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Chapter 1: Fiona
“Roland Damascus? Never heard of him. You’ve obviously got the wrong house.” The middle-aged lady answering the door tapped long, red nails against the worn wood, impatient to get back to whatever she’d been doing before I’d so rudely interrupted her. Those nails, nearly talons, quickly grated on my nerves.
She started closing the door, but I stuck out my foot to stop her. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I repeated. “But this is 1302 Wheeler, right?”
“That’s what it says on the mailbox,” she snapped. “Now if you’ll excuse me. How about moving your foot? I still have no idea who you’re talking about.”
The moment I retracted my foot, the door slammed in my face. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and I had a sneaking suspicion it wouldn’t be the last. I listened to footsteps marching away on the laminate flooring for a few moments before turning to go.
I’d had a good feeling about this house, but it was now one more address to cross off my list in the endless search for my father. If Mom found out I was still looking for him, she’d probably have an aneurysm. But she didn’t understand the need to know where I came from. She knew both her parents—had been raised by them, actually—in a model suburban household. The few pictures I had of my father, on the other hand, were from before I was born, so nearly twenty years earlier. He’d split upon finding out Mom was pregnant with me; I guessed it was a gross understatement, then, to say I hadn’t been planned.
I stomped down the steep driveway where my boyfriend, Sean, was waiting by the curb, leaning against the hood of his decade-old red Civic. I was always grateful for him driving me on these wild goose chases I’d regularly map out. Google was such a great resource for most of the world, but a terrible enabler for someone like me.
Colorful chalk drawings decorated the driveway, spilling onto the bisecting sidewalk. The drawing that initially caught my attention was of a three-person family—that I assumed was a mother, father, and daughter—all holding hands. I probably should have turned around from the sight of this drawing alone; it seemed obvious they had their family unit and no space for a troubled outsider like me.
What at first glance I took to be an elaborate sun above the father’s head, I soon realized was a compass with a cursive “N” at its zenith, which made me stop and examine it closer.
“I noticed that too. Seems out of place among the clouds and rainbows,” Sean said.
“Not when I thought it was a sun,” I said, letting the picture go and continuing to the car.
Sean met me by the passenger door and pulled me into a hug. I buried my face in his chest. I knew I wouldn’t cry this time, but his warmth was always comforting. Sean didn’t say anything, just rubbed his hand across my back while I sighed into his sweater.
“It didn’t seem like that went well.”
“Not the most pleasant woman, but I’ve encountered worse,” I said, pulling back and offering a weak smile.
Sean nodded with an apologetic expression. “I know,” was all he had to say before opening my car door and guiding me in with a gentle nudge.
This neighborhood was only a few cities over from home, which—jumping on the 5 freeway in Orange County Saturday afternoon traffic—meant about a twenty-minute drive. The carpool lane always helped.
Once we were moving, I grabbed my notebook from atop the dashboard and removed the pen from the spiral binding. I flipped to the latest page of notes, and halfway down, crossed out Gillian Edwards 1302 Wheeler.
“You up for hitting one more today?” I asked, getting out my phone, ready to type in the address. “It’s on the way.” Even though I was still frustrated from the previous encounter, I tried to keep my voice light and upbeat. I could still hear those irritating nails against the door.
“Don’t you have work soon?” Sean asked as we turned onto the freeway on-ramp.
“In an hour and a half,” I said. “Just enough time for one more quick stop.”
“See, Fee? You’re expecting it to be another dead end.” He glanced over at me to gauge my reaction—just in time to see me bite my lip.
“I’m hopeful, but I always go into these things now with zero expectations.”
“All the times you’ve cried on my shoulder doesn’t feel like zero expectations.”
“That’s not fair,” I snapped. “Excuse me for having some freakin’ emotions. I already told you—you don’t have to feel obligated to take me anymore. I can borrow my mom’s car once in a while. Alexis can drive me, or I can call an Uber.”
