“Just let me… just let me…,” Irene says.
Baker studies the contents of the plastic bag. The pieces are chalky and porous; the “remains” look like a few handfuls of coral on the beach in Salt Pond. It’s a sobering, nearly ghastly, thought: You live a whole life, filled with routines, traditions, and brand-new experiences, and then you end up like this. Baker can’t let his mind wander to the mechanics of cremation—your body, which you have fed and exercised and washed and dressed with such care, is pushed into a fiery inferno. Baker shudders. And yet there is no escaping death. No escaping it! Every single one of us will die, as surely as every single one of us has been born. Baker is here today, but one day he will be like Russ. Gone.
He, for one, is glad the ashes have finally arrived. They all needed closure.
Baker checks the cardboard box for the name or address of the funeral home but finds neither. It’s just a plain box, sealed with clear packing tape. The bag is just a bag, labeled with Russ’s name and date of death.
How do they know this is even Russ? he wonders. It could be John Q. Public. It could be coral from Salt Pond. Baker had asked Douglas point-blank, Did you see my father, was he dead? And Douglas had stared. Now, maybe he’d stared at Baker like that because he thought the question was rhetorical. Maybe he thought the question was coming from a man half-crazed with grief, ready to grasp at any straw. But maybe, maybe, the stare meant something else.
Irene blots her nose and under her eyes with a paper napkin. “I need you boys to promise me something,” she says.
“Anything,” Cash says. But Baker refrains. Cash can be his mother’s acolyte, but Baker is going to hear what Irene is asking before he commits.
“What is it, Mom?” Baker says.
“Don’t be like him,” Irene says. “Don’t lead secret lives.”
Cash laughs, which Baker thinks is in poor taste.
“No one intends to lie,” Irene says. “But it happens. Sometimes the truth is difficult and it’s easier to create an alternate reality or not to say anything at all. I can’t imagine how soul-shredding it must have been for Russ to… to go back and forth. Rosie here, me in Iowa City.”
Baker looks at his brother. Irene knows about Rosie. Did Cash tell her?
“Mom…,” Baker says.
Irene barks out a laugh. “I found the photograph. Winnie helped me. And then I did some sleuthing. It must have destroyed your father deep inside to know he was betraying me and betraying both of you…” She stops. “Just promise me.”
“Promise,” Cash says.
“Promise,” Baker says.
“And yet, you’ve both spent the better part of a week with me. Baker, you didn’t tell me that you and Anna had split. Cash, you didn’t tell me you’d lost the stores.”
The kitchen is very, very quiet for a moment.
Baker says, “I didn’t want to make you even more upset…”
“I thought it was irrelevant,” Cash says. “Petty, even, to bring it up when you had so much else going on…”
“So you said nothing, time passed, and I had no idea about either thing. Which is why I’m asking you now to please not keep any secrets. Secrets become lies, and lies end up destroying you and everyone you care about.”
“Okay,” Baker says.
“Okay,” Cash says. He rises to fetch Irene some ice water. He is such a kiss-ass, Baker thinks, but really Baker is just jealous because he’s better at anticipating Irene’s needs.
“Thank you,” Irene says. “I haven’t exactly been forthcoming, either, as I’m sure you both realize…”
Cash says, “Mom, you don’t have to…”
“Let her finish,” Baker says.
“I tracked down Rosie Small’s stepfather,” Irene says. “He’s a fishing captain by the name of Huck Powers. He was the one who came for dinner last night. He helped me jimmy the door to the bedroom at the end of the hall.”
“What bedroom at the end of the hall?” Baker says.
Irene says, “The door at the end of the hall was locked, and I wanted to see what was in it. I thought maybe I would find something that would explain all… this.” She holds up her arms.
“What was it?” Cash asks.
“A bed,” Irene says. “Furniture.”
“Oh,” Baker says. “With that kind of buildup, I thought maybe you’d discovered something.”
“I did,” Irene says. “Because painted on the wall, in decorative letters, was a name: Maia.”
“Who’s Maia?” Baker asks.
