Copyright 2016 by Anna Scott Graham
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This is a work of fiction. Names and characters, incidents and places are either products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For my husband. And for my Father.
On the last Sunday of 1963, Seth Gordon sat across from his cousin Tovah and her husband Ben in an upscale Tel Aviv restaurant. The reason for the party was twofold; Ben’s best friend was leaving tomorrow for England, and all around the world New Year’s was approaching. For Tovah, that western holiday remained significant, and in the past six weeks, Seth had found that Ben’s family appreciated celebrating certain Gentile traditions. Nothing was planned for New Year’s Eve proper, but this dinner had been on Tovah’s calendar since Seth’s arrival. And now he felt no wariness around these people, Ben’s parents and the couple’s friends well acquainted with him. He was considered as an artist first, an American second. And for the first time in Seth’s life, those were the main emphases of his character. He wasn’t labeled as impaired, nor Jewish, which made him smile.
He wondered what Laurie would make of this group; often Seth found himself considering his cousin, whether Seth was busy with clay, out with Tovah, or merely observing life in a country where no longer were they the minority. But perhaps Laurie had never felt as torn as Seth when it came to their faith, which might have been due to Stanford, or that Laurie simply had never been so troubled. Then Seth sighed inwardly. Laurie’s last letter had revealed the depth of his pain; he was going to look for a house next month, having all but given up on Stanford ever forgiving him.
Seth had read that letter with a brief sense of sorrow, which hadn’t lingered. His life was wholly different now, thanks to Eric, Dr. Sellers, Laurie of course, and Seth’s continuing treatment with Dr. Margolis. And to those with whom he sat; now Seth craved connecting with others, their experiences broadening his outlook, flavoring his work. He had created several figures, not enough time in the day for all he wished to bring to life. He woke early, a newfound rhythm to his days, which in part he chalked up to all the years lost to depression. Unspoken however was that for all Seth now wished to accomplish, he was the only artist working. But once Eric returned home, Seth looked forward to hearing from him. He wasn’t certain how that correspondence would emerge, but as he didn’t fret over Laurie and Stanford, Seth didn’t ruminate about Eric Snyder. He was in God’s care, and would get home at the appropriate time.
The only aspect of Eric’s disappearance that bothered Seth was Lynne. Laurie had written that she was due in two weeks, which Seth hadn’t forgotten. He thought it would be unfortunate if Eric missed that event, but Laurie was there, and while his cousin couldn’t be a substitute, Seth felt peaceful about where Laurie was, even if that broke Laurie’s heart. Seth wasn’t altogether sure from where that calm originated; much was due to what had happened in Miami coupled with those he had met here. Out of a monstrous evil now grew a lively, spirited nation. Seth’s own recovery reflected that miracle, how he thought of it. If Eric missed the birth of his second child, Seth would be pained, but Eric had accepted that possibility, or hadn’t been able to change it. Now when Seth thought of the hawk, he pondered more than Eric’s role in Seth’s healing. An otherworldly sense was firmly rooted within Seth and would never be shaken.
As laughter rang out around him, Seth smiled, sipping his drink, inhaling a scene thought impossible twenty years previously. Jews had survived a grotesque madness, some Jews, Seth allowed. He didn’t focus on those waiting in the blue barn, instead noting who had survived. And while he had never dwelled on European soil, he considered himself akin to those survivors, perhaps through Norah, or maybe because of Eric. That was quite a stretch, but then so was Eric’s existence as a hawk, in which Seth truly believed. And if that was taken as fact, then exactly what was the meaning of life, certainly more than dinners in fancy establishments or art or even a baby’s birth. Of those three, Seth thought the Snyders’ coming child was the most beautiful, but not even that event could return a father to where he ought to be. In the long run, what was more damaging, that Eric would miss his child’s arrival, or all the days leading up to that moment? Seth had become philosophical during his time in Israel, but the last six months cried out for analysis, and while he’d been honest with Dr. Sellers about the hawk, Seth had yet to mention Eric’s connection to it with Dr. Margolis.
Only a Miami shrink and Laurie knew; Stanford did too, in addition to those Eric loved. Seth attached no unpleasant notions to his time at the Kerr Hospital, not even if Eric was still missing. It would be as if those with whom he sat constantly mourned all the Jews killed in The Holocaust. This was a day of celebration, their very lives were a miracle. Seth closed his eyes, then prayed for Eric, Lynne too. Then he inhaled deeply, letting it out as Laurie filled Seth’s mind. It was imperative that Laurie and Stanford work through their disagreement, perhaps more important than Eric arriving home before Lynne gave birth. If Laurie bought a house out West…. Seth shivered, then finished his drink. He looked up, finding Tovah’s gaze. He nodded at her, then chuckled. She looked a little like her mother, although she possessed none of Sheila’s matchmaking tendencies. However for the first time in years, perhaps in his whole adult life, the notion of a wife lurked in the back of Seth’s mind. He didn’t think about Norah; she had carried a different purpose. Maybe it was merely considering how vital that Laurie and Stanford made amends. Then Seth permitted a sliver of anguish; Eric had sacrificed much to make his way to Florida, so had Lynne. Laurie had been away from Stan for months, then they had parted acrimoniously. As Ben stood to make a toast, Seth refilled his glass, then raised it with the rest. But Seth didn’t listen to what was said. Again he prayed for Eric, Laurie, and those they loved. May 1964 bring back together couples separated, families apart. And if Seth might be so blessed, perhaps he too might share in such bliss.
Hours later at St. Matthew’s, Lynne sat next to Laurie, both pondering many of the same notions. Christmas had been a jovial day, hard not to smile when surrounded by happy children. The last two days had been less cheery, simply due to those missing. Yet at church, both Lynne and Laurie recovered some peace, although in different manners. Lynne felt that one day Eric would again sit at her side, their children between them. She concentrated on that notion, not catching much of Marek’s sermon, although at the end, his voice carried a distinctive ring of hope. She smiled, aware of one reason for his optimism; Klaudia would be arriving in late January, sleeping in the small room near the church kitchen. Marek had some clearing out to do first, but he had been visibly pleased Klaudia wanted to stay at St. Matthew’s.
Laurie listened to all Marek spoke, but found it hard to equate such blessings with his life. Since Christmas, he had tried calling Stan several times, but no one answered the telephone. Finally yesterday afternoon, Laurie reached Agatha, who tearfully expressed that she had done all she could. Not even Lynne’s letter seemed to have made a difference, although right before Christmas, Agatha thought Stanford had been ready to reach out to Laurie. Laurie hadn’t broached that letter, for he knew nothing about it. Had Lynne posted it ages ago and it had been lost in the holiday rush, or had she mailed it without his knowledge? He wanted to ask, but no time had seemed appropriate. And honestly, if Stan was still adamant they were through, Laurie had to accept it. He ached all over, then he chuckled, as Lynne arched backwards against the seat. If she had the baby early, Laurie wouldn’t be surprised.
If she did, then at least they could stop wondering if Eric would make it home in time. Did that thought pass through Stan’s head, Laurie mused. How selfish was Stan being, Laurie then pondered. Maybe their relationship wasn’t worth trying to revive, for how many times had Laurie endured Stan’s boorishness, on occasion apologizing for someone who obviously didn’t care whether or not they got back together. Then Laurie sighed as Lynne stood from the pew, her hands pressed firmly against her lower back. Was she in labor, he wondered. He wanted to inquire, but Jane was happy on his lap. He watched as Lynne took a few steps, then returned, nodding her head, a slight grimace on her face. Then Laurie smiled. She was merely uncomfortable, nothing either of them could to do alleviate that situation.
They remained seated as the service ended, but Jane fussed, so Laurie stood, toting her. He pointed out stained glass windows, the tree near the altar, the nativity. Something about that scene intrigued him, and he asked if he might inspect it. Lynne laughed. “Go ahead. I’m not moving for a minute or three.”
He nodded, aware that once she had found a comfortable position, she wouldn’t leave it until forced to find another. Candles burned, mixing with the scent of pine that Laurie found soothing. The tree was decorated with Christian symbols, fish and crosses made from white fabric. But he turned his attention to Mary, Joseph, and an infant that while Jewish at birth was solely connected to Christian worship. Jane pointed at the sleeping figure in the manger. “Baby,” she said.
“Yeah, and soon you’ll have one of your own.” He smiled, then set her on the floor. He knelt near the assembled figures; the baby was blonde, Mary wore the hint of a smile, and Joseph seemed rather nonplussed. Laurie laughed at this sanitized version of a poor Jewish family. Allegedly, Joseph had hardly more money than the shepherds with whom he stood.
The Wise Men weren’t part of this group; Marek had said he would set them out on the sixth of January, the twelfth day of Christmas. Laurie wondered if they might look more realistic, or perhaps only less bland. They would carry gifts in their hands, maybe their style of dress would be more elaborate. But then this was merely a representation of the holy family, no more correct than Jesus in a loincloth upon the cross. He would have been left to die naked, but that was far too improper, not even Michelangelo had sculpted him as such. David had been permitted to stand nude, but not the savior of the world.
Or the Christian savior, yet Laurie felt an affinity for Jesus, if for no other reason than how lonely his adult life had been. Surrounded by some rather dim-witted disciples, a Nazarene carpenter had spent his last three years in a strange solitude, occasionally broken up by those who wished to believe he was the coming messiah, and most of them had been the recipients of his miracles. Maybe all of them had, Laurie mused, having learned a great deal during Marek’s sermons. Then he gazed at Joseph, wondering what that man must have thought of a baby which clearly wasn’t his; was this child, as the angel had said, conceived by the Holy Spirit? Now Laurie chuckled, for to Joseph that must have seemed as unlikely as what Laurie had told Stan about Eric. An angel’s words must have carried a greater weight, Laurie decided, for Joseph didn’t divorce his wife, and did all he could to protect her and a baby he knew wasn’t his son.
In his free time, Laurie had read Lynne’s Bible, discovering the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, then their return to Galilee. Laurie found it fascinating how after that, Joseph was barely mentioned, but then that man wasn’t meant for more than getting Mary to Bethlehem. Laurie glanced at Jane, who sat quietly, staring at the tree and flickering candles. Then he gazed back to where Lynne now spoke with Marek. They were the only ones remaining, but that was usually how they left church. Yet, Laurie provided Lynne a cover, maybe how Joseph had done with Mary. Not that Lynne was expecting any more than another Snyder, but her bond with Marek was special. If not for Laurie, Lynne wouldn’t have this time to speak to her pastor, nor would Marek’s frequent visits to the Snyder home be permissible.
Laurie’s presence had been explained by a small fib; did people really think he was Lynne’s brother? These same parishioners accepted a Jew as their savior, so what was the difference? Yet, Stan refused to believe that…. Laurie sighed, then got to his feet. Jane joined him, then he grasped her small hand, leading her to where her mother and pastor still spoke. But Laurie kept glancing back at the nativity. What caused a person to overlook what seemed indisputable for a fanciful reality? He smiled, for at this time of year he might entertain that Jesus was more than a Jewish carpenter. But in a few weeks would he be so inclined, and what about…. He cleared his throat, then grinned at the twosome seated in the pew. “So where are we having lunch today?”
“Here, if you’re not adverse to sandwiches.” Marek stood, then motioned for Jane. Laurie released her hand and she ran to her pastor.
“That sounds good to me, I’m starving.” Laurie stepped toward Lynne, helping her from the pew. A few streaks marked her cheeks, but she smiled, stepping slowly into the aisle.
He wanted to wipe away tears that still fell, but she brushed them away herself. “I told Marek to come for a proper lunch, but he insisted.”
“All he’d find at your house is leftover pie, and not much of it.” Laurie needed to go shopping; they were sharing New Year’s Day with the Aherns, but meals needed to be considered in the meantime.
“Caramel slices await us in the kitchen,” Marek said. “I had some free time yesterday afternoon once Mrs. Harmon left.”
“And what did she have to say?” Lynne smiled.
“Very little, thankfully.” Marek chuckled as they reached the kitchen. “All she wanted was her cookie plate back. Seems she’s accepted there’s no getting rid of me, although her idea of Christmas goodies are woefully lacking in flavor.”
Their banter was light throughout lunch, but much ran through Laurie’s mind. Had Marek mailed that surreptitious letter to Stan on Lynne’s behalf? The note was probably from weeks ago, merely delayed by Christmas. Yet Agatha had sounded especially pained, as if she actually thought Stan was going to change his mind. Laurie gazed at Lynne, who only looked tired. Then he grinned; she was one of the most subtle persons he had ever met. When they were home, whether Jane was asleep or not, he would ask.
They took their leave with caramel slices wrapped in one of Lynne’s spare pie tins. The day was cold, so Marek only saw them as far the front church doors. Laurie carried Jane, who was nearly asleep, and on the drive home, Lynne remarked that even if she stirred, he could lay her down for a nap. Lynne would catch some sleep as well, what Laurie had expected. Mother and daughter snoozed daily, but Lynne said her naptimes were numbered.
Laurie spent his afternoon speaking with his mother, making a grocery list for tomorrow, as well as building a fire. Lynne woke first and he made them some tea. They ate caramel slices in the living room, joking that Jane would be cross if she found them with such yummy snacks. Then Lynne yawned. “I have to say, it’s lovely finding tea and a fire and a treat.” She finished her slice, then licked her fingers. “There’s a pastry chef lurking under Marek’s collar. I hope Klaudia will appreciate these.”
“If she doesn’t, I’ll have hers.” Laurie took a breath, then sighed.
“What?” Lynne asked, grasping his hand.
He hadn’t planned on asking until Jane was in bed for the night. But sometimes Lynne excused herself right after Jane was asleep. “There’s something I wanna ask you.” Laurie turned to face Lynne. “Did you write to Stan, I mean, recently?”
Lynne nodded. “Did Agatha say something?”
“Yeah, Jesus, I guess she thought I knew. What’d you tell him?”
Lynne’s smile was small. “Just that you were thinking about a change of address.”
Laurie nodded. “Well, I suppose that’s fair.” Then he met her eyes. “But I didn’t put that letter in the mailbox.”
“I had Renee send it. Laurie, if I’ve overstepped my bounds, I apologize. I just felt that….”
He squeezed her hand, then shook his head. “According to Agatha, you nearly changed his mind. But reality won out, or what he can take as truth.” Laurie sighed, then released Lynne’s hand. “I was thinking about it earlier, looking at the nativity. Joseph believed an angel, guess it’s gonna take something that supernatural to convince Stan we’re not all nuts out here.”
Laurie expected Lynne to comment, but she remained quiet. He tried to meet her eyes, but she stared toward the fire. He looked that way, then thought about the painting she had described, one of this very scene that according to her and the Aherns had actually emanated heat. Prior to summer, Laurie’s world had been varying shades of gray, but always rooted in acceptable fact. Or maybe he was kidding himself, for his life with Stanford had been extraordinary and now it was…. He breathed in, feeling a sharp pain. “It’s over Lynne. I’ll always love him, but he just can’t….”
Now Lynne tipped his face so their eyes met. Tears ran down her cheeks, but her smile was wide. She placed his hand on the baby who gently tapped under Laurie’s palm. Why was it so hard for him to assume Stan might change his mind when this woman held such a miracle?
Again he expected her to speak, but she was silent, although she kept his hand on the baby. Any day now, Laurie thought to himself, and perhaps that was Lynne’s thought too. Might Eric walk through the door in time for that event? Laurie prayed for that, but not for another’s presence. Maybe it would take an angel to convince Laurie, as well as Stan, that such a reunion was feasible. Instead, Laurie pulled Lynne as close as the baby allowed while she continued to cry. Her tears weren’t all in sorrow, for as she sobbed, Laurie knew some peace. He didn’t question what it was about, merely letting it soothe his aching heart as the fire warmed his back, dulling anguish that remained.
Rain had fallen on and off in Karnack since Christmas, but on New Year’s Eve a storm blew through, ripping off a small piece of the shed’s roof. John stayed inside the Richardsons’ house while Walt and Callie repaired the damage. As those men dripped on the porch, John joined them, wearing an old coat Callie had brought for him. “So, how’s my house?” John smiled.
“Not too much worse than before, although your bed’s soaked.” Walt spat into a puddle. “Gonna hafta sleep on the sofa tonight, maybe tomorrow too.”
John looked away from the men, grimacing. Then he shrugged. “Well, beats sleeping on the ground.”
Since Christmas night, John had realized little peace. At first he blamed it on the rain, then it seemed connected to that Jew; how had John known that man’s first name? Walt still marveled upon it when they were alone. Otherwise it was as if all Walt had shared about his tenure in the army was as faint as John’s true identity. Except that one other fact had come to that man; his wife was due in the middle of January, and unless John woke tomorrow aware of his real name, most likely his second child would arrive without its father present. John felt he had attended his daughter’s birth, but it seemed impossible he would share in that moment this time around.