“You’re missing the point.” Sean’s attention was solely on the traffic ahead of us now as we careened down the 5 South. “I want to help; I do. It’s not that I don’t want to drive you, it’s that I don’t want you to keep doing this to yourself.”
I stuffed my phone back in my pocket, knowing the proposed final stop wasn’t going to happen. My gaze rested on the name just crossed off my list. “You don’t want me to continue pursuing my father just because it’s hard? That’s a lousy reason to quit pursuing something. Are you just going to quit on us too since I’m a little hard to deal with sometimes?”
Sean was quiet for a moment, his jaw tightening as he considered a response. He’d started driving me on these little excursions even before we officially got together. I opened up with some of my crazy and he seemed to embrace it, which originally brought us closer together. But as the sleuthing hobby became more of an obsession, it began to strain our relationship like obsessions and addictions tend to do. Then the natural progression led to fear of losing him—losing what we’d built over the past fifteen months. I’d already had enough loss for one lifetime.
“I’m not saying to quit because it’s hard, I’m saying to quit because it’s not worth it,” Sean finally said. “I know you’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve mostly held my tongue. But what are you hoping to achieve from all this? If you ever do find him, what do you think will happen? What do you think that will really be like? A happy reunion? Maybe not knowing is better than knowing in this instance.”
I couldn’t accept that. He sounded like Mom, which irked me. It was always better to know. The worst part was not knowing, not how bad something turned out to be.
“Well?” Sean pressed.
“Well, what? I thought it was rhetorical.” I turned my head to stare out the passenger window, not wanting to see his face right now. By a concerned expression alone, he could sometimes coax me over to his side—but not this time. I wouldn’t let that happen. This was too important to me. “He’s my father,” I finally said. “I need to know why. You don’t have to understand it. You don’t have to agree. But you have to accept it.”
We drove a long time in silence, all the way to the off-ramp less than a mile from my apartment. As we sat in silence at a stoplight, and just as the song we’d been listening to transitioned to a commercial, Sean said something sending goosebumps rippling through my body.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said softly.
I finally turned back to him and he glanced my way before the light turned green, then he hit the gas.
“What?” I said, unsure I’d heard right, or trying to convince myself I hadn’t. “What does that mean?” I asked, now suddenly sick to my stomach.
Sean took a deep breath. “It means… It means, I can’t keep watching you do this to yourself. It’s too painful.”
“Well, I’m sorry if my family drama’s too painful for you,” I said. “It’s no picnic for me either. Fine. I’ll just stop talking about it. You don’t have to drive me anymore. I can handle it on my own. Problem solved.”
“No.” He shook his head. “That doesn’t solve anything because you’re not going to stop looking for him—no matter what I say—it’ll continue to eat you up inside. And I can’t be the one to keep picking up the pieces.”
“Are you seriously breaking up with me?” Now, I was afraid I might actually throw up. Luckily, we were only a few turns away from my complex. Then I could jump out and vomit in a bush or something. Real classy.
“Fee, I’m so—”
“Don’t call me that.” I could feel my blood pounding in my ears—right next to the tapping of those devilish nails.
“Fiona…” Sean’s attention was now locked on me. “I’m so sorry… I know this is messed up…”
Besides the war raging in my stomach, my eyes were starting to tear up and there didn’t seem to be a damn thing I could do about it. I crossed my arms and stared straight ahead—just in time to see an animal darting across the street.
“Sean, watch out!” I screamed.
His head whipped back to the road, his grip jerking the steering wheel. He swore as we swerved toward another car, then over-corrected in the opposite direction. The front tires of Sean’s Civic hit the curb, launching us onto the sidewalk.
A concrete light pole came barreling toward us, which I noticed only a moment before impact. An airbag went off beside me, though nothing deployed on my side. My seat belt didn’t lock and it seemed I was flying forward long after the car had stopped, the front end now grotesquely wrapped around the concrete pole. There was no time to react—not even an instant. The last thing I saw was the dashboard as my head slammed straight into it.