Do cats like the smell of vanilla?"
"Not a good idea," I said, giving her a look. "He's not a cat."
"But he acts like one. He goes crazy when we turn off the lights, and he doesn't like other dogs or men."
"And men and dogs aren't allowed."
"Oh, I know, I know. My aunt and uncle are very nice people, but they don't allow men in their house."
She gave me the look that said she thought I was a terrible man, and my brain went on automatic. "I'm not that kind of man, Miss..."
"Gina. Gina Mancini."
"Miss Mancini, I'm sorry. This isn't something I can give you the time of day for."
"My father would say, 'That's the problem with a woman, she thinks you can take your life in your hands just by giving it to her.' "
"And what would your father say to that?"
"He'd say I can't even keep a cat."
I could tell from her voice that I'd given her an opening, and I decided to keep going. "He's a stray."
"Yes. There was a guy, a truck driver, who picked him up and took him home. He let me visit once and I saw a couple of his kittens. My father wanted to take him in, but the guy wouldn't let him. Now the truck driver's dead and no one has claimed the cat."
"He can't stay here."
"That's what my father said, but it doesn't seem to matter."
"Well, it's a strange situation, and you know he's not a house cat. I'll call the Humane Society and see if they'll take him in."
I looked around the kitchen and decided that there wasn't a more desolate place to live than here. I decided to change the subject before Miss Mancini called the Humane Society on me and took the cat with her. "I'm not really hungry, Miss Mancini. I could have a couple of those doughnuts you were eating, if you're not saving them for your breakfast."
"They're for my niece's birthday tomorrow. She's fifteen, and I have to eat them all."
"How old are you?"
"Happy birthday." I wasn't sure if that was the kind of answer I wanted, but she didn't know it was supposed to be the kind of answer I wanted. "My niece, Mary Ellen, she's thirteen."
She was probably used to girls like Mary Ellen—I didn't even have a picture of her. All I had was a blurry photo that I'd been given from a police artist. "I hope she likes chocolate. I think those are very good, chocolate-filled."
"I'm glad to hear you say so. I'll go out and get a couple more."
I went to the door and looked out. It was still dark outside, but I saw a light coming down the road. It was her truck. It must be her niece and she was bringing her some chocolate. It was the most unexpected moment since I'd entered the house. I hadn't thought about Mary Ellen in years, and I hadn't thought of Gina at all since I'd been standing on her porch.
"She looks familiar to me."
"I think she does, too."
She came out with three more doughnuts and a chocolate milk. "How long will you stay?"
"I don't know. I can't promise anything."
"It's nice to see you again."
"Good to see you, too. My father's dead."
"I know. I know."
She walked out with the doughnuts, and as she went down the stairs, I heard the screen door slam. I knew I was in for a lecture when she woke up in the morning. She probably thought I was a pedophile, or a thief, or worse. I had no idea if I'd made a good impression on her, but I had one thing going for me, I'd told the truth.
I waited a while longer, hoping that she might come back and have another doughnut. When she didn't, I decided to go home. I'd tell Mary Ellen how Gina Mancini had taken me back to her place and that we'd eaten doughnuts together. That would be my story.
I got home before dawn. I was used to working with all hours, and I had to keep my day job, but there was something about staying up this late that gave me a feeling of being on top of things. I had done what I'd set out to do. I'd come up with an alternative to the two possible futures that I'd created in my head, and I'd put that future into motion. Mary Ellen was safe, and that was all that mattered.
When I got home, Mary Ellen was still asleep. She was a neat sleeper, always arranged her covers just so. When I woke her up, she looked at me as if she didn't know me and then went back to sleep. It was like being with an alien. She was no more like my daughter than a stranger is like me. I sat on the couch, looking at her, thinking about her.
I tried to figure out how I'd been able to connect with Gina Mancini, when I'd been so distant for years. I couldn't explain it. But I knew that the feeling was mutual, because Gina Mancini looked right into me as if I were the only person she'd ever seen in her life.
I looked at the pictures that were on the kitchen wall. My father, his daughter, me, Mary Ellen, and our sister, Caroline, when we were children. I'd always looked at Caroline as a little sister, not really part of my family. But