145 Marshall Avenue (excerpt)
Carolyn's childhood home looked different but at least Google Maps had prepared her for that. She parked across the street and admired the new white fence the young owners had installed and the pretty pink ornamental cherry that had taken the place of the wonderful old sugar maple that spread lemon-yellow leaves across the lawn and sidewalk every October of Carolyn's youth. She was sad to know that it was gone, but not surprised. It was aging even then, and she had just turned sixty-five. She climbed out of the car and shut the door, turning to lean back against it for one more long look at the property. Because the house itself was brick and stucco, it looked similar to the home of her memories. No new paint color or vinyl siding disguised the friendly face she had returned to each day after school.
Smiling wistfully, Carolyn crossed the street and unlatched the gate, closing it carefully behind her in case the new couple had a dog that ought to stay inside. This wasn't going to be easy, but she couldn't turn back now. The wide slate walkway was original, and Carolyn immediately saw the colorful chalk hopscotch layouts she and her girlfriends had made there decades ago. The grass had long since grown in to cover the bare patch she and her buddies made running through the sprinkler in summers past.
She climbed the stone porch steps that had replaced the wooden ones and admired the wicker chairs and empty window boxes that seemed to wait patiently for this summer's flowers to be planted. The doorbell was different, too; a musical chiming echoed somewhere deep within the house—the buzzer she remembered had been retired.
A young woman with a warm smile swished aside the curtain to peek out, then opened the door. She was tall and slender with brown eyes and a cascade of straight, tawny hair swept down to her elbows. A cute baby boy was settled on her left hip and she extended her right hand in greeting.
"You must be Carolyn. I'm Amanda Flynn and this is Dylan. Say hi, Dylan," she coached, but the baby only managed a shy smile before sticking his thumb in his mouth and burying his face against his mother's shoulder.
"Hello, Amanda," Carolyn said, crossing the threshold. "You're so very kind to allow me to peek into my past. I really want to thank you."
"Not a problem. My mother-in-law said that you two were great friends, and that she had a lot of fun in this house."
"Yes, we had some great times here. I was so glad that she wanted to buy it when my parents moved south and needed to sell," Carolyn said. As they stepped through the small vestibule into the living room, visions from the past rushed at her. The Christmas tree in the front windows, her mother's furniture and throw-rugs, the birthday-party games and nights curled up in front of the television set that had been as big as a washing machine with pictures the size of her laptop screen. The plaster archway that led to the dining room, and another at the far end of the living room that made a nook for the staircase to the second floor were still intact.
"So many memories," she stammered, turning her eyes back to Amanda's.
"I'm sure there are. I hope you like what we did with the place."
"I love that it still looks so much like it did," Carolyn marveled. Fresh paint and contemporary furniture had been added but none of the beautiful old details had been destroyed. "You even had the floors refinished."
"Oh, yes, we love them." The baby fussed a little and Amanda switched him to her other hip. "Come see the dining room. Do you remember the stained-glass window?"
Before Carolyn had even turned her steps to follow, the smell of Thanksgiving turkey, her mom's spaghetti sauce and cookies fresh from the oven filled her head. She heard the clink of glasses and the laughter and gentle arguments—well, some between her father and Uncle Paul were a bit more heated.
"You're a guest in his house," Carolyn's mom hissed. Carolyn watched her drag Uncle Paul away from one feast and into the kitchen. "Holidays aren't the time for this nonsense."
"Louise, I don't ever mean to hurt you. But I can't stand his bigoted remarks. How do you listen to it? We weren't raised that way."
Mom pressed the heels of both hands against her forehead. Neither one of them noticed Carolyn hanging by the cellar doorway, bottles of soda and juice in her arms.
"What do you want me to do, Paul? He pays the bills, he doesn't run around on me and he's never hit me. And he's great with the kids—Carolyn adores him. I just let it all go in one ear and out the other."
Uncle Paul started to speak, then clamped his mouth shut and turned from his sister, running a hand through his hair. Which was when he caught sight of his niece. "Oh, honey. I'm sorry. I didn't mean for you to hear this."
Ten-year-old Carolyn shrugged, uncomfortably. Uncle Paul squeezed her shoulders and smiled at her. "I want you to love him," he said, softly, "but I don't want you to accept everything he says. I want you to think for yourself. Okay?"
Carolyn walked under the archway behind Amanda and smiled at seeing the colorful glass rectangle again. It was tucked between the tops of two full sized windows in the west wall, leaving enough room underneath for a sideboard. "It looks beautiful. Better than I recall. It was a little saggy, I think."
"And drafty. We had an artist re-do it, and she also fixed the one in the stairway."
"To think my mother hung polyester curtains over both of them." Both women chuckled at that.
"One room you won't recognize is the kitchen," Amanda said, with a grin, leading the way through the swinging door between the two rooms.
It was all white cabinets, light grey granite and a beautiful tiled floor. "I'm shocked." Carolyn played along. "You didn't like the pink vinyl kitchen set and the pastel confetti on the Formica countertop?"
Amanda laughed. "Even my husband wouldn't remember that. My mother-in-law left us a legacy of dark oak and groovy 70's colors."
"Well, you've done a lovely job with this room. The view out of those windows is so much brighter without that old willow there."
One-handed, Amanda filled a tea kettle with water and set it on the stove. Carolyn stepped up to the glass and peered out at the patio—also re-done with modern pavers—and the old brick and iron barbeque, now a pedestal for three still-empty flower pots. Another frothy pink cherry tree nodded in the light wind, having taken the place of the old ash that held her brother's tree fort.
She turned when she sensed Amanda at her elbow. "Come. I'll show you the upstairs while the water's heating."
Carolyn felt a warm smile spreading across her face as she climbed.
She was careful on the trip downstairs in unaccustomed high heels, feeling the swish of crinoline against her legs and hearing the rustle of her ice-blue silk prom dress. Daddy was waiting in the middle of the living room, aiming a camera and urging a regal pose and big smile. Her mother beamed with pride beside him and swiped away a tear before clasping her hands tightly in front of her again. Behind them her date waited, orchid corsage in hand. Her brother Randy had driven over from his apartment to witness her big moment, and he leaned in the kitchen doorway, arms folded. His smile upon seeing her was genuine, but it turned wry when her father posed Larry, her date, beside her in front of the stairs.
"You should be able to go with Maurice," he had said weeks ago, waxing his old Chevy while she waited, towel in hand, to buff. "It's not right."
Carolyn had shrugged. "Larry's nice."
"Larry's white." The fierce expression in Randy's eyes had been hard to take. A good girl, Daddy's girl, she hopped off her perch on the wall and started rubbing a fender before it really was time. Randy had let her.
