Nod

Free Nod by Adrian Barnes

Book: Nod by Adrian Barnes Read Free Book Online
Authors: Adrian Barnes
casual observer. Like an alcoholic hot on the trail of some new resolve, she’d washed and applied makeup and was cheerfully tending to Zoe’s needs, washing and cleaning, playing and feeding, all the while chatting to me or speaking to the silent child in a high, girlish voice, the kind of tone people who aren’t good with kids use when trying to be good with kids. The kind of voice I always suspect kids can see through. Was Tanya good with kids? I had no idea. Even though we’d been together for over three years, our shared moments around the young had been limited to brief encounters with colleagues’ offspring as they were introduced at dinner parties or barbeques before being shuffled back off to their segregated kiddie-kingdoms.
    Zoe didn’t seem to mind, seemed to assume that she and Tanya were just playing a pickup game of mother-daughter pretend. But Tanya wasn’t playing: she was brushing Zoe’s hair in deadly earnest: gentle with the tangles but obviously fighting the urge to pull and tear. For my part, I sat on the couch and kept watch in case she lost it.
    What must it have been like, I wonder now, to have been the only person in the room that morning taking their role in our pretend family seriously? On some level, Tanya must have known that Zoe wasn’t really charmed by her exertions, and that I wasn’t really onside. On some level, it must have really hurt.
    ‘Paul?’
    ‘Yeah?’
    ‘We should take Zoe out for breakfast when I’ve done with her hair. Show her our Breakfastery-That-Must-Remain-Nameless.’
    ‘I don’t think that’s doable, Tanya.’
    She slapped her cheek, shook her head and laughed. ‘Oh, right. Wow. Of course not. Christ.’ Then, without missing a beat, ‘So what do you have going on today?’
    ‘We should try to find Zoe’s parents, but I haven’t got a clue how to go about it if she’s not going to talk to us.’
    ‘Parents?’
    As though on cue, Zoe turned and smiled through me, then went back to brushing the stuffed grizzly bear Tanya had given her the night before, retrieved from a small stash of childhood stuffies she kept in the bedroom closet. Tanya brushing Zoe brushing the grizzly.
    After a while she put down her hairbrush and smiled. ‘Paul? You know what I just remembered?’
    ‘What?’
    ‘That time we went river rafting at Hell’s Gate? Remember how we were pretending to be so nervous? You said you wondered if it really was the gate to Hell and when we came out on the other end we were there, even if everything looked like normal?’
    ‘Remember the drive home?’
    She left Zoe to her bear and came and snuggled up, rubbing her bristly left calf against my thigh.
    ‘We passed the Hell Shell gas station…’
    ‘And the Denny’s of the Damned and the Infernal Ikea. I remember.’
    ‘That was a really fun day.’
    ‘A hell of a day.’
    She looked briefly at me, then down at her lap, her smile fading. My arm was around her shoulder, but I could feel her grow distant again and soon enough she wriggled free and went back over to Zoe and resumed brushing.
    I turned on my laptop. (charge remaining: 18%) and tried to locate a network. No luck. A laptop is a pretty stupid thing to own when the Web is down. I could have played Minesweeper or tapped away at my manuscript until the battery gave out, I suppose, but those were the sum total of my options. Beyond that, my almost-new $3000 MacBook Air might have functioned—very briefly—as a campfire waffle iron or a fairly lame frisbee.
    I tried to make eye contact with Tanya, but she glared at me, hundred-proof hatred pouring from her eyes. So while her unsteady hands plied Zoe with dry Corn Flakes and brownish apple slices, I sat straight-legged on the balcony in a sliver of sun and tried to make my thoughts make sense. Tried to
make sense
; tried to manufacture it. My head a little factory, chug-chug-chugging away.
    How to break down what was happening? Some children were sleeping, some weren’t. Same

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