“Me, too manly?” Huck says. He clears his throat. “I love you, Rosie girl. I’ll love you forever. I just hope you’re with your mama now. My precious LeeAnn.”

“Amen,” Maia says.

Huck smiles, though a couple of tears fall. LeeAnn was the only one of them who ever went to church—Our Lady of Mount Carmel: she loved the priest, Father Abraham, who has an enviable charisma—but some of the faith must have rubbed off on Maia.

She opens the paper lunch bag and produces a pink sphere. She holds it above the water with two pincer fingers and lets it go right next to the buoy. The water fizzes, just as it used to back in the day when Huck would make himself an Alka- Seltzer.

“What is that?” Huck says. He’s an ecologist by nature, so he’s concerned.

“Bath bomb, rose-scented,” Maia says. “Don’t worry, it’s organic.”

They both peer over the side of The Mississippi until the rose-scented bath bomb dissolves.

“For you, Mama,” Maia says.

Huck waits a respectful moment. Just as he’s about to start the engine, Maia pulls out a second bath bomb, this one pale yellow.

“What’s that?” Huck asks.

Maia brings it to her nose and inhales deeply. “Pineapple mint,” she says. “My favorite. It’s for Russ.” She drops it in the water. “For you, Russ.”

He couldn’t hope for a more natural segue, and yet when he starts to speak there’s a catch in his throat. He’s about to change this kid’s entire life. But he won’t live forever. He’s sixty-one now, and who’s to say he won’t drown or get struck by lightning, or die of a heart attack, or get bitten by a poisonous spider, or have a head-on collision on the Centerline Road? If there’s one thing Huck can say about Rosie, it’s that she firmly believed she would live forever. And she didn’t. So it’s best to err on the side of caution. If Huck dies, the girl will have no one. Ayers, maybe, if Ayers doesn’t move to Calabasas or Albany, New York, with some tourist—but Ayers has no legal claim of guardianship.

Maia needs family—a chance at family, anyway. And Irene is right—if Huck doesn’t tell her now, she’ll find out when she’s older. And hate him.

“Speaking of Russ,” Huck says.

“Uh-oh,” Maia says. She puts her elbows on her knees, rests her chin in her hand.

“Back when I told you the news,” Huck says, “you said that Russ was your father.”

“He is,” Maia says. “Was. They told me the truth on my birthday, back in November. Russ is the Pirate. We have the same birthmark.”

Huck shakes his head. “Russ has the birthmark?”

“The peanut,” Maia says. “In the exact same spot on his back.”

“No kidding,” Huck says. Maia’s birthmark, on the back of her shoulder, is the shape and size of a ballpark peanut.

“No kidding,” Maia says. “He was my birth father after all. I kind of already knew. We have the same laugh, we both love licorice, we’re both left-handed.”

“Do you know… anything else?” Huck asks. Like where the guy was the first seven years of your life?

“No,” Maia says. “Mom said she would tell me the whole story when I was older. Fifteen or sixteen. When I could handle it better, she said.”

“Okay,” Huck says. His job has been made both easier and more difficult. On the one hand, there’s no need to pursue a DNA test if the birthmark story is true—Irene should be able to confirm—but on the other hand, Maia may not want to know the truth about her father. “Well, I’ve made a new friend recently.”

“Seriously?” Maia says. “I thought you hated people.”

Huck gives a dry laugh. “My friend, Irene, Irene Steele, actually, used to be married to Russ.”

Maia’s face changes to an expression that is beyond her years. It’s wariness, he thinks, the expression one gets when one senses a hostile presence. “Used to be?” she says.

“Honey,” he says. “Russ was married. While he was with your mom, the whole time, he was married to someone else. A woman named Irene. She flew down here when she learned he was dead, and she found me. She has two sons, one thirty years old, one twenty-eight. They are your brothers.”

“My brothers?” Maia says. “I have brothers?”

“Half brothers,” Huck says. “Russell Steele is their father and he’s your father. Their mother is Irene. Yours is… was… Rosie.”

“Okay,” Maia says. She bows her head. “Wait.”

Wait: Huck has done irreparable damage. Something inside of her is broken… or altered. Innocence stolen, spoiled. She now knows she’s the daughter of a cheat and a liar.

“He loved Mama,” Maia says.

“I know,” Huck says.