Dead Inside (excerpt)
Look at all these fools lined up to spend seven dollars on a tarted-up coffee. Gail smiled, wryly. And me among them. The Starbuck's line inched forward, and she took one last look out of the plate glass window before she'd move up too far to gaze outside. The drab sky had darkened and clouds the color of blue steel were gathering in the east—probably readying for an assault. The parking lot of the Turnpike rest area was dotted with early October travelers, weekend stragglers who either were retired, or had taken Monday off like she had.
Gail's phone chirped and she slipped it out of her purse. A text from Andie, including a delightfully silly photo of Andie, Gail and Shannon at that tacky seaside restaurant on Saturday night, each of them crowned by a google-eyed lobster hat. Must do this again in the spring, she texted in reply. Who says reunions can happen only once a year?
Shannon replied, Even more fun with you guys now than we had in college.
Definitely, Gail texted, then returned the phone to her bag. The long line diminished considerably when a group of teenagers walked off with their drinks, and she found herself beside a whiteboard hanging on the wall, decorated with pictures of pumpkins, ghosts and witches. Written at the top: What are you going to be for Halloween? Write it or draw it! A selection of colorful markers rested on a shelf below. Gail smiled at the scribbled choices and wobbly drawings of clowns, superheroes, various animals and even a rock star. She remembered the excitement of the fun holiday when her daughter was younger. Then her eyes travelled to a lower corner and noticed a stark posting in an adult hand: The same thing that I am the other eleven months of the year—dead inside.
Stunned, Gail looked up and glanced around at the collection of travelers in the cavernous building. Who among them could have been moved to write a thing like that? She was so distracted that she had to be nudged forward by the woman behind her when the line moved again. Thunder growled as she ordered her latte. When she was handed her cup she drifted toward the seating area, torn between heading out to her car and pondering the sad story.
Raindrops began to splat onto the pavement and a wicked wind flung them against the plate glass. Within seconds, the day had become as dim as twilight and slanting sheets of rain pounded down on cars and pavement. People dashed for the doors and tumbled inside, either laughing or cursing—even the ones with umbrellas were soaked. A sudden squall, a man told a woman after consulting his phone. Best to stay inside until it passed.
Okay, Gail thought, settling herself at a table for two by the windows. I'll stay put, too. Her eyes skimmed the room as she sipped. Was the person who wrote that anguished confession here today, or long gone? She soon decided that it couldn't have been on the board since yesterday—surely one of the employees would have erased it. She studied the faces in the group. Which one might have been hurting enough to have written that note on the board for everyone to see? Not the young mother laughing with her two small, healthy-looking children. Not the senior couple smiling and holding hands across another small table. Not the businessman talking too loudly on his phone, excitedly reporting a great business success to his colleague. Probably someone who had already driven away. Gail felt a chill, and closed her eyes against the attack of the storm. A painful prick in her right forearm startled her to attention and an insistent downward tugging sensation made her shake the arm and rub it briskly. My God! How long has it been since. . .No, it couldn't be that.
Sitting up straighter, Gail scanned the area again and caught sight of a tall, dark-haired young man in jeans and an untucked shirt approaching the whiteboard. He shot quick little glances around him and over his shoulder before reaching over and rubbing out the disturbing message with a napkin. Her heart skipped and she couldn't prevent herself from staring. When the man turned back toward the seating area, he obviously noticed that her eyes were riveted on him. Bowing his shaggy head, he slunk to a table in the corner by a potted palm and slouched into a chair, burying his face his hands.
Gail tried to shake herself free of the spell cast by this stranger's anguish. Not my business, nor my place to embarrass him, she reasoned, but it was no use. She rose to her feet without conscious thought and turned her steps towards him. Her footsteps were masked by the roaring of the storm on the other side of the glass, and the young man didn't appear to notice her standing and watching him until she pulled out the chair opposite him and sat down.
Then he looked up and gave her a little smile, half wry, half shy, some small part per million genuinely glad for company. "You saw it."
Gail nodded. "It really catches the eye. I'm glad you erased it."
His shoulders sagged. "Unfortunately, it's not because I feel differently than I did a half hour ago," he said.
"I guess because it was stupid. Why upset people? People with kids who want to write on that board that they're going to be a genie or a pirate. Nobody needs to see that. And anyway, nobody cares."
"Someone must care about you." Gail said, gently.
"I guess. A mom and a sister. A few friends." He looked down at the hands folded in his lap. "It's hard to care about me. I, well, I did something bad."
"I see." Gail turned her eyes toward the monsoon when litter was blown against the glass. Three shrieking teenaged girls were racing toward the doors. "I won't ask, of course." Then she turned and held out a hand. "I'm Gail."
The young man looked surprised, then shifted his messenger bag out of the way and reached across the table to shake. "Bryan. And I might as well tell you. It's never been much of a secret. It was splashed all over the news for months when it happened four years ago." He drew in a breath and squared his shoulders, and Gail noticed his hands begin to tremble. "I was out drinking with two friends, driving around. We were all about nineteen, so, pretty stupid. We got wasted, and wound up out in the woods, kind of far from home. We picked me to drive back to town, but I was in no shape. I had to keep closing one eye or the other, or else I saw everything double. I was weaving, skidding around corners, I slid onto the shoulder a couple of times. It was so obvious I should've pulled over and we could've slept it off."
The breath he drew in was ragged, and he looked a shade paler than he had before. Another sharp little pain like a fishhook biting and Gail's left shoulder drooped toward the table. She jerked herself upright and rubbed it absently.
"Anyway, some deer ran in front of the car. I completely lost control, hit one of them, ran off the road, flipped over and hit some trees. I was thrown clear, and only got banged up, but both of my friends were knocked out. I had lost my phone and it was dark and I was scared, so I started walking. It was late and no one else was out, so I ended up walking all the way home—took almost forty minutes. I called the police from there, but it was too late. My friends were dead," he said, dark eyes burning into Gail's. "I had a really clean record and a good lawyer, so I ended up with probation for leaving the scene of a fatal accident. It wasn't enough. There really are no words. A hundred good deeds couldn't make up for what I did."
"Wow," Gail said, softly. Something beyond the awfulness of the story and the remorse of the young man seared a path through her brain, but she couldn't put her finger on just what it was. A hundred. . . Thunder growled again and the waterworks lashed at the building. "You don't think about. . . about hurting yourself, do you?"
He looked away and his long, graceful finger traced circles on the table top. "Not really. It's not like my life is worth much to me, but that would destroy my mother. It'd be just one more selfish and stupid thing I did to ruin her life."
