The Last Thing He Told Me

2.5 Not Everyone Is a Good Helper

chapter
Chapter

When we get back to the hotel, we order grilled cheese and sweet potato fries
from room service. I turn on the television. There’s an old romantic comedy
playing on basic cable—Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan 􀏯nding their way to each
other, against all odds—its familiarity a sedative. It lulls us. Bailey falls asleep on
her bed.
I stay up, watching the rest of the movie, waiting for the moment I know is
coming, Tom Hanks promising Meg Ryan that he has her, that he will love her.
For as long as they both shall live. Then the credits roll. And it’s back to the dark
hotel room in this strange city and it returns with a terrifying jolt: Owen is gone.
Without explanation. Gone.
This is the terrible thing about a tragedy. It isn’t with you every minute. You
forget it, and then you remember it again. And you see it with a stark quality:
This is what is required of you now, just to get along.
I’m too riled up to sleep, so I start going back through my notes from the day,
trying to construct another way to utilize the wedding weekend to spark Bailey’s
memory. What were she and Owen doing in Austin besides going to the
wedding? Was it possible they were here longer than that? Maybe Bailey isn’t
wrong. Maybe that’s the reason the campus looked familiar to her. Did she
spend more time there than that one weekend? And why?
I’m relieved when my phone rings, interrupting my thoughts. No good
answers to my questions.
I pick up the phone, JAKE coming up on the caller ID.
“I’ve been trying to reach you for hours,” he says.
“Sorry,” I whisper. “It’s been a long day.”
“Where are you?”
“Austin.”
“Texas?” he says.
I head into the hallway, gently closing the hotel room door, careful not to
wake Bailey.
“There’s a longer explanation, but essentially Bailey had memories of being in
Austin when she was young. I don’t know, maybe I pushed her to think she had
memories of being here. But between that and Grady Bradford showing up at
my door… I thought we should come.”
“So… you’re chasing leads?”
“Apparently not well,” I say. “We’ll be on a plane home tomorrow.”
I hate hearing how those words sound. And the thought of going home to an
Owen-less house is terrible. At least here I’m able to harbor the illusion that I
can help bring Owen back to me, that Bailey and I, together, can do that.
“Well, look, I need to talk to you,” Jake says. “And you’re not going to like it.”
“You’re going to need to start by telling me something I will like, Jake,” I say.
“Or I’m hanging up on you.”
“Your friend Grady Bradford is legitimate. Great reputation in the service.
He’s one of the go-to guys in the Texas bureau. The FBI often brings him on
when a suspect goes missing. And if he wants to 􀏯nd Owen, I’m guessing he
will.”
“How is that good news?”
“I’m not sure anyone else can 􀏯nd him,” Jake says.
“What do you mean?”
“Owen Michaels doesn’t exist,” he says.
I almost laugh. That’s how ridiculous those words sound—ridiculous and, of
course, wrong.
“I’m not saying you don’t know what you’re talking about, Jake, but I can
assure you, he exists. His daughter is sleeping 􀏯fteen feet from me.”
“Let me rephrase,” he says, “your Owen Michaels doesn’t exist. Besides a
birth certi􀏯cate and social security number that match, for both Owen and his
daughter, the rest of the details are inconsistent.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The investigator I was telling you about, and he knows what he is doing,
says that no Owen Michaels exists that 􀏯ts your husband’s biography. There are
several Owen Michaels who grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and a few who
attended Princeton University. But the only Owen Michaels on record who
grew up in Owen’s hometown and attended Princeton is seventy-eight years old
and lives with his partner, Theo Silverstein, in Provincetown, out on Cape
Cod.”
I’m having troubling breathing. I sit down on the hallway carpet, my back
against the wall. I can feel it. A knocking in my head, a knocking in my heart. No
Owen Michaels is your Owen Michaels. The words moving through me, unable
to 􀏯nd a home.
“Should I go on?” he says.
“No thank you.”
“No Owen Michaels purchased or owned a home in Seattle, Washington, in
2006 or enrolled his daughter, Bailey, in preschool that year or had a registered
income tax return anytime before 2009…”
That stops me. “That was the year he and Bailey moved to Sausalito.”
