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The Way It Was Then
Harmon Smith

When Tucker received a dishonorable discharge from the navy in 1954, he was still carrying a photograph of himself and Karen taken when he was ten and she was nine. They were standing by their bikes in the driveway at the house in Short Hills in front of the Buick that belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Almquist. Tucker always thought of Karen’s parents that way, although naturally he’d called them Mom and Dad during the seventeen months he lived with them. That was before they turned him back to the state. They couldn’t manage him, they said.

Ever since he’d left the Almquists, Tucker had thought about looking Karen up one day, and this seemed like a good time. She’d be twenty-two and probably a graduate of some fancy college. If things had turned out different in his life, he’d be a graduate of one himself, he supposed. But college hadn’t been in the cards for Tucker, even though his marks were good. The Kraghs, who adopted him after he was sent back by the Almquists, had encouraged him to finish high school, but didn’t have the means to get him beyond that.

The rented room Tucker had moved into possessed a single window that stared out at a patch of scraggily grass. His eyes rested from time to time on a clump of weeds as he composed his letter to Karen. He reminded her of how often she’d consoled him when he’d gotten into trouble, and he asked who was sneaking candy to her now. She had been living with the Almquists for two years when he arrived from the group home in Trenton where his mother had placed him after her remarriage, and he thought of her as the Almquists’ natural child. She’d been a point of refuge for him in that house, the one he’d turned to when he was confused or lonely. He was sorry he’d teased her so much in those days, he wrote, instead of letting her know her how important she’d been to him.

After signing the letter, Tucker added a P.S., asking Karen to tell old Sultan, the Almquists’ sleek brown Burmese cat, that he missed him. Sultan had been a kitten when Tucker appeared on the scene, and he’d watched him grow. Above the return address on the envelope, he wrote T. J. Kragh. He was willing to bet that if Mrs. Almquist saw “Tucker” on the letter, she’d tear it up. But she had no way of knowing what surname he was using now.

When Karen phoned him in the middle of the week, she sounded truly happy he’d written to her. “I thought I’d never see you again,” she said. “Are you as good-looking as you were when you were a boy?”

“You must be thinking about someone else,” he said, laughing. He didn’t want to say, yes, although it was true. He was trim, blond and even-featured, which was probably why he’d found two homes when other kids never got taken into one. It pleased him that she remembered him for his looks.

“They wouldn’t let me talk about you after they sent you away,” Karen said. “It was as if you’d never existed. For weeks I cried every night after they put me to bed.”

“You never answered my cards.”

“I never got them.”

That didn’t surprise Tucker. “I guess I was too much for them,” he said.

“Have you changed your ways?” she asked.

Tucker didn’t think it would be a good idea to answer that question. A year before, he’d gotten into a fight over a girl in a Tokyo bar and had been arrested, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that he’d been impersonating an officer at the time. That had led to a court-martial and several months in the brig before his release from the service. “When can we get together?” he asked.

Karen was working as a secretary for a publisher in New York, and they agreed to meet for lunch the next day in the lobby of her building. Tucker’s boarding house was only a forty-five minute drive from the city, and it would be an easy trip for him. After being kicked out of the Navy, he’d spent a couple of weeks with the Kragh’s, who had moved to Detroit while he was away, but that was no place for him to settle down. Though they were good, hardworking people, Tucker had never felt he belonged to them. In a six-year-old DeSoto bought for $975, he’d headed back to Roselle, the town where he spent his teen years.

Lying on his bed, Tucker thought about Karen’s voice. Although warm and friendly, it had a quality that clearly set it apart from the voices of the girls he had dated in high school. It said she’d grown up in Short Hills, not in Roselle, although both towns were in New Jersey and only nine miles apart. There was a confidence in her speech that he associated with the young lieutenant he’d served under before he got into trouble. He knew that if he was going to deal with Karen, he had to do it as an equal, which meant presenting himself the way he wanted her to see him.

In the morning Tucker reached beneath the bed for his suitcase. From it he pulled the blue officer’s uniform he’d bought at an Army and Navy store in Detroit to replace the one the Navy had confiscated. After putting it on, he stood in front of the mirror, thinking how easy it was for him to pick up the women he wanted when he was dressed in it. Tucker liked smart college girls, the kind who weren’t about to go off with a seaman 2nd class. He narrowed his eyes as he imagined one of them stripped down to her panties and bra, pressing her body against him. The thought of her hands moving across the hard woolen weave of the jacket aroused him. He smiled as she slid a hand around to his ass, clutching his right cheek, and he entered into her excitement as she kissed the ribbons on his chest, then went up on her toes to lick his ear.


