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Forgotten a novel, p.1
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       Forgotten: A Novel, p.1

           Catherine McKenzie
 
Forgotten: A Novel


  Forgotten

  Catherine McKenzie

  Dedication

  For Tasha

  For always being there.

  May you always be.

  Contents

  Dedication

  Prologue

  Chapter 1: Out of Africa

  Chapter 2: The Old Apartment

  Chapter 3: Missing, Presumed Dead

  Chapter 4: Some Samuel Clemens

  Chapter 5: All Work and No Play

  Chapter 6: Far and Away

  Chapter 7: Imagine the Possibilities

  Chapter 8: Meet the Press

  Chapter 9: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

  Chapter 10: Silent Night

  Chapter 11: Heart on a String

  Chapter 12: Let the Sunshine In

  Chapter 13: When the Ball Drops

  Chapter 14: Back in the Saddle

  Chapter 15: That’s the Idea

  Chapter 16: That Was an Invalid Response

  Chapter 17: Groundwork

  Chapter 18: Oh, the Memories

  Chapter 19: Exhibit A

  Chapter 20: Evidently You Don’t, Evidently You Won’t

  Chapter 21: You’re Shaking My Confidence Daily

  Chapter 22: First Things First

  Chapter 23: As Per Usual

  Chapter 24: Low-Percentage Shot

  Chapter 25: The Half-Life of Happiness

  Chapter 26: A Piece of the Puzzle

  Chapter 27: A Woman Scorned, a Woman Changed

  Chapter 28: Nothing but Net

  Chapter 29: Lights, Camera, Action

  Chapter 30: Try and Try Again

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Praise for Spin

  Praise for Arranged

  Praise for Forgotten

  Also by Catherine McKenzie

  An Excerpt from Spin

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Prologue

  My mother’s funeral was a small affair on a hot Tuesday. Her best friend, Sunshine, spoke about their girlhood together like it was more real to her than the airless, flower-filled room we sat in. A few of her colleagues from the university wore black and looked sad. My boyfriend, Craig, pulled at the collar of his shirt and held my hand awkwardly. Only my best friend, Stephanie, had any clue what to say, how to comfort me.

  Afterward, I walked around half-awake for days, but at night half-awake was too awake to sleep. I knew I should take the pills my mother’s doctor slipped into my hand shortly after he pronounced her dead, but I didn’t want to lose control of my thoughts of her. I wanted to remember her as she’d been while I grew up, not what she’d become as she lay dying. And I didn’t trust my sleeping brain not to betray me.

  A week later, I sat stiffly in front of the lawyer from my firm who was handling her affairs.

  “You know that your mother’s estate is small. All those medical bills—”

  “Yes, I know.” My mother wanted to die at home. So we both paid to make that happen.

  He peered at me over his bifocals. “In fact, your mother liquidated most of her assets a few months ago. She used the proceeds to pay for her funeral and to buy this.”

  He handed me a manila envelope. Inside was a first-class ticket with an open return to Tswanaland, an African country I knew almost nothing about, and a thick brochure.

  I flipped through the glossy pages. It was full of lions and zebras and elephants. Oh my.

  “She booked the trip in your name.”

  I thought back to those last few days at my mother’s bedside. How her bedroom, once cozy and comfortable, and my favorite room in my childhood house, had turned antiseptic, medicinal. How the only remnants of its past were my mother’s favorite photographs, scattered among the pill bottles on the nightstand. And how she told me not to make the same mistakes she had. Not to postpone the things I was passionate about, even if they seemed out of reach.

  “I always wanted to go to Africa, you know,” my mother whispered, her voice a raspy echo of the lilt I knew and loved.

  “I know.”

  It was the one thing everyone knew about her. Easy to please at Christmas, or on her birthday—just give her anything that might’ve come from that mysterious continent and she was thrilled, transported. Our bookshelves were full of such gifts, mostly bought with my allowance, or by my father before he left us.

  “I want you to go instead,” she said.

  “Mom . . .”

  “Please, Emma.”

  I wanted to ask her why, but her soft brown eyes implored me not to question, to simply accept. I laid my weary head on her fragile shoulder. She patted my hand gently, and I felt ashamed. How could I be anything but strong for her in this moment, maybe her last? How could I require comfort? But I did. My mother was dying, and I needed my mommy.

  “I will, Mom. I promise.”

  “Thank you.”

  She closed her eyes, a smile on her worn face.

  She held on for two more days but never regained consciousness. Her death was a fractional thing. One moment, she was still and pale, but alive. The next, she was gone. It seemed like almost nothing had happened, but that almost nothing changed everything for me.

  “You’re up for partnership this year, aren’t you?” the estate lawyer asked, his hands laced across the crisp white shirt that contained his belly.

  “Yes.”

  “This might be problematic, then.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I’ve taken the liberty of speaking to the Management Committee, and they’ve agreed to reimburse you for the purchase.”

