Lisette Matson’s gnarled hands shuffled the deck of playing cards like a magician. Josie was always fascinated by her grandmother’s dexterity when it came to playing solitaire. Or, when Josie was there, kings in the corner. The two of them sat at a table in the cafeteria of Rockview Ridge, the only nursing home in Denton. It was after dinner and most residents lingered in their wheelchairs or at tables—reading books, doing crossword puzzles, or chatting quietly. One man used his feet to pull his wheelchair along, going from nurse to nurse to complain that, “Sherri took my larynx,” his fingers pressing an artificial device to the hole in his throat to say those very words. Throat cancer. Although Josie couldn’t remember his name, she remembered her grandmother telling her about him. Her grandmother knew everyone’s diagnosis. The doctors had had to cut a stoma into his throat to give him a permanent airway which was why he needed an artificial larynx to speak. A nurse in blue scrubs acknowledged him as she pushed her medication cart past the cafeteria doors. “Now, Alton, why would Sherri do a thing like that?”
He pressed the thing to his throat again, his voice robotic. “Because she’s a bitch,” he said and laughed, silently.
Several women in the room, including Lisette, called, “Shut up, Alton!”
The nurse frowned at him before continuing on her way. She tutted. “Alton, that profanity is not necessary.”
Lisette muttered, “He just lives to get under peoples’ skins, that one. You should hear the disgusting things he says to us when the nurses aren’t around, and he accuses poor Sherri of taking his stupid larynx at least once a week. Yet he’s never without the damn thing. Someone ought to take it and shove it up his—”
Josie hissed, holding back her laughter.
Lisette batted her eyelashes in a look that said, “What did I say?” and looked back at her cards.
Across the room, Alton waved a dismissive hand in the nurse’s direction and turned his wheelchair back to the television in the corner of the room, which was playing the local news.
Following his gaze, Josie watched as an old Facebook photo of June Spencer flashed across the screen, the words FOUND ALIVE huge and bold and capitalized beneath her sullen visage. Josie wondered if that was the best Facebook photo Trinity Payne could find of the girl. Or maybe she never smiled. It would certainly fit with what Solange had told her. The screen cut to Trinity Payne, standing outside Denton’s police headquarters in the same puffy coat she’d been wearing two days ago.
Lisette eyed Josie’s left hand as she dealt the final card. “Nice ring.” Josie smiled tightly. “Luke proposed,” she said.
Lisette’s left eyebrow rose. “You should have led with that.”
Josie picked up her hand as Lisette placed the draw pile squarely between them. “I’m sorry. I should have called.”
“I suppose you said yes, or you wouldn’t be wearing the ring.” Josie drew her first card. “Yes,” she said. “I said yes.”
“I haven’t even met this boy,” Lisette said. “And, you’re not divorced yet. You know, cheating isn’t the worst thing a husband can do.”
“Don’t,” Josie said.
“I’m just saying,” Lisette went on, “couples recover from infidelity all the time. I’m pretty sure marriage counselors make their living on helping people do just that. No papers have been signed. You two could move into that big old house you just bought and rent out your old one— maybe all you need is a fresh start.”
Josie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was true. Infidelity was not the worst thing a husband could do. She knew that because what Ray had done to her had been far worse. She could have lived with the cheating, possibly. She might have tried, but this ran deeper than that. She couldn’t bear to relive it and she just didn’t have the words to tell her gram. Lisette loved Ray deeply. He was as much a part of her life as he was Josie’s, and he had been for over a decade. When Lisette was in her early seventies, and still living independently in her own home, Ray was the one who cut her grass in the summer and shoveled her walk in the winter. He kept her house in good repair and picked up her prescriptions. Between him and Josie, Lisette never wanted for anything.
“You might even convince Ray to go to AA,” Lisette added.
After her third fall at home, Lisette had moved in with Ray and Josie and lived with them for nearly a year. Her mind was sharp, but her body was failing. “I’m not sick,” she always said. “Just old.” The osteoarthritis in her knees and hips made it more and more difficult for her to get around. She started with a cane and then a walker, refusing to get the knee and hip replacements she so obviously needed, saying she was too old to put her body through all that trauma. She managed the pain well enough, but just after she turned seventy-two, it became clear that she needed more care than they could give her.
