NICK PAINE tried to duck as a gigantic scarlet bird whipped over his head and he began to lose his balance. The first airborne attack was followed a second later by a screech and another swooping red streak that caused him to crouch and fall to his knees. At least he was wearing jeans today instead of a suit.
Katie snorted, let loose a torrent of giggles, and pointed. “He’s not going to hurt you, Daddy.”
“Isn’t it me who’s supposed to be telling you that?” Nick scrunched his eyebrows together and tried to chastise his daughter while also searching the birdhouse for further threats.
Katie rolled her eyes and flipped her long blonde hair off to the side, appearing much older than her eight years. “Come on, Daddy. I’ll protect you.” She offered her hand, and Nick grinned as he stood, taking her tiny hand in his.
It was a Wednesday morning, one in which Nick should have been sitting in a colorless conference room listening to doctors and administrators fight each other over inane operational details, but despite the threat of being pecked to death by tropical birds, Nick didn’t want to be anywhere else.
It was rare he was able to escape from work during the day, and this field trip to the zoo with Katie’s class had been the perfect excuse. The hospital system was always there. It was a twenty-four-hour seven-day-a-week commitment of utter chaos. Nick still wasn’t quite sure how he’d ended up as a vice president by the age of thirty-three, but had to concede his success had a lot to do with the inordinate number of hours he spent downtown. His generous salary was meant to compensate him for the endless hours on call talking nurses and cardiologists off the ledge while also making sure all their equipment and staffing needs were met. He loved his job and he was good at it, but it took him away from Katie way too much for his liking.
Nick pushed aside thoughts of the hospital. He would be flooded with e-mails, texts, and voice mail as soon as he switched his cell back on. Instead he listened to Katie patter on about the different kinds of birds that filled the zoo aviary.
“How do you know so much about them?” Nick asked as he forced his complete attention back to her.
Katie shrugged in a gesture that was too much like her carefree Uncle Roban. “I watch the National Geographic channel.”
Katie huffed. “Yeah, Daddy. A lot. Loads and loads.”
Nick restrained a laugh. Where had she come up with that phrase? She was growing up so fast. Much too fast for his liking. The years just kept slipping by, and as hard as his path had been as of late, Nick was grateful for the luck he did have. Katie was a beautiful girl. Tall and thin, just like her momma, she had blonde hair shades lighter than his that ran down to her waist and snarled easily with how fine it was. He’d given up attempting to brush the mats out a year ago, leaving the task to Katie’s grandmother or her nanny.
“Look at the baby geese!” Katie exclaimed, letting go of his hand and running full tilt down the pathway toward the birds. Then just as suddenly she was veering off again, a delighted squeal emanating from her. “A waterfall!”
Nick dug into his pockets as he walked to catch up, knowing what she was going to ask even before she said anything.
“I want to make a wish,” she pleaded, looking up at him with wide eyes.
Nick placed a quarter in her outstretched hand, earning a satisfied smile from her.
She scrunched her eyes tightly closed and whispered something Nick couldn’t hear, then tossed the coin into the water.
“What did you wish for, baby girl?” Nick asked, as was part of their routine.
“Daddy, you know I can’t tell you,” she protested with a pout. “Or else it won’t come true.”
Of course he knew that. Katie wanted to flip a coin into every fountain they encountered. And she always went about it as if her whole existence was placed into making that one wish come true. But she never told Nick what it was that she silently hoped for.
Nick had to wonder if she would remember this later on. If she would remember what she wished years from now, or at the very least remember enough to tell him later whether or not they came true.
Nick looked into her brown eyes—so much like his but with a fire that was all her own—and his breath caught. Yeah, he was just about the luckiest man in the world. She stood on her tiptoes, cupped her hands around his cheeks, and planted a kiss on his lips that left Nick with an ear-to-ear grin that he wouldn’t be able to wipe off for hours to come.