  My head snapped up. “You what? Why?”

  “We expect you to need a little time off, but . . . take my advice, dear, this trip wouldn’t be well received.”

  Anger flooded through me, and some of the fog lifted from my brain. “Are you saying that if I go, I’m putting my career in jeopardy?”

  “I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly.” He smiled condescendingly. “You litigators, you’re all the same.”

  I stood angrily, the brochure clutched in my hand. “Who do I have to talk to about this?”

  “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

  “I’ll bet.”

  I left his office and marched up the two flights of internal stairs to the litigation floor. Matt Stuart, the head of my department, was sitting at his big oak desk, visible through the glass wall that separates him from the hoi polloi. He was on the phone.

  “Can I see him?” I asked his assistant, a matronly woman in her midfifties.

  “What’s the urgency level?”

  “Off the charts.”

  “I’ll see what I can do.”

  I went to wait for him in my smaller office down the hall. My desk was full of sympathy cards and large, colorful bouquets. Their scent was almost overwhelming. I stared at my email in-box full of I’m-so-sorry messages until Matt rapped on my door. As usual, the sleeves of his pin-striped shirt were rolled up to his elbows. I could see the marks of his fingers in his thick silver hair.

  The deep bass of his voice radiated concern. “Emma, I’m very sorry for your loss.”

  He’d said the same thing at the funeral. It was all anyone was saying to me since my mother died. What else was th
ere to say?

  “Thank you.”

  “Nathalie said you wanted to see me?”

  I laid it out for him. My mother’s gift. What I wanted to do. What Mr. Patronizing Estate Lawyer had implied. I spoke with a certainty I didn’t know I had. With a resolve that surprised me.

  “I want to go to Africa,” I told him. “Will you help me?”

  Three anxious days later, the Management Committee relented. I could have a month off, but it came with a catch: I wouldn’t be put up for partnership this year. My uncharacteristic desire to do something other than work eighty hours a week had given rise to “certain concerns about my long-term commitment to the firm.” When I got back, I’d have to wait an extra year before being considered.

  As I listened to Matt, I was too relieved to experience the right amount of anger. I’d been worried that if I complied with my mother’s dying wish, I’d be throwing away everything I’d worked for. So the choice Matt presented me with might’ve been harsh and unreasonable, but I welcomed it. Another year of semi-slavery in return for a month for my mother.

  It seemed like a fair exchange.

  Sunshine drove me to the airport a few days later. She was leaving shortly herself, returning to her faraway life in Costa Rica. Craig and I had said our goodbyes the night before, the air full of the tension created because I wouldn’t let him come with me, even for a little bit. If my mother hadn’t just died, we would’ve had an argument, maybe a fatal one, but she had, so we tried to ignore my clipped “no” in response to his offer, and his begrudging acceptance of my explanation that I needed some time to myself. We tried, but we didn’t quite manage it.

  I stood with Sunshine at the Security entrance, as far as she could take me. We hugged, holding on a little longer than usual, as if, when we let go, the tie that bound us together would be severed, irreparable. When we finally broke apart, Sunshine stroked the side of my face with her rough fingers and turned to go.

  “Sunshine?”

  “Yes?”

  “Why do you think Mom wanted me to take this trip?”

  She smiled. “I can’t tell you that, Emmaline. It’s yours to discover. And you will.”

  Her certainty was so total that I almost felt reassured. But then she walked away, and the weight of my life settled on my shoulders. I shuffled through Security and waited at my gate. Ensconced in my first-class seat, I finally took the pills the doctor gave me the day my mother died. I slept dreamlessly as the ocean danced below.

  And when I awoke, I was in Africa.

  Chapter 1: Out of Africa

  Six months later . . .

  I’m sitting on my suitcase beside the muddy road that leads through the village, waiting for the signs that indicate the arrival of transport—birds taking flight, a tremor along the ground, and, since the rains started, the sound of mud slipping through off-track wheels.

  Birds wheel overhead, their cries a constant background music. The air is thick and damp, a physical thing that’s been getting heavier by the month.

  I remember the first time I saw this place: the ragged row of shacks with their corrugated iron roofs; the gathering circle made of big, round boulders; and the frame of a half-built schoolhouse, its wood a bright, freshly sawn yellow. The rough structure reminded me of the buildings I always imagined Laura Ingalls Wilder living in as I read her books over and over again as a child.

  The safari guides left me here, sick, sick, sick, promising to come back as soon as they could with a doctor, but it hadn’t worked out that way. Instead it was Karen and Peter—the NGO workers who were building the schoolhouse—who nursed me back to health, using up their small store of medical supplies.

  Karen is waiting with me now. Peter’s in the village behind us. The confident blows of his hammer ring out, a practiced rhythm. A few children sit watching him, hunched on their heels, eager for him to be finished. When he’s done, classes will begin, and they’re keen to start learning.

