“This is pointless,” she said as she dusted her hands and reached for the string to turn off the light.
“Wait a minute. What about those?” He’d poked his head up through the opening and had taken a look around, spying the boxes that Honor had hoped would escape his notice. They were standard packing boxes sealed with tape. “What’s in those?”
“There’s nothing in them that you’ve asked to see.”
“Hand them down.”
She didn’t immediately obey. Looking down at him, she wondered if she could jam her foot into his face hard enough to break his nose. Possibly. But if she missed, he might trap her up here in the attic, leaving him alone with Emily. As galling as it was to take the coward’s way, Emily’s safety demanded it.
One by one, she handed the other three boxes down to him.
By the time she had descended the ladder and raised the trapdoor back flush with the ceiling, he was stripping the sealing tape off one of the boxes. When he pulled back the flaps, it wasn’t tinsel that blossomed out, but a man’s shirt.
He looked up at her, the obvious question in his eyes.
She remained stubbornly silent.
Finally he said, “He’s been dead how long?”
His implication smarted because she’d asked herself many times how long she was going to keep perfectly good clothing boxed in her attic when needy people could use it.
“I gave away most of his clothes,” she said defensively. “Stan asked if he could have Eddie’s police uniforms, and I let him keep those. Some things I just couldn’t…”
She left the statement unfinished, refusing to explain to a criminal that some articles of Eddie’s clothing brought back distinctively happy memories. Giving away those items would be tantamount to letting go of the memories themselves. As it was, they were inexorably dimming without any help from her.
Time marched on, and recollections, no matter how dear, faded with its passage. She could now spend an entire day, or even several, without thinking about Eddie within the context of a specific memory.
His death had left a hole in her life that had seemed bottomless. Gradually that void had been filled with the busyness of rearing a child, with the busyness of life itself, until, over time, she had learned how to enjoy life without him.
But the enjoyment of living came with a large dose of guilt. She couldn’t escape feeling that even the smallest grain of happiness was a monumental betrayal. How dare she relish anything ever again, when Eddie was dead and buried?
So she had saved articles of his clothing that held special memories for her, and by keeping them, kept her survivor’s guilt at bay.
But she wasn’t about to discuss any of this psychology with Coburn. She was spared from having to say anything when Emily appeared.
“Dora’s over and so’s Barney, and I’m hungry. Can we have lunch?”
The kid’s question reminded Coburn that he hadn’t eaten anything in twenty-four hours except the two rich cupcakes. A search through the boxes from the attic would take time. He would eat before tackling them. He motioned the widow into the kitchen.
After clearing the cupcakes and bowl of frosting off the table, she fixed the kid a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He asked for one for himself and watched as she made it, afraid she might slip something into his. Ground-up sleeping pills, rat poison. He was short on trust.
“You gotta wash your hands this time.” The kid placed a step stool with her name painted on it in front of the kitchen sink. She climbed onto it. Even standing on tiptoe, she was barely able to reach the taps, but somehow she managed to turn them on. “You can use my Elmo soap.”
She picked up a plastic bottle with a bug-eyed red character grinning from the label. She squirted some liquid soap into her palm, then handed the bottle to him. He glanced at Honor and saw that she was watching them with apprehension. He figured that as long as she was nervous about his being close to the kid, she wasn’t going to try anything stupid.
He and the kid washed their hands, then held them beneath the faucet to rinse.
She tilted her head back and looked up at him. “Do you have an Elmo?”
He shook the water off his hands and took the towel she passed him. “No, I don’t have a… an Elmo.”
“Who do you sleep with?”
Involuntarily, his gaze darted to Honor and made a connection that was almost audible, like the clack of two magnets. “Nobody.”
“You don’t sleep with a friend?”
“Where’s your bed? Does your mommy read you stories before you go to sleep?”
He dragged his attention off Honor and back to the kid. “Stories? No, my mom, she’s… gone.”
“So’s my daddy. He lives in heaven.” Her eyes lit up. “Maybe he knows your mommy in heaven!”
Coburn snorted a laugh. “I doubt it.”
“Are you scared of the dark?”
“Emily,” Honor interrupted. “Stop asking so many questions. It’s rude. Come sit down and have your lunch.”
They gathered around the table. The widow looked ready to jump out of her skin if he so much as said boo. She didn’t eat. Truth be told, he was as discomfited by this domestic scene as she was. Since being a kid, he’d never talked to one. It was weird, carrying on a conversation with such a little person.
He scarfed the sandwich, then took an apple from the basket of fruit on the table. The kid dawdled over her food.
“Emily, you said you were hungry,” her mother admonished. “Eat your lunch.”
But he was a distraction. The kid never took her eyes off him. She studied everything he did. When he took the first crunching bite of the apple, she said, “I don’t like the peel.”
He shrugged and said through a mouthful, “I don’t mind it.”
“I don’t like green apples, either. Only red.”
“My grandpa can peel an apple from the top to the bottom without it breaking. He says he likes to make a long curl of the peel, just like my hair. And guess what else.”
“Mommy can’t do it because she’s a girl, and Grandpa says boys do it best. And Mommy doesn’t have a special magic knife like Grandpa’s.”
“You don’t say.” He glanced across at Honor, who’d rolled her lips inward. “What kind of special magic knife does your grandpa have?”
“Big. He carries it in a belt around his ankle, but I can’t ever touch it ’cause it’s sharp and I could get hurt.”
Honor scraped back her chair and shot to her feet. “Time for your nap, Em.”
Her face puckered into a frown of rebellion. “I’m not sleepy.”
“It’s rest time. Come on.”
Honor’s voice brooked no argument. The child’s expression was still mutinous, but she climbed down from her chair and headed out of the kitchen. Coburn left the remainder of the apple on his plate and followed them.
In the frilly pink bedroom, the kid got up onto the bed and extended her feet over the edge of it. Her mother removed her sandals and set them on the floor, then said, “Down you go. Sleepy time.”
The little girl laid her head on the pillow and reached for a cotton quilt so faded and frayed that it looked out of place in the room. She tucked it beneath her chin. “Would you hand me my Elmo, please?” She addressed this request to Coburn.
He followed the direction of her gaze and saw a red stuffed toy lying on the floor near his mud-caked boot. He recognized the grinning face from the bottle of hand soap. He bent down and picked it up. The thing began to sing, startling him. He quickly handed it to the kid.