A PLOP of wet plaster slid down Adam’s head, over his neck, and dripped under the collar of his shirt as Miriam’s laughter receded into the next room.
Well, then. He supposed he deserved that.
He’d been leaving Miriam to her own devices for far too long as he worked nearly nonstop to meet his deadline. Left on her own, Miriam would fill her time with the mischievous, surreptitious, and wicked dealings that could only be born of an Azzi. She was quiet like him, shy at first meeting, with the same black hair and chiseled features that stood out despite her age. Also like him, she was a goof when in her comfort zone, and Adam’s loft—even though it was a professional workspace—was one of the places she was most comfortable in. She had unlimited access to paints, pens, pencils, paper… and the plaster she’d just chucked at his head.
Adam picked up a stained rag and swiped the plaster off the back of his neck. “Miriam!”
He turned on his stool, rotating to face the kitchen area where Miriam peeked her head around the corner, hazel eyes wide and innocent. But Adam knew better than to be fooled by her appearance. He crooked a finger and pointed to the spot next to him.
She crawled on hands and knees, her eyes going Disney forest creature in size as she got closer to him, and Adam had to bite back a laugh. When she got to his feet, she sat with her legs crisscrossed, hands on her knees, and waited patiently for him to say something.
She was such a good kid. Wild at times, yes. But he’d been the same when he was her age. Unlike his upbringing, though, he was never going to allow Miriam to fear what kind of punishment she would receive. To others it might have made him seem like a soft father, but Adam had rules that were nonnegotiable and rules he expected her to challenge and break. He was always fair. Consistent. And he never touched her in anger. That alone made her childhood vastly different than his. Adam was going to protect her innocence as long as he possibly could.
“Miriam—” he started.
“Yes, Baba?” she interjected, then bit at her bottom lip.
Adam sighed. Whether it was genetics or environment, she was so like him it scared him some days.
“Why did you throw plaster at my head?” He asked the question in all seriousness, then heard how ridiculous it all sounded, looked at the growing smirk on his daughter’s face, and that was enough to send him into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Adam swooped her off the floor and hugged her to his chest, tickling her ribs. Miriam squirmed and protested, her high-pitched giggle filling the studio.
“I love you, Miri,” he said as he squeezed her tight.
Miriam tucked her head into Adam’s neck and pulled her arms in so Adam had her wrapped securely.
“I love you, Baba.”
Adam’s heart was full almost to bursting. The laughter was enough to give him a second wind. He needed to work. He had to get this sculpture done. But he didn’t want to let his little girl go.
“Finish, then play with me, ’kay?” Miriam offered.
Adam started to tear up. She knew him better than any person in the world. This brilliant, vivacious, too smart for her own good little girl was his best friend. And Adam wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Yeah, yeah. No more plaster, though,” he chastised her, then kissed the tip of her nose.
Miriam rubbed her nose in protest and squirmed out of his arms, already retreating at full speed. On to another adventure.
Adam sank onto his stool and turned back to his sculpture. Less than three weeks until his next show. And this piece, the focal point of the entire fiasco, had to be done by then. But Adam found himself pushing the work off. He sought inspiration and didn’t find it. He would rather not show it at all than display something that was so… incomplete.
He picked up his brush and studied the form, then put the brush back down. His fifteen-year high school reunion had been last weekend and he’d had no desire to go, but the memories had been inescapable regardless. It was those memories that had led to this piece…. Led to this creative fog he couldn’t force himself out of.
He would eat first. Maybe they’d take a walk. He’d do his afternoon prayers with Miriam, grounding himself in the tradition of his faith. He wasn’t as active in his practice as his mom was, but he still found strength in the words and tenets. In Islam, he found calm, and a connection to his family and to something that was greater than him.
Then, maybe then, his head would be clear enough to see this project to its end.
“NO, ROB,” Nick said definitively into the Bluetooth mic above his driver’s seat.
“Come on, dude!” Roban yelled on the other end of the phone, and Nick had to turn down the volume on the car speakers because of the sheer volume of the accent-tinged wail. It was only when Rob was really excited or drunk that his Indian accent started to slip through.