Irene takes another sip of her water. “Maia is Russ’s daughter,” she says. “Your sister.”
Funny, we’ve been here less than a week and we know everyone else’s personal drama…
Those words, spoken by Cash, contain some truth, but who are they kidding? Nobody can hold a candle to the Steele family when it comes to personal drama.
Russ has a daughter, twelve years old, named Maia.
He was not only hiding this home, a mistress, and whatever it was he did for a living—he was hiding a child.
Okay, fine, it happens. Baker knows it happens. There was a guy in Iowa City—Brent Lamplighter, his name was, he used to belong to the Elks Lodge—who had gotten a waitress in Cedar Rapids pregnant. That child was in kindergarten before anyone realized that he was Lamplighter’s son.
But Russ with a daughter? It’s a punch to the gut. Another punch to the gut.
Russ’s deception knew no bounds.
The only thing more shocking than the news of Russ’s daughter, Maia, is the revelation that Irene wants to meet Maia. She wants them all to meet Maia. Irene has asked Huck, Rosie’s stepfather, if that would be possible. He’s going to let her know by tomorrow.
Before Baker goes up to bed, there is something he has to do.
He steps out to the deck beyond the pool to call Ayers. The call goes straight to voicemail, which isn’t surprising, given the hour. It’s nearly eleven. It also isn’t surprising because when Baker texted Ayers—My sister showed up out of the blue and I can’t do Caneel tomorrow night. What’s the next night you’re free?—there was no response. Maybe Ayers was busy with her other “commitment,” or maybe she was angry. Maybe she thought Baker was just another tourist who made pretty promises he had no intention of keeping.
Baker can’t let himself care why Ayers hasn’t responded. He has feelings for her, but those feelings are cheapened because he hasn’t been honest.
“Ayers, it’s Baker. I’d like you to listen carefully to this message. I lied today when I said my sister showed up out of the blue. It wasn’t my sister. It was my wife, Anna, and my son, Floyd. Anna and I are estranged. She’s staying at the St. John Guest Suites, so there was no reason I couldn’t be honest about that other than I thought you’d be angry or think some kind of reconciliation was going on—which, I can assure you, is not the case.”
Baker takes a breath. He hates when people leave him lengthy voicemails. He should hang up now and explain the rest when she calls him back.
But what if she doesn’t call him back?
“The bigger issue is more than a lie. It’s a deception. I never told you the real reason I’m on St. John. The real reason I’m here is because I’m Russell Steele’s son. Russell Steele, your friend Rosie’s lover, was my father. Cash and I had no idea he owned a villa here, no idea about Rosie… it’s been a confusing time for us, and for my mother. Despite the lie and the deception, I want you to know that my feelings for you are genuine. It was love at first sight.”
Baker wonders how to sign off. Call me if you want to? Talk to you later? Good luck and Godspeed? In the end, he just hangs up.
When he steps back inside the house, he’s surprised to find his mother is still awake. She’s at the kitchen table in her pajamas, with the bag of ashes and her phone in front of her. When she hears the slider, she raises her head.
“I just got a text from Huck,” she says. “He’s going to bring Maia by tomorrow after school.”
“Great,” Baker says. He has no idea if this is great or not, but his mother seems buoyed by the news. “I’m happy to meet Maia tomorrow. But I’m flying back to Houston with Anna and Floyd on Friday.”
Irene nods. “That’s the right thing to do.”
It is the right thing to do, Baker tells himself. No matter how much it feels like just the opposite.
What’s a love child?” Maia asks.
Ayers hits the brakes and they both jolt forward in the seats. She reaches an arm across Maia.
“Sorry, Nut,” Ayers says. “That just surprised me. Why are you asking?” She seems halfway between horrified and amused. This is one thing Maia has noticed about adults: they never feel just one way. Kids, on the other hand, are simpler: they’re angry, they’re sad, they’re bored. When they’re angry, they yell; when they’re sad, they cry; when they’re bored, they act out or play on their phones.
“I overheard someone say it, and I think they were talking about me.”