He hadn’t dreamed of his wife in days, yet she had seemed so close while Walt unburdened his soul. Maybe John had been in Korea, perhaps he was like that Seth Gordon, who had probably suffered terribly from all the men he’d killed. Walt suffered from nightmares, although they abated when Dora was expecting. That was why a mattress had waited in the shed, although the children had no idea of their father’s trauma. John then looked at Callie; how had that man set aside such brutality? Then John shivered. Perhaps for a Negro, war wasn’t much different than everyday life.
John couldn’t recall how his friend had gotten through his army career, but he was haunted by those lost twins; would his wife deliver all right, might she…. He shook his head, then gazed at the twosome standing on the porch. Callie was staring at him. “Did I miss something?” John said.
“Just asked if you was okay.” Callie wrung his hat in his hands, water dripping from it. Then he shook it out, but didn’t put it on his head. “Well, I should be going. Rain ain’t gonna let up for hours.”
Walt patted Callie’s shoulder. “Tell Susie thanks for the pie. See you in ’64.”
Callie chuckled. “I will, and yup, see you next year.” He approached John, offering his left hand. John grasped it, but felt little relief. Yet he smiled, for it would be rude not to. Callie nodded, releasing John’s hand. He headed down the steps, running to his truck, not bothering to put on his sodden cap.
Walt laughed as Callie departed, then he stretched his arms over his head. “Might as well go inside. No use staring at the rain.”
John followed Walt into the house, which was quiet. Dora and the little girls were napping, while Luke and Tilda watched television. But as the door closed, Luke stood, walking toward his father and John. “How’s the shed?” Luke asked Walt.
“Wet. Mr. Doe will sleep on the sofa tonight.”
Luke smiled, then put his hands in his pockets. He gazed toward John, but didn’t make eye contact. “Well, that’ll be a nice way for everybody to celebrate the new year.”
John wanted to argue, but Luke’s tone was too jovial. John had avoided the children, which had been easy, what with the poor weather. Yet sleeping on wet blankets wasn’t appealing, so John forced a smile. “Indeed it will. My first new year’s in Texas most likely.”
Luke chuckled. “Wonder where you were this time last year?”
Walt coughed loudly. “Luke, put some wood on the fire.”
As Luke walked away, John stepped to the table, taking his usual seat. The boy meant no harm, but John couldn’t help his anger. The question was one he’d considered often while listening to rain pelting the shed’s roof, along with why had he been shot, where was his family, and for how long would he be stuck in…. Pessimism was hard to dismiss; perhaps he would never remember his name, finding himself living in this southern hamlet with a crippled arm and no sense of…. John sighed heavily, tracing the table’s wood grain with his left index finger. He stared at that hand, tried to wiggle his right, wasn’t sure if he had done it. The whole arm was now numb, but had he used it for a noble purpose? Gazing at his left hand, it was as if all his previous talents were now shunted into this once aimless limb.
He glanced at the fire, then found himself lost in the growing flames. Sparks rose, then died out, pops and crackles reminiscent of home. He closed his eyes, but could still see glowing coals of bright orange and flickering yellow against white-hot wood burning into flat gray ash. Opening his eyes, he squinted, then shook his head. He stood, walking to where the fire now burned with vigor. Pulling up a nearby chair, he studied the flames, so lively, so…. His heart pounded as a vital memory teased, yet was as impossible to retrieve as though it dwelled within the center of the blaze. He only had one good hand, but was tempted to reach into the fireplace, like his whole life was waiting for him if only he had the courage to grasp it.
Then he shivered; what if he was there due to fear, had he run away from his family, why in the hell was he separated from his very pregnant wife? He loved her, a notion often stirring him from sleep, leaving him trembling in desire and sorrow. Did she miss him, or was she glad to be rid of him? Again he looked at his left hand; he wore no ring, not that many men did, but was that significant? Why after years of childlessness were they apart; nothing seemed to make sense.
John wasn’t aware that both Luke and Tilda had been staring at him. Walt had nearly told them to stop, but the man seemed a million miles away. Occasionally Walt pondered some of the same questions about this stranger, but lately he mostly wondered how in the world had John known Seth’s name. Now that man dwelled in Walt’s dreams, but not like in the past, when Walt woke drenched in sweat, reaching for his gun, but of course no weapon was close. Now Gordon, or rather Seth, was a kindly figure, dressed not in fatigues but perhaps as Walt had previously assumed a New York Jew would appear, in dress pants and a respectable shirt. But Seth didn’t look right in those clothes; he wasn’t a businessman, but then neither was the amnesiac still staring at the fire. Those men were different, Walt believed, and not only due to their mental problems. Maybe that Jew had been a hell of a marksman, but only under duress. And as for John Doe…. Walt thought that man had never done a hard day’s work in his life, or if he had, it wasn’t like the work any of them around here did. Walt drank from his coffee cup, the contents grown cold, but John’s presence would make for a late night. They might not speak much, but Luke wanted to stay up late and Tilda would probably argue to do the same. Dora would turn in early, leaving Walt with an odd trio to see in the new year. He stood, then poured what remained in the coffee pot into his cup. As he drank that, no warmer than what he’d just finished, he continued gazing at a troubled man and two curious children. This would be the strangest New Year’s Eve in Walt’s life, but perhaps it would usher in more predicable days.
As John tried to conjure his past, another man attempted to make sense of the present; Stanford stared at the drawing of Agatha, which again had made its singular way onto the dining table. Perhaps all those ignored telephone calls had brought out the sketch, as if a two-dimensional version of Stanford’s housekeeper could answer the phone in Stanford’s stead. He permitted that idea due to how odd was it that a piece of paper seemed able to travel within his home unaided. Stanford had no manner in which to dispute that bizarre fact, although he continued to dismiss other equally inexplicable queries.
He hadn’t destroyed Lynne’s letter, although after Christmas Day he strongly considered throwing it away as he had Laurie’s note. Something had held him back, perhaps it was Lynne’s lovely penmanship or how harmonious were her words, even if the sentiments troubled Stanford’s dreams. For the last week, he couldn’t dismiss those nocturnal scenes, which unlike Eric’s dreams in Texas were easily recalled in Manhattan; Laurie arrived, taking the figurines from the library, not giving Stanford the time of day. In some of the dreams Jane accompanied, still a toddler, but capable of speech. She told her Uncle Stanford that while she fully understood his reservations, time was running out. If he didn’t travel west soon, he would miss….
Jane never finished her sentence, leaving Stanford to wonder if she meant the coming baby or Laurie’s departure. But if Stanford did leave New York, would he return alone? Maybe Laurie hadn’t waited for January; perhaps he’d spent the last week inspecting houses. Had he and Lynne gone together, Stan mused, gazing at Agatha’s image. Probably not, for she was so close to delivering and…. Stanford picked up the drawing, fingering where he had nearly folded it in half. That crease remained, certifying to him that yes, this piece of paper was capable of independent movement. He sighed, wishing to shake his head, but the simple truth was within his grasp. This illustration had somehow found its way from the guest room to this table, and had done so without the intervention of human hands.
Stanford knew this because he had seen it lying on the guest room bureau just last night. He hadn’t checked on its location in a good while, but had felt compelled to step into that room, flicking on the light, then spying the sheet where he had set it weeks before Laurie expressed the desire to buy property out west, before Lynne had written that letter, before Agatha had asked him an intrusive question. But Stanford’s shock had been short-lived for her plaintive tone, sorrow nearly more than he could bear. She had sounded the same last week, although her voice had been less tearful, and yes, he had almost booked a flight upon that ultimatum, which wasn’t more than information. Yet Lynne’s letter had been sent with a distinct purpose. If Stanford didn’t reach out for Laurie soon, what they shared would be finished. Or was it already too late; was anything left between them, perhaps not more than art. Would Laurie return for Seth’s figurines? Stanford assumed he would, leaving this drawing in Stanford’s care. Yet, he should give it to Laurie, for Agatha would remain a fixture here and…. Or would she leave him if Laurie moved west? Stanford trembled at such an idea, then he clucked loudly. She was merely his cook, and if Laurie wasn’t coming back, maybe Stanford would make other changes. Without Laurie, Stanford could start fresh, no need for discretion. He could let Agatha retire to life in Queens, hire a new housekeeper, perhaps even move himself. This apartment would be too large for only one and….
He waited, but no pain emerged. Before when considering such notions, he would be seized by some malady. This time he felt no anguish, which for a moment frightened him. Then he smiled. Maybe that too was a sign; he didn’t need Laurie or Agatha. Only his father, and Stanford grinned, peering at the table, finding to his horror the sketch was gone.
For seconds Stanford blinked, as though his eyes were faulty. The table remained bare, then he stooped, seeing nothing on the floor. He stood straight, crossing his arms over his chest, making a sweeping observation of the room, yet that drawing had disappeared. He wanted to throw his hands in the air, crying out uncle, but no one would have heard him. Instead he dropped his arms to his sides, walking slowly around the table, peeking at chairs pushed up, but upon none of them waited that sacred drawing.
Growing angry, he stalked about the apartment, carefully searching every room. His efforts turned up nothing other than a missing sock. He threw it on his bed, but he missed, and instead of bending over to collect it, he went on all fours, reaching under the bed. The drawing didn’t turn up, only another spare sock, but that one belonged to Laurie. Stanford gripped the white tube sock, wishing he wasn’t alone, wanting to tell Laurie of his find. Laurie had lost that sock ages ago, and had only thrown out the spare when he came back from….
Now Stanford shook, and he sat on the floor, leaning against the bed. Gripping his own sock in one hand, he stared at Laurie’s in the other; it was aged, as if from Laurie’s school days. It was also covered in dust, but Stanford looked past those particles as though he possessed the man. How often had they sat on the edge of the bed, talking of this or that, or merely holding hands, no words necessary. Then Stanford glanced at a gray wool sock, also dusty, but newer. Stanford remembered buying this sock, or the pair, a few weeks after Laurie left. Out of boredom he had gone shopping, choosing these socks and some undershirts, trivial purchases now that he thought back on it. So trivial that he hadn’t realized a sock was missing, for this one was so recent, it hadn’t made any impression. As he glanced at his other hand, a sharp pain traveled from that arm right to his chest. He sighed, accepting the agony. He would never be the same if Laurie didn’t return.
Did Lynne feel that way, then he sighed once more, for where was Eric? Lynne hadn’t mentioned her husband, only Laurie’s plans. If Stanford permitted Laurie’s assertion, Eric should have arrived home no later than Thanksgiving. An entire month had passed, and the pain from Stanford’s chest dropped into his guts. Was Eric dead, would they ever know? Stanford closed his eyes, but tears leaked from the corners, rolling down in waves. How crazy was it that Eric was gone, Laurie too, and where was that damned sketch? Stanford stood, leaving the socks at the foot of the bed. He wiped his eyes, marching from his room to the guest room, but the sketch wasn’t there. He stomped into the dining room, the table bare. He swore, then sulked into the kitchen where he poured himself some water. He drained the glass, setting it on the counter. He inhaled, but choked upon exhaling; the sketch waited in Laurie’s place on the small kitchen table.
“How in the world….” His voice was soft, but the words had to be spoken. Approaching the table, he paused, then stepped quickly to where the paper rested. To his shock, no crease was evident, otherwise the drawing was as he recalled, Agatha dressed as a domestic, looking right at the artist, her gaze piercing Stanford’s heart. He could never fire her, to do so would be like saying goodbye to his mother. But could he continue to employ her with half of him thousands of miles away?
What good was living if he couldn’t give Laurie back that sock? What purpose did Stanford have if his most talented artist was missing, what reason did any of his life matter if it was spent with only this mystical illustration for amusement. Now Stanford laughed heartily. All the mayhem he had accused Laurie of was staring back at him in the guise of one woman who brooked no nonsense. But none of this could be deemed rational, it was all…. Stanford shivered, taking the paper from the table. Indeed the crease was gone; it was as if Eric had just drawn this, leaving it right where the pose had been struck. Had Eric snuck in while Stanford was sitting on his own bedroom floor, where was that damned man?
Stanford sighed, but this time no pain accompanied. It was late in New York, although still the thirty-first of December, 1963. It was certainly too late to call Lynne, for she must be asleep. What about Laurie? Usually they alternated ringing in the new year with their parents; last year they had celebrated with Michael. Were Rose and her daughters spending the evening together, was Wilma with them? Stanford didn’t think about Seth, all he could ponder was Laurie; had he already found a new home, or was he waiting until the baby came to seriously consider his options. Laurie had options, for Stanford had made clear his feelings. But those emotions were now colored by this strange sketch and a tube sock and the realization of one missing painter. Eric wasn’t in an institution, he never had been. Yet, could Stanford permit a most illogical claim that did answer all the nagging queries collected over the years. Had Eric Snyder actually turned into a….
The phone rang, stirring Stanford from that thought. He hadn’t answered his telephone for days, although he called his father every morning. Yet, it was nearly midnight according to the kitchen clock, what Stanford thought as he approached the ringing phone in the library. Again he hesitated, not wishing to hear another voice. But what if Lynne was in labor, might it be Sam with such news? The ringing continued but as Stanford touched the receiver, the phone was silent. He left his hand there, hoping the caller would give him another chance. But minutes passed and no one attempted to reach him.
Most likely it was a wrong number, he assumed, walking down the hallway, going into his bedroom. Those two socks greeted him like an unexpected slap. The sting lasted as he lay down for sleep, then he noticed it the next morning when he woke. He had planned to spend that day with his father, but excused himself, staying by the phone all day. No one called, and the sketch remained where he had left it, at Laurie’s place on the kitchen table. Every time Stanford entered that room, he couldn’t look away from the drawing, finding no blemish on the paper. When he fell asleep on the first night of 1964, a question loomed, his dreams reiterating the issue. Jane tapped her foot, hoisting the female figurine into the air. “Are you coming to see us Uncle Stanford?” And within his dreams, Stanford nodded his head.
Tears fell from Lynne’s eyes as she hung up the receiver. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, then gazed at her wedding ring, which was now stuck to her finger. She couldn’t even twist the band, her digits so swollen. Then she smiled, having had ample opportunities to take it off, but maybe it was good to remain on her hand. Stanford was coming next week, and perhaps this ring would ease his mind.
It would signify that while Eric was absent, he would return. It might say, ‘Love endures through the darkest moments.’ It could provide a very stoic art dealer a tangible symbol to bolster what Lynne knew Stanford still didn’t believe, yet he had booked a flight for next Wednesday, an open-ended stay, although probably not lasting more than two weeks. He had stated that with a rise in his tone, to which Lynne had agreed. Discreetly she informed him she believed the baby wouldn’t arrive late, which had momentarily made him reconsider his plans; should he leave sooner? Lynne noted that five days out from her due date would be splendid, giving them ample time to chat before a pleasant interruption. She had kept her voice light, as though Stanford’s plans were solely focused on one impending infant.
Yet, as he spoke, Lynne discerned a change. Something had happened to stir this reaction, and she was glad Laurie had taken Jane for a walk. Maybe Stanford realized Lynne could talk freely, although a caveat curtailed her speech; she never mentioned Laurie, neither did Stanford. But Laurie was all Stanford considered, for how plaintive was his tone, how willing he’d been to change the reservation, and as Lynne sat down, still wiping her cheeks, for the simple fact that this man was flying west. Perhaps Lynne would never know the exact reason for his change of heart, but the change was enough. Now Lynne had to hope that Laurie would stay true to his promise. She wouldn’t broach it, not wishing to pressure him. But Stanford was coming and wouldn’t leave until a child had arrived. Lynne would prepare the room next to Laurie’s, but she sincerely hoped those efforts would be for naught.
Then she giggled, which turned into full-blown laughter. The baby kicked in response and Lynne chuckled again. “Your daddy might not be here, but a host of relatives can’t wait to meet you.” She caressed that bulge, again brushing aside tears, but these weren’t painful. Suddenly she hoped Stanford’s arrival wouldn’t be too late, for now Lynne felt all the pieces were in place, or nearly set. Did she expect Eric to waltz in at the last moment, perhaps that was a pipe dream. She glanced at the phone, then at the clock; it was ten, and she smiled. How long had Stanford been waiting to call? Had he come to this decision yesterday, but not wanted to intrude on the holiday? But Lynne needed to speak to someone herself and best to do it now before Laurie and Jane returned.
As she reached for the receiver, a warm surge flooded her heart, stirring more tears. The notion of Eric missing their baby’s birth had hovered even before he left for Miami, but she had set it aside, not wanting to dwell on it. Yet she was due in two weeks, and no word from her husband indicated that indeed he wouldn’t stand at her side. Staring at her large belly, Lynne accepted that in all likelihood she would deliver without him. For the first time, that notion wasn’t disquieting. “He’ll be home as soon as he can,” she whispered. “He’s always come back to me.”
