Her mom chews thoughtfully and swallows before she asks, “Did you love her?”
Maybe her mom will think it’s a waste of time and energy, to love somebody as hard as August does. But then she remembers the file burning a hole in her bag, the things she’s going to have to tell her later. Maybe she’ll get it after all.
“Yeah,” August says. Her mouth tastes like hot sauce and syrup. “Yeah, I did. I do.”
That afternoon, they walk through Prospect Park, under the autumn sun dappled through the changing leaves.
“You remember that file you sent me earlier this year? The one about Augie’s friend who moved to New York?”
Her mom stiffens slightly. Her lips twitch in the corners, but she’s physically holding herself back, trying not to look too eager or anxious. August loves her for it. It almost makes her change her mind about what she’s about to do.
“I remember,” she says, voice carefully neutral.
“Well, I looked into it,” August says. “And I, um … I found her.”
“You found her?” she says, abandoning pretense to stop in the middle of the path. “How? I couldn’t find anything beyond, like, two utility bills.”
“She was still going by her birth name sometimes when she knew Augie,” August explains, “but by the time she got here, she’d started using a different name full-time.”
“Wow,” she says. “So, have you talked to her yet?”
August almost wants to laugh. Has she talked to Jane? “Yeah, I have.”
“What’d she say?”
They’ve drawn up to an isolated bench perched near the water’s edge, quiet and separate from the runners and the geese and the sounds of the street.
August gestures toward it. “Wanna sit?”
There on the bench, she pulls out her own file, a new one.
In the weeks since Jane left, August hasn’t looked for her, but she has looked for Augie. Everything she’s found is in the manila folder she hands to her mom. A postcard in Augie’s handwriting, from California to New York. A phone number, which she finally managed to match to an old classified ad that led to a storage facility with blessedly stringent record keeping. The name of the man who shared Augie’s number and apartment in Oakland, now happily married to another man but struck momentarily speechless when August told him over the phone that she was Augie’s niece.
A copy of a fake driver’s license with Augie’s photo, a few years older than the last time her mom saw him, a different name. He’d gotten in some trouble on his way to California, and he’d stopped using his legal name. It was all behind him by 1976 when he wrote to Jane, but it meant they never could find him after ’73.
The last item is a newspaper clipping about a car accident. A twenty-nine-year-old bachelor with an Oakland address wrecked his convertible in August of ’77. He was driving the Panoramic Highway.
He died, but not the way Jane thought. He died happy. He died chasing a dream, loved and sober and sun-drenched in California. The man he left behind still has a box in his attic filled with photos—Augie smiling in front of the Painted Ladies, Augie hugging a redwood, Augie getting kissed under the mistletoe. There are copies of those in the folder too, along with a carbon copy of a letter Augie wrote to his kid sister in 1975, proof that he never stopped trying to reach her.
Her mom cries. Of course she does.
“Sometimes … sometimes you just have to feel it,” August tells her. She looks out over the water as her mom hugs the file to her chest. It’s over. It’s finally over. “Because it deserves to be felt.”
Her mom sleeps on the old air mattress that night, tucked in on August’s bedroom floor, and in the dark, she talks about what she might do with her time now that the case is solved. August smiles faintly at the cracked ceiling, listening to her toss around ideas.
“Maybe cooking,” she says. “Maybe I’ll finally learn how to bake. Maybe I’ll get into ceramics. Ooh, do you think I’d like kickboxing?”
“Based on the number of self-defense classes you made me take when I was thirteen, yeah, I think you would.”
She reaches for August’s hand where it’s dangling over the edge of her mattress, and August pictures her doing the same when she was a kid and shaking through a nightmare. She has always loved August. That’s never not been true.
“One thing, though,” her mom says. “This … Biyu person. The one who lived with Augie. Could I meet her?”
And suddenly August’s throat is almost too thick to answer.
“I really wish you could,” she manages. “But she doesn’t live here anymore.”
“Oh,” her mom says. She gives August’s hand a squeeze. “That’s okay.”
And, somehow, it actually sounds like she’s done asking questions.
August lies awake for another hour after her mom falls asleep, staring at the moonlight on the wall. If, after all these years, Suzette Landry can let the case go, maybe one day, August can let Jane go too.
* * *
There are a lot of impossibilities in August’s life. A lot of things that transpire despite the odds, despite every law of this world and the next saying it shouldn’t work out.
It’s November, and Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes is still $14,327 dollars away from shuttering for good, when her mom calls to tell her that her grandmother’s estate has been settled and she should get a check in the mail next week. She doesn’t think much of it—after all, her mom said there hadn’t been that much left.
She has to sign for the envelope when it arrives, and she gets so distracted arguing with Wes over what to order on tonight’s pizza that she almost forgets to open it altogether.
It’s light, thin. It feels inconsequential, like a tax return when you work minimum wage and you know the IRS is sending you a bullshit check for thirty-six bucks. She slides her finger down the seam anyway.
It’s written out to August. Signed at the bottom. Right there, in the total box: $15,000.
“Oh,” she says. “Oh.”
* * *
Three months after Jane vanishes, August’s grandmother’s money—the money from a woman August met twice, who paid her tuition for thirteen years in adherence to tradition but who couldn’t be fucked to look for her own son—silently makes up the difference.
She holds the check in her hands, and she thinks of the box her mom found in her grandparents’ attic, all of the unopened letters from Augie, and it feels dirty. She didn’t earn it. She doesn’t want it. It should go where it can be transformed into something good.
So, she digs the account numbers up from the office in the back, and she wires the money to Billy anonymously, and she clocks into work just like she does every day. She takes her table assignments, fixes herself a coffee. Slaps palms with Winfield when he clocks in. Puts in an order of pancakes for table seven. Stares at the spot on the wall by the men’s room where she’s returned the opening day photo she stole.
The front door flies open, and there’s all six-feet-something of Billy filling the doorway, eyes wide, a sheen of sweat across his expansive, bald forehead.
Lucie freezes halfway out the kitchen door when she sees him, plates of pancakes balanced up and down each arm.