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Excerpt from State of Innocence
Therapist Kimberly Mason set her windshield wipers to the highest setting as the drizzle that had started on her drive home intensified into a sudden downpour.
Traffic on Route 84 was light, but the windows blurred from the pelting rain. Intermittent gusts of wind buffeted her car. A passing truck kicked up torrents of water, forcing her to slow down.
A burst of jazz signaled a call coming in on her cell phone. It was probably just her husband calling to see if she was on her way. She let it ring while carefully pulling onto the shoulder of the highway. By the time she was able to pick up, the call had already gone through to voice mail.
She thumbed through her menu to see if he’d sent a text. It rang again.
“Is this Kimberley?” a breathless voice demanded. “It’s Isabella! We just got a letter from Child Protection. They’re investigating us!”
“Okay, Isabella. Calm down. What does the letter . . .?”
“Connor just stormed out of the house. I’m worried.” Isabella's voice broke with a sob, then rose in desperation. “I don’t know what to do!”
“We’ll figure it out. Okay?” Kimberley said, gripping the phone. Another passing truck threw up a spray of heavy water against her car door. The sky lit up with a streak of lightning. Her cell phone crackled with static.
“Can’t you do something?” Isabella pleaded. “Can’t you get them to leave us alone.” She began to sob, speaking in Spanish.
“I can tell that you're really worried Isabella, but I need you to focus and calm down,” Kimberley said, using a grounding technique to keep her client’s panic contained. “I need you to speak English so I can understand what you’re saying. Can you speak English for me?”
“Okay, okay,” Isabella said. “But I don’t know what to do. I don’t know why they have it in for us. Connor says we shouldn't go to the hearing.”
“Isabella, let’s take it one step at a time without jumping to conclusions,” Kimberley persisted, keeping her voice neutral. The frantic beat of the wiper blades was annoying. She flicked them off. “Is there something specific you would like me to do?”
“I don’t know!” Isabella moaned. “I tried calling, but they’re closed.”
“Who’s closed?” The car rocked violently, hit by another gust of rain. Kimberley froze, bracing herself. “I can’t . . . Listen, I’m in my car and it’s pouring, and I’m pulled over on the highway. Can I call you back?”
"Isabella, are you still there?"
“I'm still here," Isabella said. "But Connor wants us to take the kids and go away somewhere. Georgia, maybe,” Isabella interrupted. “He’s really upset.”
Kimberley gripped her phone so hard in frustration, her hand started to tremble.
“Tell him not to do that, Isabella." It was hard to keep her voice even. "If you don't attend the hearing, it will only make things worse.”
Excerpt from State of Innocence
Connor MacKenzie felt good to be back working for his old boss, overhauling the Dutchman II for a new season at the Newburgh waterfront. Completely in his element, he focused on his task, breathing in the promise of spring in the unseasonably warm temperatures, a soft breeze whispering off the Hudson River.
Jeff Elkin’s twenty-eight meter long, thirty-passenger boat had been lifted by crane out of the water onto a bare, cracked cement lot near the huge green warehouse dock. It sat on a framework of metal bracing. Connor was checking each metal fixture.
“Gonna need a new one of these,” he called out to Jeff, holding up a piece of rusty metal. “She’s finally corroded right through.” He jabbed his screw driver deep into its center to make the point.
Jeff looked up from where he was filling a gouge in the hull, using a fiberglass gel. “When Mikey gets back—if he ever gets back—he can pick up a new one,” he groused. “Damn kid’s been gone three hours. What the hell is he doing?”
Connor nodded. Grabbing the clipboard, he looked over the maintenance list, marking checks next to transducers, pitot tubes, and the exterior surfaces of the thru-hull fittings. By the entry for the strainer, he wrote: “Replace.”
“So," Connor asked, "you think you’ll get enough people to make this eagle watching thing pay off?”
Jeff’s expression brightened. “Already got eighteen reservations. Paid in full!”
Connor laughed. “That many people want to pay to look for eagles?”
“Amazing, huh?” Jeff said. “I heard back from four different bird groups so far. They’re all interested. It’s worth getting the boat ready so early, if we can get two or three trips booked out of this. Extends the season, you know?”
Anything that brought in more work sounded good to Connor. Before Alexia was born, Connor had crewed regularly for Jeff and his brother-in-law partner Omar Beckner. He’d always enjoyed being around both men, who had known his Gramps. While seasonal, it was the closest to a regular job he’d ever had.
Elkin had always run a small operation: a few rental motorboats in addition to the Dutchman II. Business ebbed and flowed like the tides. Connor had been reduced to a couple of weeks last April to ready the boats for the fishing season, with a bit of crewing on the odd weekend. Still, he felt better on the water. Less angry, more at peace with things.