Saying those words felt liberating, also taking her to when she lived here alone, yet it wasn’t this exact home. Nothing in her life was similar to those days, for others knew, even Stanford was willing to…. What did he believe, she smiled to herself. Then she shook her head. What Stanford permitted wasn’t her concern, but one other person was taking an odd situation on faith alone. Lynne reached for the phone, making her call. Fran answered, Helene hollering in the background. Lynne cleared her throat. “Good morning. How are you all?”
“I should be asking you that.” Fran chuckled, then told Helene to hush. “We’re fine. Any changes?”
“Nothing major.” Then Lynne giggled. “Well maybe, but first I wanted to touch base with you about….” She paused, then continued. “Being here when I have the baby.”
An audible sigh was heard on the other end. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Fran said. “Just hadn’t had a minute to myself. But Louie’s taken the rest for a walk. Kids were starting to get a little stir crazy and….”
“School starts next week, right?”
“Yup. And I can’t wait for a quiet house.”
Lynne smiled, for her home would be anything but. She wanted to tell Fran that Stanford was coming, but of course Laurie deserved to know first. And while Fran and Louie would be pleased with Lynne’s guest, a more pressing issue remained. “Well, enjoy your peace and quiet. I just wanted to….”
Fran took a deep breath and as she exhaled, Lynne wondered if Sam’s sister had changed her mind. It was certainly a possibility, for if Stanford could alter his…. Lynne wasn’t sure what she would do if that was the case as Frannie remained still. Then Helene asked to speak to Jane, which made both mothers laugh. “Jane’s on a walk right now,” Lynne said. “But I can have her call you back when she gets home.”
“Oh goodness, they’re too young for that, although I’m sure our phone bills will be sky high by the time they’re teenagers.” Fran’s tone was jovial, then she paused. “Actually Lynne, I am so looking forward to it, but it’s been a zoo here, no time for me to breathe let alone make a phone call. I was just talking about it with Louie last night, figuring out logistics, you know.” Fran chuckled. “Depending on when you need me, Louie will watch our kids and I’ll bring Sally to help Sam.” Fran laughed. “My goodness, more little ones than you can shake a stick at.”
Lynne had closed her eyes while Fran spoke, feeling that calm all through her. Now Lynne glanced at the clock; Laurie and Jane wouldn’t be out for much longer, so many good things to share with those she loved. “Well, that sounds just fine. Laurie or Renee will give you a ring once I know there’s no going back.”
“Sounds good.” Fran hesitated again, then she spoke. “So, has he heard from, um….”
Lynne grinned. “Actually, Stanford called this morning. He’s coming out next week.” Lynne didn’t feel she had betrayed a confidence and wasn’t entirely certain how Laurie would take this news, probably not with as much joy as Frannie, for she thanked the lord, then sounded tearful. “Oh Lynne, that’s wonderful, I mean….” She cleared her throat, then chuckled. “Louie and I have been praying for them, but you don’t have to tell Laurie that.”
“We’ll keep that between us.” Lynne smiled, but felt like crying again. “And I’m so glad you still wanna be here when the baby comes.”
“I wouldn’t miss that for anything. Just call whenever. Shall I bring my camera?”
Lynne was struck by that query. “Uh, I guess, I mean….” Then she again closed her eyes. “Yes, please. Oh Fran, I’d appreciate that so much.”
Pictures had been taken of Jane after she was a few hours old and while Lynne’s camera contained a new roll of film, Fran might be more comfortable using her own. Lynne wanted photographs as soon as it was appropriate, then her tears began in earnest. Fran didn’t speak, although Helene again asked to speak to Jane. As Lynne regained her composure, Helene was told she would see Jane soon enough, as well as Jane’s little brother or sister. Then Fran sighed softly. “I just thought you’d want some snapshots. Our camera’s pretty good and that way….”
Fran sniffled, echoing Lynne’s mood. “Yes, that would be wonderful. Thank you so much.”
“It’s truly my pleasure.”
Lynne nodded as though Fran was standing beside her. Soon enough she would be, but that didn’t cause Lynne any anxiety. “Well, I should let you go. I just wanted….”
“Lynne, it’s a pleasure and a privilege. Like I said, just have someone give me a shout and….”
Fran couldn’t continue speaking, but Helene jabbered into the receiver, asking for Jane. Lynne mumbled that Jane would call Helene later, then Lynne said a garbled goodbye. Fran offered the same, the women laughing and crying. Lynne blew her nose several times, then sat at the kitchen table, pondering the morning’s conversations. She patted the baby, who wriggled slightly. “Lots of folks waiting on you, sort of how we’re all waiting on your daddy. But if you come first, I won’t mind.” Then Lynne burst into tears, a mixture of joy, small sorrow, and anticipation. Thankfulness prevailed, for while Eric might miss it, so many others would be gathered, a large family for a woman previously accustomed to solitude.
When Laurie returned, Lynne was eating pie, but two other slices waited on plates. Laurie changed Jane, then they joined Lynne, who noted that Renee had called, then spoke of her chat with Frannie. Laurie was grateful for another photographer; he would borrow Lynne’s camera for more formal portraits. The shots Fran would capture might only be shared between the parents.
Laurie noticed a change in Lynne’s mood. Not that she had been sullen since Christmas, but her voice was tinged with hope, although it didn’t sound associated with Eric. “Everything okay?” he asked in between bites of pie. Ritchie was leaving the hospital tomorrow, but Renee hadn’t mentioned how long her brother might stay at the rehabilitation facility.
Lynne smiled. “I also got a call from Stanford this morning.”
Laurie nodded, then coughed. “Really? I don’t believe it.”
“Indeed I did. He’s flying out next Wednesday, although he said if I went into labor early to please let him know.”
Laurie had been ready to take another bite, expecting her to say just the opposite. He’d dreamed of that scenario, Stanford issuing proclamations, cutting Laurie out of his life. “Well I’ll be damned.” He put his fork down, shook his head, then laughed. “He say why he was coming?”
“Well, for the baby.” Her smile was sly. “We didn’t talk long, but he sounded chastened. Said he wanted to make sure he was here in time for the birth. And that he wouldn’t book a return flight until after the baby arrived.”
Laurie sat silently. Then he ate some pie, chewing thoughtfully. He swallowed, drank some coffee, then stared at Lynne. “He say what changed his mind?”
“No, and I didn’t press. He was concerned that he might miss it, but I assured him that if he came next week, that would be fine.” She placed her hands on the baby. “You’re due on the fifteenth, but I think it might be a day or two sooner.” Then she smiled at Laurie. “We can make up the room next to yours, but hopefully….”
Laurie shrugged, although his heart pounded. “I bet Michael put him up to it.”
“He never said. It was a brief call, but it didn’t sound like he was at the office.”
“No, probably not. Wednesday huh, Wednesday. That gives him a few days to arrange whatever needs to be done. Not much happens after Christmas, people are still getting over their New Year’s hangovers.” He clucked, then ate another bite of pie. “Wednesday, hmmm. I wonder what he’ll tell his dad.”
Lynne raised her eyebrows, making Laurie smile. “What,” he chuckled. “You don’t think he’ll say anything to Michael?”
“He said so little, I have no idea. He might just note he needed a vacation.”
Now Laurie laughed out loud. “Oh yeah, and why not fly all the way across the country….” Laurie shook his head. “Maybe he just wants to see if Eric’s been here the whole time and we’re conspiring against him.”
Lynne grasped Laurie’s hands. “He didn’t mention you, but I could hear your name in every breath. Something’s happened, but if we asked Agatha, I bet she wouldn’t even know. Perhaps it’s just that he got tired of wondering, or of being alone.”
“Lots of risks in coming out here,” Laurie said grimly.
“Yes, but a lot of love too.”
Conviction rang through her words, yet, Laurie wasn’t moved. “Well, we’ll see. I’ll make sure the other bed has clean sheets. Or maybe he’ll wanna sleep on the sofa or….”
“Wherever he wants is fine as long as it’s not the room next to Jane’s.” Lynne smiled. “That one’s already taken.”
Laurie nodded. “Yes it is. How’re you feeling?”
“Strangely peaceful. Talking with Frannie was good; for a moment I thought she’d had second thoughts. But she’s ready for a call from you or Renee at any time.” Lynne patted the baby. “And honestly, I’m ready too. There’ll be plenty of pictures, goodness knows lots of people too. And between us, I’m fed up with being pregnant.”
“Are you now?” Laurie laughed.
“Yes I am. It’s been a long nine months and….” She paused, considering how she had learned, in Queens of all places, and this man was one of the first to know. Then Lynne thought of Stanford’s initial awkwardness, which had quickly turned to muted delight, then blossomed into honest happiness. She blinked away tears; he couldn’t replace Eric, but there was something very correct about the idea of Stanford pacing around this level of the house. “Laurie, you and Stanford have been connected to this child from its very conception.” She giggled as Laurie smiled. “It means so much to me that he’s willing to come out, for a variety of reasons. You’re the biggest one, but like I said, he wanted to make sure he was here with a few days to spare.”
Laurie continued eating his pie, but he wouldn’t meet Lynne’s gaze. He seemed overwhelmed by the idea of Stanford’s presence, maybe feeling just as unsteady as the man back east. Lynne remained silent, but Jane asked for more pie. “How about some milk?” Lynne said, taking Jane’s empty plate.
“I’ll get it.” Laurie stood, then returned with the carton. He topped up Jane’s cup, pouring some into his mug. He took his seat, then stared into the room. Then he met Lynne’s eyes. “I don’t think I’ll believe it until I see him in this kitchen.”
“That’s fair. He probably won’t believe either until he’s searched this property up and down.”
“Whatever he’s been thinking all this time. But that’s the past. Something’s changed Laurie. Something happened.”
“Agatha probably gave him another talking to.”
Lynne shrugged. “Whatever it was, he’ll be here in less than a week. You’ll probably be right where you are,” she said to the baby. “And that’s just fine. Let Uncle Stanford have a few days to get his feet under him before….”
“Uncle Stanford!” Jane clapped her hands.
“Yup, Uncle Stanford.” Lynne kissed her daughter’s cheek. “He can’t wait to see you too.”
Lynne left unsaid the main object of Stanford’s affection as Laurie rose from his chair, excusing himself. He put on his coat and scarf, exiting through the main door as Jane continued to call out for her Uncle Stanford.
Over the weekend, a flurry of activity occurred on both coasts as Stanford prepared for what might be his longest stretch away from the office while Laurie arranged the extra guest room. In Texas, the rain had cleared, providing John a place to hide from his hosts. His child was due soon, causing him great consternation, although faint hints of peace threatened to upend his bad mood. He didn’t want to engage with anyone, and while the children mostly left him alone, occasionally Gail would slip away from a watchful eye. Going as far as the end of the house, she left a ten foot gap between herself and the shed. But while the closed door divided them, John could hear her hollering for Missa Doe. Then someone would fetch her, but John couldn’t shake how earnest were her appeals. Did his daughter remember him, or had he been away so long…. Now John wondered just how lengthy was his separation from his family, maybe from late last spring. Gail was well over two, but John felt his little girl wasn’t quite that old yet. It was yet one more issue over which to ruminate, which by Monday afternoon had driven the amnesiac into a deep depression.
After the children had fallen asleep, Walt and Dora discussed John’s mental state. Dora had finally told her mother about John, and Hannah was aghast that they were caring for him; he must be a fugitive, she’d remarked. Walt had spoken to Hiram’s father, Pop Bellevue his usually surly self, but not aware his youngest might have shot someone. For Hiram’s sake Walt wanted to keep Pop in the dark, as well as what Pop might do to John if his existence was known. Walt wouldn’t put it past Pop to show up unannounced, making sure John Doe remained a scarcely realized figure in their tiny town. What Pop might do to Hiram also plagued Walt, but fortunately those were his only immediate worries. Dora was feeling better and according to her doctor was definitely carrying twins. Two heartbeats had been heard that week and now it was a matter of taking each day as it came. Which wasn’t much differently that how the Richardsons usually lived, but life had altered from the day John Kennedy died.
Walt didn’t think of it like that, but Dora, Luke, and Tilda did. Walt thought of it as the day he lifted a nearly dead figure from spongy ground, also the day Jack Ruby exacted vengeance. It was similar to much of Walt’s time in Korea when men sometimes died, or if they lived they were mutilated. Walt wasn’t sure if John had served, but how else could he have known Seth Gordon? John didn’t have a New York accent and he wasn’t Jewish. He was moody like Seth; perhaps they had known each other in college, for John was well educated. He had probably been able-bodied in the past, but how in the world had he fallen into their care?
As Walt pulled into his driveway late on Tuesday afternoon, he saw Luke sitting on the porch. Walt parked the truck, then got out, watching Luke swing his legs, which almost touched the ground. Luke didn’t look like a child anymore. Not that the ten-year-old was anywhere close to being a teenager, but a distinct change had overcome Walt’s eldest. Right now Luke appeared perplexed, but he smiled as Walt approached. “Hi Daddy. How was work?”
“Fine. What’re you doing out here?” When Luke was little, he used to wait for Walt to come home, his little legs far from where they now scraped the dry earth. Luke would be tall, Walt surmised, with a gentle character that reminded Walt of Dora. Walt hid a smile as Luke sighed.
“Just thinking Daddy.” Luke gazed toward the side of the house, then met Walt’s stare. “Something’s really wrong with Mr. Doe.”
For a moment Walt shivered. “You seen him today?”
“No, and that’s the problem. I knocked, I mean, I called out first, right after I got home from school. He never said nothing, so then I knocked, and he told me he didn’t need a thing. He sounded mad, I mean….” Luke shook his head. “Did I do something to make him mad?”
Walt joined Luke on the porch, but Walt’s knees bent at a sharp angle. “He’s just having a hard stretch is all.” The children weren’t aware that John’s wife was due at any time, and Walt didn’t want to betray John’s confidence. “He’s still hurting, you know, and it’s been a good while that way. Sometimes folks get the blues.”
Luke nodded, then again glanced at the side of the yard. “Daddy, you think his family’s gonna find him?”
“I don’t rightly know.”
“I thought he’d get his memory back by now.” Luke crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe he’s never gonna remember who he is.”
“He will one of these days. But in the meantime, just leave him be. When he wants to talk, I’m sure he will.”
“Yes sir.” Luke dropped his arms to his sides, then stood on the porch. “Are you gonna go see him?”
“I will, when it time for supper. Here, take this inside.” Walt pointed to his lunchbox. “Actually, I’ll check on him now, see if he’s gonna eat with us.”
“I hope he does.” Luke headed for the front door. “But tell him it’s okay if he doesn’t. I don’t wanna make him feel worse.”
Luke’s pained tone struck Walt deeply. He waited for Luke to go inside, then he stood, feeling small aches along his legs. They were slight, however, compared to what John knew, but it was doing Luke harm for John to be so sullen. Walt walked around the side of the house, seeing the closed shed door ahead. He didn’t announce himself, but knocked hard on the door. No one answered and Walt rapped again. As he did, he wondered now that Dora was safely in her second trimester if this strange man had done something Walt had expressly forbidden weeks before. Luke said John had spoken to him a couple of hours ago, but a couple of hours was plenty of time for a man to…. “John, you awake or not?” Walt’s tone was firm, but still no one answered.
“I’m giving you one minute.” Walt kept his voice even, but his heart pounded as if he was lying low, waiting for the signal to be given. He and Gordon would then raise their rifles, shooting on command, clearing the way for the rest of the platoon to move forward. Gordon’s eyes were so keen and he rarely faltered, his composure steady as gooks fell dead. Walt sometimes trembled, but Gordon kept him balanced, and how was that? He was a slip of a thing, or Walt had viewed him as such. Maybe it was that Walt was so much taller, or that away from battle, Gordon seemed so fragile. Yet in the thick of a fight he had a backbone of steel. Those blue eyes were ice cold as Koreans were mowed down with every bullet Gordon fired.
Walt shook away that image, then rapped once more on the door. “All right, I’m coming in.” As he turned the handle, hoping to not see a body hanging from the rafters, the door opened. John looked put out and Walt wanted to slug him, then embrace him. “What the hell took you so long?” Walt barked.
John glared at Walt, then he sighed. “Sorry, I just didn’t wanna see anyone.”
“Well that’s too damned bad. You were scaring me to death.” Walt remained standing just past the doorway. He wouldn’t intrude into the shed, although he peered past John, finding the furnishings unchanged. Then he glared at the man in front of him. “My wife might be feeling better, but you sure as hell better not be thinking about doing something stupid.”
From how John’s eyes darted from view, Walt knew he had been considering ending his life. Walt inhaled, then leaned against the doorframe. “I know it’s a hard time, and I also know you ain’t feeling no better.” He motioned toward John’s right shoulder. “But I’ll tell you straight out; if you’re thinking about ending everything, then you just hightail it off my property and don’t look back. My boy’s fond of you, I’m sure you know that, not to mention what something like that’d do to Dora. We’ve done the best we can here and I know you’ve been trying on your end. But I won’t have that sorta business here, you understand me?”