When Tucker arrived at Karen’s building, she was waiting for him in the lobby. Anyone looking at them as they hugged each other would have believed they were brother and sister. They both had blue eyes and fair skin. Like Tucker, Karen was blonde. Perhaps her features were finer and she held her shoulders straighter, but you had to study them for a while to become aware of that.

“You didn’t tell me you were an officer,” she said, as they walked north on
Madison Avenue. Many young women who worked in the neighborhood were on their way to lunch then, giving Tucker plenty to look at.

“Just an ensign in the reserve,” he said. “Before I got out, I was in charge of a crew in the engine room of a destroyer. No heroics, I’m afraid.” Tucker had learned long ago that he only got into trouble when he made up too much. For most of his time in the service, he had been a mechanic in the engine room of his ship, and he wanted to stay as close to what he knew as possible.

Karen slipped her arm through his and pulled it against her side so that it touched her breast. “Isn’t it wonderful to be together again?” she said.

“‘Seems like old times, dinner dates and flowers,’” he sang. “‘Seems like old times, staying out for hours.’”

“You’re thinking of another girl,” she said.

“Me? How can you say that?” he said, winking at her.

Sitting in a booth across from Karen in a luncheonette on East 47th Street, Tucker learned that she had graduated from Skidmore in June and, with the help of the Almquists, had recently rented a two-room apartment of her own in the East Eighties. She opened her wallet to show him a picture of Brad, the young man she was going with. She’d met him while in college, and he was now a second-year student at the University of Virginia Law School.

“Does he treat you okay?” Tucker asked.

“He’s sweet,” Karen said.

“I’ll bet,” Tucker said. From the slight smirk on Brad’s lips, Tucker could imagine what he was like behind that clean cut mask — a smart ass who’d be nice to Tucker’s face and make fun of him behind his back. But it pleased him to have Karen talk openly about her life in this way. On a couple of occasions she even reached across the table to touch his hand. He felt the promise of a renewed family relationship with her, which made him grow warm inside.

“How’s Sultan doing?” he asked.

“Poor cat,” Karen said. “He was hit by car a couple of years ago.”

Instead of making Tucker feel sad, the news made him angry with the Almquists for allowing Sultan to roam the neighborhood. They’d been in his thoughts since he and Karen had sat down for lunch, but he’d hesitated to bring them up. He was heeding a warning signal in his mind that said he might let his resentment toward them show too much if he did, so he waited for Karen to mention them. From what she told him, it was clear that they hadn’t changed much over the years. They still lived in the same large house on Elm Street. Mr. Almquist still drove a Buick, although Mrs. Almquist now had a car of her own, a Chrysler station wagon. They still went to the Presbyterian Church and belonged to the country club.

“They’ve been good to me in their way,” Karen said. Her popularity at school especially pleased them, she explained. They spend a fortune straightening her teeth, and she always got the clothes she wanted.

“I knew they’d keep you,” he said. He tried to suppress any sign of jealousy in his voice but wasn’t convinced he succeeded.

“I knew they would too.”

As they were parting, Karen asked Tucker to come to a cocktail party she was
giving on Saturday to show off her new apartment. “Wear your uniform, all right? I want my friends to see you in it.”

“I’m only in the reserve now, remember?” he said. “I shouldn’t even be wearing it today. I just did it to impress you.”

His admission made Karen smile. “Please,” she said.

“I’ll think about it,” he said. He would have worn the uniform whether she asked him to or not, but her request made him feel good. It meant she was seeing him the way he wanted her to.

As he walked across town to the parking lot where he’d left his car, Tucker stopped at the Hotel Astor on Times Square. He enjoyed the sidelong glances of the two women sitting alone at the bar when he walked in, but they were too old for him. After one glass of beer, he left.


On Saturday it took Tucker longer than he expected to find a parking space near the brownstone where Karen lived, and it was almost six o’clock when he reached her apartment on the third floor. Since she was offering only scotch or gin to her guests, he settled for a martini. Drink in hand, he followed her around the room to be introduced to her gang, as she called it. The young women wore expensive-looking dresses, most of them black, and the young men had on conservative business suits, some with vests. Tucker was glad he wasn’t in his brown corduroy jacket and checked slacks.

