” I asked.
“Not her dad. And not a professor. They were having a real intimate conversation, like they were emotionally entangled with each other. Nick, we all thought she broke up with you because she was involved with this older man.”
“You saw her?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
I’d been kicked in the nuts once, during a high school soccer game, and Heather’s words hit me with the same force. A lung-emptying, heart-stabbing pain.
“She wouldn’t do that,” I said. “I would have known.”
“I guess people were protecting you after she died,” Heather said. “What point would there be to telling you about this man if Marissa was already gone? What did it matter at that point?”
I stopped myself. I remembered how Marissa had acted in the days leading up to the breakup and the fire. She was distant, cold. She wouldn’t talk to me or explain the sudden change in her mood. She always told me everything, but she’d suddenly gone silent. If she had been cheating on me, if her loyalties had been divided in some way, then isn’t that exactly how she would have acted? Wouldn’t she already have been pulling away and shutting me out?
“Don’t you think it’s better you know this now?” Heather asked. “Isn’t it better to know the truth about Marissa, even after all this time?”
“It doesn’t make me feel better,” I said.
“You will. Trust me. You can make a fresh start now.” She folded up the newspaper and handed it back to me. “You can stop seeing things that aren’t there.”
G ina didn’t answer my texts. She almost always did, even when things were bad between us, which they kind of were since she’d called the police on me. Then, when I got to her house—the house she and I used to share—no one answered the door.
I should have left.
I knew to leave. But I didn’t.
Sometimes Andrew played in the backyard, and sometimes he went next door to hang out with the neighbors’ son. So I walked to the back of the house to look.
Andrew was nine and a great kid. He looked a lot like Gina. Dark hair, dark eyes. He was still small for his age, but I figured that would change soon enough. His father, Gina’s ex-boyfriend Phil, was tall, so the kid would eventually get some of that. Still, Andrew and I shared many interests. He liked sports of all kinds, and so did I. He was into monster movies, and he was curious about history. So was I. His father traveled a lot, so there was time for me to play the dad role while Gina and I were married. I’d always wanted to see him more often in the wake of the divorce, but Gina wasn’t ready to go along with that. She thought it would confuse Andrew, since Phil was back trying to play a larger role in his life. My brain told me she was right, at least in the short term. But I struggled to accept a logical argument when I cared so much about the kid.
The voices of children screaming and laughing reached me, and when I came to the back of the house, Andrew saw me.
“Nick!” he shouted.
“Hey, buddy,” I said as he came running over to me. He gave me half of a hug. He was young enough to think it was okay to hug his . . . whatever I was. Father figure? Kind of. Stepdad? Sure.
“Is your mom around?” I asked. The other kids in the yard, four of them, kept up their game. They chased one another in circles and occasionally somebody threw a football.
“She’s at the store.” Andrew pointed behind him. “Candace is watching me.”
I looked up. A teenage girl with long blond hair stood on the neighbors’ deck. I knew the neighbors, the Yarrows. They had a son Andrew’s age, and the two of them played together all