Another grasping sting, and Gail felt herself pulled down toward the darkness of old memories. His gaze was soft and filled with sadness. Could he see her distress? She cleared her throat and pulled her shoulders straight, needing more effort this time. "Well, I can't say that what you did was okay, but I can say that you're not alone."
(It's 1980. Twenty-three-year-old Macy Reilly worked side by side with her father as a plumber until cancer weakened him and effectively put them out of business. After coming to the rescue of the grandson of a well-heeled former customer, she's invited to spend a week at their once-grand hunting lodge in the Adirondacks.)
Ten minutes later, Macy caught sight of sunlight twinkling on blue water through the gaps in the autumn-brushed trees and then a narrow dirt driveway marked by a boulder with the name "Willowanda" emblazoned on it in peeling blue paint. Her beat-up hatchback skidded as she crept down toward the huge dark brown shingled house hugging the shore. Three expensive cars were strewn about the clearing that faced her. Macy chose a spot under the trees that would be out of everyone's way and cut the engine.
The porch columns were tree trunks stripped of bark, the floorboards creaked and sagged under her feet and the weathered oak door she faced was massive, braced by ornate strap hinges. The sound of the iron knocker echoed through the stillness of the grove. When she'd called Kitty to report that Dad was unable to make the trip, she was told she'd be welcome to stay at the lodge with the family, rather than in the guest house by herself. Okay, now the hard part. I will not fit in here. Chin up. Back straight. I've done them a big favor, and Kitty said she'd make sure this visit was okay.
"You'll do fine," Dad had said.
Aunt Mary, displaying, as usual, her gift for candor, hadn't minced words. "Don't drink too much and don't act like a punk."
The heavy-set man who pulled open the obviously heavy door had a round, rubbery face and a mess of greyish hair heading this way and that. He was barefoot and clutched some sort of metal fireplace implement in one hand. A tall guy, he directed his eyes downward and popped out a big smile. "Ah! Our guest has arrived. Come in, come in, come in."
The lodge hall was dark—she was surrounded by wood on all four planes. The heads of several dead animals gazed down upon the two of them. She didn't mean to be obvious, but the man must have noticed her sniffing.
"That smell is something you'll get used to. Usually takes folks no more than two days, unless it's horribly rainy, which makes it worse. God knows what-all is living up in the attic."
Macy nodded, more amused than appalled.
"And don't be alarmed if you hear scurrying, but do report it. We'll add it to the list for Maxwell to take care of in November."
"Um, sure. I'm Macy Reilly." She put out a hand and he took it gently.
"Yes. Young Cody's savior. We're all very grateful for your kindness. I'm Uncle Benny." He turned his head and hollered, "Troops! Our guest is here. Let's have the introductions over with so that we can get back to the fire-making."
Macy set her suitcase aside and followed him to the rear of the house. A small group of tall people with light hair and aristocratic features was poised on the threshold of a double French door that led out to a wide porch. The mid-thirties couple was introduced as Tippy and Van, the other older man as Uncle Bertie. Macy was told that Ollie and Gigi, Cody and Kyle's parents, would be arriving with the children in time to toast hot dogs and marshmallows around the campfire Benny was setting up on the stone patio at the water's edge. Grandmother Kitty would arrive in the morning. Macy nodded and smiled and shook hands.
"Yes, I know," Tippy said, drily, "we must sound like a litter of puppies. However, it's for the best. Each of us has at least three names, most of them repurposed surnames, hardly a Christian name in the bunch. Old money, you see."
Old money equals goofy names. Got it. "It's cool," Macy said.
On the strength of the experience gathered during one summer spent at day camp, Macy was chosen to help arrange the small logs and kindling in the stone fire-ring. Or maybe they just wanted to help her to feel welcome, which was fine with her as well. She kept stealing glances at the lovely, deep blue lake surrounded by amber and scarlet tipped trees and feathery hemlock boughs. A raucous scattering of ducks circled before splashing down and fussing about with their wings before settling into a peaceful glide.
"My great-greats picked a fine spot, didn't they?" Benny must have noticed her admiring the view.
"Yes, they did," she said, with a shy smile.
Cody and Kyle's family arrived at the hour predicted, toting so many bags of groceries that Macy began to feel guilty about the one sack she'd brought along. A pair of Golden Retrievers tumbled out of the car and greeted her with the same enthusiasm shown to the relatives. Kyle presented his parents and teenaged sister Tina to her, and Cody rushed in for a quick hug, which surprised and pleased her most of all.
Stuffed with hot dogs, s'mores and really good local beer, Macy traded brief histories with her hosts as the fire died down and twilight settled around them. She had made the right choice by refusing a monetary reward. Kitty's Plan B was much more fun, and wouldn't mess up the good karma her good deed might bring her. With things the way they were, she couldn't afford to screw around with that.
* * *
Macy lay flat on the small iron bed in her garret room. Sleepiness and the unfamiliar surroundings were making her uneasy, and Benny's gory fireside ghost stories hadn't helped. Kyle and Tina had reveled in them—but then, they'd probably heard them a zillion times before, so any scariness would have worn away. Drifting off, blinking her eyes to extend wakefulness just a bit longer, Macy considered closing and locking her door, but the sunny day had made the attic warm, and the forest-scented breeze slipping in through the window and sneaking out through the bathroom sash across the hall was cooling things off nicely.
The wind kicked up a bit and a branch tapped against the house somewhere close by. The old lumber creaked and popped as it cooled down, and Macy did hear the skittering of tiny feet above her head, and, when the wind calmed, the nearly imperceptible flapping of wings outside her window. Bats. Geeze. She turned onto her side and hugged her pillow. The spirits of enraged Indians and hapless settlers encircled her and she curled up more tightly. The eerie call of some creature out by the lake reverberated in her skull and made her shiver. She'd chosen the servant's quarters for privacy and because she'd have a bathroom to herself, but now she felt isolated and vulnerable.
She'd left the nightlights in her room and the bath burning—the house was draped in utter blackness without them. She scanned the outlines of the antique furnishings in the sweet little room and began to relax. Generations of rich kids and young servants had passed the summer nights in these upper rooms. Dozens of happy, tired people had settled into this charming space, comforted by the musty smell, the cool breeze and the lapping of the water on the rocks by the lake. A drowsy smile curled up the corners of her mouth, and finally she slipped into sleep.
* * *
"Up for a nice paddle in the rowboat?" Uncle Benny said, after the two of them had finished an early breakfast on Tuesday. "I'm the perfect tour-guide. I've summered here my whole life. I know all the best sites and I know where all the bodies are buried."
Macy grinned. They stepped out on the wide porch and looked out over the still lake, he taking an exaggerated breath of mountain air, she remarking on the call of a bird in the distance.
"There—that's the one I hear now and again. Sounds like the ghost of a bird. I keep meaning to ask what it is."
