STAND ALONE NOVELS
The You I Never Knew
Grand Central Publishing (March 2011)
Published in 2008 and 2001
After seventeen years, Michelle Turner was going back. Back to a past she didn’t want to remember, to the father she barely knew, to the town where she grew up too fast, fell in love too hard, and wound up pregnant and alone.
During the long drive from Seattle to Montana, she rehearsed—under her breath so Cody wouldn’t hear—what she would say when she got there.
“Hello, Daddy.” Funny how she still thought of him as Daddy, even though he’d never been much more than a picture on the wall or sometimes a face on the TV screen late at night when his old movies played. “Sorry I didn’t come sooner…” Sorry…sorry…sorry. All those regrets. So many of them.
Sorry wouldn’t do. Gavin Slade—her father had kept his professional name after retiring—knew damned well what had kept her away so long.
She flexed her hands on the steering wheel of the Range Rover and glanced over her shoulder at her son in the backseat. Cody was lost in the space between the headphones of his Discman. Maybe I’m the one who’s lost, she thought. Here she was, thirty-five years old and the mother of a teenager, and the thought of facing her father made her feel like a kid again. Defensive. Powerless. Inadequate.
The Washington landscape roared by as she drove eastward, heading toward a place where she’d find no welcome. She and Cody had left their waterfront town house before dawn. The lights had still been shining in the steel skeleton of Seattle’s Space Needle. By sunup, the Cascade Range had given way to rounded hills and scrubby flatland, then finally to high plateaus, a bare and colorless midwinter moonscape, a neutral zone.
She saw nothing out her window to interest the eye, nor to offend it.
Long ago, she used to be an artist, painting in savage color with emotions that spilled unrestrained over the canvas, dripping off the sides, because her feelings could not be confined to a finite space. But somewhere along the way she had reined in those mad and glorious impulses, as if a thief had come in the night and stolen the dreams inside her and she hadn’t noticed they were gone until too late.
All that remained of the wild soul of her younger days was a cold, mechanical talent and a photographic eye. Airbrush and mousepad had replaced paint and canvas.
Her subjects had changed, too. She used to create art with passion and purity, whether it be a horse on her father’s ranch or an abstract scramble of feelings. Inspiration used to govern her hand, and something far more powerful ignited her spirit. Once seen or imagined, the work rushed from her, generated by a force as strong as the need to breathe.
Now subjects came assigned to her by memo from the ad agency where she was up for full partner. She used a computer to design and animate dancing toilet brushes, talking dentures, or an army of weed-killer bags marching toward a forest of weeds.
Tugging her mind away from her thoughts of work, she clicked on the wipers to bat away a few stray snow flurries. The day wore on. Spokane passed in a whisk of warehouses and industrial smokestacks. The interstate arrowed cleanly across the panhandle of Idaho. Between empty stretches of highway lay glaring commercial strip centers, tractor barns and silos, would-frame houses huddled shoulder to shoulder against the elements. Deeper accumulations of snow formed crusty heaps on the side of the road. East of Coeur d’Alene, the landscape yielded to endless stretches of nothingness.
The monotony of the drive, and her purpose for racing across three states, caused an almost painful tectonic shift in her thoughts. Memories drifted toward dangerous places. Against her will, images from the past turned the barren snowscape to brilliant summer.
She saw herself as she was at eighteen. A little breathless at everything life had to offer. A little scared, but mostly happy and secure in her world. She finished high school with honors she didn’t care about, a raw talent she didn’t appreciate yet, and no sense of impending disaster. Her mother’s cosmetic surgery was supposed to be routine. No one even considered the possibility that Sharon Turner would die from the complications.
In a shockingly short span of time, Michelle had found herself alone and motherless—suddenly in need of the father she barely knew. She had expected him to hustle her off to college and breathe a sigh of relief when she was gone, but instead he’d surprised her. He had invited her to take a year off before college and spend the time with him in Montana. A year to grieve for her mother and to learn who her father was.
In that one brief season she experienced the events that were to shape her life: She learned what it was to be a motherless daughter. She fell in love. She became a painter. No necessarily in that order. Everything sort of happened simultaneously. Even now, the years-older bittersweet ache rose as fresh as yesterday. It shouldn’t still hurt, but it did, even though he was gone, long gone, from her life.
Except for the daily reminder he had left her.
She glanced into the rearview mirror again. Cody, who was sixteen and impossible, hadn’t moved from his longbodied position in the back seat. A tinny beat of heavymetal music escaped from his headphones. He stared out at the endless swags of electrical lines strung along poles that bordered the highway. When a green-and-white sign welcomed them to Montana, his only reaction was to blink and shift position.
A billboard with a nauseating cartoon cowboy invited them to “Stop N Eat” in one mile.
“You hungry?” She raised her voice so he would hear.
He stuffed a wad of Fritos into his mouth. “Nope,” he said around a mouthful of food. The roadside cafÃ©, lit up by neon wagon wheels, disappeared in a smear of artificial light.
Just for a flash, she saw him as a toddler, cramming Cherrios into his cheeks like a baby squirrel. It seemed like only yesterday that he was her Cody-boy in Oshkosh overalls, with milk dribbling from his chin. That child was gone from her life now, she realized with a lurch of regret in her chest. He had slipped away when she wasn’t looking. He’d vanished as swiftly and irretrievably as if he had wandered off at an airport, never to be found. In his place was this cynical, smart, exasperating stranger who seemed determined to push every button she had.
His sheer physical beauty then, as now, took her breath away. Only back then, she could tell him how adorable he was to her.
Now she could tell him nothing.
Cody had begged to stay in Seattle while she made this trip alone. He claimed he’d be fine, staying by himself at the town house. As if Michelle would consent to that.
Cody had even suggested that Brad could look after him.
Right. Brad couldn’t handle Cody. Or wouldn’t. And she was in no position to expect that level of support from Brad, their relationship notwithstanding. Her entire life was on hold until she dealt with her father.
A semi swung out and passed her, blasting its air horn. No speed limit in Montana, she recalled, and here she’d been dutifully doing sixty-five.
Life had trained her well for duty.
Defiantly, she pressed the accelerator. Sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five. She reveled in the speed, in the hum of the Rover’s tires on cold bare pavement. Everything passed in a wavy smudge—streaks of cottonwood groves, shale rock ridges, coulees and brushy creeks, the blur of avalanche fence traversing the high meadows. The wind blew a dusting of snow along the highway. The snakelike motion and the subtle flickers of muted color were oddly exhilarating, and for a while she simply emptied her mind and drove.