Walt’s tone changed with that last sentence, a harshness meant to protect his kin. Somehow this man had made inroads, but in no way would Walt allow John to disturb the relative peace Walt possessed. It might only last until Dora had their…. He sighed, then kicked the dirt. “You just gotta get through the next week or so. Believe me, I know life gets hard. But I didn’t die over there and you’re not gonna do the same here. Maybe your family’s having a hard time finding you, but that don’t mean they’ve stopped looking. So in the meantime, buck up. You ain’t the first to have suffered.”
Walt thought about Callie as he spoke and he nearly said that, but Tilda interrupted. “Daddy, Mr. Bolden’s calling.”
A smile crept over Walt’s face and he looked at John, who seemed slightly shamed. “I’ll be right there,” he called. Then Walt cleared his throat. “I’ll bring supper out in a bit. I don’t want you eating with us until you can talk about something pleasant. In the meantime, you decide what you wanna do. Like I said, I ain’t gonna come out and find you hanging from my rafters. If that’s what you want, you can just clear out.”
Walt didn’t make eye contact, as he wasn’t sure he wanted to know John’s intentions. Walt headed for the house, not speaking to Tilda, who waited on the porch. He stepped inside, going straight for the telephone. “Everything okay Callie?” Walt said.
As Callie spoke, Walt half-listened, paying more attention to his wife stirring a pot on the stove, the children seated around the table, waiting for supper. Walt answered Callie’s question, which concerned a trivial issue, then Walt smiled. Just how prophetic was Susie, who Walt was sure had prompted her husband to call at that moment. Shaking his head, Walt closed the call, hanging up the receiver, then meeting Dora’s anxious eyes. “Just needed to ask a question,” Walt said. “Is it time to eat?”
“Nearly.” Dora looked at the front door. “Is that all right?”
“Yup.” Walt washed his hands, then kissed his wife’s cheek. She looked startled, then she smiled.
“Daddy, is Mr. Doe eating with us tonight?” Luke asked.
“Not tonight, son.” Walt joined his family as Dora dished out stew. “Now you all eat up, Mama worked hard making such a fine meal for us.”
Dora chuckled, which lifted Walt’s mood. If John was gone in the morning, Luke and Tilda would be upset, but Walt had been adamant. It was a new year, and yes, John was far from his home, and Walt understood his fears about missing a baby’s birth. But either that man was going to get past it or not. And if not, best that he leave sooner rather than later. Walt ate the stew, smiling at Dora, then at each of the children. He didn’t think about the babies who hadn’t lived, instead focusing on the two growing inside his wife. Walt felt a happiness usually reserved for moments alone with Dora, but he kept his joy hidden.
After supper, he told Luke to clear the table while Tilda watched her sisters. Walt led Dora outside, but they walked to the truck, where Walt spoke honestly. Dora shed a few tears, but only once did she look toward the shed. Darkness had fallen and the door was obscured. Walt set his hand on her belly, then kissed her. Dora sought his embrace and Walt wrapped her close. “I love you,” he whispered.
Dora pulled away, then inhaled deeply. Exhaling, she wiped her eyes. “Whatdya think he’s gonna do?”
“No idea. Just wanted you aware.”
She nodded, then shook her head. “I thought he’d be gone by now. My goodness, what a mess.”
“Yeah, but it’s his choice. Tomorrow I don’t want you out there, or Luke. I’ll tell him, might be hard but….”
“Will you tell Callie?”
“Probably. Maybe I’ll drive over there tonight.” Walt gazed at the heavens, stars twinkling. Life was difficult, no getting around it, but here he was standing beside his wife, with two more children on the way. How many nights had Walt prayed to be reunited with his woman under this sky, but Texas had seemed very far from Korea. Those memories would remain as long as Walt lived, the nightmares too, but on that evening no ill feelings hovered.
Walt kissed Dora once more, then led her back to the house. The shed was dark, but Walt delivered John’s supper, then drove to the Boldens. He didn’t stay long; Callie said he would check on John mid-day tomorrow. When Walt got home, he pulled Luke aside, giving the boy strict instructions to not bother Mr. Doe. Luke expressed his disappointment, but didn’t argue. Then Walt went to collect John’s plate.
Three sharp raps passed before John hollered that Walt could come inside. Slowly Walt opened the door, the room dark. Walt pulled on the string, the light dim, but he could see John kneeling on the floor in front of the makeshift bed. An empty plate waited on the table, for which Walt was glad, but why was this man on his knees? “You okay?” Walt asked.
“Can you help me up?” John’s tone was conciliatory. “I can’t do it alone.”
“What’n the hell were you doing?” Walt lifted John from the ground, leading him to the edge of the bed. “Did you fall?”
“I was praying.”
“Oh.” Walt stood back, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Well, that was a good idea.”
“I guess. But then I couldn’t get back up.”
“Why’d you get on the floor?”
Now John stifled a chuckle. “Thought maybe that would help.”
“Well maybe, but it sure as hell makes it harder for you to get up again.”
John nodded, then motioned toward his dish. “That was wonderful. Please tell Dora thank you.”
Walt glanced back at the table, then nodded. “What, you can’t tell her yourself?”
John sighed, then stared at Walt. “Sounds like you want me outta here soon.”
“I want you to make up your mind. Either you’re gonna live or die, and if it’s the second, then yup, you can do that somewhere else.” Walt paused, then sat on the metal chair. “But if it’s the first, then you need to do it with some sort of smile on your face. Ain’t easy, but it’s not impossible.”
Walt then wondered what his wife or Callie would think, hearing such homilies from a usually staid man. Maybe the idea of two babies had changed Walt, or the absence of nightmares, or thinking about Gordon, Seth Gordon. Or maybe being aware that God did heal folks, even in this modern age. He gazed at John’s shoulder. “You were more dead than alive when I brought you here. Now you can get down on the ground all by yourself. Course, not much good if you can’t get back up again, but prayer is a good way to start.” Walt inwardly chuckled, for he wasn’t a regular church-goer. “Tell you what, next time you wanna do that, wait for me or Callie, else you’ll get stuck there for an age. Callie will certainly pray with you, I might even too. That is if you plan on sticking around.”
John shrugged his left shoulder, then met Walt’s gaze. “Not sure what I wanna do.”
“Well, maybe by praying, you can figure that out. I was talking to God in foxholes and now here I am jawing with you.”
John sighed, then shook his head. “But you came home in one piece. My arm’s never gonna get better.”
“Not all wounds are visible, you know.”
John nodded. “But I can’t even tell you my name.”
“Your name’s John Doe, or Mr. Doe.” Walt smiled. “I’ll never forget when Luke was going on about Mr. Doe this and Mr. Doe that. Pretty smart boy I’ve got, if I do say so myself.”
Walt noticed how John didn’t immediately answer. All the Richardson kids had touched various nerves within this man, but it was Luke who struck the deepest chord. Walt was fortunate that Dora hadn’t gotten pregnant before he’d left for Asia; he would have fretted constantly about her from afar. He still worried now, a little. But whether the twins survived or not wasn’t within his control. Neither was this man’s fate in his own hands. “You’re just gonna have to take this on faith,” Walt said. “To me, if you wasn’t meant to be here, then you woulda died either at the lake or right after we brought you home. But somehow you’re still taking up space in my shed. Don’t ask me why, ’cause I surely don’t know. But there’s a reason, some reason.” Walt nearly mentioned the babies, but that would have been cruel. Yet, if they arrived healthy, how much heartache would that heal in Dora, and Walt had to admit, within himself too.
John didn’t speak of what he would miss, for how to compare that to Dora’s miscarriages? Yet those unspoken issues filled the shed. Walt felt John’s bitterness fading, while his own reservations slipped away. “We both got lots in our pasts that ain’t good. Maybe you can’t remember yours, or maybe this’s the worst that’s ever happened to you. And yeah, it’s gonna be with you the rest of your life. But I can’t think that God wants you to spend it here in this damned old shed.”
Maybe Susie gave up living near her family to be with Callie and Walt would suffer from nightmares until his dying day. But how could this fellow not eventually recover his identity? “You think about that and I’ll stop in before I go to work in the morning. If you wanna leave, you can come with me and make your way from there. But if you wanna stay, just remember you’re gonna hafta stop brooding about what ain’t. That kinda thinking poisons a man and God knows I live around enough folks like that to be an expert.” Walt winced, for he could almost be describing himself. “You think about others for a change, what they go through, then take a long look at what you got. You get along pretty well with Callie and Susie, so don’t tell me you don’t know about hard times. War’s been over for nearly a hundred years, but sometimes it’s hard to tell that much’s changed for colored folk.”
Walt snorted, in part that Dora would have corrected him, Negro being the polite word nowadays. But Walt had grown up thinking and using colored, hard to set aside old habits. “Don’t tell my wife I said colored, she’d box my ears.” Then Walt smiled. “I’ll knock in the morning and you let me know what you wanna do.” He turned around, picking up the plate. Then he glanced back at John. “I’ll leave around seven, all right?”
John nodded, but didn’t speak.
Walt nodded back, then left the shed, slowly closing the door behind him.
Stanford left New York on time; he was due to arrive mid-afternoon, and according to Lynne, would be collected at the airport by Marek Jagucki. Stanford had heaved an audible sigh when Lynne mentioned that, but she made no remark other than Marek had offered. As Stanford read a book, his thoughts weren’t on the novel’s plot, focused instead on Laurie’s face. Agatha’s voice also intruded, in that Stanford was to tell all those out west how much they were missed and prayed for.
By the time Stanford reached his stopover in Chicago, Walt was leaving for work unaccompanied. Again he’d found John on his knees in prayer, and again he’d helped that man to his feet. John’s mood was lighter, although not completely joyful. Yet he had decided to stay in Karnack at least for the next couple of weeks. Walt wasn’t certain what might occur in a fortnight, maybe that was all the amnesiac could safely accept. But it was a start and Walt said he was glad for John’s decision, and that Callie would be stopping by later on. John smiled with that news, and as Walt reached town, he hummed along with a tune on the radio. Maybe 1964 was going to be a better year.
As Walt put on his welding gear, Laurie stirred from sleep. He was exhausted, for it had been fitful rest, and Stan wasn’t due for hours. Yet, Jane would wake soon, and Laurie wanted to fetch her, allowing Lynne to remain asleep. She had been especially moody yesterday, which Laurie inwardly blamed on Stanford. He wasn’t looking forward to that man’s visit, more of an intrusion, Laurie considered. He was grateful that Marek had offered to pick up Stan from the airport; Laurie wasn’t sure if he could have made that drive without saying something that would have caused Stan to seek an immediate return to New York. Laurie wasn’t sure what he would say when Stan arrived, other than a curt Hello, followed by a caustic How’ve you been?
When Lynne joined the rest in the kitchen, Jane had already eaten breakfast, and was asking for a slice of pie. Laurie laughed, for two pies sat in plain sight. Amid her teary outbursts Lynne had baked; maybe that had steadied her, for by last night she seemed calmer. He wondered about her mood now, for she was quiet as she poured herself some decaf, sitting at the table. “Good morning,” Laurie said softly, grasping her hand. “Sleep okay?”
She nodded, then sipped her coffee. “Surprisingly yes after all of yesterday’s upheaval.” Then she smiled, gazing at the pies waiting on the counter. “Something about baking calms me down. I did it when Eric came back but wouldn’t see me, oh goodness I was angry with him.” She chuckled, then stood, walking to the counter. “He thought I couldn’t take how unwell he was.” She sliced into what Laurie knew was a peach pie, cutting herself a piece, then a thin one for Jane. She glanced at Laurie. “One for you too?”
“Go on,” he grinned.
As she did, she continued speaking. “I told Sam that I was gonna bake, and for Sam to tell Eric that fact. And that maybe pie might be just the thing he needed. He was still my husband, regardless of what he looked like, and that no matter what….” She paused, then gazed at Laurie. “No matter what, I would never leave him.”
Silence filled the kitchen as Lynne brought the plates to the table. Jane clapped, then picked up her fork, but Lynne and Laurie hesitated. Then she gripped his hand. “I know it’s hard, believe me, but he’s making the effort. He loves you, he wouldn’t be coming all this way if he didn’t.”
“He’s coming for you.”
Lynne rolled her eyes, then smiled. “He’s coming because there’s no other place for him to be.”
“We’ll see about that.” A part of Laurie so wished to agree with her, but the rest of him was firmly set against such a notion. “Either way, there’s plenty of room for all of us to coexist until Junior arrives.” He nodded as if to maintain his resolve. “So what shall I cook for dinner?”
“Marek mentioned something along the lines of soup. I’m glad he’ll be staying for supper.”
“God, me too. Okay, soup. What strikes your fancy?”
She giggled. “I’m not picky. Call your mother and see what she recommends.”
Laurie laughed. “I’d never get off the phone in time to cook.” He ate another bite, then stood, heading for the cupboards. As he did, the sketch of Lynne popped into his head. Laurie stopped, then turned around. “You know, I will call Mom, tell her Stan’s flying out. That’ll give her and Aunt Wilma something to talk about.”
He walked by Lynne, wondering if she noticed his halted actions. She said nothing, and he picked up the receiver, but stared across the room at where the cookbooks waited. Then he gazed at Jane, who was looking right at him. Her eyes were so blue, which reminded him of Seth, which again took Laurie to the sketch Eric had drawn of Lynne over a year ago. “I don’t know if I can forgive him,” Laurie suddenly said.
“I understand. I’m sure he’s wondering the same thing.”
“Of course he is.” Laurie’s tone was more gruff than he’d planned. “Sorry, I don’t mean to yell at you.”
Lynne stood, then put the receiver back in the cradle. “He’s wondering if you can forgive him.”
Laurie gazed at her quizzically. “Whatdya mean?”
“He knows he’s hurt you, otherwise why would he be traveling? You’ve made it plain you’re ready to move on, but….”
“You made it plain,” he smiled. “I haven’t said squat to him.”
She grinned. “Either way, he knew he had to do something. And he’s doing it Laurie, he’s heading this way right now. If he truly didn’t care, he wouldn’t have left Manhattan. But he’s not an ogre.” She sighed softly, then led Laurie back to the table, where both retook their seats. “I knew Eric was afraid he wasn’t gonna change back into a man, but I honestly didn’t care, and I don’t now either. Something’s happened to him Laurie, that’s why he’s not home yet.” Her voice quivered, then she cleared her throat. “Either he can’t physically reach us or it’s something mental or…. I realized this last night when I went to bed. All he wanted was to be here for this baby. He’d have moved heaven and earth to do so, but something’s keeping him away. And it’s harder on him than on us, even if we don’t know where he is, because we have each other. It’s been the same for Stanford. But he wants to make amends, I know he does. He has so much….” She laughed. “Pride, but he’s willing to set that aside because he loves you, much more than he can admit, or maybe now he has.” Tenderly she grasped Laurie’s hands. “Finally he knows and I’m sure he’s hoping it’s not too late.”
Laurie shivered from her words. “Maybe,” he drawled.
“No maybe’s about it.” Her tone was chipper. “In the meantime, let’s talk soup.”
He shrugged, then gazed at the cupboard. Speaking to his mom no longer appealed, for she would badger him. Laurie again went to his feet, walking to where that sketch waited. He opened the cabinet, pulled out a cookbook, keeping his eyes from the drawing stuck between other books on the shelf. He closed the cupboard, returned to the table, then sat down, thumbing through the pages. But he didn’t see recipes, only a jumble of words that made no sense. He leaned back in his chair, looking at the females nearby. Jane had finished her pie, but Lynne’s was only half gone. Her eyes were closed, her hands clasped together, resting on her large belly. He didn’t speak, but his heart raced. Did Stan feel remorse, could Lynne possibly be right? Gazing at the clock, Laurie wasn’t sure about anything. But in a matter of hours, the love of his life would walk through the door, maybe with some answers tucked inside his suitcase.
Marek stood in the small terminal amid others waiting for loved ones. He smiled, a few nodding at him, for now he was becoming known in this town. And in a couple of weeks, he would again be here, but when Klaudia arrived, Marek assumed his palms would be sweaty, his pulse racing. Right now he wore a smile, hoping that Stanford and Laurie would come to some agreement, even if it was concurring to disagree. Like Lynne, Marek believed something had altered that man’s perception of reality. Marek wasn’t sure what that might be; he merely hoped that when it was time for Stanford to return east, Laurie would be on the plane with him.
No such thing would happen when Klaudia went back to Norway, but Marek had spoken to her yesterday afternoon, for now another itinerary was set. She would arrive on Monday the twenty-seventh, flying home on Wednesday, February fifth. A little more than a week, for which Marek was already quite nervous, also thoroughly excited. He had finally told Mrs. Kenny, who was at first taken aback, then outwardly pleased for Marek’s guest. Carla had grown teary, for while Marek hadn’t elaborated how he knew Mrs. Henrichsen, that she was a friend from Poland discreetly informed the secretary just how long the twosome had been acquainted. Marek then wondered how Stanford and Laurie’s reunion would commence. Marek was staying for dinner, but he assumed those New Yorkers might take a long stroll through the garden once the pleasantries had been exchanged. Or maybe awkward small talk would initiate Stanford’s stay, the end of which had not yet been planned.