"Why, that's a loon, my dear."
It called again.
"Cool." Without warning, the peaceful stillness was split up the middle by a sharp crack paired with a boom that speared Macy through the head, momentarily deafening her. She folded onto the worn floorboards, cowering and pressing her hands to either side of her head. Uncle Benny laughed—in fact, the old geezer was quite taken by a fit of chuckling, bent forward by the effort, needing to rest his hands on his knees to keep upright. Macy frowned, straightening herself. "What was that?"
"A shot, of course. Surely you've heard one before."
"No, sir," she assured him. "It sounded so close. Where on earth did it come from?"
Benny waved a hand, absently. "From 'round the corner. The other side of the porch."
"Someone is shooting off the porch?" A second shot rang out, and Macy cringed, edging back toward the door, but didn't hit the deck this time.
"Yes. If it's Bertie, just be grateful that's where he is. Given his own way, he'd be shooting ducks from the third-floor window—his favorite is in the room right next to yours."
Macy felt her mouth hanging open a bit, and while she contemplated this, another shot caught her off guard and she flinched pitiably.
Benny laughed again and patted her companionably on the back a few times, then drew her closer to the steps. "Buck up, old girl. This is a sporting camp. Come, let's be off."
At the water's edge, they untied a little blue boat from the dock, and Macy managed to climb in without capsizing the damn thing. Fortunate, since autumn had seemed to kick in—it was much cooler today than it had been on the weekend.
"Do you know how to row, my dear?" Benny asked, and Macy shook her head. "Nothing to it. I'm a splendid teacher."
He gave her a quick lesson on the use of the oars before settling back, his relaxed posture making it clear that he expected to be rowed around the lake. "Um, this is hard," she said.
"Ah! Great exercise. You'll thank me later."
Macy frowned. If I can move my arms later. But gliding through the calm, dark water was fun, slipping and sloshing when she attempted a turn, and gratifying when she began to realize the oars were splashing less and less as she improved her stroke.
They toured the highlights, like a tumble of boulders that seemed to create a little cave—of course Benny had a tall tale to tell about its elven inhabitants—and a lovely little cove trimmed by lacy fronds of hemlock and ferns, supposedly a favored place to see some silly water sprite. Macy refrained from rolling her eyes. They slid past the house, waving to the others gathered on the stone patio with their coffee.
"The house looks like it was pretty fancy, in its day," Macy said.
"At one time, our family was very wealthy, so this place actually was considered rustic to my forebears. But yes, you and I would have found it fancy, if we could peek back in time. There isn't nearly as much money left but thankfully there are enough of us to chip in to pay the taxes, the occasional cleaning service, and to afford the upkeep. Well, at least enough to keep the place from falling in upon us."
"Best for last," Benny announced, pointing toward a nice little island. She turned them—pretty smoothly, if she did say so herself—and headed toward the gravelly shore. "Yes, yes, just run it aground," Benny commanded, when she wondered how they'd land. "We'll drag her back in."
They pulled the little boat partially out of the water and circled the rocky outcropping sprinkled with daring trees that clung to the ledges here and there, looking like they were hanging on tightly with sinuous toes.
"Around this side there's a bit more earth, almost a little meadow in the spring, and the very best feature."
Macy trudged after Benny. "Everything's the best feature. This place is gorgeous."
He smiled, leading the way through the high grass toward the center of the island, and stood back, waving an arm that beckoned her to have a look. A small, still pond was nestled into a hollow in the rocks.
"Oh, it's so pretty."
"The little island in the lake has a little lake of her very own," Benny murmured, perching on a rock shelf.
Macy smiled at him, choosing a spot in the sun for herself. She liked him. Liked his gentle voice, his oddball stories, his unquestioning acceptance of her. "Thanks for this. Thanks for everything."
"You're quite welcome, my dear. You deserve a respite from the demoralization of the job hunt."
"Yeah, it pretty well stinks. I thought I'd chosen a career. I thought I was all set. But it was only okay while I was working with my father."
"You need to work for another man. A man older than you, with a good business reputation."
"Tried it." Macy picked up a pebble and threw it toward the big lake. "Even called guys my dad and I used to work with on bigger jobs, but no luck. I guess they figured having a girl work for them would drag them down. Makes me mad, because I can do the work. I did it for five years. I guess I should have picked something else."
"Have you any college?"
"Some. About a year toward a two-year business degree. I went for it because I thought it would help me run our business better. I didn't really want to dress up and work in an office. I'd still like to finish sometime, but there's no money now. What I really need is a job."
Benny stood. "I'll keep all my fingers crossed for you," he promised. Macy rose and plodded through the little meadow, intending to complete the circle back to the boat. Benny followed for a few steps, then stopped her with a warning hand on her arm.
She looked up, curious to know what it was that she shouldn't step on.
He pointed to the ground just ahead of them. "There. That's where she is."
"The girl, of course."
Weird. "What girl?"
Benny smiled cryptically, and maneuvered around the spot. "I told you I know where all the bodies are buried."
The Study (excerpt)
"So, get this, I'm in my study." Tommy Daller grinned and leaned back in his desk chair until the old springs complained loudly. He could just about see Foster rolling his eyes.
"I'm telling you, man, I've got an honest-to-God, solid-wood-paneled, bookcase-lined, coffered-ceilinged study. It's got a Persian carpet, a carved walnut desk for work and this big, overstuffed easy chair and a stained-glass lamp with fringe on it for when I want to kick back and read."
"And fifty other rooms to keep it company," Foster said, drily.
"Twenty-two other rooms," Tommy said, returning to a sitting position. "Yeah, it's a big house."
"The very minute I catch you acting like lord of the goddamned manor I am going to drive over there and kick your ass."
Tommy smiled, and geared down his act. "I know. It's not me, and it's never going to be. But it's cool to play the part until I get the place sold. I have to admit, I seem to be gravitating toward the smaller rooms, like this one. I picked one of the plainer guest bedrooms, rather than the master, and I eat all my meals in this place they call the breakfast room. And that's only because Mrs. won't let me eat in the kitchen."
"That's right, you have staff now too, don't you?"
"Yep. Mr. and Mrs. Toth. Aunt Doris left them a nice little something in her will, plus three months' salary so they'd stay on and help me get settled. Only, of course, I can't get settled. But I can sell the place to someone who'll be able to enjoy it."
"What's up with her not leaving you her fortune so you could keep the place up?"
"The fortune wasn't hers. She was a trust-fund baby. That income died with her. All I got besides the house was her personal savings. Not enough to run this joint or support me, but if I can sell pretty quick, before I have to spend too much fixing something here, I'll be able to stash a nice sum in the old retirement fund."