Nick took a deep breath and rested his elbow on the armrest. “This is my first day off in five months. I want to spend it with Katie.”
“She’ll be asleep—” Roban started at the same time that Katie, from the backseat, said, “I’ll be asleep, Daddy.”
Nick frowned. Well, then. Apparently the wee ones were joining forces on this one.
“Roban—” he tried again.
“Niiiick,” Roban answered.
Nick stole a glance in the rearview mirror where Katie was strapped into her seat. She had her arms crossed and a disapproving scowl on her face that would make her Uncle Daniel proud.
“Fine,” he relented and Roban gave a much too excited whoop in response. “I’ll go out. But not too late. I have to be at work early.”
“You’re always at work early,” Roban reminded him. “Live a little before your cardiologists drive you into a heart attack.”
“Fine,” he repeated. “But I’m going to drive.” He could try to keep some measure of control over the situation.
“Nope. We’re cabbing it. I’m getting you fucking wrecked. Shit, sorry, Katie,” Roban backtracked, as if he was just remembering he was on speakerphone.
“No worries, Uncle Ro,” Katie yelled from the backseat.
“That’s my girl. Now, Nick. I expect to see you in something else besides a button-down shirt and tie. We’re going downtown. Mayhem will ensue and you must be appropriately attired.
“It’s a Wednesday,” Nick reminded him.
“Willful Wednesday at the Screamin’ Shillelagh,” Roban responded with a laugh.
Nick stopped at the red light and hung his head in defeat. “Can’t we stay in the burbs?”
“I’ll pick you up at eight” was all Roban said, then his car notified him the call had ended.
Nick shut off his cell and threw it into the passenger seat, then pulled away when the light turned green. Roban would be the death of him. At the very least, the odds were in their favor to end up in a full-on street brawl after closing time. Either way, it wouldn’t be a boring night. Nick chuckled to himself.
“Who do you want to come stay with you, baby girl?” he asked Katie as they drove toward home. Katie was twirling her hair, deep in thought, when Nick glanced back at her. “What is it?” he asked with an edge of worry.
“Can you call Momma? See if she’ll come stay with me?”
Nick restrained a sigh and tried not to feel defeated at the sadness in Katie’s voice.
“Yeah, baby girl. I’ll call her when we get home.”
All laughter wiped away, Nick gripped the steering wheel and steeled himself for the call he was going to have to make.
“I KNOW you’re in there, Azzi. I can smell the incense. Rather pungent even from out here. Open the door.” Charlie’s voice came from the hallway.
“Nobody’s home,” Miriam called out with a teasing lilt, then giggled.
Adam grinned and dropped his brush next to the paints, getting up to let Charlie in. It was pointless to try and keep the persistent gallery owner out even if Adam wanted to, but right now, he needed the reassurance. He was falling heavily into his brooding artistic stupor, sure in this moment that everything he had ever created was complete and utter shit, and that Charlie was a fool for wanting Adam’s work anywhere near his gallery. Adam needed some heavy petting of his artistic ego. And if anyone could do that, it would be Charlie Wells.
Charlie slipped his suit jacket off his lithe shoulders as he came in the door and then tossed the coat into a chair. “Good afternoon, Ms. Azzi,” he greeted Miriam and planted a kiss on her head.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Wells,” she responded with a smile.
“Miri, could you give Charlie and me a moment?”
Miriam lined up the pencils fanned out around her sketchbook and gathered everything into her arms, walking into the bedroom and pulling the door shut without question. She was used to this scenario by now. As much as she was an inspiration for Adam, he was clear on the boundaries of not letting her into his sullenness when it threatened to drag him under.
“Tea?” Adam offered and led Charlie into the kitchen.
“Please. With a shot of Jack if you have it,” Charlie requested.
Adam filled the kettle and set it on the stove. “You know I don’t drink, Charlie.”
