The Last Thing He Told Me

3.8 Finding My Way Back to Her

chapter
Chapter

Bailey sits in the conference room. She is crying hard.
And before I even reach for her, she jumps up and races toward me. She holds
tightly to me, her head in the crook of my neck.
I hold her like that, ignoring Grady, ignoring everything but her. She pulls
away, and I take in her face, her eyes swollen from crying, her hair sticking to her
head. She looks like the little girl version of herself, needing more than anything
for someone to tell her that she is safe now.
“I shouldn’t have left the room,” she says.
I push her hair o􀏦 her face. “Where did you go?”
“I shouldn’t have gone anywhere,” she says. “I’m sorry. But I thought I heard
a knock on the door, which completely freaked me out. And then my cell phone
rang and I picked it up. And there was all this static. I kept saying hello and
getting that static. And so I went into the hall to see if I could hear any better,
and I don’t know…”
“You kept going?” I say.
She nods.
Grady shoots me a look, like I’m out of bounds to comfort her. Like I’m
simply out of bounds. This is how he sees things now. His plan for Owen and
Bailey is on one side of a line and I’m on the other. This is the only way he sees
me now—as the main impetus toward his imagined solution.
“I thought it was my father on the phone. I don’t know why. Maybe it was
the static, or the blocked number. I just felt it strongly that he was trying to
reach me and so I thought I’d walk for a minute, see if he tried me again. And
when he didn’t, I just… kept going. I didn’t think too much about it.”
I don’t ask her why she didn’t at least let me know before she left that she was
okay. Maybe she didn’t trust that I would let her do what she needed to do. That
was probably a part of it. But I knew the other part wasn’t about me, so I decide
not to make it about me now. It’s never about someone else the moment you
realize it is up to you to get yourself to a better place. It’s only about 􀏯guring out
how to get there.
“I went back to the library,” she says. “I went back to campus. I had Professor
Cookman’s roster with me and I just started going through the yearbook archive
again. We ran out of there so fast after seeing the photograph of… Kate. And I
just thought… I thought I needed to know. Before I left Austin.”
“And did you 􀏯nd him?”
She nods. “Ethan Young,” she says. “The last guy on that list…”
I don’t say anything, waiting for her to 􀏯nish.
“And then he did call,” she says.
That stops me. “What are you talking about?” I say.
I almost faint. She spoke to Owen. She got to speak to Owen.
“You spoke to your father?” Grady says.
She looks up at him, o􀏦ers a small nod.
“Can I talk to Hannah alone?” she asks.
He kneels down in front of her, not leaving the room. Which apparently is
his way of saying no.
“Bailey,” he says, “you’ve got to tell me what Owen said. It will help me help
him.”
She shakes her head, like she can’t believe she has to have this conversation in
front of him. Like she has to have it, at all.
I motion for her to tell me, to tell us. “It’s okay,” I say.
She nods, keeps her eyes on me. Then she starts talking.
“I had just found this photograph of Dad, he looked heavy and his hair was
so long, like shoulder length… like basically a mullet. And I just… I almost
laughed, he looked so ridiculous. So di􀏦erent. But it was him,” she says. “It was
de􀏯nitely him. And I turned my phone on to call you, to tell you. And then I
was getting an incoming call on Signal.”
Signal. Why does that sound familiar? It comes back to me: the three of us
eating dumplings at the Ferry Building a few months back, Owen taking Bailey’s
phone and telling her he was putting an app on it. An encryption app called
Signal. He told her nothing on the internet ever goes away. He made some
terrible joke about if she ever sends sexy messages (he actually said sexy), she
should use the app. And she pretended to throw up her dumplings.
And then Owen got serious. He said if there were a phone call or a text she
wanted to disappear, this was the app she should use. He said it twice so she took
it in. I’ll keep it on there forever, if you never use the word sexy around me again,
she said. Deal, he said.
Now, Bailey is talking fast. “When I said hello, he was already talking. He
didn’t say where he was calling from. He didn’t ask if I was okay. He said he had
twenty-two seconds. I remember that. Twenty-two. And then he said that he was