"You getting any work done? Or just walking from room to room sticking your nose into things?"
Tommy switched the phone to his other ear and leaned over to tilt the blind on his only window shut. Twilight lay heavy on the neglected garden and it had started to snow. "I'm doing both." The high-ceilinged little room was all shadows now, except for two pools of golden light courtesy of the desk lamp and the stained-glass affair next to the fat armchair.
"The reporter in me is really pissed off that I didn't get to know Aunt Doris better, or take more interest in her family history. I'll bet there's some kind of legit story here."
"Who was her grandfather, again?"
"Senator Harland Whitcomb Farish. Dry old dude, I'm sure. When I was a little boy, his portrait always made me cry."
Foster rewarded him with a deep, booming laugh.
"Well, it was scary. We only made a few visits here—after all, we're not blood relatives—Aunt Doris was the Farish. She married a Daller—dude was my uncle."
"Oh, man, I am losing interest so fast. I need another beer."
"I could use one, too, but that would involve a serious hike to the kitchen."
"Can't you just ring for the servants?"
"Dude. Don't be an ass. They're back home in their cottage down the road. This place hasn't been palatial for, like, decades. They keep it in decent shape and she cooks all the meals. I'm happy for that."
There was a noise like the clanking of bottles, possibly inside Foster's fridge, then the pleasant hiss of a beer bottle relieved of its cap. Tommy glanced through the open door out into the hall, and estimated the steps it would take to get one of his own. Nah. Mini fridge. I'll get a mini fridge for the study. If we don't get snowed in.
"How's things at the office?" Tommy tried not to sound wistful and lonely, but he could hear that he'd missed the mark.
Foster sounded like he'd taken a long drink. "Precarious. Just like it's been for the last six months. Never know who's going to be let go next. Shit, I don't know when it will be me."
"I hope not you." Foster was paying child support for two kids. Tommy was single, and, before the will had been read, didn't own much of anything or have responsibilities to anyone but himself. The layoff had sucked, but mostly because he loved being a journalist. Freelancing was fine, but sitting alone—even in a classy 19th-century study—couldn't match the excitement and camaraderie of the newsroom. A gust of wind rattled the sash beside his desk and Tommy could feel a soft breath of cold through the wooden blinds.
"Yeah, me, too. My Plan B isn't very exciting. How about yours, though?"
"I'm doing okay so far, but this can't work forever. I need another real job. If I blow through the money I make on the sale of the house I'll be kicking myself twenty years from now."
"You think about starting that non-fiction book you're always talking about?"
Tommy shrugged, reclining once again. "Now that I have the time, I can't actually think of a subject."
"Maybe old Senator Farish was into some intriguing shit. You oughtta poke your nose around that study of his. Maybe he was running a speakeasy or balling some actress-chick."
Tommy laughed. "Yeah. Maybe he went to church without polishing his shoes. Or maybe he had one and a half glasses of brandy one night. More like it."
"Still waters, bro. Keep your eyes open."
"Oh, hey, my daughter's texting me. Let me catch up with you tomorrow."
"Sure, sure. Talk to you, Foster."
Tommy stared at the phone until it went dark. He was appallingly aware of being completely alone in a twenty-three-room mansion that was temporarily his but would never be home. The wind howled outside again. Damned late spring snowstorm. He shut down his laptop, spun the chair and eyed the rows of books, some recent, mostly old, that were squeezed into the built-in bookcases. It wasn't late enough for bed, but his article was finished and he was out of ideas and inspiration. In a house this size, one had to make up one's mind to switch rooms. It took too many steps to wander back and forth. Even for a young man just turned thirty-six. The front parlor alone was the size of his apartment in Brooklyn.
Tommy rose and crossed the small room to scan the bookshelves. It was doubtful that the old Senator would have owned anything of interest to his young accidental heir, but maybe Aunt Doris had a biography or mystery tucked away somewhere. He chose a volume and settled into the overstuffed chair. A draft made him pull the crocheted throw over his legs. Holy shit, like an invalid. But it was warmer, so he left it there and cracked open the cover.
Something creaked out in the hallway, and Tommy glanced up, quickly. "No uneasy spirits here, Mr. Daller," Mrs. had assured him, administering a pat to his arm on his first day in residence. "You've nothing to fear in that regard."
"Be almost grateful for the company," he murmured, turning his attention to the book.
The Festival (excerpt)
Alex introduced each of the diners to Louisa, and one by one they trotted out compliments on the afternoon's reading and tried gamely to appear as if they knew her books intimately. All except for the tall, slim, balding man with glasses. Henry Karcher, Alex had called him. That certainly is a familiar name. He was the only dinner companion, save for Alex, who obviously had read her novels and could discuss them intelligently.
One of the women mentioned Roberta and Louisa assured the group that her friend was going to be fine, but her mind was wandering. That name Karcher. Did the Karcher woman she knew hail from Riverbend, New York? The general area was right. What an uncanny stroke of luck it would be if she did! Now, is there a way to speak with him alone? Hmm. . .
"She'll be fine, but they want to keep her overnight. I-I'm not quite sure what I'm going to do now. We were going to continue on to visit with her sister, but she lives hours from here."
The next bit was easier than she'd expected. Naturally, there were no hotels nearby and she'd just confessed to being an inexperienced driver. All it needed was an invented allergy to cats and the mention of a faux back condition that made it impossible for her to consider sleeping on anyone's sofa. Thankfully, the doctor's family had a house brimming with visiting relatives. Louisa slumped in her chair, dredging up an appropriately abandoned demeanor.
"Listen," Henry Karcher spoke up, luckily before Alex had a chance to offer to sleep on his own sofa and give her his bedroom, "why don't you come and stay with my daughter and me?"
Louisa could barely stifle a triumphant smile as she said, "I'm so grateful to all of you but I really think this sounds like the best idea. I'm in your debt, Mr. Karcher."
* * *
After the play at the little theater—which really wasn't as bad as Louisa had expected it to be—she walked down the darkened main street with Henry and the tall, gangly teenager he'd introduced as his daughter, Meghan. The girl was a fan, too, no great surprise there, and Louisa didn't miss the fact that the reference to her mother sounded distinctly past-tense. At the restaurant, Henry had said he and his daughter rattled around in their big house. Was it possible that Erin was no longer among the living? Louisa managed to dredge up something complimentary to say after Henry pointed out his dreary little insurance office with immense pride.
They reached the vintage house in another few minutes. It was, indeed, large, but it lacked any charm or stylish characteristics. Henry did carry her bag up the steps however, and the daughter offered to make up the guest bed for her. Such a plain-looking thing, and a bit clumsy, t0o. Ah, well, it wouldn't hurt to say something nice.
