If You Believe
Page 30

 Kristin Hannah

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Disappointment crushed through Jake. He looked away. Tears burned his eyes and he fought to blink them back. He shouldn't have asked the question.
Fool. Idiot.
Jake swallowed a thick lump of tears. It shouldn't have surprised him; it was what his mother had said all along. To Mad Dog, kids were just mistakes. He was just a mistake. But Jake had never let himself believe it. Always, always, he'd believed that Mad Dog would welcome him.
"Kid? You all right?"
No, Jake wanted to say, to scream. I'm not okay. I'm your son. Your mistake.
Mad Dog laid a hand on Jake's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "You got something in your eye?"
Jake sniffed hard; his shoulders felt weighted down by years worth of useless dreams and endless nighttime prayers. It had all been a waste of time. All the traveling, the lying, the hiding, were for nothing. When Mad Dog learned the truth, he wouldn't care. There wouldn't be any big, tearful reunion, no bear hug and welcome.
Jake was just a goddamn mistake.
Mad Dog would walk away. And Jake would end up as alone as he was right now, with nothing to show for all of his stupid little-kid dreams.
"You really want to learn to fight?" Mad Dog's voice was soft, tentative, as if he didn't know quite what to say.
Jake looked up dully. "Huh?"
Mad Dog smiled encouragingly. "Okay, let's go. Supper won't be for another hour."
"Really?" Jake felt something inside him come to life. Hope—that insidious little nugget of hope he'd nurtured always—crept back into his heart. He smiled, and even though he knew he was being a fool, knew Mad Dog would never really, truly care about his son, Jake felt himself start to believe in the dream again.
He shook his head, smiling a sad, trembling smile. He was as crazy as his mother.
She'd never stopped believing in Mad Dog either.
Silently Jake followed Mad Dog to a secluded spot over by the springhouse. There, Mad Dog stopped.
"Okay, kid, we'll start with the basics. How much did your old man teach you about fighting?"
The question caught Jake off guard. "Huh?"
"Your father, how much did he teach you about fighting?"
"N-Nothing," he stammered. Then he realized he could use the question as a beginning. There was so much about his father Jake didn't know. "Did . . . your dad teach you how to fight?"
Mad Dog stiffened. An uncharacteristic bitterness hardened his eyes. "I suppose you could say that."
Jake saw something on Mad Dog's face he didn't expect, didn't understand, and it reeled him in. He took a cautious step toward him. "What did he teach you?"
Mad Dog laughed, but it was a hard, humorless sound. "My old man taught me how to take a punch." He cleared his throat, and blinked, and the moment was over.
Grinning again, he cocked his head to the left. "Okay, stand over there. Feet apart, back straight, arms at your sides."
Jake tried to do everything Mad Dog asked of him.
"You look a little tense, kid. Trying jumpin' around a little, loosen up."
Jake hopped once, feeling foolish.
Mad Dog grinned. "I'll close my eyes, okay? Jump till you feel relaxed."
Jake felt a surge of relief when his father closed his eyes. He hopped around, wiggling his arms until the tension he'd felt earlier melted away. "Okay," he said at last, "I'm relaxed."
Mad Dog opened his eyes. "Great. Now bring your fists up like this."
Jake copied his dad, bringing his fists up to his chest.
"Okay, we'll start with your reflexes. When I punch, you duck."
Jake's eyes bulged. "We're going to start right out with punching?"
"It's fighting, Jake. Not brain surgery. Hitting's all there is."
"Oh." He started to feel a little sick to his stomach. "Will ... it hurt?"
Mad Dog arched one eyebrow. "It will if you don't duck."
Mariah sneaked up the stairs, wincing every time the floorboards creaked. "Rass,"
she whispered harshly, "are you up here?"
Nothing. No answer.
She came to the top of the stairs and peered into the hallway. It was dark and silent.
Her father's bedroom door was closed.
She crept around the corner and moved silently down the corridor, past her bedroom, past her father's office and his bedroom, to her mother's sewing room.
Every step felt weighted and painful. There, at the closed door, she paused.
Her heart thumped like a jackrabbit's. In the eight months since her mother's death, Mariah had never once gone into this room, not even to clean. Right after the burial last year, steeped in silent, agonizingly sharp grief, she'd come into her mother's sanctuary, alone.
Through a pounding headache caused by unshed tears, she'd boxed up her mother's life. Then she'd closed the door and walked away. Never once had she ventured back. Until now.
You can do it, she told herself firmly. You can go in here. It's just a room....
Straightening, she reached for the doorknob; it felt cool and slick and unfamiliar in her hand. Turning it, she pushed the door open.
Late afternoon sunlight pulsed through the big window on the east wall, filtering through the expensive lace curtains her mother had ordered through the Bloomingdale's catalog. White sheets covered the furniture in a series of macabre, ghostly shapes.
For a moment, she couldn't move. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her. The gunpowdery scent of old dust and cobwebs filled Mariah's nostrils. Coughing, she walked woodenly to the white heap below the window and flung the dusty sheet aside.