Karen left him with her best friend, Rachel. She was short, and it looked to Tucker as if she’d gained weight since buying the blouse and skirt she had on. Her thick black hair was parted in the middle, letting it fall forward to frame her face. Tucker experienced a moment of anxiety when Rachel leaned toward him to say, “I know your secret.” His concern must have flashed across his face, because she said, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. I just think it’s so nice that you two have found each other again.”

The fact that Karen had told Rachel their story seemed to him a certification of their bond. “She’s great, isn’t she?” he asked. “Just the way she was when we were kids.”

Karen was passing a plate of deviled eggs, and Tucker watched as she moved from person to person, smiling and talking. Her manner was casual yet she held herself in a way that made it clear she didn’t feel she had to exaggerate her pleasure in having them there. She seemed to accept their enthusiasm for her as her due, a stance that Tucker couldn’t help admiring. Along with everything else, the Almquists had given her that advantage, too, he thought.

Tucker was holding his second martini and still talking to Rachel when the Almquists walked into the living room. It had occurred to him earlier in the day that they might be coming, but he’d told himself that if they were, Karen would have warned him. His immediate impulse when he saw them was to escape to the bathroom and close the door behind him, but he knew that would be childish.

Karen was in the apartment’s Pullman kitchen removing hors d’oeuvres from the oven, and he strode in to demand what she was up to. “You didn’t tell me your parents would be here,” he said.

“I wasn’t sure they would,” she said, placing a tray of tiny hotdogs rolled in pastry on the counter next to the stove. “Don’t worry. They won’t recognize you.”

“Of course, they will”

“Believe me, they won’t. And even if they do, they won’t let on.”

“Anyway, you should’ve told me.”

“Would you have come if I had?”

“No,” he said, although he suspected that was not necessarily the truth.

Tucker remained behind in the narrow kitchen, as Karen crossed the living room to greet her parents. To him, they looked pretty much the same as they had when he’d lived with them, only smaller. Mrs. Almquist’s hair was a darker brown than he remembered and Mr. Almquist’s, which had been blond, had turned white, but neither one had gained any weight. Why had he been so afraid of them as a child? Tucker wondered. He remembered wanting to run and hide when their faces grew cold and stern. Since he didn’t know why he overturned neighbors’ garbage cans or threw rocks at streetlights and broke them, he didn’t know how to stop himself from doing those things. Even when he was crying and promising to be good, he was aware that his words were empty.

“So many people, dear,” Mrs. Almquist said, brushing Karen’s cheek with a kiss. “Are you sure you have enough food?”

“Would your daughter give a party where there wasn’t enough to eat?” Karen asked.

Mrs. Almquist laughed, as her husband helped her remove her coat. “I always have far too much, don’t I?”

The older couple apparently knew several of the young people in the room, for they moved easily from one to the other. Tucker felt his body tense as he tried to decide what he would say if forced to speak to them. If he introduced himself using his first name, they’d know immediately who he was. He was wondering if he could simply use his initials as he had on his letter to Karen, when Rachel appeared next to him. “They’ve never approved of me,” she said. “Stay by my side, and you’ll be safe.”

“Don’t they talk to you?”

“Not if they can avoid it. They think I’m a radical because I voted for Adlai Stevenson.”

Tucker tried to interest himself in what Rachel was telling him about the reviews of the jazz scene she was writing for The Village Voice, but he kept losing track of her words. At one point he caught Mr. Almquist staring at him and he met his eyes, but the older man looked away without a sign of recognition. Instead of reassuring Tucker, it brought the color to his face, as if he’d been snubbed. He remembered Mr. Almquist teaching him how to swim in the pool at the country club and watching as he took tennis lessons, but he’d never shown any affection for Tucker in an overt way. His lack of response intensified Tucker’s sense of unimportance.

A few minutes later, when he saw Mrs. Almquist leave her husband’s side to visit the gate-legged table where food had been laid out, he said to Rachel, “I’ll be back,” and began weaving through the crowd toward her. His better sense told him it was a mistake to be doing this, but it didn’t stop him. Perhaps he hadn’t liked Mrs. Almquist, but he had loved her, hadn’t he? She had given him more attention than his own mother, who’d had to work full-time even before his father was killed in the war.

Standing beside Mrs. Almquist, Tucker was surprised to discover that she was almost a foot shorter than him. She was nibbling on a cracker, and he hesitated, trying to decide which of the unfamiliar cheeses he ought to sample.

“The brie is good,” she said, pointing at it. “It’s nice and ripe.”

He smeared some on a cracker and took a bite. It tasted faintly rotten.

“Don’t you like it?” she asked. “Perhaps, the Triple Crème, then.”

“Which is that?” he asked.