“Not even thinking about it right now?” he prodded.
Adam leaned down on the counter, resting his elbows there and running his fingers through his mess of hair. He couldn’t remember if he’d showered yet today. Or yesterday.
“Yeah, I’m thinking about it,” he answered honestly. There was no point in hiding his darkness—or his continued recovery from it—from Charlie.
“Do I need to check the cabinets?”
Adam shook his head. “You can if you want. But, alhamdulillah, I don’t have anything.”
Charlie perked up immediately, tucking his brunet hair behind his ear. “Excellent. Now tell me, oh tortured soul. Where is the delay in your work coming from?”
The kettle began to whistle and Adam lifted two cups from the cupboard and set them on the counter. He took his time picking out which tea he wanted, using the quiet seconds to try and piece together his answer. He set the teabags into the cups, turned the stove off, and filled them with the hot water, then slid one cup into Charlie’s hands.
“Well?” Charlie pushed.
Adam took a sip of his tea that scalded his tongue, but he barely registered the pain. Yes, he definitely needed Charlie right now.
“It’s the piece.”
“Ah, the piece,” Charlie drew out.
“I don’t know if I can finish it.”
Charlie seemed to consider that. He twisted the mug in his hands, then lifted it to his lips to blow the steam away before taking a sip. “Talk to me.”
Adam nearly slammed his cup down, the liquid sloshing over his fingers. His anger took hold without thought or a valid target. “Talk to you? You know why this piece is difficult for me and yet you continue to push me on it. It’s too personal. Too raw. Maybe it should remain as unfinished as what it represents.”
Charlie cracked his neck and studied Adam, as unaffected as usual by his outburst. “Your other pieces in this show are just as raw, Adam. Just as emotionally challenging. For fuck’s sake, you have a whole set dedicated to Lily. You’re stumbling on this piece because you’re scared. There’s no other reason for it. Yes, it represents an old, unfinished part of your life. But it’s a part of your past that you need to embrace in order to move on. Art is not about being emotionally bereft. It’s about digging into the most painful and vulnerable aspects of our lives and bringing them to the surface for others to witness and understand. You’re scared, Adam. It’s not that this piece is unfinished, it’s that you are unfinished. And I think you’re scared of putting that part of your life to an end. That if you finish that piece, it will mean the relationship it represents is just as definitively over as the one you had with Lily.”
Adam ground his teeth together, trying to grasp on to his anger and use it to viciously protest just how wrong Charlie was. But he couldn’t. It was exactly what he’d been thinking. The more he worked around the edges of the mixed-media sculpture of plaster, paint, and fabric—the more he stubbornly refused to fill in the details of eyes, nose, and lips—the more he understood that this face was one that he was fighting to conjure into existence because it was so much safer tucked away as a memory.
If that sculpture was never finished, then he could continue denying that the person it represented had left a gaping wound in his soul that he didn’t know how to fill.
Charlie leaned forward and took Adam’s hands in his. “Is this the appropriate time for me to remind you that you are a successful artist because you bare your soul in your work? That people are drawn to what you create because it gives them a visceral reaction? Do I need to pull up the most recent reviews from the paper? ’Cause I’m sure I have them bookmarked on my phone.”
Adam gave a small laugh. “Yes, but no.”
Charlie tipped Adam’s chin up to meet his eyes. “You can do this, Adam.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You can,” Charlie said with more determination this time. “And you will be better off for it.”
Adam felt the tears welling up in his eyes and forced them back down. If Charlie believed, then Adam would find a way to as well. “Okay.”
“THANKS FOR coming, Shelly,” Nick said as he held the door open.
Katie came barreling around the corner and jumped into her mom’s arms. Katie buried her face in her mom’s neck and wrapped her arms around Shelly in a tight hug.
Nick’s heart ached at the sight.