Marek thought that best, for who knew when Lynne would deliver, and how long it might take those gentlemen to set aside their argument. Unaware of the depth of Laurie’s skepticism, Marek believed it was merely a matter of diplomacy; like how America and The Soviet Union had brokered peace over a year ago, the New Yorkers simply needed to call a truce. What better place than at the Snyders, for even without Eric’s presence, Marek felt a soothing peace every time he visited. Like Lynne, he also believed that Eric was being kept away by an unfortunate incident. Although, if the worst had happened, they would never know. Marek shivered, yet he had to think positively. In a matter of weeks, Klaudia was coming, and as Marek peered out of the large glass windows, a plane was landing. Marek grinned, then cracked his knuckles. At least one couple was on the verge of reuniting.
People gathered at the windows, but Marek stayed back, not wishing to join the small crush. Sam had also offered to collect Stanford, but Marek had beaten him to it, and felt his presence would be less stressful on Stanford. Marek assumed the Aherns would call at the Snyders’ home, but probably not for a few days. Sam and Renee would be at that house more than their own soon enough. Best to let Stanford have some quiet while it was still available.
The door opened, travelers filing inside the terminal. As groups headed to the baggage claim, Marek stepped toward the door, but no one else emerged. He smiled, hearing happy voices drifting away, how he and Klaudia might converse as he led her to where her suitcase would come off the belt; would they speak in Polish? Probably, unless she felt the anonymous atmosphere would be a good place to try her English. He expected to translate for her when she was introduced to Lynne, Jane, and…. Who else might be present, other than a newborn? Hopefully not Laurie, although as the cabin crew stepped into the building, Marek furrowed his brow. Had Stanford missed his connection in Illinois, where was that man?
Marek walked to the doorway, then headed out to where the plane sat on the tarmac. As he looked around, a disheveled looking Stanford Taylor stepped from the main cabin door. “Hello,” Marek called, staying where he was as Stanford headed his way. “I was hoping you hadn’t gotten lost between here and Chicago.”
“I wasn’t feeling well during the descent.” Stanford looked ashen, but he nodded briskly. “Took me a minute to get my bearings.”
“Was there turbulence?” Marek asked, although he wondered if perhaps nerves had been the issue.
“Um, yes, a little. It’s a small plane, you know.”
Marek nodded, leading Stanford back inside the terminal, which was now deserted. “Well, your case will probably be there. At least there’s that.”
“Indeed.” Stanford cleared his throat, then pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiping perspiration from his forehead. “Thank you so much for waiting.”
“My pleasure. I’ll be doing the same in a couple of weeks, so it’s good that I’m familiar with this place.”
Stanford paused, then stared at Marek. “Someone from Europe visiting?”
Marek hid his grin, for Stanford hadn’t been told of this news. “A friend from Poland. She’ll be staying at St. Matthew’s for a little over a week. Looking forward to catching up on old times.”
Stanford nodded absently, then suddenly stared at the pastor. “Oh, well, how nice for you both.”
Now Marek smiled widely. “Yes. I didn’t know if she’d survived the war. She saw The Pastor and His Charge in Oslo, then wrote to Eric about it. We’ve struck up a correspondence, and after JFK was killed, I inquired if she might enjoy a holiday to America. But first a baby is due.” Marek laughed, then pointed at the only piece of luggage on the belt. “Is that yours?” he asked.
“Oh, yes it is.”
Marek nodded, then went to collect it. Stanford protested slightly, but Marek waved him off. “Allow me, but you can heft it once we arrive.”
Stanford didn’t argue, and his steps were halting. Marek didn’t remark upon that, for it could be the effects of the bad landing, or for who was waiting at the Snyders’ home. The men reached Marek’s car and got in without words. Marek made a brief attempt at conversation, but Stanford was obviously preoccupied. The journey continued in silence, both with much to ponder.
Marek parked in front of the gate, which to Stanford’s relief looked as it had the last time he’d visited. That had been…. Stanford sighed; Eric’s show in August of ’62 was the last time he had entered a world that now seemed as foreign as any Stanford had ever encountered. Yet other than Eric’s absence and Laurie’s presence, this home hadn’t altered. Again Lynne was pregnant, although Jane was older. Stanford shivered, then opened his door, finding Marek taking his suitcase from the trunk.
“Here, I’ll do that.” Stanford grabbed his luggage, but his legs were weak. He cleared his throat, then watched as Marek closed the trunk, then locked the car. The Pole’s movements were in slow motion, and Stanford took a deep breath, trying to clear his mind. Eric hadn’t returned from…. Staring at the pastor, Stanford almost asked the question, for he knew Marek wouldn’t lie. Yet he couldn’t do that, for in coming here, he was silently accepting what all these people assumed was the truth. Was Stanford ready to permit such an oddity, could it actually be possible….
“Shall we?” Marek said. “I’m pretty sure Lynne did some baking recently.”
The Pole’s smile was innocent enough and Stanford nodded. “After you.”
Marek led the way and as Stanford entered the grounds, he smiled. Leaves were stripped from trees, but smoke rose from the chimney, the place looking like home. He wondered why that was, then he trembled. Laurie was behind the kitchen door, where else would he be? Unless, Stanford mused, Laurie had decided that western living held too much of an appeal, and regardless of Stanford’s willingness to travel all the way across the country…. Stanford coughed as the front door opened, Lynne stepping out, waving at the men. She looked enormous, then Stanford laughed, for Jane peered from behind her mother, then clapped her hands, coming to Lynne’s side. Jane’s hair was much longer than what Stanford recalled from last spring, pictures not doing justice to her brown curls. She wasn’t a baby anymore, but a copy of her mother. Yet, as Stanford approached, Jane’s blue eyes shone, still the same hue as Sam’s, Stanford inhaled, also noticing the women stood unaccompanied.
“Hello, oh goodness, it’s wonderful to see you.” Lynne’s voice rang through the wintry air, but she didn’t move from the doorway. Stanford nodded at her, then raised his hand in a half-wave. Jane laughed, then started toward Marek, who picked her up, pointing at Stanford. Marek spoke in English, for which Stanford was grateful. He felt like an interloper; where was Laurie?
“How was the flight?” Lynne asked as Marek and Jane went to her side.
Stanford was still a few feet away, his steps slowing as Laurie failed to appear. “Fine, well, a little rough on the landing. Otherwise no issues.”
Lynne smiled, then brushed away tears. “Oh good. Well, come in. There’s pie for now and soup for dinner.” She stepped forward, not stretching out her arms, but Stanford knew an embrace was necessary. He stopped a foot in front of her, put the suitcase on the ground, then approached her. He glanced past her, but didn’t see Laurie. Stanford closed his eyes, his heart aching. But in Lynne’s warm hug, albeit to the side, he felt some peace. Perhaps his trip was only to see this woman, for whom Stanford possessed very strong emotions.
Then he turned, finding Jane’s little arms reaching for him. Did she recognize him, then he hoped so, for then she would recall…. “Hello Jane. Do you remember me?”
She nodded, although Stanford doubted her. But he happily took her from Marek, and Jane giggled, then laid her head on Stanford’s shoulder. Again he closed his eyes, for the pain returned, as well as memories of toting her around the apartment while she fussed. She looked up, giggling at the doorway, motioning for Stanford to do the same. He hesitated, for he’d heard another’s footsteps approach, but wasn’t yet ready to see Laurie’s face. In the first glance, Stanford would know if his trip had been in vain, although it had already done him good to receive such warmth from Lynne and her daughter. But the main person had taken his sweet time, although weeks ago Stanford had told Laurie to leave. Now Laurie was in Stanford’s sight, if only Stanford would glance his way.
He inhaled, opened his eyes, then turned with care to where Lawrence Aaron Abrams stood beside Lynne. Stanford blinked, finding disdain upon Laurie’s face. But as Stanford’s mouth trembled, Laurie’s did too. Their eyes met, how green were Laurie’s, also moist. Then Stanford blinked, something caught in the corner of his eye. He attempted to wipe it away, but a tear rolled down, followed by another. Jane was taken from Stanford’s arms, he wasn’t sure by whom. Lynne stepped aside and suddenly it was only two New Yorkers, for Stanford felt the clear absence of all others.
“Hello Stan,” Laurie said in a clipped but shaky voice.
“Hello.” Stanford breathed deeply, then offered his right hand. “How are you?”
Laurie didn’t move to reciprocate. He didn’t speak either, continuing to stare at Stanford.
Stanford clasped his hands in front of himself, then looked past Laurie, finding the kitchen door was closed. How had that happened, and why was he there, for this man seemed in no need of…. “You’re looking well,” Stanford said. “Seems like a western climate agrees with you.”
Had Stanford imagined Laurie’s damp eyes, for now they appeared as hard as emeralds. Laurie must have bought a house already, his demeanor that of a local, or at least not of one with whom Stanford had lived and would always love. He loved Laurie with all of his heart, but that heart had taken too long to come to terms with an idea that made no sense. But what sense was there in loving someone forbidden by conventional rules? Stanford felt foolish, not for disbelieving Laurie, although he still wasn’t convinced Eric defied nature. But Agatha had been right; Laurie had never previously given Stanford any reason to distrust him. Stanford broke into a sweat, then again felt like vomiting. The landing had been smooth, only his jangled nerves to cause illness. He’d probably be sick the whole flight home, which would be as soon as Lynne delivered, for to be near this man with such anger between them…. “I’m sorry,” Stanford said. “I suppose my presence will only be painful.”
“Why’d you come?” Laurie’s voice was still shaky, but less angry than before.
“I, I, I….” If he mentioned the sketch, Laurie wouldn’t believe him. Well, he might, but it wasn’t only a strange piece of paper to bring Stanford to this property. “I came because I love you. I realize there’re many issues to be addressed, but the truth is I do love you. If it’s too late….”
Stanford closed his eyes again, too hard to see that man close yet a million miles away. He had waited too long and he rued his rational brain, but what had been expected of him? Why on earth had this happened, and where in the hell was Eric? “I suppose you haven’t heard from Eric yet,” he mumbled, now staring at the ground where his case waited. He wouldn’t unpack; maybe he might fly back straightaway. Lynne would understand and when he got home, he could tell Agatha he had tried. If nothing else, Stanford had tried.
Now he blinked away more than something caught in his eye. If he kept staring at the dirt, tears would fall directly onto the ground. He inhaled, but his nose was stuffy, how could he lose his composure like this? He wiped his runny nose with the back of his hand, then a plain white handkerchief was thrust into his other. “Here, take this,” Laurie said softly.
Stanford nodded, feeling utterly ashamed. He blew his nose, then looked up, expecting to see those cold emerald eyes. But tears fell down Laurie’s face too, his eyes warm like a field in summer. Laurie nodded, stretching out his arms, his lips parted as if to speak.
But neither said a word as a kiss began, Stanford unsure of nothing more than the glorious warmth of affection shared. He wrapped his arms around Laurie, who clung to Stanford like the world was ending. Yet it couldn’t be, for how needy were Laurie’s clutches and the strength of Stanford’s pounding heart. The kiss lasted until Stanford pulled away, merely to catch his breath. Then it was reignited like a flame. Stanford breathed steadily, purposefully. Suddenly his life again held meaning.
This time Laurie stepped away, but only to regain his footing. He placed his hand along Stanford’s face. “I never thought I’d see you here again.”
“I wasn’t so sure about it either. Laurie, I meant what I said. I do love you, but if it’s too late….”
Laurie shook his head, smiling as he placed a finger on Stan’s lips. “It nearly was. An hour ago I threatened to take a long drive and not come back.” Then he chuckled. “Lynne said I’d miss pie and dinner and….” He sighed, then grasped both of Stanford’s hands. “And I’d miss you, but I’ve been missing you for so long, and while I know there’s a lot to discuss, you’re here. You actually came all this way to….”
Stanford didn’t want to think about anything except being as close to Laurie as propriety allowed. Kissing him again, he didn’t consider Eric or Florida or even Lynne’s baby. Only that Laurie had waited for him. He’d had to wait a long time, but in this place rules didn’t apply. Only love mattered, what Stanford accepted as Laurie caressed his face, then placed his arms back around Stanford, who inhaled and exhaled a most potent force, not letting Laurie go.
The rest of the day proceeded as close to normal as was possible; Marek detailed Klaudia’s impending visit, Jane asked for more pie, Lynne tried to find comfortable positions either in a chair or on her feet. Laurie joked that perhaps she would deliver tomorrow, which made Stanford blanch. But as Marek said he would see them soon, Stanford finally accepted an oddity even larger than sitting next to Laurie in mixed company. Nobody spoke about Eric, for not a single person knew where he was.
Most jarring to Stanford was how Jane never mentioned her father. Last spring, Da-da was one of her few discernable words. Now she talked about pie and the coming baby as well as various babbles he didn’t understand. She could also say Laurie, Marek, even uncle, but she knew those men well, for she hugged Marek, then mumbled in what Stanford would swear was Polish as Marek kissed her cheek. Laurie walked Marek to the front door, but returned right afterwards. “He says to give him a call tomorrow or Friday, or sooner if need be.” Laurie’s voice was weary, but joy underneath that tone made Stanford’s pulse race.
Lynne smiled, then scooted to the edge of the sofa. Laurie helped her to stand, and she chuckled as she did so. “Any day now is fine with me. Maybe tomorrow we’ll take a long walk, see what happens.” She glanced at Stanford, then giggled. “Now that you’re here, I’m ready for the next phase.”
Her voice was honest, also appreciative. Her smile was as if they had known each other for many years, but under far more intimate terms than what sat on the surface. Stanford nodded, wishing to speak, but there was so much to say, and very little of it was typical conversation. As Jane began to whimper, Laurie picked her up, soothing her. He brought her to where Stanford sat in the large chair. “Say goodnight to Uncle Stan,” Laurie said tenderly.
Jane said what sounded like goodnight, then held out her arms. Stanford obliged with a quick hug, but a kiss landed on his cheek, making him chuckle. Then Laurie laughed, a rich liberated sound that again made Stanford’s heart race, also stirring a deeper feeling. Laurie spoke to Lynne the way he sometimes chatted with his sisters. She smiled, kissed her daughter, then Laurie toted Jane up the stairs. Stanford realized the bond that had been fashioned since he’d told Laurie to leave; this family was now Laurie’s own.
Rose would be displeased if she ever saw this, Stanford mused, although he wasn’t threatened. For as Lynne looked his way, her gaze conveyed a similar feeling cast upon him. They would never be as close as she was with Laurie, but that was merely due to Stanford’s reticence. Then Stanford felt a chill, for a slight sadness edged her eyes. To his horror, he understood an inexplicable fact; while she had no idea where her husband was, thank God Laurie had been here to care for her.
It had been no problem for Marek to collect Stanford from the airport, or for the pastor to have shared a meal with his parishioners. But there was no way Marek could have filled in the way Laurie had without arousing suspicion. The Aherns were busy with their new children, and while Stanford was surprisingly eager to meet those youngsters, he acknowledged how parenthood ate into a person’s time. Laurie and Marek both had been kept busy looking after Jane, for Lynne was in no shape to do more than…. He stared at her, for she was walking around the room, her hands pressed against the small of her back. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She smiled. “Oh yes, just thinking.” She approached him, but didn’t sit down. “It won’t be more than a few days now. I’m so glad you’re here.”
“I am too.” He stood. “Thank you for, um, sending that letter.”
She nodded, wiping away a few tears. “Thank you for keeping an open mind.”
Her voice was tinged with something Stanford hadn’t wanted to fully consider. He grasped her hands, wishing to convey his…. Apologies for Eric’s absence, and for having forced Laurie from their home, although perhaps that had been a blessing for Lynne. “I want, I mean, I wish to say….”
“We can talk tomorrow if you like.” Then she chuckled. “I’m so tired, I can barely keep my eyes open.”
He nodded, then kissed her cheek. Then he blushed, but didn’t care. “Sleep well.”
“You too.” She squeezed his hands, then smiled. “Tell Laurie goodnight for me.”
“Oh, well, of course.”
Lynne giggled. “If I go in the nursery now, I’ll disturb the bedtime routine. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She walked to the stairs, taking each step with care. Stanford’s heart ached, for Eric should be right behind her, yet she seemed all right. Stanford heard her go into her bedroom, then close the door. The house was silent, other than pops from the fire. He glanced at that blaze, which Laurie had tended all evening. Should another piece of wood be added? Stanford wasn’t sure if Laurie was as exhausted as Lynne; did he want to talk before they…. Then Stanford shivered. Laurie had taken his case upstairs, but Stanford wasn’t sure if it had gone into the main guest room or the one adjacent. There had been no time for such talk, for as soon as the men stepped into the house together, pie waited, then conversation, followed by dinner, then more chit-chat. Stanford heard another door being opened, then closed. Then footsteps were noted coming down the stairs. Stanford looked that way, finding Laurie heaving a tired sigh.