“Next to the brie,” she said, moving away.

Tucker didn’t know what he’d expected her to do, but he thought she could at least have smiled. He felt a hollowness in him, which he hadn’t anticipated. Not long after that, as he was going into the kitchen to make another martini for himself, he saw the Almquists leave.

“You were right,” he said to Karen. “They didn’t recognize me.”

“See,” Karen said.

“I can’t believe it,” he said.

“You don’t know them the way I do,” she said.

The apartment didn’t clear out until after nine. Tucker helped to straighten up, then took Karen and Rachel to the corner restaurant for spaghetti and meatballs.

“Your family didn’t stay long,” Rachel said, twisting several strands of spaghetti onto a fork she held firmly against her plate.

“Long enough,” Karen said, smiling at Tucker. “You were glad to see them go, weren’t you?”

The tone of her voice made him wonder if she’d gotten some kind of kick from putting them in the same room to see what would happen, but that seemed unlikely so he dismissed the thought. “I wish they’d stayed home,” he said.

At the restaurant, Tucker had switched to beer, and he drank several bottles before they left. Outside on the sidewalk, Karen insisted he was in no shape to drive.

“You better spend the night at my place,” she said.

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

“We’re brother and sister, remember?”

Her words, spoken so simply, brought him close to tears.


Tucker woke up in the morning to the sound of water from the kitchen faucet running into a coffee pot. He’d spent the night in his underwear on the couch in the living room and could see Karen standing by the sink through the open doorway. She was wearing a plaid wool robe over her white cotton nightgown. If he hadn’t known her age, he would have thought she was seventeen. He still had his morning erection, so he stayed where he was.

“Am I getting breakfast in bed?” he called.

“You don’t deserve it,” she said. “Not after what you drank last night.”

“It was those martini’s,” he said. “If you’d had beer in the house, I’d have been okay.”

Tucker was sitting up on the couch sipping his coffee with the blanket still over him when the telephone rang. “I have not betrayed you, mother. That’s not fair,” he heard Karen say. Realizing who was on the line, Tucker tossed the blanket aside and hurried into Karen’s bedroom to pick up the extension. He lifted the receiver as quietly as he could and pressed it to his ear. Mrs. Almquist was saying, “It was cruel of you to do that. Imagine how I felt when I saw him.” Her voice was shrill and he could hear her breathing rapidly. “I knew him right away. He hasn’t changed a bit.”

“But he’s so nice, mother. You’d like him if you gave him a chance. Look how well he’s done for himself. He’s an officer in the navy.”

“I don’t believe that for a minute. He doesn’t stand like an officer.”

Tucker felt as if he’d been punched in the chest. “Piss on you,” he said, but not until he had replaced the receiver on the hook. Back in the living room, he swung his legs up on the couch and pulled the blanket over him. He never wanted to see that woman again or hear her name mentioned.

After saying good-bye to her mother, Karen settled on the edge of the couch next to Tucker’s legs. “I hate her sometimes. She’s so unreasonable,” she said, speaking in a voice that seemed to mask deep feelings on the subject.

“I didn’t expect anything else,” Tucker said, although he knew it was only part of the truth. The vehemence of her anger had taken him by surprise.

“You and I were such different children,” Karen continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “I always did everything they wanted me to do. If only I could have been more like you.”

“Then they’d have tossed you out, just like me. Take my word for it, you were the one who was right.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “But a lot of the time I didn’t feel that way.”

After breakfast, as Karen was stacking their dishes in the sink, she told him that her mother had insisted that she come home in the late afternoon and have dinner with her and her father at the club so they could talk about the situation, but that she wasn’t going. “I have plans for you and me,” she said.

For lunch Karen took Tucker to the Museum of Modern Art where they ate on the balcony overlooking West 53rd Street. When she began asking him questions about himself, Tucker had to be careful how he answered. He told her he was looking for a job, but he didn’t mention that he had put in an application at the printing plant where he’d worked on the loading dock before enlisting in the navy. He said he planned to go to college at night, and when she remarked that he was lucky to have the G. I. Bill to pay his way, he nodded. He couldn’t very well tell her that his dishonorable discharge wiped out that possibility.

As they were waiting for their coffee to arrive, they fell silent, and a tiredness settle over Tucker, as if he’d been up all night partying without really enjoying it. “I wonder what I’d be like, if they hadn’t sent me away,” he said.

“Not as nice as you are,” Karen assured him.

A strong impulse to tell her the truth about everything surfaced in his mind, but he repressed it. “Don’t be fooled,” he said. “I’m not so nice.”

