If I hadn't been alone in the house; if it hadn't been early morning, with that specific kind of fuzzy, early morning quiet and a sky the color of moonstones and raspberry jam outside my kitchen window; if I had gotten further than two sips into my bowl-sized mug of coffee; if he himself hadn't called but had sent the message via one of his usual minions; if his voice had been his voice and not a dried-up, flimsy paring off the big golden apple of his baritone; if he hadn't said "please," if it had been a different hour in a different day entirely, maybe — just maybe — I would have turned him down.
Fat chance. He caught me at a vulnerable moment; that's true enough. But the fact is that, in all my life, I have loved just three men. One of them was only a boy, so he might not even count. The other was my twin brother, Marcus. The third was Wilson Cleary, professor, inventor, philanderer, self-made but reluctant millionaire, brilliant man, breathtaking jerk, my father.
Two weeks before Wilson called me, he had undergone a massive myocardial infarction and subsequent quadruple bypass. The irony of this turn of events was so obvious that I didn't need Marcus to point it out to me, but of course he did, with a frequency and satisfaction that was in very poor taste, even if Wilson deserved it. Marcus made bad-heart jokes. Lots of them. After we got word that Wilson had emerged from the surgery more or less intact, I made them, too. Even my mother, whose animosity toward her ex-husband had, as far as I could tell, evaporated years ago, lifted one curled corner of her mouth and said, sweetly, "Well, now, at least we know he has one."
At Wilson's request (a request conveyed to my mother in an e-mail through Wilson's lawyer, a woman named Elspeth Bing with whom Marcus swears Wilson had an affair, back when we were ten), we had not visited him, neither in the hospital nor at his home after he was released. I was outwardly relieved but inwardly a little bruised by this. When I said something to this effect to Marcus, whom I was visiting when we got the news, he knocked gently on my head with his fist in a gesture that meant Is anybody in there? and said, "Reminder: we haven't visited the dude in over fifteen years. Haven't visited him at his request. Not that I'd go anyway." "Still," I'd protested. "He might have been on his deathbed," and then I quickly added, "And don't say, 'No such luck.' " Marcus grinned and, pointedly, said nothing at all.
It was true: seventeen years ago, in a frenzy of disgust and impatience, Wilson had ditched us — my mother, Marcus, and me — kicked us to the curb. With neck-breaking speed, we went from being his family to being a collection of acquaintances, three people he barely knew and almost never saw. Marcus and I had just turned eighteen. Even before this rupture, before he became a spectacularly terrible father, he had been a garden-variety bad one. Before he was absent, he was absent. Cold. Disapproving. Distant. A workaholic. All the usual bad-father garbage. Since the day he told us he was finished with us, the day my mother told him to take his house and shove it, then packed us up and moved us to the North Carolina town in which she'd grown up, determined to be the leaver, rather than the one who was left, we had seen him a handful of times but had visited him exactly once, on his daughter's first birthday. The real, new and improved, clean-slate, second-time's-a-charm daughter: Willow.
Don't go thinking that I wasn't angry about all this. I was. In fact, I would say that I was at least as angry as Marcus, whose anger stayed red-hot for years before it cooled to something hard and shiny and black. It's just that without wanting to or trying to — and for years I was deliberately trying not to — I held on to love. Or it held on to me. Not active love; not love, the verb form. It was more just there, a small, unshakable thing, leftover, useless, as vestigial as wisdom teeth or a tailbone, but still potent enough so that when I heard his voice on the phone, my heart gave a tiny jump of hope that made me want to slap it.
It was a Monday in late September, early morning, as I mentioned before, the sky just beginning to paint gold onto the maple tree in my backyard. Normally, I wouldn't have been awake to see this, but Leo had moved out the week before, and, even though we had only lived together for three months, I hadn't gotten used to sleeping alone again, yet. We weren't meant to be a couple, Leo and I, but I missed him, both because he was nice and because he made sure of it. When he moved back into his house a few streets over, he had left bits and pieces behind for me to find: a tube of his favorite cherry lip balm pocketed in the cardboard egg carton, a balled-up pair of socks (clean) in the basement Deepfreeze, one of the river stones from our trip to Maine tucked into the toe of my shearling slipper.
On top of that, he called me five, maybe six times a day just to say hello or to tell me about the unsettling color of the ham on his sandwich ("Brilliant pink, real dog's tongue pink.") or about the awful music that his neighbor was playing ("Barry Manilow. Live Barry Manilow.
Who knew there even was such a thing?"). In fact, when the phone rang, I figured it was Leo, all set to regale me with tales about the texture of his toast or something.
"Good morning, Leo," I chirped into the phone. "What've you got for me?"
There was a pause and then that frail voice: "Eustacia."
At the age of two, Marcus had decided to call me "Taisy," committing me to a lifetime of saying the slightly nauseating, if useful, phrase, "Like 'daisy' with a T." Only one person in the world called me by my given name, the name that he had given me.
From the book The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos. Copyright 2015 by Marisa de los Santos. William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.