"She's a credit to you, Henry," Louisa said with a smile, after they had settled into two comfortable chairs in the living room. "A genuinely good girl."
"Oh, she's a very good girl. Thank you for saying that. Unfortunately, she's had to step up the growing-up process these last two years, and she's done it very well, and without complaint. I can rely on her just as I might a grown daughter twice her age."
"Your wife passed away two years ago, I take it."
"Yes. Ovarian cancer. Still so hard to detect until it's too late. Thankfully, she didn't linger through the worst part. Such a shame to die at forty-eight."
"I'm sorry. She must have been happy here in this sweet little town, in this lovely home." Is that laying it on a bit too thick? Louisa couldn't believe her luck; her opinion of the town had certainly improved since this afternoon.
"She was. She grew up in this house, as a matter of fact. We went to school in the same building where she ended up teaching. She loved the literary festival—volunteered every year, except her last, when she just didn't have the strength. Erin was an author, too."
"Was she? How interesting. Would I know any of her work?" Louisa folded her hands in her lap to keep them from trembling with excitement.
Henry shook his head, sadly. "She wasn't published. She was talented, though. I always think she might have gotten lucky if only she'd had more confidence in herself, and had queried agents, entered contests, what have you. She never gave herself a chance. And just before she passed, she deleted all of her work."
"No! Short stories, poems, novels?" Novels? It took everything she had to prevent herself from displaying her eagerness.
"She'd only ever written poetry and short stories, but yes. Everything. Not even the computer geeks could retrieve the files. She'd damaged her hard drive."
No novels that he was aware of, and Erin had deleted all of her work before her death. All of her emails would have been on that damaged hard drive, as well. "But they might have had a life of their own after, well. . ."
Henry nodded. "I was heartbroken. It would have been such a comfort to my daughter and me to have been able to re-read the pieces after she was gone. She'd only printed and shared a few, one story for Megs' eighth birthday, a poem for me, and one for her mother, and one short story that she loved a great deal, that she showed to everyone." He sighed. "I doubt you'd remember it, but you've seen it, too. Cold Running Stream." He smiled when Louisa furrowed her brow as prettily as she could manage. "She was devoted to you—read everything you wrote, followed your blog faithfully. One day she won some sort of contest you were sponsoring, and got a chance to have a few pages critiqued by you."
"Oh, I do remember. About three years ago, wasn't it? I believe I liked it." She had communicated that sentiment, anyway. I must've been in a terrific mood that day.
"You did like it and she was ecstatic. You also had some thoughtful suggestions—which I think pleased her even more—and she used them to polish it up and finish it. I'm sure she was so fond of it because she felt it was like a collaboration with you. She didn't send that one out into the world either, although maybe I could have persuaded her, eventually."
"That's so sweet. I'm so glad I made her day."
A thought seemed to strike Henry and he rose. "Wait a moment. Wait right there." He hurried to a small adjoining room that looked like it might be a study and Louisa could hear drawers opening and closing.
She drew in a couple of deep breaths to settle herself down. By God, this was really happening. She would have to ask a few more gently probing questions to be absolutely certain—maybe over breakfast with the family—but it certainly appeared that Henry knew nothing of Erin's novel. Erin had told her it was a secret, during the email conversation that followed her winning of the short story critique. She'd sent the untitled manuscript with a shy, apologetic note stressing that Louisa was perfectly free to delete the thing without reading it if she chose. But Louisa had thought that simply might be a bit of drama employed by a dry soul to liven up a hopelessly boring existence. The woman certainly had talent—enough to make Louisa covetous of the story—but Erin was so damned pessimistic and lacking in confidence that Louisa's first thought was that she didn't deserve to know how promising the material truly was. A brief email expressed her regret at having to say that, after reading a few chapters, she'd been compelled to agree that the story, while sweet, had no real commercial value. That had seemed to disabuse the wretched woman of any hope for the thing. She'd thanked the famous author profusely and advised her to delete it, saying that she would concentrate on her poetry. But Louisa hadn't deleted the manuscript. She'd edited it, and added a few improvements of her own, but had been forced to let it lurk in a corner of her laptop's memory for the past three years. She couldn't possibly present it as her own work—not while the real author was living, anyway.
Henry returned with a manila envelope and held it out to her shyly. "I'd like you to have a copy of that short story you critiqued. I don't think you ever got the chance to read the finished piece."
"Henry, I'm honored. I feel funny taking this from you, though."
"Go on, please. I have a few copies. I'm the one who'll be honored, trust me."
"I'll read it first thing tomorrow, I promise." A mischievous smile crept across her face. "I just may be tempted to submit it to a few agents on her behalf. Do you think she'd mind if it got published in a short story anthology posthumously?" It's the least I can do, given what I am about to steal from the poor woman.
Henry beamed, and seemed to need a moment before he could reply. "Certainly not. It would have been a dream come true."
Julia's World (excerpt)
Emma and Julia entered the house quietly after school on Thursday. Gloria had stayed home with Mama, after having been ill in the night, and if she was resting, they didn't want to disturb her. While Emma took her school work out to the porch swing, Julia went to the kitchen. The sink and drain board were full of dirty dishes that Mama had left from breakfast and lunchtime. Poor Mama, Julia thought, drawing water to heat. Up half the night with Gloria, she probably hadn't the energy to do the washing up. Julia made short work of the mess and then decided she'd start dinner. The chicken that Mr. Reining had cleaned yesterday could be roasted with some vegetables. And potatoes—Gloria loved mashed potatoes and might have an appetite for them even if she was still not feeling her best. Julia seated herself at the table and soon had a mound of peelings on the flour-sack towel she'd spread out in front of her.
Lost in concentration, she didn't hear footsteps until her mother entered the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" Mama demanded. "Wasting all those potatoes. We have plenty of leftover rice casserole in the icebox."
"I forgot," Julia murmured, surveying the mess in front of her. She had peeled a few too many spuds. She glanced up shyly. Mama's dress was wrinkled and her brown hair was in disarray—she looked exhausted.
"You never use your head. You're more trouble than you're worth. Get out of my kitchen."
Julia got to her feet and went to the sink to rinse her hands and fill a pot. "I'll cook them anyway. Maybe we can fry up some potato cakes tomorrow for breakfast—"
Mama grabbed Julia's slender arm and yanked her roughly. The half-filled pot clattered into the sink and splashed both of them with water. "Get out," Mama shrieked, slapping her hard across the face.
"I'm sorry, Mama," Julia wailed. "I was only trying to help."