sorry, sorrier than he could tell me, that he’d organized his life so he would never
have to make this phone call.”
I eye her as she 􀏯ghts back tears again. She doesn’t look at Grady. She only
looks at me.
“What did he say?” I ask gently.
I see it weigh on her. I see it weigh deeper than anything should weigh on
such young shoulders.
“He said it’s going to be a long time before he can call again. He said…” She
shakes her head.
“What, Bailey?” I say.
“He said… he can’t really come home.”
I watch her face as she tries to process that—this terrible, impossible thing.
The terrible, impossible thing he never wanted to say to her. The terrible,
impossible thing I’ve been suspecting myself. The terrible, impossible thing I’ve
known.
He is gone. He isn’t coming back.
“Does he mean… ever?” she asks.
Before I even answer her, Bailey moans, quick and guttural, her voice
catching against that knowledge. Against what she knows too.
I put my hand on her hand, her wrist, and hold her tight.
“I really don’t think that…” Grady jumps in. “I just… really don’t think you
know that’s what he meant.”
I drill him with a look.
“And as upsetting as the phone call was,” he says, “what we need to be talking
about right now is next steps.”
She keeps her eyes on me. “Next steps?” she says. “What does that mean?”
I hold her gaze so it’s just the two of us. I move in close so she’ll believe me
when I tell her she is the one who gets to decide.
“Grady means where the two of us go now,” I say. “Whether we go home…”
“Or whether we help you create a new home,” Grady says. “Like I was talking
to you about. I can 􀏯nd you and Hannah a good place to stay where you’ll get to
start over fresh. And your father will join you when he thinks it’s safe to come
back. Maybe he thinks that can’t happen tomorrow, maybe that’s what he was
trying to say in the phone call, but—”
“Why not?” she interrupts him.
“Excuse me?”
She meets his eyes.
“Why not tomorrow?” she says. “Forget tomorrow. Why not today? If my
father truly knows you’re the best option, then why isn’t he here with us now?
Why’s he still running?”
Before he can stop himself, Grady lets out a small laugh, an angry laugh, as
though I coached Bailey to ask that question—as though it isn’t the only
question someone who knows and loves Owen would be asking. Owen avoided
being 􀏯ngerprinted. He avoided having his face plastered all over the news. He
did what he needed to do to avoid outside forces blowing up Bailey’s life. Her
true identity. So where is he? There’s nothing else to play out. There’s no other
move to make. If he were going to be coming back, if he thought it was safe to
start over together, he’d be here now. He’d be here beside us.
“Bailey, I don’t think I’m going to give you an answer right now that will
satisfy you,” he says. “What I can do is tell you that you should let me help you
anyway. That’s the best way to keep you safe. That’s the only way to keep you
safe. You and Hannah.”
She looks down at her hand, my hand on top of it.
“So… that is what he meant then? My father?” she says. “He’s not coming
back?”
She is asking me. She is asking me to con􀏯rm what she already knows. I don’t
hesitate.
“No, I don’t think he can,” I say.
I see it in her eyes—her sadness moving into anger. It will move back again
and from there into grief. A 􀏯erce, lonely, necessary circle as she starts to grapple
with this. How do you begin to grapple with this? You just do. You surrender.
You surrender to how you feel. To the unfairness. But not to despair. I won’t let
her despair, if it’s the only thing I manage to do.
“Bailey…” Grady shakes his head. “We just don’t know that’s true. I know
your father—”
She snaps her head up. “What did you say?”
“I said, I know your father—”
“No. I know my father,” she says.
Her skin is reddening, her eyes 􀏯erce and 􀏯rm. And I see it—her decision
forming, her need cementing, into something no one can take from her.
Grady keeps talking but she is done trying to hear him. She is looking at me
when she says the thing I thought she would say—the thing I thought she would
come to all along. The reason I went to Nicholas, the reason I did what I did.
She says it to me alone. She has given up on the rest of it. With time, I’m going
to have to build that back. I’m going to have to do whatever I can to help her
build that back.
“I just want to go home,” she says.
I look at Grady, as if to say, you heard her. Then I wait for the thing he has no
choice but to do.
To let us go.


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