“But love is messy, complicated, and unfair,” Maia says, like she’s reciting something out of a book.

“That’s a dim view,” Huck says. “I loved your grandmother very much. We were happy.”

“Mama used to say that.”

Rosie might have known about Irene—must have known, Huck thinks. It was one thing for Russell Steele to keep Rosie a secret from Irene. Could he really have kept both sides in the dark? “Did they ever explain where Russ went when he wasn’t around?”

Maia shrugs. “Work.”

“Did they ever say what kind of work?”

“Business,” Maia says. “Finance, money. Boring stuff.”

“Boring stuff indeed,” Huck says. He takes a sustaining breath. He has not ruined her. She had a clue, an inkling, that Russ was keeping secrets. Huck is grateful that Rosie and Russ didn’t see fit to burden Maia with any information about Russ’s business, even though Huck is dying to know what the guy was into. “Okay, now for the tricky part.”

“Tricky?” Maia says.

“My new friend Irene, Russ’s wife, wants to meet you. And she’d like you to meet her sons. They aren’t taking you from me, they’re not taking you anywhere, they just want to meet you.”

“But why?” Maia says. “Wouldn’t they hate me? I’m the daughter of Russ’s girlfriend. Even though Mama is dead, wouldn’t they want… I don’t know… to pretend like I don’t exist? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

Easier, for sure, Huck thinks.

“Part of it is that they’re curious. Part of it is that… well, your mother was right about love being complicated. Irene loved her husband and you’re his child, so”—Huck can’t quite make the transitive property work here, much as he wants to—“she’s interested in you.”

Maia blinks. If she were any older, she might take offense at how objectifying that sounds: “interested,” the way one becomes interested in astronomy or penguins.

“Okay, let me ask you this. Let’s say we found out that your mom had another child, a son, say, that you never knew about until now. You love your mother and maybe you feel betrayed that your mother kept this big, important secret. You would still want to meet your brother, right?”

“I guess,” Maia says. “Do I have a secret brother?”

“Not on your mother’s side,” Huck says. “I can vouch for the fact that your mother was pregnant only once, and that was with you. But what I’m telling you is that you have two brothers. They want to meet you and their mother, Irene, wants to meet you. But you’re in control. If you say no, I’ll politely decline.”

“Will they be upset if we decline?” Maia asks.

“Maybe,” Huck says. “But that shouldn’t affect your answer. You wouldn’t be meeting them so they feel better. You’d be meeting them because you want to.” Huck pauses. The sun is bearing down on him. “I know that may sound selfish, but you have to trust me here. If you want to meet them, we’ll meet them. If you’d rather not, that’s fine. More than fine.”

Maia leans over the side of The Mississippi and peers into the water. Both the bombs have dissolved; all that remains, on the surface, are soap bubbles, like one would find in dishwater. Huck doesn’t want Maia to contemplate this particular spot for too long—the depths of this sea; the darker water below, where Rosie’s body landed.

“I’ll meet them,” Maia says. “But if I don’t like them, I don’t ever have to see them again, right?”

“Right,” Huck says.

“You promise?”

“I promise.” Huck is proud of her. She is brave and fierce and incorruptible. Huck can’t believe he thought that either he or Irene Steele or her sons could ruin Maia Small.

No matter what happens with all of this, Huck thinks, Maia is going to be fine.

BAKER

At eight thirty at night, after Floyd and Baker have eaten the barbecue—chicken, ribs, pasta salad, coleslaw with raisins, rice and beans, and fried plantains—there’s a knock at the door. Somewhere in the house, Winnie barks.

Who could it be? Baker wonders, and he wishes they’d left the gate down. He feels ill. He just indulged in some world-class stress eating, shoveling food in without even tasting it, and he can’t imagine who could be at the door this late. It’s not Cash; he would have sauntered right in. Maybe the police have shown up with Cash in custody? Maybe something happened to Cash: he hitchhiked home with the wrong person, or he was trying to hitch a ride and a driver didn’t see him and mowed him down. Maybe he did something desperate. Baker shouldn’t have teased him about Ayers, or about Claire Bellows, and he should never have forced a confession about the business. The stores failed. They’re gone. Even though Baker had predicted that would happen, he feels no joy in the reality. Poor Cash. He just wasn’t meant to run a business.

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