“Omar's not doing so good. Chemo’s bad stuff.” Jeff grunted, working more gel on a metal trowel to get it to the right consistency. “He keeps saying he’ll be back in time for the bird trip.”
“Will he?” Connor was startled. Would that mean he’d be cut from the crew?
Jeff puffed out a mournful breath. “Nobody’s got the heart to say he won’t.”
"That's too bad," Connor said, grabbing a rag and a can of lubricant to start on the propeller and shaft.
The two men lapsed into an easy silence, intent on their work until they heard a crunch of wheels on gravel. Mikey Beckner drove up in the battered blue pickup truck.
“What took you so long, Mikey? Stop at the bar again, Screw-up? ” Jeff said, throwing down his rag in disgust.
“Nah!” Mikey grinned. “The place was busy. That's all.”
Jeff wasn’t smiling back. “Get that stuff unloaded. Connor, give him a hand.”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” Mikey tossed off a mock salute.
The two young men hauled out buckets of paint and boxes of supplies, stacking it all near the boat.
"Friend of mine said some old guy’s been asking around about you, Connor." Mikey reached into the truck for another box.
Connor froze. “Who?”
“Dunno.” Mikey shrugged.
“What’d he look like?” Connor demanded, the bile rising in his throat.
“Dunno. Wasn’t there.” Mikey hoisted the box to his shoulder. “He just said—”
Connor grabbed the kid’s arm, stopping him. “How old?”
“Yo!” Mikey said. “Don't make me drop this!”
Connor released his grip.
“Whas up with you, bro?” Mikey groused, shifting the box on his shoulder. “Somebody after you?”
“Nobody.” Connor shrugged. He looked away. “Just don’t like surprises.”
Excerpt from State of Innocence
The voices were slightly louder now: Daddy’s sharp and angry, Mama’s sad and pleading. But Alexia couldn’t hear what they were saying, or if they were talking about her. So she slipped into the hallway, holding her dead brother’s toy dog tight against her chest as she reached their closed bedroom door.
“This nonsense has got to stop,” she heard Daddy say. “I’m doing my part. I’m working full time. But I come home all excited, and you’re depressed. She’s in the crib. Nobody’s watching Jayleen.”
“I’m sorry.” Mama said.
“I know, Bella, but it’s no good. I told you we gotta take down the crib. Put his clothes away. The toy dog. All of it.”
Alexia hugged Floppy Dog tighter at his words. Didn’t Daddy know that if they put the crib away, her brother could never come back from Heaven?
“Put them away,” Daddy insisted, “and then you won’t feel so bad. I gave you the locket with Lando’s picture to make you feel better. All it did was make you feel worse.”
“I don’t want to forget my baby!” Mama cried.
“I don’t want to forget him either, but it’s worse when all his stuff’s in our face all day, every damn day! It’s too hard.”
Alexia stood with her back against the door jamb, ready to dart downstairs if the door opened. She wouldn’t let him take Floppy Dog away. She heard sobs and gasps. Mama must be crying. She heard Daddy saying something. She hated the way he made them feel.
“I don’t want to hide everything away,” she heard Mama say. “Pretend like he was never here.”
“No, no.” Daddy sounded like he was trying to be nice. “Keep the photos. Keep a few things. Keep the locket. But stop wallowing in it. It’s making you both sick. You and Alex.”
There were more sobs. More murmurs.
Alexia slid down the wall, inch by inch, until she was squatting on the floor, resting her chin on her knees. She closed her eyes, straining to hear more, but there was only silence, followed by the sound of murmurs and sniffling. The bed creaked.
“I promise it’ll be better this way,” Daddy finally said.
Alexia jumped up, poised to dart away if she heard his footstep towards the door.
“I know,” Mama said. “I just want to make sure it’s the right thing to do. If the therapist says to do it, we’ll take it apart.”
Alexia pricked her ears, worried. Did that mean they would take the crib away?
“Now we’re taking orders from the therapist?” Daddy sounded mad. “Everybody else knows best how to run our family! You used to trust me!” Daddy yelled. “We used to make our own decisions.”
The bed creaked noisily. Alexia heard her mother’s sobs again. Every muscle in her body tensed, in case she had to run.
“I’ve had it,” Daddy said, his feet hitting the floor with a loud thump. “I’m so outta here.”
Alexia bolted, as if a gunshot had signaled the start of a race, fleeing down the stairs.
The sound of her mother’s voice pleading with Daddy to come back faded with every step. She ran and ran, her lungs bursting, her heart pumping with fear and purpose, careening past the living room and the kitchen, barreling out the back door.
She didn’t want to see her Daddy. Didn’t want to talk to her little sister Jayleen. She just wanted to climb up the cherry tree and sit with Floppy Dog in her safe place at the crook where the big branches met, high enough where no one could reach her .