Katie missed her mother more than she ever let on. She was a smart kid and she’d known when things started to turn south for him and Shelly. But Shelly’s abrupt departure from the house and her distance since then had been selfish—without thought to Katie’s needs—even if it was justified by Nick’s actions.
Shelly couldn’t look at him and she didn’t say a word as she stepped foot in the house she hadn’t been in for over a year. Nick clicked the door shut and followed them into the living room. Katie dropped out of her mom’s arms and looked between the two of them, a sad resignation filling her eyes that seemed to tug Nick’s heart right out of his chest.
He squatted down to Katie’s level and took her hand. “You think you could give your mom and me a chance to talk before Uncle Roban gets here?”
Katie tipped her chin up, giving him a smile that he knew was her brave one—a defensive tactic supplied by Uncle Daniel when the divorce had gotten ugly. “Can I go watch TV?”
“Of course, baby girl. We’ll be back in a minute.”
Nick stood as Katie ran off and gestured for Shelly to follow him.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Nick asked to cut the tension.
Shelly stood stock-still behind the counter, separating herself from him, her arms crossed. “No. I know where everything is.”
It had been over six months since he’d last seen her and he couldn’t deny that she looked good. Much better than she had when they were in the throes of the divorce. Her blonde hair was cut short in a bob that accentuated her high cheekbones and clear blue eyes. She was thinner, but not unhealthy, and was dressed in a white tee and jeans with sandals. It was a casual look that reminded him of their time together in college. But nothing about her appearance had any physical effect on him. It hadn’t for at least two years. Not since he’d finally admitted to himself that he was gay and it was time to stop pretending.
“Thank you for coming.” He was repeating himself, but he needed her to understand his appreciation was genuine. “I know it’s hard being back here, but Katie can’t sleep anywhere else and she really wanted to see you.”
Shelly gave a dark laugh. “You said that on the phone.”
Nick crossed his arms, then uncrossed them. He had to try not to be defensive. “I know. I just want you to know I’m thankful. It has to be hard to be back here.”
“Who are you going out with?” she demanded.
Nick couldn’t find fault in her reaction. He knew what she was really asking: If he was seeing someone. If he was heading out to be with a man. Well, technically he was, but not as she thought. “Just Roban and Daniel.”
She sat down at the barstool and hunched forward, settling her chin in her hands. She looked away from him and Nick let her think. After a minute of quiet she spoke, but she still couldn’t look at him. “I miss you, Nick. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. I miss this house. I miss our life. And I miss Katie. It’s just all too much. It still is.”
Nick leaned against the refrigerator, backing away from the counter and giving her space. “I can’t pretend to really know, but I get it. Just—” His voice started to crack and he had to swallow around the surge of emotion. “Just try to remember Katie. Okay? She misses you too.”
Shelly wiped away a tear and faced Nick. “I’m a shit mom.”
Nick took a step closer to her and when she didn’t cringe back, he stepped up to the counter across from her. “No. You’re not. You need time to heal too. We all do. She knows you love her. And being here is huge. So thank you.”
Shelly nodded and sucked in a deep breath.
The doorbell rang, mercifully sparing them from having to speak any more, and Nick tapped his fingers on the counter. “Call me if anything comes up. I left my cell number on the refrigerator. You know, just in case you don’t have it saved anymore.”
“Okay,” she acknowledged.
Nick hesitated for a moment, unsure of how to leave things, and then decided to say nothing else. He crossed into the living room and trapped Katie in a hug where she sat on the edge of the coffee table watching another nature show. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, ’kay?”
She planted a quick kiss on his arm, distracted by the images on the screen. “Yes, Daddy.”
He kissed the top of her head, then ruffled her hair, receiving a squawk of protest, then a laugh.
Nick let her go reluctantly and went to the door, swinging it open to find Roban in a football jersey and ripped jeans that contrasted with the aesthetic of his modern pompadour and vintage bowling shoes. Rob hitched his thumb over his shoulder. “Let’s go, Nicky. Mayhem awaits!”
And with that, Nick found himself smiling again.