"Useless." Mama spat the word out, raising her hand to strike again. Although it usually only made things worse when she tried to avoid Mama's blows, Julia's cheek was still hot and stinging and she flinched and unconsciously backed up a step. Her foot landed on one of Rags' toys and she stumbled and bumped into the Hoosier cabinet, rocking it and sending a ceramic pitcher that had been perched on the edge crashing to the floor. Mama's eyes flashed with rage. "Stupid little witch." She lunged for the stove and grabbed the cast iron skillet that always sat on top.
Julia's eyes widened, and when Mama raised the pan to strike, she scrambled for the back door. Incredibly, Mama followed her out across the porch and down the wooden steps, still wielding the skillet. Terrified as never before, Julia raced across the yard toward the henhouse, barely noticing Mr. Reining pushing a wheelbarrow toward the barn out of the corner of her eye. Choking sobs wracked her small frame and she ran wildly, not sure where she was headed, but looking for any shortcut to get her there fast. Past the pump and around the lilac, she plunged ahead and onto the narrow path at the side of the barn. Her school shoes were more slippery than her old work boots, and she slid on a loose slate, plunging into the old cellar hole the same way she would belly flop into the pond on a hot summer day. Julia heard herself scream. She caught a glimpse of the rocks and dirt six feet below racing up to meet her, then all was blackness.
When she awoke, sky and earth were exchanging places freely, and she was being carried somewhere swiftly in strong arms. "My little one," a deep voice said tenderly. "You'll be all right." Pop? Was he here on a Thursday? Something splashed onto her cheek—was it raining?
By the time the fogginess cleared a bit, Julia realized that Mr. Reining was hurrying her toward the carriage barn. Mama and Emma were at his heels.
"Bring her inside," Mama was coaxing. "She'll be fine."
Julia felt the muscles in Mr. Reining's arms tense. "She needs the doctor. You will drive us."
"Don't be a fool," Mama said sharply.
"You will drive us." Mr. Reining's command was delivered through clenched teeth. His next words were kinder. "Emma, you'll watch your sister until we return."
The fog crept back in for Julia and the ride to town was a jostling blur. The only thing that was clear was that she remained cradled in Mr. Reining's arms.
The doctor's surgery was cool and smelled antiseptically clean. Dr. Van Vliet calmly tended to her, washing and bandaging cuts, testing reflexes and vision and balance, soothing her with his kind words and gentle hands. Julia was conscious but sleepy on the ride back home, owing to something the doctor had given her to help her rest. Mr. Reining propped her up between himself and Mama and kept a protective arm around her shoulders. Back at the farm, he carried her up to her bed and removed her shoes while Mama hung about in the doorway twisting in her nervous fingers the apron she still hadn't removed.
Julia was aware that the two adults were watching her as she drifted off. Sleep was in a playful mood, however, toying with her, settling in then slipping away. Although she kept her eyes closed, she caught the thread of a conversation between her mother and their hired man.
"It's not the child's fault, Marie," he said, softly. "That mistake we made, one night years ago. John knows nothing of it. Your family is safe. We're not even certain. She may yet be his daughter."
Mama scoffed. "I don't think so."
He sighed, heavily. "You don't have to like her. But you must stop the beatings. You went after her with an iron pan, for the Lord's sake. You could have killed her."
Their words cleared a path through the fog to Julia's brain. Her mother and Mr. Reining. . .an unhappy young wife and a handsome older man. . . maybe every time Mama looked at Julia she remembered that shame, and worried about what would happen if Pop ever found out. Her parents were gone. Where would she go if he threw her out? The idea that Pop wasn't really her father was too awful—if he knew, would he cast Julia away, too? It was more than she could make sense of with an aching head and sleep nipping at her heels. Maybe tomorrow. But this afternoon's fear and anger retreated. She remembered something she'd heard Mama tell Gloria about a mother having a sort of instinctive communication with her children, and figured it was worth a try. I understand, Mama, I'll try to forgive you, she repeated over and over in her thoughts, hoping she'd be able to send the message across the room.
"Go to her," Mr. Reining coaxed, and after a brief silence, Julia heard the floor boards creak. She felt someone squeeze the hand that lay on the mattress by her side. A little thrill ran up her arm to her heart. Could it really be Mama? The touch was gentle but the fingers were big and coarse. It was Reining's hand.
Distant Relations (excerpt)
(Gina Grecco escapes her stifling extended family to start fresh in the home of her estranged father--a man who realizes too late how much he really wants the daughter he left behind.)
Gina turned her key in the lock and stepped into the front hallway—so cool after the burning heat of the pavement, so peaceful after the sirens, the honking and shouting and flashing red and blue lights of the patrol car. She was still shaking a bit, and the back of her head hurt where it had smashed into the headrest, but she guessed that was better than having her neck snapped when the Mercedes rear-ended her. The hot wind had dried the tears on her cheeks and left her hair in disarray. But the house smelled like that desert sage candle Lauren had been burning lately, and she felt like she was embraced by her home.
She'd have to find Teddy and tell him. Gina grimaced, not knowing how he'd react. After all, she hardly knew him. They'd been tip-toeing around one another for months, making an effort at niceness, and there really had not been anything to test their precarious relationship until now. But it was his car, and likely thousands of dollars' worth of damage, so she had to explain.
It sounded like Teddy was in his office, and Gina, having freshened up her appearance, lurked in the hallway outside the closed door, listening to the music filter through, trembling hand hovering just over the knob. Both girls had been told not to disturb him when he was in this room, but today was going to have to be an exception to the rule. Deep breath, shoulders back; Gina knocked and entered almost simultaneously, attempting a little smile. Teddy was at his desk and looked up from his work.
"Teddy, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I got into an accident with the car."
Teddy frowned, standing and facing her across the desk. "What kind of accident?" he asked, calmly. "Tell me what happened."
Okay, so he wasn't freaking, but the note of caring that Gina was hoping to hear in his voice was missing. "Well, I was driving Carly home, and a guy ran right out into the road in the middle of the block, and I had to stop short. Some lady in a Mercedes convertible plowed into the back of the BMW. There really was nothing I could have done. He ran right out in front of me."
"I suppose you could have been paying more attention to your surroundings," Teddy said, coolly.
Gina chewed her lower lip. "He just appeared from behind a van. I couldn't see him before he was right in front of the car. If you don't believe me," she added, becoming annoyed, "ask Carly."
"Wait. What? Who the hell is Carly? I don't even know her."
He had walked around the desk as if to confront her and Gina straightened to her full 5' 2" height. "You really don't know me, either, do you?"
"Gina," Teddy began, placing his hands on his hips, clearly done with the attempt at tolerance.
"She's a girl in my refresher math class. I was taking her home and—"
"Yeah, I know, you said. Were you speeding?"
"Speeding? Really? I learned to drive in Queens a year ago. I was never allowed on a highway until I moved here. I've never been speeding."