“Did Lynne turn in?” Laurie asked, reaching where Stanford still stood in the middle of the living room.
Stanford nodded. “Jane fall asleep already?”
“After a few stories,” Laurie smiled. “She was asking about you, but seemed placated when I told her you’d be here in the morning.”
“How do you understand her, I mean….” Stanford sighed, then gazed at the fire. Then he met Laurie’s eyes. “I suppose it’s been a while now and….”
“At first I didn’t know much of what she said. And when Marek’s here, a lot of it’s in what’s gotta be Polish.” Laurie laughed quietly. “She’s gonna be bilingual, but God only knows what she’ll do with Polish for a back-up.”
Stanford nodded, then smiled. He had so missed this man’s sense of humor, his teasing voice, his…. “Well, it will be interesting.”
“Yeah, it will.” Laurie looked toward the fireplace. “I need to let that die out some before I close up for the night.” Laurie cracked his knuckles. “Sometimes Lynne stays up, but the last few days she’s being turning in early. Usually I don’t add wood this late, but I didn’t know how long Marek was gonna stay, so….”
“I suppose this evening was a little out of the ordinary.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Laurie smiled, then wore a somber face. “She’s accepted he’s not gonna be here, but now that you are, it’s just a matter of time.”
Laurie didn’t say Eric’s name, but Stanford felt a brief tightness within his chest as that man was noted. “Does she think, I mean….” He coughed, then folded his arms over his chest, although the ache had faded.
“I know he’ll be back, and she does too, I mean, oh Jesus.” Laurie shook his head, then stepped to where the fire still burned brightly. “I really don’t wanna get into this tonight.”
“Of course.” Stanford stayed where he was, although he wanted to join Laurie. “She seems all right, I mean, physically.”
Laurie nodded, keeping his back turned.
Stanford sighed inwardly. Then he cleared his throat. “Perhaps I’ll turn in myself. It’s been a long day.”
Now Laurie faced him. “I put your case in my room. If you wanna sleep in the other, that’s fine.”
Laurie’s tone was clipped, the first time since his initial hello. Stanford didn’t wish to stir an argument. “I’ll retire wherever you think is best.”
“Oh Jesus, is this how it’s gonna be?”
“Well, I don’t wish to cause you any….” Stanford bit his lip. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
Laurie took a few steps toward Stanford. “Guess I don’t know either. Yeah, maybe you should sleep in the other room.”
Stanford nodded, but his entire body trembled. “Whatever you prefer.”
“Whatever I prefer? Well shit Stan, what I prefer is….” Laurie approached Stanford, then grasped his hands. “I wanna go back in time, I want Eric here, I want all of this to disappear. But it’s not gonna, and he’s probably not gonna walk through that door in time either. But you’re here, damnit. Why the hell are you here?”
Stanford stammered, but how to describe that sketch, or try to speak about something that must be true, or else all of these people had lost their minds. And now Laurie was one of these people, he was…. He was still the same man Stanford had fallen in love with, but he was also changed. His accent was lessened, his face aged, his steps dogged. He also seemed younger; he had a deft touch with children, and his bearing was that of…. “I told you why I’m here. I love you and….”
Laurie shook his head. “What made you book the flight? Did Agatha say something or….”
Stanford inhaled deeply. As he exhaled, he squeezed Laurie’s fingers. “I didn’t want to lose you.”
Laurie took a breath, then let it out slowly. “Really?”
“Yes. When I read that you were considering buying property here….” Stan sighed, but didn’t release Laurie’s hands. “I’m still not sure what I think about, well, you know. But Eric is gone, and I can see that Lynne has no idea where he is. None of you do, that’s obvious. Jane doesn’t even ask for him.”
Laurie nodded. “Lynne talks about him, but it breaks my heart that Jane seems to have forgotten him.”
“But she remembered me.” Stanford was still struck at how all evening that little girl acted as though mere days had passed since she had last seen him. “Hopefully she’ll, I mean….”
“Yeah, I thought about that too.” Laurie smiled, then sighed. “Listen, it’s late, and very late for you. I’ll give the fire another ten minutes, should be low enough by then. We can talk about this tomorrow, if you want.”
Stanford nodded, although he wasn’t entirely certain what else there was to say. Eric’s whereabouts were a mystery, but was it indeed possible that what Laurie had asserted months ago was true? Why else would Eric be missing now? Stanford released Laurie’s hands, then looked around the room. Christmas decorations had been put away, although a menorah sat on top of a low bookcase. Stanford might ask about that, but as for the rest of his queries, perhaps better to keep them in the background. “Laurie, I want to sleep with you tonight, if that’s all right.”
Laurie nodded, but didn’t seem as pleased as Stanford had assumed he’d be. “Or maybe I’ll take the extra room,” Stanford quickly added. “I suppose you get up with Jane in the morning.”
“I do. Stan, oh Jesus.” Laurie cracked his knuckles, then put his hands in his pockets. “Sleep wherever you want. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Stanford shivered, then nodded. He took the stairs without looking back, but crackles from the fire followed as he reached the end of the hallway. He stepped into what was now clearly Laurie’s bedroom, retrieved his suitcase, then went into the room next door. He only took his nightclothes and dressing gown from the case, used the bathroom down the hall, then closed his door. He waited for Laurie’s footsteps, but fell asleep before he heard them.
In the middle of the night, Stanford woke from a disturbing dream, although he couldn’t recall what had been so troubling. He used the bathroom, a light still on downstairs. A few faint pops resonated, but Stanford wasn’t in his robe. He debated about whether or not to go back for it, then decided to investigate without it. The house wasn’t particularly cold, and while he hadn’t brought slippers, it wouldn’t take more than a moment to see if Laurie had simply forgotten to turn off all the lights.
Lynne’s door was shut, as was the nursery door. Stanford walked with care past those rooms, then slowly took the stairs. A few creaks announced his arrival, and Laurie met him at the bottom step. “You okay?” he asked, still wearing his clothes from yesterday.
“Yes. I just saw a light was on and I could hear the fire. Are you all right?”
“Couldn’t sleep, then I added more wood, then had to wait for it to burn down, but here I am still. Christ, Jane’ll be up in a few hours and….”
“What time is it?”
Laurie sighed. “Nearly three.”
“It’s okay, gonna be a long night here pretty soon, depending on what time Lynne goes into labor. I’ll nap when they do this afternoon.”
Laurie returned to his spot on the sofa, where a crocheted blanket waited. Stanford joined him, but they didn’t speak. The fire still popped, only a few pieces of wood on the hearth. “Go on up,” Stanford said. “I’ll keep watch, but you need some rest.”
“No, it’s okay. You go on.”
“Laurie, really, go to bed.”
“Jesus Stan, just go back up.”
Stanford inhaled, then started to chuckle.
“What?” Laurie asked.
“Seems all we do well is argue.”
Laurie shook his head, then he smiled. “Seems you’re right. Oh God, this isn’t at all how I envisioned you here.”
“How did you picture it?”
Now Laurie laughed softly. “More like MacArthur returning to the Philippines. Hell, I have fucking idea.”
Previously that sort of language would have made Stanford cringe. Now he relished Laurie’s epithets. “You asked what brought me out here. There was something, but you might not believe me if I tell you what it was.”
Laurie stared at Stanford. “Try me.”
Stanford grinned. “That sketch he made, of Agatha.” Stanford briefly furrowed his brow, more for not being able to speak Eric’s name than the drawing itself. “I found it traveling around the apartment of its own free will.”
Stanford nodded. “I kept finding it in places where I hadn’t placed it, and I know it wasn’t Agatha’s doing. I even folded the side of it, not completely, but the last time I saw it, the crease was gone.”
He still felt slight guilt for having tampered with that illustration, but his efforts hadn’t lasted. “I decided if that was possible, perhaps what you’d told me might also be permissible. Or that I was losing my mind, and why not throw all caution to the wind.”
He chuckled as he spoke, then he gasped, for Laurie was now caressing his hand. “Oh Stan, good God. Maybe we’re both crazy.”
“Maybe,” Stanford said in a husky tone. Then he cleared his throat, although Laurie still grasped his hand. “I could see it in Lynne’s eyes; she has no idea where he is. Do you truly think he’ll return?”
Laurie nodded empathically. “Of that I have no doubt.”
Stanford sighed, for Laurie was telling the truth, yet his voice was tinged with pessimism. “But something is bothering you.”
Laurie smiled, then kissed the back of Stanford’s hand. “I can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“No. Laurie, what?”
Laurie released Stanford’s hand, then stood, putting the grate in front of the fireplace. Then he met Stanford’s gaze. “When he comes back, things will be different, and I don’t mean due to how long he’s been gone. Jane will remember him, she knew who you were, and the new baby won’t be old enough to know any differently.” Laurie looked toward where the menorah was displayed. “Stan, I have faith now.” Then Laurie chuckled softly. “I mean, I did before, but now I really believe there is a God. That God is taking care of Eric wherever he is, but there’s gonna be a price for that care. Which may sound crazy, I mean, if God is caring for Eric, why would it be qualified? Maybe it’s like how God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac even if Isaac was supposed to carry on the family lineage, as it were.” Laurie sat back on the sofa. “Do you know that story?”
Stanford smiled. “Afraid I don’t.”
“Well, God promised Abraham he’d be the father of many nations. But how was that supposed to happen if he killed his son?” Laurie wore a wry grin. “I mean, there was Ishmael, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, God ordered Abe to take Isaac to the top of a mountain and, well….” Laurie made a slitting motion across his throat. “And what did Abe do? He tells Isaac that they’re going up for a sacrifice. And Isaac asks what’re they gonna kill, but Abe doesn’t answer that question. So they get up there and just before Abraham kills Isaac, God tells Abe to hold on a minute. Then a goat or a sheep suddenly leaps into the picture, I never remember which. Abe kills that instead, and voila, the future of the whole Hebrew nation is primed for action.”
Stanford smiled all through Laurie’s story for how animated was Laurie, and how wonderful to hear such humor. Stanford sometimes grew weary of Laurie’s Jewish wit, but how he had missed this man’s view of humanity. “So what you’re saying is that God is aware of Eric’s situation, but equally it’s God’s fault that Eric is in that situation, whatever it happens to be.”
Laurie nodded. “But Stan, it’s more than that. It’s a helluva lot more, Jesus.” Then Laurie chuckled. “Been thinking about him too.”
Stanford raised his eyebrows. “Jesus?”
“Yeah. Don’t tell my mother, but Marek’s nearly got me convinced he’s the Messiah.” Laurie smiled. “If nothing else, he was more than a Jewish carpenter.”
Stanford nodded. “I certainly won’t tell Rose. Will you?”
“Not any time soon. Plenty to share, I mean, what with you here.”
Stanford sighed. “I suppose there is.” He gazed at the fire, which was dying out quickly. “Laurie, go to bed. It’s so late and….”
Again Laurie grasped Stanford’s hand. “Come with me, please?”
Gazing into Laurie’s eyes, Stanford nodded. “Yes, oh God, yes.”
Laurie stood first, then checked the fire. As he turned back, Stanford was on his feet. Then Laurie caressed Stanford’s face. “Maybe I’m a lot like Abraham. I had to do something that on face value was the most impossible thing. I knew if I did, well…. But here you are, oh God Stan, I never thought I’d see you here again, I thought we were over, I thought….”
Stanford had too, and yes, Laurie’s homily was analogous to what had occurred last November. And if Laurie wanted to start regularly attending a synagogue, or even a church, Stanford wouldn’t argue. He could do very little now as Laurie had moved his hand from Stanford’s face to his chest. Stanford closed his eyes, permitting this exchange, although it seemed somewhat improper here in a home not their own. However, the Snyders were family, and they wouldn’t flinch if the men displayed the most basic of affections. Yet now Laurie was pushing the boundaries, his other hand on Stanford’s hip, kisses being ardently shared. “Take me to your room,” Stanford murmured slyly.
“As you wish,” Laurie laughed softly. They quickly took the stairs, walking to the end of the hall. Stanford entered Laurie’s room, stripping off his nightclothes as Laurie shut the door. Within minutes they were under the covers, feverish love being made. Stanford fell asleep to Laurie’s drones, those sounds a gentle background to Stanford’s pleasant dreams.
In the morning, Lynne came downstairs to upbeat conversation, which brought a teary smile to her face. The jovial banter of two New Yorkers was occasionally interrupted by requests for Mama, pie, and more milk. Lynne was first noticed by her daughter, who called for her loudly. Then she was hugged by Laurie, who looked exhausted but overjoyed. Then Lynne gazed at Stanford, who appeared relieved, happy, and at home, although his dress shoes looked out of place, what with that man still in his robe.
“Hello everyone.” Lynne sat in her seat as Laurie fetched her some coffee. “How did you all sleep last night?”
“Not well, but I’ll grab forty winks when you ladies do. Stan needs some slippers, as I think you’ve already noticed. So as soon as we gentlemen freshen up for the day, we’ll take Jane and do some shopping. Refrigerator looks pretty bare and you might be busy soon enough. Best that I bring in some food before a baby lays siege.”
Laurie’s laugh was infectious as both Stanford and Jane joined him. Lynne smiled, then was presented with a dish of scrambled eggs and toast, both of which had been fixed earlier. She didn’t mind, for she was hungry and the company was most pleasing. Stanford looked years younger, and if not for the dark circles under Laurie’s eyes, he too seemed at ease. Lynne hadn’t been sure what sort of mood would greet her that morning, but the best possible ones were prevalent. “Thank you for breakfast,” she said. “Shall I make a shopping list?”
“Oh yeah.” Laurie smiled. “I should talk to Sam first, but you know best what you’ll wanna eat after the stork arrives.”
Lynne nodded, then felt like bursting into tears. She tried to contain them, but it was impossible. The baby was so close and Stanford was there and the New Yorkers seemed together and…. She started to bawl, then Laurie’s arms were around her, his gentle whispers that it would be okay in her ear. She knew that, in fact, she wasn’t overly sad, merely overwhelmed. For months Eric had been foremost in her thoughts, the notion of having another child somewhat diminished. Or had she done that purposely, to not fret Eric’s absence for this event. But with Stanford sitting at her kitchen table, in his robe and pajamas no less, the truth was inescapable. In a matter of days, a new baby would join this family, which indeed comprised Laurie and Stanford. Lynne included Stanford for how he had come to her other side, holding her hand as Laurie continued to croon. Then Stanford tried to reassure Jane that all was well, but she was wary, starting to call for her mother. Lynne inhaled, then chuckled. “It’s okay baby. Mama’s just having a little breakdown.”
“Mama deserves it,” Laurie said, sitting back, but offering Lynne a napkin.
“I don’t know about that,” Lynne said after blowing her nose.
“You deserve more than cold eggs and toast.” Laurie stood, taking Lynne’s plate.
“No, it’s fine, really. About what I used to eat before you got here.”
Silence fell over the adults, although Jane continued to jabber. Stanford started to stand, but Lynne grasped his hand. “Please, I need to say something.” She looked at Stanford, then Laurie, motioning for him to sit. “I realize this is, well, an odd situation for all of us, but then my whole life with Eric has been anything but normal, except that we’ve grown so used to it being that way, it became our reality. And now you’re both a part of it, for which I feel like apologizing, because you never asked for this, but now there’s no backing out.” She gazed at Stanford. “I’m sure there’ll be awkwardness, how can there not? But I also want you to know how very much it means to me that you’re here, in so many ways, but mostly in that, well, that you and Laurie are….” She paused, smiled, then chuckled at Stanford’s droll grin. “You’re willing to get up with Jane, fixing us both breakfast, then offer to do my shopping. And let me tell you, I so appreciate it.”
She glanced at Laurie, who nodded, his eyes damp. He kissed the top of her head, then patted her belly. “It’s our pleasure, let me assure you.”
“Indeed Lynne, it is. Especially since Laurie did the hard work, permitting me to do very little.”
Stanford’s tone was dry, then he chuckled as Laurie snorted. Jane laughed, as if understanding everything, making Lynne giggle. “My goodness,” she said, reaching for her coffee. “The next few days are gonna be interesting.”
“Hopefully they’ll be full of pie, sleep, and plenty of evenings like last night. Not sure how many we can rope Marek into attending, but maybe tomorrow we can have Sam and Renee over, then we’ll see what Junior dictates.” Laurie met Lynne’s gaze, then he looked toward Stanford as he finished speaking.
Lynne didn’t meet that man’s eyes, but she assumed by tomorrow, he wouldn’t mind the Aherns’ presence. “Well, you call Marek about dinner here either Friday or Saturday. After that, I’m at the mercy of this one.”
