Merilee calls us in for lunch. Buck and I are shooting hoops while Boris, the lab, keeps darting around us. Inside the kitchen, Buck stands alongside his young stepmother, watches her smear mustard on slices of rye and place cold-cuts on them. Her fingers with their chipped pink nail polish flit nervously. “Careful, Meri,” Buck says as she slices up the sandwiches.
“Stop watching over me, will you?” She brushes streaks of dusty-blonde hair out of her mascara-darkened eyes and smiles at me as she hands me my plate.
Buck prepares frozen lemonade in a pitcher. “You ought to sign up for the team, Rick,” he says. He pours lemonade into the glasses and hands one to me. I gulp it down as I watch Merilee wash the knife, dry it, and slide her fingers over the blade. “I don’t think so, Buck.”
“You really ought to, guy. I’m not much of a basketball player, as you probably noticed.”
“I was watching you, Ricky,” Merilee interjects. “I like the way you dance with the ball.”
I hug her cautiously; she is still holding the knife.
Just then, Boris bounds into the kitchen. Merilee sets the knife aside and bends down to ruffle his fur. “Do you love me, Borie? Do you? You’ll never leave me, will you?” The dog licks her face, and she giggles. She tosses him a slice of salami, which he bolts down and sits attentively for more. But she retrieves the knife and walks out of the kitchen.
“Meri!” Buck hurries after her. I hear quarreling. Buck returns with the knife. “It’s like she’s convinced that my dad is still after her.” He tosses the knife onto the counter and turns to me, face flushed. “I can’t keep doing this, Rick; I got a new job to go to.”
“Why is he after her?”
Buck looks furtively around, as if to make sure that Merilee is out of hearing range. “My dad’s an asshole, Rick.” He takes a deep breath and explains that his dad wanted Merilee for one of his ad agency’s photo-shoots. “But after she became . . . ill, he just packed up and left. Now he seems to be having second thoughts, showing up unannounced, trying to get Merilee—”
Merilee returns to the kitchen, snatches the knife. “He’s out there,” she says and runs outside.
“Jesus H. Christ.” Buck overtakes her and pries the knife from her grip.
She is trembling as Buck guides her to the kitchen table. “He’s not out there, Meri.”
“I saw him,” she says to the floor.
I put my arm around her, and that calms her. “Buck and I won’t let him hurt you,” I say.
She presses her hand over mine. “Are you going to watch over me, Ricky?”
“Well . . .” I look at Buck. “Would that be okay?”
Buck rubs his chin and leans over to whisper in my ear. “You won’t be able to take your eyes off of her for a minute. And if my dad actually does show up—”
“We’ll go on nice long walks, Buck. She needs to get out of the house and not feel scared to death.” I smile at Merilee, who is clearly trying to overhear our conversation, and she smiles back tentatively. There is lipstick on her teeth.
“By the way, Meri, your sandwich was delicious.”
“I’ll make you another one.” She retrieves the cold cuts and glances coyly over her shoulder. “What else would you like, Ricky, dear? You can have anything you want.”