“I think you are,” she said.

By the time they’d seen the Van Gogh exhibit and emerged into the sunlight
again, it was late afternoon. The day was cool and clear, the perfect time to be in Manhattan, and they decided to walk back to Karen’s apartment. As they were strolling along Fifth Avenue on the Central Park side, Tucker asked if all the old trees that surrounded the house in Short Hills were still standing. She said one had been struck by lightening and been taken down, but not much had changed at the house itself.

“I remember that house so well,” Tucker said. “I can tell you everything about it.” He could see his room as if a picture of it hung in front of him. It was situated at the head of the stairs, and although it was the smallest of the four bedrooms, it was twice the size of the one he’d had at the Kraghs’. The bed, desk, and chest-of-drawers had been made of maple, and the blue and white coverlet he slept under had been quilted by Mrs. Almquist’s grandmother. He’d always felt so safe in that room tucked under that quilt, as if nothing in the world could touch him. Which proved what a dumb kid he’d been.

“Come back with me for a visit,” Karen said.

“Sure,” he said. “Anytime.”

“Seriously,” she said. “They’re going to the buffet at the club tonight. We can get there after they’ve left.”

Listening to Karen, Tucker had the feeling that there was something behind her words that he didn’t understand. “I don’t think that would be smart,” he said.

“You want to come. I can tell,” she said.


The sun was beginning to set over New Jersey as Tucker’s car crossed the George Washington Bridge. When they reached Short Hills, he had no trouble finding the Almquists’ house. He’d driven up there from Roselle a couple of times when he was in his teens to show his friends where he’d lived as a kid. The shingles on the outside were unstained just as they were in Tucker’s memory, but the trim that he had expected would still be green was now painted light blue, and half of the wide front porch had been screened in. Although Karen had assured him again that no one would be home, Tucker was nervous as he turned into the driveway. He knew he’d have to go to the bathroom as soon as he went inside.

Karen unlocked the kitchen door, and as they walked into the dining room he encountered the smell of furniture polish that he remembered so well. It had always lingered in the background in the house adding its own special quality to any other odors, such as Mrs. Almquist’s cologne or a leg of lamb roasting in the oven. Then, as those presences faded, it would step forward again to make the rooms seem as if they belonged in a museum.

Tucker headed directly to the bathroom under the stairs in the center hall. He was disturbed to discover that it had been repapered. Where fish had floated with bubbles rising above them, there were balloons tied with long strings. Day after day at noontime when he had come home for lunch, Tucker had sat on the toilet there trying to produce the movement Mrs. Almquist insisted on. The fish had seemed so comforting to him then in a way that he did not think the balloons ever would have been.

Karen was waiting for him in the music room, so named because there was a baby grand in it. On the piano there were photographs that he hadn’t seen of the family at the beach, skiing, and in front of a Christmas tree, as well as several that he remembered well. Tucker picked up a color print of Karen taken when she was eleven or twelve. “Look at this,” he said. “I didn’t know you wore braces.”

“For three horrible years.”

“You looked ridiculous,” he said.

“So nasty boys kept reminding me,” she said.

The photograph Tucker’s eyes lingered on, however, was the one of Sultan curled up in his wicker bed, which had stood by the stove in the kitchen.

After inspecting each of the downstairs rooms, Tucker and Karen climbed up to the second floor. The door to the room Tucker had occupied stood open, and he saw at once that everything had been changed. No longer a boy’s room, it had twin beds now and a mahogany chest. There was a comfortable-looking upholstered chair by the window, with a skirt that swept the floor. As they paused in the doorway, Tucker asked, “How long did it take them to clear out my furniture?”

“A week or two, I guess. I don’t remember exactly.”

“Did they sell it?”

“I suppose so.”

The other rooms on the second floor were essentially as they had been twelve years before. Even the largest bedroom, the one the Almquists shared, seemed to be exactly as Tucker remembered it.

“They haven’t even changed the curtains,” he said, crossing the room to look down at the street. He had been forbidden to enter this room unless one of the Almquists was there, but he had often stood alone by this window when they were out. Although the houses opposite were already in shadow, the late afternoon sun hit the window at an angle that made it possible to catch its warmth. The sensation of enjoying this again after so many years filled Tucker with a powerful but undefined yearning.

When Karen came over to his side, her closeness intensified the feeling. Tucker wanted to press against her so that she would know he was aroused but decided he shouldn’t. Instead, he nestled his nose into her hair, inhaling the perfume of her shampoo. Feeling her stiffen, he said, “We’re not really brother and sister, you know.”