She placed her hands on the baby, then inhaled deeply. Exhaling, several kicks followed, and without asking, she reached for Stanford’s hand. Yesterday had seemed too soon for such an action, but as the baby wriggled under Stanford’s palm, Lynne felt a calm descend. Stanford followed the movements, then removed his hand. “How is there any room for such activity?” he asked.
“No idea, but he or she still thinks this’s home. Sorry baby, but only for a few more days.” Lynne ate some breakfast, then drank her coffee, gazing at her guests. With Stanford here, Laurie looked more at home, stirring Lynne’s heart. Then she smiled. “Laurie, when you go, if the market’s out of fresh flowers, stop at the florist. They probably won’t have any yet, but if there’s daffodils, buy several bunches.”
She wanted to be surrounded by them, needing that touchstone in lieu of Eric’s actual presence. A few tears fell, for the memory of that day was now as if it was yesterday, how could it be so fresh? She looked around the room; none of these faces had been there when she was in labor, maybe it was just in thinking of the daffodils, or in Jane’s blue-grey irises. Stanford had remarked how her eyes were still like Sam’s, but Lynne saw a different hue, maybe it was only her imagination. Then she smiled, for Jane had been here, not as the little girl she was today, but much like the child waiting to join this clan. Lynne cleared her throat, then stood, excusing herself. “I’m gonna take a shower, is that all right?”
“Of course.” Laurie stood. “Are you okay?”
Lynne nodded. “I won’t be long.”
He kissed her cheek, then walked her as far as the doorway. Once she was on the stairs, her tears flowed, but she didn’t wipe them away. Eric was gone, but another couple had reunited. Praying for her husband, Lynne stepped into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
While the rest went shopping, Lynne surveyed the nursery. Newborn clothes waited in a box, but Lynne had hesitated going through them. Had she been waiting for Stanford to appear, or more rightly for Eric to come home? During her shower, small contractions had distracted her; they had been increasing over the last several days. Now she was eager for it to be time for Laurie to call Renee, then Frannie, and of course Dr. Salters. Stanford was where he should be, then Lynne wondered if one day those men would buy a small cottage out west, a holiday spot she imagined. Eventually this house would be full of children, driving Uncle Stanford right out the door.
Lynne continued to inspect the room; plenty of diapers were waiting, blankets and spit-up rags as well. She had overheard Laurie’s conversation with Sam; that man had been cooking, then freezing meals in preparation. The only dish that was waiting was custard, which would be easy for Sam to whip up once the baby had arrived. Lynne caressed her child, then noted another low cramp. These were similar to pains she recalled from those last few days she had carried Jane. Lynne had baked the pumpkin pie for Marek’s postponed visit, which now made her smile. Of the two she had baked on Tuesday, only a half remained. She hadn’t asked Laurie what he and Stanford had eaten for breakfast, assuming pie had been the staple. “What kind shall I make,” she said to the baby. “Uncle Laurie loves sweet potato, so does Uncle Marek. Uncle Stanford prefers peach, while Uncle Sam likes the peach with boysenberries and apples. My goodness, that’s a lot of uncles.”
She laughed heading downstairs, finding herself the only occupant. Would this be the last time she would find herself alone? How many years had she lived this way, but a large belly told her much had changed. The house wasn’t the same, nor was she. Eric was gone, and she didn’t know to where, but those might be the only ties to days Lynne had nearly forgotten. Now his visits had a purpose. Would he change again once he was back and recuperated? How would he be when he did come home?
He would be a father of two she smirked as the baby kicked. “Yes, your daddy will have plenty of time to paint after he’s feeling better. And I imagine you and your big sister will be his top two subjects.” Then she shivered, for how many nights would parents find themselves in the sunroom, her on the chaise lounge, Eric behind a canvas or beside her or…. She smiled, for while the last several months had seemed endless, one aspect was bound to alter, and would do so within the next week.
As she started pie crust, Lynne considered how if Eric was there, he would be right next to her, maybe sketching this activity, making her laugh. She would look at him, his brow furrowed, his pencil grasped tightly in his right…. Suddenly she trembled, gripping the ends of her rolling pin. Closing her eyes, she sensed more than a contraction, as if she was linked to her husband. “I love you Eric, it’s gonna be all right.” Her tone was shaky, but convinced. “I love you honey. Please know it’s all gonna be okay!”
Opening her eyes, Lynne gazed around the room; she was still the only person, but a scent filled her nostrils, that of when he had come home, reeking of hawk. She had slept where the New Yorkers did, unable to lie beside Eric for the stench was overpowering. Yet it had dissipated, and left behind was this same fragrant aroma, which now she recognized as similar to incense burned at St. Anne’s. She inhaled deeply, then again, savoring that healing perfume, then exhaling, again drawing in that scent. The baby kicked in response, making Lynne laugh. “You can smell it too, huh? It’s a blessing, oh my goodness, like your daddy’s right here.”
Yet an ache lingered within Lynne’s chest, and no matter how deeply she breathed, the pain remained. Was it a harbinger of labor, she wondered, returning to her task. Then it faded, and she placed her hand over her heart, again lifting her husband up in prayer. She hadn’t been praying for him much lately, or not for his immediate return. She had left that to God, but in the interim, his peace of mind required her petitions. His peace of mind and his…. She couldn’t dwell on what Eric might be suffering, either in body or spirit. But whatever ailed him was something over which she could offer supplications. And there was something, Lynne knew that without a doubt. There had to be, or Eric would be standing beside her, or making love to her one last time before their baby was due.
When Laurie and Stanford returned, a pie was cooling on the counter, Jane asleep in Laurie’s arms. While Laurie took Jane upstairs, Stanford carried in groceries, forbidding Lynne to assist. Instead she put away cold items, leaving the sundries for Laurie. He was in and out, for it seemed the New Yorkers had bought out the market, making Lynne chuckle. The last load was several batches of daffodils, some assorted tulips among them. Lynne wept, making Laurie laugh, while Stanford asked when they could have some pie.
Lynne’s tears dried quickly as she smiled at her guests. “Pie will be for later. It’ll take a good hour just to put all this away.”
“Well, I didn’t want Sam to think he was doing all the cooking. Besides, there’s an extra mouth around here to feed.” Laurie pointed at Stanford, who grimaced slightly. Then he broke into a wide smile, telling Lynne these men were back on a secure footing. She wondered if Laurie had needed to explain much to Stanford, for he hadn’t asked Lynne a single question concerning Eric. He had yet to mention that man’s name aloud, although several times she had caught him looking around, as if searching for him. Lynne wanted to say she felt her husband was very close, and he was, in spirit. Then she cleared her throat, catching both men’s attention.
“Yes?” Laurie stepped to her side. “Ask and we shall do your bidding.”
“Might we go to St. Anne’s in the morning? I wanna attend mass and….” She placed Laurie’s hand on the baby. “Light some candles, if you don’t mind.”
He nodded slowly. “Absolutely. Shall we call the Aherns, see if they wanna meet us?”
“That would be lovely. Then perhaps we could come back here for pie and coffee. Stanford, does that sound all right?”
He leaned against the counter. “Whatever makes you happy.”
Lynne approached him. “Laurie and I have been going, when we’re feeling up to it. Before Ann and Paul arrived, I was going with Sam, but now that’s the time they take Paul to school. Maybe they can drop him off a little early, might be one of the last weekdays I’m able to go for a while.”
Stanford nodded. “That would be fine.”
“Good. In fact, I’ll call Renee right now. Then we can make dinner plans for Saturday, assuming I’m still looking like this.” Lynne motioned to the baby. “But to tell you the truth, if we’re at mass on Monday morning, I’ll be somewhat disappointed.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Laurie joined them. “Maybe I should call Dr. Salters.”
“I’m not in labor, I can tell you that. But once it starts, you two will be the first to know.”
Lynne laughed, then considered her husband. “I wonder if he’ll be aware. While you were gone, I could swear he was right in this room. It was like I could talk to him, or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Anyways, we’ll go to mass tomorrow, St. Matthew’s on Sunday, and then we’ll see what next week brings.” She looked around Stanford, who was blocking where the pie cooled. “You know, maybe we can cut into that now. And honestly, if Sam’s freezing meals, I should be baking pies. I hope you bought more flour Laurie.”
“I did, and Stan made sure a couple of tubs of vanilla ice cream came home too.”
“Just one,” Stanford smiled.
“One will do for now,” Lynne said. “I made a peach pie, will make a fruit combo later, assuming the Aherns can meet us for mass. Then on Saturday I’ll make a sweet potato. And from there we’ll wing it.” She moved the pie to where she could cut into it, slicing three generous pieces. “Maybe Laurie you didn’t need to buy all that food. We can just live on pie.”
“Oh don’t tempt me,” he smiled. “Besides what would Dr. Salters say?”
“Probably that the new addition was starting off on the right foot,” Stanford interjected.
“Indeed,” Lynne said. “I’ll leave the ice cream to you fellows. All I want is this.” She took her plate to the table, while the men retrieved ice cream from the freezer. As Lynne ate her dessert, she thought back to when she first tried baking with peaches, two years ago and not long after Marek had cemented his place within their family. The bushel he bought last summer was nearly gone, but enough remained to make Sam’s favorite pie tomorrow. So many blessings were in her midst, and while the biggest corporeal gift was absent, she needed to give thanks for what stood in her view. Laurie and Stanford spoke about pie while Jane napped, and another child was nearly in its mother’s arms. Lynne patted her baby, again praying for Eric. As she closed her eyes, peace surged through her as though he sat next to her, grasping her hand, praying right at her side.
Callie stopped by the Richardsons’ on Friday, just in time to see John stepping out the shed, and what could be called a smile on that man’s face. Callie waved his cap as John raised his left arm. They met just shy of the house and Callie couldn’t help but chuckle. “G’morning. You’re looking fairly chipper today.”
John nodded. “I’ve been sleeping well the last couple of nights.”
“Good rest can do a lot for a person. How’s your arm?”
“The same,” John shrugged, “but maybe I’m used to it now.”
“Maybe,” Callie drawled. “Well, just wanted to see how you was doing.” He put his cap back on, then motioned toward the house. “Might we see if Miss Dora’s up for visitors?”
“You bring any pie with you?”
Callie laughed. “Not today. Miss Susie’s down with a bug. But she told me to get out from underfoot, so here I am.”
Callie had started for the porch, but John hesitated. “Is she all right?”
“Oh, it’s nothing a day at home won’t fix.” He smiled, then pointed to the house. “Shall we?”
John nodded, then walked to where Callie stood. Callie let John take the lead; Walt had said John could nearly get up the steps alone. He was again eating meals with the family, as it seemed Walt’s ultimatum had made an impression. Callie hadn’t been sure if that was the right move, but as John reached the front door on his own, Walt had been right.
John knocked, then the door was opened by Esther, who called to her mother. Neither man entered the house until Dora appeared, Callie pleased to see her looking so much better. Just last night Susie told him she thought Dora was carrying boys, but Susie wasn’t sure if they were identical or not. Callie wouldn’t speak of this to anyone; if Dora wanted to know, she could ask Susie herself.
Dora did ask about Callie’s wife, and again he told a small fib. Susie was actually on her monthly, and if John hadn’t been present, Callie might have alluded to that with Dora. Instead Dora merely nodded at Callie, then asked if the men wanted coffee. Both said yes, taking seats familiar to them. Esther and Gail crowded around their mother, but Dora shooed them away. Gail approached Callie, who removed his cap, then lifted the girl onto his lap. “My goodness but you’re growing. Gonna be a big helper soon enough.”
“Mama’s having another….” Esther giggled, then ran to the sofa, hiding behind it.
“Another cuppa coffee,” Callie smiled, as Dora brought mugs to the table. “And what good coffee it is.”
Dora grinned, then sat across from John. “Walt told the kids last night. Luke already seemed to know, Tilda too. I guess it’s safe enough now, and I really can’t hide it anymore.”
“You’re looking just fine there.” Callie tested the coffee, then took a long drink. “How you feeling these days?”
She chuckled. “Much better, thank you.”
“Oh that’s wonderful. And John, you’re looking improved too.”
From the corner of Callie’s eye he watched Dora as he spoke. John noted that he did feel better, but Callie hadn’t meant his physical bearing. Dora nodded her head slightly, but stared at the table. Callie knew that John thought his wife was having their baby soon, perhaps she’d already given birth. Susie had no idea about that, but then she hadn’t visited this home for nearly a week. John’s previous dark mood had kept her away, then she’d started her period. But as soon as that was done, maybe she would come round, if she felt there was news to be shared.
As John spoke about the improving weather, Callie watched the interaction between that man and Dora. If Susie was right, twin boys would make up for the two sons Dora had lost. Of course, they had no proof if those babies had been boys, but Susie had correctly predicted the rest of Dora and Walt’s kids, and Callie knew his wife well enough not to doubt her assertions. She was never mistaken, just as much of a seer as her mother was. Callie never felt that ability was wrong in the sight of God; every person had a gift. Susie was also a talented baker, although that trait had not been shared by her mother. Still, he had Susie’s mama to thank for the life he lived. If not for her ordering Susie to go south, Callie wasn’t sure where he would be.
He was as much a part of Karnack as Walt, but the man next to Callie was still a mystery. Yet that wasn’t for Callie to ponder. He finished his coffee, then pushed the cup toward the middle of the table.
“You need more?” Dora asked.
“Oh no, that was just right. So John, since you’re feeling better, might you be up to taking a drive?”
John gazed at Callie. “Uh, maybe.” Then he looked at Dora. “Would that be a problem?”
She looked startled by the request. “I have no idea.”
“I was just thinking how maybe John might wanna see some of Harrison County, something might jog his memory. If nothing else, might do you a world of good to get out for a bit. I won’t go down no main roads, should be safe enough.”
Susie had also mentioned this, that if John viewed more than just the Richardsons’ property, his mind might be stirred. Callie hadn’t spoken of this with Walt, but he did agree that John would benefit from different scenery. “I’m just thinking a little change would do you some good.” Callie smiled, then grabbed his hat. “Shall we?”
John nodded. “That actually sounds like a terrific idea. If someone passes by, I’ll just slink down in my seat.”
“Daresay nobody’s gonna be passing where we go.” Callie would drive through Negro territory, where few families had vehicles. “Miss Dora, we’ll be back sometime after lunch, if that’s all right.”
“Take your time.” Her voice was thoughtful. “Ain’t nothing he’s gonna miss around here.”
Callie caught a look on Dora’s face as if she agreed with him. “Well, you never know what these little girls might do.” Callie ruffled Gail’s hair, then set her on the floor. He stood, put on his cap, then headed to the door, waiting for John to join him. They left the house together, slowly taking the steps, then John gazed back at the shed. “You need something?” Callie asked.
“What, uh, no, just that this’ll be the first time since….” He smiled at Callie. “Thank you, I do appreciate this.”
“Well, we’ll see what you think when we get back.” Callie led the way, helping John into the truck. Callie shut the door, then got into the driver’s seat, and within a minute, they were rumbling along the drive.
Callie took roads that John felt might still be from the early part of the century; few were paved, and those that were possessed large potholes. The bumpy drive didn’t bother John’s arm, for he had decided to ignore the incessant pain, although the limb itself was numb. How something could ache so badly, yet have no sensation, John wasn’t sure. But a bigger question lingered; how did he sense his wife’s presence and still not realize a thing about her?
The last two days John could have sworn she was right beside him; he dreamed of her, but carried no resonance of her physical makeup upon waking. Yet as if she lay next to him, he’d felt less alone. He wondered if she’d had their baby yet, then was curious as to why he felt so…. She loved him, he couldn’t escape that fact. Why he was in Karnack had no bearing upon how much he was loved.
Callie pulled over, then killed the engine. “Sorry the roads is so bad. You feeling okay?”
“I’m fine.” John gazed out the window, then met Callie’s stare. “It’s beautiful country, thanks for the tour.”
“Oh now, it ain’t that pretty. But it’s home, I mean….” He sighed. “Anything look familiar?”
“No, but it’s different. If nothing else, I am not from East Texas.”
“Oh ain’t that the truth.” Callie laughed, then took off his hat, rubbing his head. “You seem better, I mean, more peaceful. That’s a blessing.”
John nodded. “I’m sure Walt told you about…. And he was right. And between us, I’ve been feeling very close to my….” John smiled, then looked at the surroundings. “I think my wife’s praying for me. If nothing else, she doesn’t hate me.”
“No sir, I’m sure she don’t hate you none. I’m sure she misses you as much as you miss her.”
John looked at Callie. “I wasn’t so certain of that before, but now, well, yeah. I think you’re right.”
“There ain’t no good reason for you being here, but sometimes the bad reasons are more important than the good ones.”
“Yeah?” John shrugged, then shook his head. “I guess I don’t know.”
“Well, I could be wrong, but what I meant was nothing about you being here makes sense, but then the world’s fulla all kinds of craziness. God’s got his plan and best we leave the thinking up to him.”
