Sorrow Road (Bell Elkins #5) - Julia Keller


She lurched across the table at the old man, grabbing the collar of his shirt and coming up with a crinkled fistful of blue polyester. She was out of control, and she knew it. It was totally inappropriate—she knew that, too—but she could not stop herself. The sight of his face enraged her: The heavy-lidded, half-closed eyes, as if he couldn’t be bothered to open them wider to make sure it was really her he was looking at, and not some random stranger. The saggy chin. The unstrung mouth. The ridiculous ears. The flaky-pink forehead, flat as a landing strip.

God, she thought, seconds before accosting him. I can’t stand it that he just—he just sits there. Smiling.

And so she had bolted forward, launching herself across the little round table, knocking off the game-ready checkerboard somebody had left there. The red and black plastic coins bounced soundlessly across the carpet. The old man did not flinch. He let her snatch his collar and tug him toward her, until their faces were so close that she could smell his sour, yeasty, old-man smell.

“Say it,” she said. Her voice was breathy and wet, as ragged and sopping and lost as something left out in the rain overnight. It had a rasp to it as well, a rasp of desperation. “Say you’re sorry. Say it. Say it, you bastard.”

He blinked at her. If he felt any discomfort from the force of her grip, or any recognition of who she was, he did not show it. He had no fear of her. No fear of anything. He’d forgotten fear, just as he’d forgotten everything else.

It was infuriating, but there it was.

Then, all at once, her equilibrium returned to her. The madness—the madness that had her in its grip, just as surely as she had a hunk of blue polyester in hers—passed.

Janie let go, opening her hand and releasing the fabric, which meant she released him, too. She was appalled by what she had done, ashamed that she had lost track of herself that way. She had promised herself that she would never do it again—never touch him in anger, never give them any excuse to say she could not come back. She needed to come back. He was her touchstone.

She despised him, of course, but he was her past. And she was his.

She took a quick, nervous look around the visitors lounge, to make sure it was still empty and no one had seen her. Sometimes other residents slipped in, silent as fog, and drifted into the corners. Or an aide, taking a break, might come in to take advantage of a comfortable armchair. You were never alone in this place. That was one of its chief horrors.

Her father’s smile held steady. He had smiled when she first sat down here with him, and the nature of his smile—impersonal, abstract—did not change, even after she said, “It’s Janie, Dad. Do you know who I am?” His smile had already lasted too long to be anything but an automatic response to stimuli, like an amoeba going from a comma to a period in reaction to light.

She endured that smile as long as she could. Today’s limit turned out to be a bit less than five minutes. At that point she had lunged, grabbed his collar, confronted him, and then recovered herself.

She let her shoulders relax against the back of the chair. She looked around again. It was fine; no one had seen her. Good thing. This time, they would probably press charges. She had been warned.

Funny, she thought. Parents can beat the crap out of their kids as often as they like, but lay a hand on a geezer these days and they slam you for elder abuse. She chalked it up to the private-public thing. Kids were locked away in their parents’ homes, with no witnesses and no one the wiser; old people were mostly penned up in public facilities, where nosy bureaucrats were always watching, writing things down.

“You bastard,” she repeated. Softly this time. There was no anger in her voice anymore. Only weariness. It was a bland statement of fact, not an accusation.

His smile stayed put. Once it established a beachhead on his face, it rarely gave up any ground. The smile was unrelated to pleasure or amusement or even interest in what was going on around him. It just was.

“You bastard,” she said for the third time.

She would have no satisfaction from him, no outraged denials, no savage counterclaims. None of the things