Mick watched his daughter’s face begin to calm. And he wanted so badly to move to her and hold her, to hug her, like he had when she was six years old, when they were just a few miles down this very beach running with that kite. But he knew better than to make a single step toward her.
“Do you all feel this way?” Mick asked the rest of his children.
Nina looked away from her father, toward the ocean, and wiped her eyes again.
Kit looked at the sand as she nodded. Hud, bruised inside and out, looked at his father. “I think it’s just …”
“It’s too late, Dad,” Jay said.
It hurt Jay to say it. He felt bad for his father. He felt bad for his siblings. But more than anything, it made Jay so sad to be offered a father now when he had needed one so badly before. The man in front of him had never been the man he’d yearned for. The man he’d yearned for had never existed. And that was a pain unto itself.
Mick pursed his lips and nodded, absorbing it all. He looked at his children. His firstborn, who had raised her siblings and gone on to make a career for herself. His older son, who was now renowned in a field beyond Mick’s own grasp. His third born, who had found a way to succeed in this world despite his rocky beginning. His fourth born, who appeared to have inherited the things he liked about himself the most without any contact with him at all. And even this young girl, the one who may or may not be his, who appeared to have faced so much of what he, himself, had faced at her age, but with so much more grace than he ever had.
“OK,” Mick said. “I get it.”
He needed his children now that he was alone. Now that he was afraid he wasn’t going to matter very soon. Now that he had a house that echoed.
But they didn’t need him.
“I never meant for you to grow up feeling alone, feeling … like you had no one to rely on,” he said, momentarily covering his eyes with the pads of his fingers. “I can’t imagine you’d believe me but I swear that was the very last thing I wanted.”
At this, Mick’s voice started to crack. “My dad stepped out on my mom a lot,” he said. “He left for long stretches of time. And my mom … she would forget about me for days. They both would.”
Nina looked away from her father and watched a family of dolphins swim past them all, diving in and out of the water in tandem. She loved how they always moved in a pack, in one direction. They never cared what was happening on the shore, they just kept going. Dolphins had been swimming along the shore in Malibu well before she was born and they would be swimming along the shore here in Malibu well after she left, and she took comfort in that.
“Then they both died when I was your age, Casey,” Mick said. “At the same time. Just like … Just like you. Just like you all, really. My mother … She got mad at my father one afternoon shortly after he took up with a waitress at the deli. She set the linens on fire. I wasn’t there. So I don’t know exactly what happened. But I’ve always thought it was probably just to upset my old man. But then … then it grew out of control too quickly.
“I was eighteen. I came home from school and our apartment was gone, burned to the stilts. They were both dead.”
Mick looked up at the sky, then back at his children. “In an instant, I was on my own. I didn’t graduate high school either,” he said, looking at Nina.
Nina looked her father in the eye and her face tightened. She felt for him. But it made her even more angry, that he had allowed her to lose what he himself had lost. He had—all along—known the cost of it and had done nothing to stop it from happening to her, too.
“I don’t think I ever really knew how it felt to be loved until I met your mother. I was born to people who never cared, people who couldn’t even be bothered to not set the house on fire.
“Anyway, I’m whining about it like I’ve got some sob story. That’s not my point. My point is that … I know how it feels to wonder. If anyone loves you, if you matter at all. And I should never have done that to you. I set out to make sure you never felt that way,” he said, a lump forming in his throat. “But … I don’t know … somehow it still happened.
“When I found out your mother died, I just wanted it to go away. I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to still imagine her with you. I did not want to face that I had failed you and that the world had taken the only good parent you had. So I just … ignored it. I pretended it wasn’t true. And then I got the notice that you’d filed for guardianship, and I … I felt like the decision had been made for me.”
“You never even acknowledged it,” Nina said.
“Every day I didn’t call just made it that much more shameful I hadn’t called. But … that was about me. Not about you. And what I’m getting at here is that I used to think the way my parents treated me was because I wasn’t worth loving or I wasn’t … good enough. But …” Mick closed his eyes and shook his head. “What I did—the way I failed you, I guess—it wasn’t because you didn’t deserve to be taken care of. It was because of me. My parents weren’t ever able to tell me that, and so I’ve never been sure. But I’m here right now and I can make sure you know: You deserved better. You deserved the world.”
Mick’s eyes welled up and he looked each of them in the eye, even Casey. “Every minute of your lives you were loved,” he said as his chin started to quake. He put his hands together in a prayer motion and put them to his chest and said, “If I exist on this earth, someone loves you. I’m just … I’m a very selfish man but I promise you all—I love you. I love you so much.”
The sky was just beginning to lighten. Nina was so tired.
“I think the problem, Dad,” she said, with an unexpected warmth in her voice, “is that your love doesn’t mean very much.”
Mick closed his eyes. And he nodded. And he said, “I know, honey. I know. And I’m sorry.”
Sergeant Purdy put handcuffs on Tarine as she screamed at him.
“Are you kidding me?” she shouted.
“You accosted a police officer,” he said, and then he pulled her hands behind her back. The movement turned her elbows out and threw her off balance. Tarine tripped on the step in front of her and fell down. He unceremoniously pulled her up, and as he did, he dragged her body toward him, tight against his torso. He smiled.
Vanessa snapped. Without thinking, she pushed him. “Don’t touch her again!” she said.
The cop behind Purdy grabbed Vanessa by both of her arms and cuffed her, pulling her arms tight behind her.
Greg came back around the corner at the same time Ricky came into the living room, wondering what all of the commotion was about.
“What the hell is going on?” Greg yelled. “Let her go!”
Instinctually, Ricky lunged forward and pushed both cops off the women. Purdy fell back, the other cop barely moved. “You get off of them!” Ricky said. “I don’t care what badge you’re wearing!”
Purdy looked at Ricky, and Ricky instantly understood this was going to cost him. But he stood tall as both cops moved toward him, and remained stoic as they pulled his arms behind his back and cuffed him.