“In my mind we are,” she said, pulling away from him.

Perhaps at another time her response would have seemed wholly reasonable to Tucker, but now her rejection upset him. What was wrong with her that she didn’t respond to the touch of his uniform on her arm? It seemed perverse to him that she could resist exploring it with her hands.

“Forget it,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”

“Don’t be angry,” she said.

“I’m not angry,” he said.

As he followed her into the hallway, she told him that she wanted to collect some things in her bedroom to take back to New York, and he went down to the music room to wait. Pausing beside the piano, his eyes settled on the photograph of Sultan. The sight of him sleeping quietly in that familiar position calmed Tucker. The cat had liked to curl up on Tucker’s chest, and at those moments Tucker had talked to him as if he were a friend his own age. He missed him now as much as he had in the car the day that the people from the state came to collect him. As the car had carried him away from the house, Tucker had twisted his head to look back, hoping to see someone at a window he could wave to. But no one was there.

When Tucker heard Karen starting down the stairs, he picked up the photo of Sultan and slipped it into his jacket pocket.


On Monday, Tucker reported to the printing plant to begin work. When he returned
home, the photograph of Sultan resting on the night table by his bed made the room seem more welcoming, but it also reminded him of what he’d done. The Almquists owed it to him, he told himself, but he realized the claim didn’t hold water. The next day, when he talked to Karen on the telephone, he wanted to tell her he’d taken the picture, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Then on Thursday evening, she phoned from the Almquists, catching him just after he got back from the plant. He had put in some overtime and was still sweaty and in his work clothes.

“My parents can’t figure out what happened to Sultan’s photograph. They’re blaming the cleaning woman, because of the silver frame,” she said.

Tucker frowned. Before Karen could ask him if he’d taken the picture, he said, “I’ll bring it back.”

Without bothering to wash up or change into something more suitable, Tucker drove to the Almquists’. In the car he decided he’d toss the picture on the table in the entry hall and leave without a word, but when Karen opened the door, she kissed him on the cheek, and that gesture caused his mood to shift.

Mr. Almquist rose to his feet when Tucker entered the living room and offered him his hand. It seemed thin and dry to Tucker, almost fragile. “Sit down, please,” he said.

Mrs. Almquist remained seated, but lifted her eyes to his. “I tried, Tucker,” she said, “but you wouldn’t meet me half way.”

“I was a handful. I know that,” Tucker said, slipping the photograph of Sultan out of his pocket.

Mrs. Almquist covered her face with her hands. “I couldn’t deal with you. I tried very, very hard. You know I did.”

Her husband put his arm around her shoulder. “Of course, you did, Norma,” he said.

Mrs. Almquist began to sob. “You didn’t like me, Tucker. Nothing I did could change that.”

Tucker had never seen her cry before, and he didn’t know how to respond without appearing awkward. He couldn’t say, you’re right, but I loved you anyway. “I was only a kid,” he said, more abruptly than he intended.

She looked up at him again with clear, angry eyes. “You always had an excuse, no matter what you did, Tucker. Always.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, just as he had when she’d scolded him as a child.

Karen took the photograph from Tucker and placed it on the coffee table in front of her mother, who picked it up and held it tightly in her lap with both hands. As Karen turned to lead him to the hallway, Tucker noticed a faint smile on her lips. She looked satisfied, as if she’d accomplished something important to her.

At the front door, Karen leaned toward Tucker. “Don’t pay any attention to her,” she told him softly. “No matter what you say, she twists it around for her own purposes. You can’t win with her.”

“You won tonight,” he said. “Hands down.”

Karen met his eyes, and he saw a hardness in hers that he hadn’t found there before. “I had no way of knowing you’d steal the photograph,” she said. “That was your choice.”

“I warned you about me,” he said.

“Someday tell me the whole story,” she said. “I’ll bet it’s fascinating.”

“Maybe I will,” he said.

As Tucker walked down the gravel driveway toward his car, which was parked across the street from the house, he stooped down to pick up a small rock that lay by the edge of the lawn. A streetlamp illuminated the front of the car, and as he came nearer, he jiggled the rock in his hand, measuring its weight. When he reached the middle of the street, he paused and, lifting his arm, threw the rock at the large bulb hanging below a metal protector. His skill hadn’t deserted him, and he saw the flash of light that had always sent a thrill through his body when the glass shattered, and the oxygen, pulled in against the hot filament, flared up for a fraction of a second like an exploding star.


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