It broke Ray’s heart just as much as Josie’s, but they began the exhaustive search for a nursing home. Rockview Ridge wasn’t the cheapest or even the highest rated, but it was the closest, and Josie needed her grandmother close. She knew that Ray still secretly visited Lisette. Josie had told her grandmother that he had cheated, but she hadn’t given her any details. She also knew that Lisette had given Ray a stern talking-to, but that she loved him too much not to forgive him.
“Does Ray know about the proposal?” Lisette asked.
Josie nodded as she watched Lisette pull a king of spades from her hand and place it diagonal from the draw pile. She quickly laid down a queen of hearts and a jack of clubs as Josie drew from the pile again. “Yes, I told him two days ago. No, we haven’t had a chance to discuss it
—not that we need to because we’re not getting back together.” She motioned toward the television. “Besides, he’s been a little busy.”
The deeply etched lines in Lisette’s pale, thin face tightened into a grim frown. “It’s truly terrible,” she said. “I hope they find the Coleman girl alive too. Her poor mother. To lose a child—”
Her voice cracked, and she pulled a crumpled tissue from the cuff of her sweater and wiped her eyes. Josie placed her cards face down on the table and reached across to stroke her grandmother’s hand. Lisette always thought of the mothers—when a young boy fell through the ice of a rural pond and drowned; when a teenage girl was struck and killed by a drunk driver; when a grown person overdosed on heroin—Lisette would always think of their mothers. Ever since Josie was six years old and her father had walked off into the woods behind their trailer and shot himself. No note, no explanation, no signs beforehand that he had even been depressed. Lisette had lost her only child that day, and the pain was always close at hand.
Josie had been so young, the actual grief
of losing her father hadn’t
hit her as hard. There were good memories,
but they were few and hard to
bring into focus. What hurt the most was that he had left Josie alone with her mother, a monster who would hold Josie’s palm over an open flame of the stove just to hear her beg. And when she grew tired of seeing her, then came the closet—sometimes for days at a time.
At the tender age of nine, when she and Ray had first become friends, he had handed her a small navy blue backpack containing a flashlight, extra batteries, a dog-eared copy of the first Harry Potter book, his beloved Stretch Armstrong doll and a couple of granola bars. “Hide this in the closet,” he said, “then when she puts you in there, it will be there waiting for you, and you don’t have to be scared anymore.” It was the next best thing to having him there with her during those dark, desolate hours.
Lisette had fought for custody from the day Josie’s father died, and lost each time they went to court. It wasn’t until Josie was fourteen and her mother left in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again, that she was finally able to escape and live with Lisette full time. Life got better after that; Josie was fed, had routine, a bedroom of her own. She even went to the movies and on vacations. Ray never left her side. Little by little, her home life started to mirror those of her classmates and she took the memories of those dark years and packed them away deep in her mind.
Lisette sniffed, drawing Josie’s attention back to the present. “I’m sorry,” she said, tucking her balled-up tissue back into her sweater sleeve. She picked up a new card from the draw pile and immediately set it down opposite the first corner she had started: a king of hearts. Josie laid a queen of clubs on top of it.
The sound of a raised female voice cut through the quiet of the dining room. Josie and Lisette turned toward the doorway. From the nurses’ station they caught the words, “… can’t keep her here. We can’t take her.”
A blast of cold air shot across the floor of the room, tickling at Josie’s jean-clad legs. The double doors to the lobby whooshed open and let in the sound of metal clanging and rubber wheels squeaking. A new resident was arriving. An unwanted resident. The next thing she heard was Ray’s voice. “We’ve got nowhere else to take her.”
Josie jumped up and
made her way to the hall where she spotted Ray standing at the nurses’ station,
one hand on the high counter and one hand motioning to the gurney. Two paramedics
flanked the patient. The girl’s face wasn’t gaunt or drawn as Josie would have
expected, but it was pale to the point of being translucent. All of the eyebrow
rings Josie remembered from her missing persons flier were gone. Her eyes stared sightlessly and unblinking at the ceiling. Her dark hair was long and matted. If Josie didn’t know better, she might have mistaken her for a corpse.
But she wasn’t a corpse. Josie knew this because June Spencer had been found alive.