“Exactly. That’s where the record for your Owen Michaels starts. And from
then on pretty much what you told me matches up. Their home, Bailey’s
schooling. Owen’s work. And, of course, it was smart of him to purchase a
􀏲oating home as opposed to a real house. Less of a paper trail. He doesn’t even
own the land. It’s more like a rental. Harder to trace.”
I put my hands over my eyes, trying to stop the spinning in my head, trying to
get steadier.
“Before they arrived in Sausalito, I haven’t found one piece of data that
supports the story your husband has told you about his life. He went by another
name or he went by his current name and just lied to you about every other
thing. He lied about who he was.”
I don’t say anything at 􀏯rst. Then I manage to get out the question. “Why?” I
say.
“Why would Owen change his name? The details of his life?” he asks.
I nod as though he can see me.
“I asked the investigator the same thing,” Jake says. “He says there are usually
two reasons why someone changes his identity, and you’re not going to like
either of them.”
“No kidding?”
“The most common reason, believe it or not, is the person has a second
family somewhere. Another wife. Another child. Or children. And he’s trying to
keep the two lives separate.”
“It’s not possible, Jake,” I say.
“Tell that to a client we have now, this oil magnate billionaire who has a wife
in North Dakota at his family’s ranch and another in San Francisco in some
mansion in Paci􀏯c Heights. Down the street from Danielle Steel. Twenty-nine
years he has been with both women. Five children with one, 􀏯ve children with
the other. And they have no idea. They think he travels a lot for work. They
think he’s a great husband. We only know about his dual families because we put
a will together for him… that’s going to be a fun estate reading.”
“What’s the other reason Owen might have done this?” I say.
“Assuming he doesn’t have another wife hanging out somewhere?”
“Yes. Assuming that.”
“The other reason someone creates a false identity, which is the working
theory here, is that he’s involved in some sort of criminal activity,” he says. “And
he ran to avoid trouble, to start a new life, to protect his family. But, almost
across the board, the criminal gets in trouble again, which is his undoing.”
“So that would mean that Owen was in trouble with the law before? That
he’s not only guilty of what’s happening at The Shop, but he’s guilty of
something else too?”
“It would certainly explain why he ran,” Jake said. “He knew when The Shop
imploded, he’d be outed. He was more worried about his past catching up to
him than anything else.”
“But, by that logic, isn’t it possible he isn’t a criminal?” I say. “That he
changed his name to escape someone? Someone who wanted to hurt him or
maybe even hurt Bailey?”
Protect her.
“Sure, that’s possible,” he says. “But why wouldn’t he tell you that to begin
with?”
I don’t have a good answer. But I need another alternative—something else
to explain why Owen isn’t coming up as Owen.
“I don’t know. Maybe he’s in witness protection,” I say. “That would explain
Grady Bradford.”
“I thought of that. But do you remember my buddy Alex? He has a friend
who is pretty high up in the U.S. Marshals’ o􀏩ce, so he looked into it for me.
And Owen ain’t being protected.”
“Would he tell you?”
“Yeah.”
“What kind of protection program is that?”
“Not a great one. Anyway, he doesn’t match the pro􀏯le of someone in
witness protection,” he says. “Not his job, which is high-rent, not Sausalito.
Protected witnesses sell tires somewhere in Idaho. And those are the lucky ones.
It’s not what you see in the movies. Most witnesses just get dropped o􀏦 in the
middle of nowhere with a little cash in their wallets and some new IDs and are
told good luck.”
“So then what?”
“For my money? It’s option two. He’s guilty of something and he’s been
running from it for a long time. And maybe he got caught up in The Shop
because of that. Or maybe it’s unrelated. Hard to know. But it would have
caught up with him if he was arrested, so he ran to save himself. Or, maybe it’s
like you said, and he ran because he thought it was the best way to protect Bailey.
To not get her caught up in whatever he’s done.”
It’s the 􀏯rst thing that Jake says that penetrates. It’s what I keep coming back
to myself. If it were just Owen’s mistakes that were going to catch up with him,
he would’ve stayed with us. He would’ve faced the 􀏯ring squad. But if any of this
would take Bailey down with him, he would make another decision.
