Analas sat in the window of a building overlooking the park, watching the little girl play alone on a playground that had been full of happily rambunctious boys and girls when she’d arrived moments before. Like a magnet pushing iron filings away, the other children had scattered when Meska came near. Analas felt sorry for the girl, so feared by the other parents that they’d rushed their kids away from the park. But that’s wasn’t why Meska and Finn had drawn her attention.
She’d spent the better part of two decades hunting for someone, and the trail had run cold in Finn’s apartment building. Her target, Viskally, had certainly been there on more than one occasion. Analas knew that for sure. What she still hadn’t been able to determine was when she’d last visited, why she’d been there, or where she’d disappeared to. Unable to pick up the next bit of the trail, Analas had moved into the building the previous year in an effort to learn what had brought Viskally all the way out to this low-rent suburb.
* * *
Four months earlier…
Several months had gone by while Analas had waited and watched in vain, gradually getting to know the other tenants, hoping that Viskally’s connection to them would eventually become clear. Then, one day, she’d found herself coming home at the same time as Finn. His apartment was directly across the hall from her own, yet they’d rarely ever spoken. Unlike the gossipy grandma in the apartment below or the smarmy jerk who kept inviting her up to his place for cocktails, Finn kept mostly to himself. He usually referred to his daughter simply as “sweetie,” so Analas wasn’t even sure of the child’s name.
But that day, as she’d trailed up the stairs after father and daughter, the girl – wound up from an exciting trip to the zoo – had chattered nonstop all the way to their door. She would gladly have kept them both in the corridor, a captive audience for her play-by-play recap of the trip. Finn, impatient to get her fed, bathed, and put to bed, had finally snapped, “Meska!”
Analas had frozen in her tracks on hearing the child’s name, but Finn had mistaken her surprise for shock at how he’d spoken to his daughter.
“Sweetie,” he’d continued more gently, a deep blush of embarrassment warming his face, “I know you want to tell everyone in the world how great the zoo was, but maybe save some of it for the next time you see Analas, okay?”
“Sorry!” The girl had peeked up at Analas through her blonde curls, a mischievous smile belying her lack of chagrin. “Daddy says I talk too much!”
“Only sometimes,” Finn had clarified. “I should have taken you to the park to run off all this extra energy before we came home.”
“I don’t think you talk too much,” Analas had assured her, “…Meska?” With a questioning glance at Finn, she’d confirmed what she’d heard him call her.
“Her mother picked the name,” he’d shrugged.
“It’s pretty.” I wonder if he knows what it means, she’d added to herself. “What did you say your wife’s name is?”
“Ally, but…well, I guess she’s still my wife, if she’s even still – ” He’d stopped himself, glancing guiltily at Meska. “Sweetie, why don’t you go in and…I dunno…run some laps around the living room until I get dinner ready? Burn off some of that energy.” Meska, thrilled to have permission to run in the house, had happily dashed inside to take advantage of the suggestion. Pulling the door shut, Finn had continued in a hushed voice. “Ally disappeared a couple days after Meska was born. I’ve been working for years on disentangling myself from her, but the process of divorcing an absent spouse is difficult, to say the least.”
“She just…disappeared?” It had taken all of Analas’s self-control not to whip Finn into her apartment, where she could have interrogated him without restraint. But there was a saying about catching more flies with honey, so she’d put on an apologetic frown and filled her voice with sympathy. “I’m so sorry! I had no idea! I’m surprised Mrs. Walsh hasn’t told me all about it, the old gossip.”
“She didn’t live here then. Anyway, I’d appreciate you not mentioning the whole thing around Meska.”
“Of course! But wow, her mom left when she was only a couple of days old?”
Finn had nodded, his gaze on distant memories. “The night we brought her home from the hospital, we went to bed just like normal. When Meska woke me up crying the next morning, Ally was gone, along with all of her things. I still don’t know how she managed to get everything out without waking me.”
Analas’s brow had furrowed, her mind racing to piece together the puzzle. “The police couldn’t find her, either, huh?”
“Nope,” he’d replied with a bitter laugh, “but they did figure out that she’d been using a false identity. That’s when they turned it over to the FBI, but even they can’t find her.”
“There was no warning that she was planning to leave?” Analas had feared the question to be too interrogatory, but she’d gotten Finn talking and there was no guarantee she’d be able to again. “She did nothing else unusual?”
“I have no idea what ‘usual’ or ‘unusual’ was for her. Meska was the product of a one-night stand. I didn’t even know Ally – or whatever her name is – before that night. I didn’t know she was pregnant until five months later, when she turned up here, out of nowhere.” He’d thrown his arm out, gesturing sadly at the door to his apartment. In a reflective voice brimming with regret, he’d repeated his assertion, “I didn’t know her. I only married her because she didn’t have a job or health insurance.”
Analas had rested a soothing hand on his shoulder. “That was very kind of you, to try so hard to take care of her like that.”
“Kind,” he’d snorted. “The cops assumed I was abusive. They almost took Meska away from me over it. They were sure that was why Ally ran away, until we figured out that she was using a false identity all along. I kept trying to tell them…if she was trying to escape abuse, why would she leave the baby with me?”
“Yeah. It’s almost like she was planning to leave her all along.” Analas had frowned, unable to make these new pieces of information jive with what she already knew about Viskally. “It makes no sense.”
Finn had nodded, the familiar feeling of helpless confusion washing over him for the umpteenth time. “I never understood it,” he’d said at last with a shrug, “and some people think I should resent her for it. I do resent the legal limbo I’m in because I married her, but I absolutely don’t resent that she left Meska with me. If she had taken her…”
The sudden roughness in his voice had convinced Analas that, whatever his feelings for his wife had been, his daughter was the center of his world. He obviously loved the little girl. But if Meska really was Viskally’s daughter, then Finn’s love for her was going to get him hurt and Analas wasn’t looking forward to being the one to strike the blow.