  After all these months of working on the building alongside him, I can’t imagine not being here when it’s finished.

  “Maybe I should stay a few more days,” I say.

  Karen shakes her head, her brown face and matching eyes calm and certain. “We need to get you home, Emma. It’s almost Christmas.”

  I shudder. I’d almost forgotten. It’s so hard to keep track of the days here. Christmas without my mother. This seems like a pretty good reason to stay exactly where I am. But I’ve used that excuse for too long now. It’s time to get back to my life.

  “You’ll be home soon, though, right?” I ask, because my home is also Karen and Peter’s. I don’t know why we had to come all this way to meet. Life works like that sometimes, I guess.

  “A few weeks after Christmas, if everything goes as planned.”

  “I’m glad.”

  In the distance I hear the low rumble of an engine, and I know it can’t be long now. I stand and face Karen. She’s ten years older than me and a head taller—stronger, broader, more substantial somehow.

  She puts her hand in the pocket of her loose work pants and pulls out a small Mason jar full of dirt. Reddish like the ground. Like the mud slipping through the tires under the thrum of the approaching engine.

  “I thought you might like this to add to your collection.”

  I take it from her. Some of the dirt clings to the outside, sticking to my fingers. “Thank you.”

  A Land Rover is visible now, only seconds away. I slip the jar into my pocket and embrace Karen. Her arms are steely around me. She smells like the humid air and the tall, bleached grass, like I must too.

  “You’ll say goodbye to Peter?”

  “You said goodbye to him yourself ten minutes ago.”

  “I know. But you’ll tell him?”

  She holds me away from her. “I will.”

  The Land Rover shudders to a stop, spraying mud in our direction. A large piece lands with a splat on my pant leg. I wipe it off as a short, stocky man in a sweat-stained shirt gets out.

  “You are ready to go, miss?”

  “Yes,” I say. “Yes.”

  I’m mostly happy for the mud on the long drive back to the capital. It clings like a film to the windows, obscuring the worst of the view. But after a while it’s impossible not to wipe it away and stare at the changed countryside. The odd jumble of images. A too-white running shoe lying at an odd angle on the side of the road. Things on the ground that shouldn’t be—trees and twisted metal. The ground seems rippled, folded, like a mirage over a hot highway. And as we get closer to the epicenter, there’s a smell that must’ve been much worse before the rains came. That might never be washed away.

  The level of devastation, even after all these months, is shocking and saddening. And as the Land Rover bumps slowly along, my mind slips back to the long days listening to the one radio in the village—its voice so faint sometimes it felt like messages from the moon—trying to imagine what was happening. But no amount of listening, no amount of imagination, was enough to conjure up the destruction outside my window.

  I feel helpless, and now I want to go home very much indeed.

  The airport is chaotic. Though it’s been a week since a few airlines resumed service, the staff working the counters in the half-rebuilt building don’t have reliable electricity or working phones. When I find the end of the line I almost weep at the length of it, but there’s nothing to be done. It moves at the speed it moves—glacial—and crying or yelling won’t change anything, though I observe several people trying both tactics over the next four hours.

  When I finally reach the counter, the thin, dark-skinned woman behind it is much politer than I would’ve been. She takes my open-ended ticket and passport and finds me a place on a plane to London leaving in two hours. Security consists only of two impossibly tall men giving passengers the evil eye as they pass through a metal detector that’
s seen better days. I file through quickly and have time to locate some food at a small kiosk that’s selling, of all things, Chicago-style hot dogs. I wolf down two of them gratefully, and when my plane is finally ready to depart, I shuffle onto it feeling like I’m running away.

  The plane rattles across the roughly patched runway, which is full of cracks and tufts of grass, and leaves the ground. The turmoil below is momentarily toy-village small, and then invisible below the clouds. I rest my head against the hard molded plastic and am asleep in minutes.

  At Heathrow, a rainy sleet almost keeps us from landing. It’s midday—early morning back home—and the sun’s nowhere to be seen.

  I make my way slowly through the massive structure. The airport bears the markings of the season. Extra lights and Christmas trees try to give the place a festive air. Compared with where I’ve been, it’s so clean and bright it feels like it was built yesterday, like the last lick of paint is still drying. The cooled and filtered air scratches the back of my throat, and I feel dusty and dingy as I pass the clean, clean faces around me.

  I find the counter for my airline and use my open-ended ticket to book myself a flight home. As I search for my gate, I keep an eye out for somewhere to send a message to Stephanie and Craig, something I haven’t had the chance to do in a long time. Too long. But I don’t want to think about why I let that happen, and I wouldn’t have any answers, for that matter, if I did.

  I pass a few public computer kiosks full of people who look like they’ve settled in for more than the time I have before my flight. I queue up behind one anyway, until I notice its user pushing unfamiliar coins into a slot, buying ten more minutes. The only change I have would barely buy me a Coke in a vending machine back home.

 
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