“Jake, even if you’re right, even if I don’t know the whole story about the
man I married… I know he would only leave Bailey behind if he absolutely had
to,” I say. “Forgetting me for a second, if he were running, without any intention
of coming back, he’d take her with him. She’s everything to him. Owen doesn’t
have it in him to leave her. And just disappear.”
“Two days ago, did you think he had it in him to make up his entire life
history? Because he did do that.”
I stare at the ugly hotel hallway carpet with its patterns of fuchsia roses,
trying to 􀏯nd in them something like solace.
This feels impossible. Every bit of this feels impossible. How do you begin to
grapple with the idea that your husband is running from the person he used to
be, a person whose real name you don’t even know? You want to argue that
someone is getting the story wrong. Someone is getting your story wrong. In
your story, the one you know by heart, none of this makes sense. Not where this
story began, not where it’s going. And certainly not where it’s threatening to
end.
“Jake, how do I go back inside and tell Bailey that nothing about her father is
what she thinks? I don’t know how to tell her that.”
He gets uncharacteristically quiet. “Maybe tell her something else,” he says.
“Like what?”
“Like you have a plan to get her away from this,” he says. “At least until it’s all
sorted out.”
“But I don’t.”
“But you could. You absolutely could get her away from this. Come to New
York. Stay with me. Both of you, at least until this is all sorted out. I have friends
on the board at Dalton. Bailey can 􀏯nish out the school year there.”
I close my eyes. How am I here again? On the phone with Jake? How is Jake
the one who is helping me? When we ended our relationship, Jake said I’d always
felt absent to him. I didn’t argue with him—I couldn’t. Because I was a little
absent. It had felt like something was missing with Jake. The very thing I’d
thought I had with Owen. But if Jake is correct about Owen, then Owen and I
didn’t have what I thought we did. Maybe we didn’t have anything close to it, at
all.
“I appreciate the o􀏦er. And right now it doesn’t sound so bad.”
“But…” he says.
“From what you’re telling me, we got here because Owen ran away,” I say. “I
can’t run away too, not until I get to the bottom of this.”
“Hannah, you really need to think of Bailey here.”
I open the hotel room door and peek in. Bailey is sound asleep on her bed.
She is curled up in the fetal position, her purple hair sticking out like a disco ball
on the pillows. I close the door, step back into the hall.
“That’s all I’m thinking of, Jake,” I say.
“Not yet it’s not,” he says. “Or you wouldn’t be trying to 􀏯nd the one person
that in my opinion you should be keeping her away from.”
“Jake, he’s her father,” I say.
“Maybe someone should remind him,” he says.
I don’t say anything. I look out over the glass walls and into the atrium below.
Work colleagues (complete with their laminated conference name tags) are
lounging in the hotel bar, couples are heading out of the restaurant hand in
hand, two exhausted parents are carrying their sleeping children and enough
LEGOLAND paraphernalia to open a store. From this far away, they all look
happy. Though, of course, I don’t really know. But, for just a moment, I wish I
could be any of them as opposed to the person I am. Hiding in a hotel hallway,
eight 􀏲oors up. Trying to process that her marriage, her life, is a lie.
I feel anger surging inside of me. Ever since my mother left, I pride myself on
the details, seeing the smallest things about a person. And if someone asked me
three days ago, I would have said I know everything there is to know about
Owen. Everything that matters anyway. But maybe I know nothing. Because
here I am, struggling to 􀏯gure out the most basic details of all.
“Sorry,” Jake says. “That was a little harsh.”
“That was a little harsh?”
“Look, I’m just saying that you’ve got a place here if you decide you want it,”
he says. “Both of you do. No strings. But if you decide not to take me up on
that, at least make another plan. Before you go ripping that girl’s life apart,
convince her you know what you’re doing.”
“Who knows what they’re doing in a situation like this, Jake?” I say. “Who
􀏯nds themselves in a situation like this?”
“Apparently you do,” he says.
“That’s helpful.”
“Come to New York,” he says. “That’s as helpful as I know how to be.”


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