Lauren appeared in the doorway. "Everything all right?"
"No. Gina was in an accident."
"Oh! Honey are you okay?"
"Yes," Gina said, following Teddy's pacing with narrowed eyes. "Gee, I'm glad someone asked me that."
Teddy evidently didn't like sarcasm coming from someone else; he turned and snapped at her, "Obviously you're all right. You're standing right there. How much damage was done?"
"I don't know—the back is smashed in, like, part of the trunk. I'm not an expert. It looks like shit, okay? You have insurance. I'll pay the deductible."
"Don't be pissing your money away, Gina. You don't know the meaning of money yet."
"Have I been pissing my money away? Have I?"
"Look, I don't need this shit. I hope your kid talks to you this way someday."
Gina gaped at him, open-mouthed. "You're playing the dad card now? Seriously? I don't think I want kids. I don't think I have parenting in my genes. I might leave them in some hell hole because I want to be free."
"Gina, you're 19," Teddy warned, holding up a hand in a "stop" gesture, but appearing shaken at the same time. "I'm not responsible for you. Watch your smart mouth if you want to stay in this house." He turned his back to her and moved toward his desk again.
Gina scowled. She could feel her face getting hot. She didn't mean to, but she heard herself shouting. "I'm not running away again. I have nowhere to go. Do you have any idea what it was like living there, Teddy? Do you know what it's like having your personality squashed out of you until you hear the kids at school saying, 'She really isn't anybody. She's just there; like a lump of flesh.' Have you ever spent every day at the bottom of a hole looking up at the sky, at everyone on the grass up there, and you can't be with them? Do you want to know what my first idea was, before I decided to come out here and wreck your car? You know that factory at the bottom of the hill by the cemetery, the one with the big stone wall?" Teddy whirled to face her. His pacing had taken him across the room, closer to Lauren, who had edged inside but wisely was not approaching either of them. "I had Aunt Teresa's car, and I was on some stupid errand for them, and I drove up there and I stared at that wall, and all I could see was the big, bloody spot I'd make when I hit it at fifty miles an hour. I started racing down the hill, but when I was most of the way there, I saw a car coming out of the corner of my eye. I didn't want to hurt anybody else, so I stepped on the brakes. Maybe I wish I hadn't. Maybe you wish I hadn't." By the time she ran out of steam, she was sobbing.
Teddy looked stunned, but Gina didn't know why. She almost felt guilty for yelling at him, but decided finally, Screw him.
Teddy drew an unsteady breath. "Look, don't worry about the car, Gina." His voice was hoarse, and he made a wide arc around her as he headed toward the door. "I'll call the insurance company and take care of it." He escaped without another word and Gina looked up, defiantly, until she realized that she was face to face with Lauren. Then she melted.
"I guess you're mad at me."
"I'm mad at both of you," Lauren said, softly. "But I'm very glad you weren't hurt. This is hard for me to listen to because I love both of you. And the heart of this argument is really not my business. He did wrong by you, Gina, no question. But you know. . . you came out here to see what was up with this guy—find out how he could leave you behind in a place he knew was awful. And to go to school; start life over. But face it, Gina, you didn't come out here to love him." Her words were cool, but she reached out a hand to stroke Gina's hair before turning and walking out of the office.
In her room, Gina sat cross-legged on her bed, hugging one of her pillows because she hadn't brought any of her old stuffed animals with her from New York. She clutched a tissue but had stopped crying. Maybe I wanted to love him, she thought to herself. Even though I've just spent six months pretending not to notice that he doesn't want me. Tears welled up again and she sniffled hard and forced them into retreat.
Carly had been great after the accident.Even though she and Gina didn't know one another very well, she had been super supportive and comforting. The two young women had huddled together in a little patch of shade while the cops did their thing, and Gina had confessed her nervousness about explaining the whole mess to Teddy.
"I have a dad who's like a distant relation, too," Carly had said. "I don't let it bother me. I always act real sweet toward him, and stay under the radar, you know? I mean, I live in a big, comfortable house with a pool, he's paying all my tuition, he bought me a car, and in a few short years I'll have an awesome job, and only have to deal with him on holidays and shit. He's okay with it. I doubt he even knows how I feel." Gina had looked hesitant, but Carly had concluded, with authority, "Just because your parents don't love you, doesn't mean no one will. You'll be fine."
Gina considered this advice again, stretching to open the drawer of her nightstand and pull out the now-repaired street fair necklace she had once given to her mother and then had nearly destroyed. Love hadn't worked out so well with one parent, and she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to give up on the idea of having a relationship with Teddy. Gina closed her eyes and clutched the pillow harder.
The Oak Tree (excerpt)
Ten-year-old Margaret grabbed a laurel branch that reached across the path and let the shower of fresh raindrops fall onto her shoulders and her head as she passed underneath. There was a great uproar from the blue jay community because the neighbor's cat had slithered under the fence and was on the prowl. The best thing about the yard was that a screen of lilac bushes blocked the view from the house. Margaret slipped through a wide spot and was finally, blessedly alone.
Her mother was a wonderful mother, people kept telling her. The woman they'd met in the grocery store last week, the one with the towering beehive hairdo and short turquoise dress, had practically bubbled over at the thought of how wonderful, how perfect a mother she was. "Why, she loves you so very much. Isn't she just the best mother a little girl could have?"
"Yes, ma'am," Margaret had murmured. The lie made her feel sick inside. Everyone else agreed, so might there be something wrong with her? Some reason she didn't appreciate all that her mother did for her? Some abnormality that made her prefer the mothers with windblown hair and joyful laughter and unpolished fingernails?
Margaret was blue. It had been a bad day at school. They had read a story about a young boy who had saved a man's life, and they had talked about heroes.
"Heroes don't have to be superhuman or knights in armor," Miss Ferraro had said. "Ordinary people often become heroes, if only to a few people. For example, Margaret," because Margaret was daydreaming, "if your mother was very ill and a doctor saved her life, you would think of him as a hero, wouldn't you?"
Margaret fixed her with a barren stare. She felt cold. She simply could not answer.
The teacher probably figured she hadn't heard the question. Patiently, she repeated, "If a doctor saved your mother's life you would think he was a hero, would you not?"
Tears began to well up in her eyes, ready to roll down her hot cheeks. But she didn't let them.
"Margaret, for heaven's sake, would you or would you not think that doctor was a hero?"
Still, Margaret stared. She hadn't moved a single muscle. "Yes, ma'am" was on her lips, but she couldn't say it. Not even to get it over with, to get everyone's attention off of her.
Finally, Miss Ferraro tired of the little confrontation. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and went on with the discussion. Margaret hadn't relaxed all day.