Her mother's desk.
She reached out, touched the scrolled woodwork along the top of the oak parlor desk. Images came to her hard, hammered her self-control.
This is a dress for you, baby. For my special little girl . . .
Mariah forcibly shoved the memories away and closed her mind off to more. She couldn't think about her mother. Even now, almost a year later, she couldn't think about her. If she did, she'd start crying and she'd never stop.
Carefully she eased the desk's top open. The inside was almost empty, as Mariah knew it would be. Once, it had been cluttered with stacks of nothings—pencils, papers, photographs in elaborately scrolled frames. Once it had smelled of lavender, for her mother always kept a sprig or two inside it. Now it smelled like wood and dust and disuse.
All Mariah had left in it was a stack of old, yellowing copies of Godey's Lady's Books.
She leaned forward, propping the lid open with the top of her head, and took a handful of magazines. Then she eased back, quietly closing the desk. Pushing slowly to her feet, she whipped the sheet back in place and walked stiffly from the room.
The door shut with a crisp little click that almost broke her heart. Her control wavered.
She squeezed the magazines to her chest and raced for her bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her. Inside her own safe sanctuary, she leaned back against her door, breathing heavily. Memories came at her from a dozen angles, trying to pierce her defenses. She didn't let them through.
Gradually her breathing normalized and she walked to her bed. Perching rail-straight on the edge, she started flipping through the magazines for a hairstyle to replace the tight chignon she'd worn for years. She thought about her hair, only her hair, and after a while the suffocating sense of loss began to diminish.
She sighed, relieved. She'd beaten it once again, held it back by sheer force of will.
She was halfway through the third magazine when she heard a strange sound come through her partially open window.
Frowning, she set the book down and crossed the room. Opening the window, she leaned out.
And saw Mad Dog punch Jake in the jaw. The boy yelped and stumbled backwards, slamming into the springhouse.
Mariah gasped. Anger exploded through her, displacing the last nagging sense of grief. Ducking back inside, she raced from her bedroom and ran from the house, erupting through the front door with a bloodcurdling scream.
Hair flying, she hurtled across the gravelly path. "What in the hell are you doing?"
she screeched at Mad Dog.
He turned to her, slack-jawed in surprise. "Huh?"
"A brilliant response." She glared at him, flinging her pointed finger toward Jake.
"You hit this child."
"I'm no child! I'm sixteen years old."
Mad Dog smiled at Mariah. "Well, well, Jake. Appears we got us a riled-up mama hen." He reached out to touch her.
She smacked his hand aside. "Don't you try to sweet-talk me. You hit him."
"Course I did."
Mariah blinked at him in surprise. "What kind of excuse is that?"
"It's no excuse. Do I need one?"
"He was teaching me to fight, Mariah," Jake said, holding his reddening jaw.
Mariah turned to Jake. "Teaching you to fight? Why?"
Mad Dog grinned. "A boy needs to know how to defend himself. It's a manly thing."
Mariah refused to be swayed by his smile, though she felt the heat of it all the way to her toes. "You don't need fists for protection," she said stubbornly.
"Not when you've got the butt end of a shotgun, eh, Mariah?" Mad Dog said softly.
The whisper of his breath brushed her throat, and for a split second, she forgot what she was arguing about.
Jake surged toward her, too. "I want to learn how to fight, Mariah. Really, I do."
She gazed into Jake's wide eyes and saw something that looked like desperation. A small, uncertain frown pulled at her lips. She sighed and crossed her arms. It was obvious that Jake wanted this, wanted it a lot.
You're not his mother. The words came at her, hard. She flinched and slowly lowered her arms. She might want to be a mother, but she wasn't. What did she know about the needs of a young man?
Jake looked at her beseechingly, as if begging her to understand. "I just didn't duck fast enough, that's all."
She turned to Mad Dog, trying not to sound as motherly as she felt. "I don't . ..
want you hurting him."
Mad Dog sobered. "If he's not fast enough, he's gonna get popped. That's a plain and simple fact." He turned to Jake. "You want to keep learnin'?"
"Yes." He nodded fervently. "Please."
Mad Dog turned back to Mariah. "Gettin' hurt is part of life, Mariah. Pretending otherwise is stupid. The boy needs to learn how to take care of himself, but the lessons're gonna hurt. Can you understand that?"
A wave of sadness spilled through her at his quiet words. They were so like him, so damned honest and heart-wrenching. He saw everything clearly, without the blinders she'd worn for years. "I understand," she said quietly, and she did. Better than he could ever know. If there was one thing she understood, it was life's painful lessons.
Their eyes met, her wide with old sorrows, his filled with infinite tenderness. "Ah, Mariah . .." He reached out.
She shivered, anticipating his touch.
But he didn't touch her. He leaned toward her, close. She felt the caressing strands of his breath along the side of her face. Then, slowly, he put a hand at her waist and drew her toward him, whispering words to be heard by her alone. "You did the right thing, stepping in when you thought I was beating him. Most . .." His voice cracked, thickened. "Most women would've been too scared. You would have made a hell of a mother."