“I suppose that’s the truth. Can I be honest with you?”
John inhaled, then let it out slowly. “I feel like I haven’t had faith for long, I mean, been a believer. A Christian,” he said with emphasis. “But I think I am, I mean, faith isn’t something I don’t understand. Or I didn’t, before.” He sighed. “I don’t even know what before means, what was my life before I woke up in that shed, who I am, but now it’s like, oh I’m John Doe, that’s my name.” He wore a small smile. “You all see me as this odd stranger with half his upper body missing, more unpleasant than not, but at least you have a firm grasp of who I am.”
“Maybe starting to be a bit more pleasant,” Callie teased.
“Well, maybe.” John smiled. “But before, who was I before?” As he ended the sentence, his arm tingled, then he closed his eyes. “Before, before…. There’s something about that word, something my wife said, it meant something to her. Jesus Christ!” He wanted to slam his left hand against something, but he refrained, for it was the only useful one he had. Then he looked at Callie. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to swear.”
“Like I said, ain’t nothing I never heard before.”
Silence filled the truck. Then Callie cleared his throat. “Before’s a funny word, because all we have is this moment. Susie’s mama might have foretold a lot of things, sometimes Susie does the same. But that’s the future, and we have yet to get there. We can relive the past a thousand times a day, still don’t change a damn part of it. And whether you can remember it or not isn’t gonna make a whole lotta difference right now, in that you’re sitting in my truck in East Texas, but somewhere your wife is thinking of you. Before ain’t got no hold on what she’s thinking right this second.”
John let that sentiment settle. Then he spoke. “But if I did remember, I could go to her, I could be with her.”
“Yeah, but not right this minute. It’d take you a few days, you ain’t from anywhere close to here. I’m thinking somewhere out west, you sound like a fella I knew who was from the west. California maybe, or Washington State. Even if you could get on an airplane, that’d still be hours away.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” John sighed, then looked out the window again. Then he stared at Callie. “Is that how you felt in Korea?”
“Oh my lord, yes it was. Kept waiting to get sent home, but even when I was it still took forever. Hadn’t heard from Susie for a while, wasn’t sure if she was gonna accept my proposal, and even if she did, could I get her to come down here. Nothing for me up there, all I had was my daddy’s land, some farming, odd jobs. But she was waiting for me, and even better, was willing to….” He peered out the dirty windshield. “She had a life up there, freedom. Not that we ain’t free, but….” He chuckled. “We ain’t equal. Up there, she just about was, just about. I couldn’t believe how different it was up there, you know, like a different world. But this’s my home, I ain’t never gonna leave. Gotta believe it’ll be better for my girls, yes sir. Maybe President Johnson might make it a little bit better.”
John didn’t know what to say, but he sighed as if to agree. Callie nodded, then looked at John. “Indeed a little better. Just like you, every day you get a little better. Like today, remembering what before meant, or that it did mean something. And it did, no getting round it. Before was bringing us to today, then there’ll be tomorrow and then….” Callie smiled. “Probably by Sunday Susie will be baking again. We’ll come see you on Sunday with sweet potato pie. Who knows how you’ll be feeling then.”
“Much better if I know pie’s coming.” John smiled.
John traced over his right arm, then gripped where the numbness and pain intermingled. “I used this to do something important. Yesterday around dinnertime, I could feel her praying for me. It was about my arm, God, how can I know that and not remember her name?”
The frustration was nearly equal to the relief John claimed from those intercessions. He stared at Callie. “Did Susie know if you’d come home, did she have any idea?”
“I see. You don’t look like she told you about that though.”
“No, she used to tell me in letters. Said she knew I’d be back in God’s time.”
“But she wasn’t sure if she’d come here. At least she was honest, but that didn’t do me much good till she actually said I do. Even then, I still wondered.” Callie put his cap back on his head. “All I can tell you is it’s about faith, about trust. Like I said, nothing about you makes any good sense, but that might because we don’t see as good as God. As good or as far. All we see is right now, or before.” Callie smiled. “Or wishing we could see tomorrow. But here I am, sitting with this strange white man, and I say strange not because you’re white or crippled but because you talk so smart, yet at times you act like you ain’t aware of the smarts God gave you. You just gotta trust, first that you’ll live to see another day if he wants it that way, and second that if he don’t, that too is all right. Your wife’s been okay all this time, still loves you, so she’s keeping the faith. Now it’s your turn to keep some of your own. She ain’t alone, I can’t imagine that she is. Now maybe you’re not there, but she’s accepted that. She’s accepted that before ain’t never gonna come again, but something else is, something new. That’s all I’m praying for, a New Jerusalem, a day with sweet potato pie, and Miss Dora with two babies in her arms. That’d be new for certain. And if those things come to pass, halleluiah. And if they don’t, halleluiah to that too, because that means something better than I can even dream.” Callie chuckled. “I can dream a lot, let me tell you, but I never dreamed up you being here, so we just don’t know what’s coming next, but it ain’t the end of the world.”
John nodded, wishing he felt the strength of Callie’s conviction. Then he closed his eyes, for another sense flooded him, others lifting him up in prayer. Many of them, he surmised, his best friend among them. He didn’t know any of their names, yet a host of angels seemed to be thinking about him, and while the pain and numbness remained, his heart was eased. I love you, he wanted to say to all of them, but especially to his wife. I love you and I promise I will come home.
When John opened his eyes, he saw Callie’s were closed. John didn’t speak, gazing out of the window, still feeling that enormous ethereal embrace. His wife’s arms were the strongest, their baby waiting to be born. I won’t be there, John thought, but I love you, and I’ll be home as soon as I can. As that passed through his mind, Callie cleared his throat, then started the truck. No words were spoken on the drive back to the Richardsons’, but John kept up a steady inward stream to those he loved, and he imagined Callie was doing the very same.
The lobby was cold, but Klaudia was used to it; many times she had sat here waiting to speak to the chief physician. This Saturday morning was different; Sigrun sat beside her, shivering or blowing on her hands. Sometimes Sigrun did both, but she didn’t complain about the lack of heat. January in Scandinavia was frigid and at least Marek was still alive.
Klaudia wasn’t sure if her son would live to see the spring. She had decided not to cancel her trip, to which Sigrun had agreed, although Klaudia hadn’t informed her host of this latest setback. She wouldn’t call America unless Marek died, in which case she would bury her son, then…. Could she just up and leave if the worst happened, or was her son’s death actually the nadir? She wasn’t sure, then glanced at the clock. The doctor was ten minutes late, and Klaudia needed a smoke. She rummaged through her bag, grabbed a pack of cigarettes, then found her matches. She looked at Sigrun, who nodded. Klaudia lit two, then both women inhaled deeply.
They smoked those, then sat quietly, although Sigrun still occasionally shivered. Klaudia had loitered in this waiting room for many years and it never changed, the décor the same, the iciness in the winter, and it wasn’t much warmer in summer. The only difference was the mood of the doctors, which over time had become progressively worse. But that wasn’t their fault, it was…. Could Klaudia blame her son or was the error hers, she mused, wishing for another smoke if only for something to do. Maybe it was Gunnar’s, then she clucked, for it was merely fate, which had gotten her out of Poland, even saved Marek Jagucki’s life, but had stolen any semblance of humanity from a baby wanted, although perhaps not with its natural father.
Klaudia had always desired children; as a girl she cared for infants in the village, she played with those younger than her. Ania Jagucki had been one of her best friends, and three years had separated them. When Klaudia met Gunnar, she imagined having many babies, but her first son would be named for the most significant man she had ever known. Her parents died in a car accident only a year after the family had reached Oslo, which had probably thrown Klaudia into Gunnar’s arms, then his bed, far more quickly than expected. They married and within weeks she was expecting. It was one of the happiest times of her life, although she felt awkward around her husband, in that once Klaudia had become pregnant, Gunnar’s affections inside their bedroom had cooled considerably. Maybe he realized the difference of their ages, maybe he thought her too easily swayed. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to be a father so soon, but it wasn’t her fault, and then her dreams crashed into a heap when the doctor pronounced something was terribly wrong with….
Klaudia stood abruptly, then grabbed her purse, Sigrun doing the same. The women looked toward the open door, where a nurse motioned for them. Klaudia led the way, both ushered into the office, which also appeared as usual. The physicians had rotated over the years; now it was a young man who barely looked old enough to have graduated from university. In December Klaudia had seen him in passing, assuming he was an intern. She didn’t betray her thoughts, sitting in a chair while the nurse brought another for Sigrun. Klaudia would give much for another smoke, but unlike past doctors, this one didn’t seem to approve of cigarettes, for there was no ashtray heaped with butts anywhere on the desk.
“I’m Dr. Rasmussen,” he said, picking up a thick folder, then tapping it with his fingers. He gazed at Klaudia as though he knew she was Marek’s mother. “I realize we haven’t yet met, and I apologize for only now introducing myself. I wasn’t here when Marek had his last seizure, but I’ve read over his notes, these and from previous years.” He tried to smile, but twitched nervously. “I appreciate you coming on such short notice, and I’m also sorry you haven’t yet been able to see Marek. Perhaps this afternoon, if you’re willing to stay.”
“Just tell me what’s happened.” All she knew was her son had suffered another seizure. She had received the call late last night and was only able to leave that morning. Sigrun had offered to drive and Klaudia had gladly accepted. She was relieved for Sigrun’s presence, for bad news was waiting, Klaudia was certain of it.
“Well, for now we’re not exactly sure. Marek’s seizure was severe. He stopped breathing for a couple of minutes, then regained consciousness. He’s sedated now, and we’re keeping very close watch over him.”
She sighed, then looked at the desk. “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“What? Um, no, of course not.” The doctor looked horrified, which nearly made Klaudia smile. He motioned for the nurse, probably to find an ashtray, Klaudia thought, as she lit two cigarettes, giving one to Sigrun, who thanked her profusely. Now Klaudia wanted to laugh; this young man had dragged her up here to tell her that Marek was sedated. Well, of course he was on medication, was that supposed to surprise her? He hadn’t even been expected to live and….
She took long drags on the smoke, the ash beginning to teeter, but the nurse placed a thick glass ashtray on the edge of the desk just in time for Klaudia to gently tap the ashes into it. Then she placed the cigarette in the ashtray, clearing her throat. “So he’s drugged but you couldn’t just tell me that over the telephone last night?”
“Um, last night the doctor on call didn’t feel it was necessary, but this morning….”
“This morning you came in and thought it best to sedate him. Well, you are the professional.”
Klaudia thought she could hear a snicker from where the nurse stood behind them. Then she continued. “Do you realize Dr. Rasmussen that Marek wasn’t thought to have lived this long, that we were told, my late husband and myself, that he would die before he was a year old. He’s coming on sixteen, severely retarded, and is now having seizures that halt his breathing. Do you think sedating him is truly the best way forward?”
This doctor couldn’t be more than thirty; what kind of experience did he have with such tortured individuals, and Klaudia wasn’t thinking only of her son. Did he know how hard she had steeled her heart to not care what happened to her child? “Please don’t misconstrue my words, Doctor, but I was up here last summer with him, he barely knows who I am. I come every month, if you’re not aware, but I was here after he’d had the first seizure. I’m here today, but to be honest, if he’s sedated and I can’t even visit him, I’m not sure why I traveled all this way.”
She picked up the smoke, finished it, then stubbed out the butt. “Now if you have something new to report, I’ll be happy to listen. If that’s all you can tell me, and if I won’t be allowed to see my child, Mrs. Vang and I will be leaving. A storm is forecast for tonight and I’d like to be safely home before then, if it’s at all possible.”
For years Klaudia had spoken two languages, Norwegian and that which she only used within this office. Sometimes the tongues were similar, sometimes like now she had to dredge from her brain the most precise yet delicate dialect; she was the mother of a damaged child and to limit her own pain she must keep Marek at arm’s length. Yet she couldn’t reveal the extent of that distance to doctors, for they would deem her an unfit mother. Nurses understood, Sigrun comprehended perfectly. But only Klaudia, and those in her place, had to actually utter the words, separating the pain from the practical. If they wouldn’t let her see Marek, why was she there?
And if she saw him, was her presence expected to heal him? He wouldn’t know she was there, but regardless of the sedatives, who she was to him was meaningless. She was his mother, but she might as well be the janitor for how her role had been reduced to…. She swallowed hard, for that wasn’t this man’s fault. Gunnar had denied her that opportunity, but he was dead and…. Klaudia smiled, but her heart was icy. “Dr. Rasmussen, I so appreciate all you and your staff have done for my boy. To be perfectly candid with you, it amazes me that after all this time Marek is in such good health. That’s all your doing, but as I said, I don’t wish to be in your way. Of course if his condition deteriorates, please don’t hesitate to call. I suppose it’s merely a matter of waiting to see what happens next.”
Her tone had shifted to that of an apprehensive parent, hedged by the knowledge that she never had been given the chance to mother her child. She had nursed him for only moments, then at four weeks old he was taken from her as if she was the one broken. For years Klaudia had considered that as the problem. Not until Gunnar died did she have the courage to admit this had been perpetrated upon her by the man she was supposed to have trusted. Never once had Gunnar apologized, but thankfully she’d had the wherewithal to outwait him, then move on with her life.
Except that moving on had meant going nowhere but to work and this hospital. She didn’t think about America or Marek Jagucki, only how best to extricate herself and Sigrun from this office so they could flee to Sigrun’s car, then smoke all the way home. They wouldn’t reach Oslo until dinnertime, but they would beat the oncoming storm, and a retarded teenager would continue to live as he had all his life, with no awareness of who loved him, or why that was so. Klaudia did love her son; she loved him as much as she believed he loved her. “Again,” she said, exuding concern, “please don’t hesitate to get in touch. It’s difficult in winter to come up at a moment’s notice, but I’m fully prepared.” Inwardly she smiled, for she wouldn’t tell the staff about her holiday until right before she was slated to leave. She planned to pass it off as an emergency trip, with Sigrun as the point of contact during Klaudia’s absence.
The doctor was too young, and stupid, Klaudia thought, to hear past her anxious tone. He nodded, then sighed, then tapped his fingers along Marek’s folder. “Well, I highly doubt there’s any point to you seeing Marek today. He’s heavily medicated, for his own benefit of course.”
“Of course,” Klaudia said.
“Well yes, there is little for you to do here, right now.” The doctor raised his eyebrows, then sighed again. “I suppose you might as well head back. But if anything changes, we will certainly call you.”
“Oh thank you.” Klaudia leaned back in her seat, but it was for show. She nodded, clasped her hands in her lap, then reached for her handbag. For a second, she nearly pulled out some smokes, just to shock that young man. Instead she reached for a tissue, dabbing at her dry eyes, then blowing very little from her nose. This had been her most dramatic departure in a long time, but if they were going to start employing children to run this place…. She slowly stood from her chair, reaching over the desk, her right hand outstretched. The doctor stood as well, shaking her hand with what felt like a rather limp grip to Klaudia. She didn’t care, however, as she calmly made her way out of the office, Sigrun on her heels.
They walked along the corridor, then increased their gaits once they were clear of the building. The weather was freezing, the winds strong, but inside Sigrun’s car, some peace descended, mostly in the guise of several smokes enjoyed. Sigrun said little, taking them to the motorway, while Klaudia wondered how long that Dr. Rasmussen would keep his job. Then she berated herself for wasting the energy pondering such a notion. Marek might not even be alive when she left for America, or if he was, maybe he wouldn’t last until spring. And truth be told, that might be the best for all of them. He wouldn’t continue to suffer, she wouldn’t be dragged up there every month, or less now. She had visited him right after Christmas, had planned to go up again before her trip. Now she wouldn’t bother. What was the point of yet another bus ride over icy roadways to see someone who could care less if she visited? At least in summer they could walk about the grounds. Then she shivered; last year she had told Sigrun that she wouldn’t go to just trek around the woods again. Those words were as fresh in her mind as what she said to Marek Jagucki the last time she had seen him, words she had considered over and over after she thought him dead, words that after all this time still reverberated within her head. How good it would be to see him tomorrow, but tomorrow never came.
When tomorrow rose, so did acrid smoke from what had been the Jagucki barn. Screams had preceded the billows, then an eerie silence overtook the entire village. That quiet had pierced Klaudia’s heart for months, as though every morning Marek died all over again. Klaudia couldn’t free herself from that image, nor from the sounds, but mostly it was the silence to haunt her, even with the loud hum of the pavement under Sigrun’s wheels. Klaudia turned on the radio, tinny music crackling through the speakers. Still she could hear nothing, just how her home had sounded after Gunnar took their baby away.
Tears fell down her face, but she ignored them, not wishing to alert Sigrun, nor did Klaudia want to admit all her failings. She hadn’t saved any of Marek’s family, she hadn’t stopped Gunnar from stealing her son. She hadn’t healed that child with any of her visits or how often she had stayed away. That ridiculous doctor had no idea what he had done in making her appear there that morning, as though he was complicit in all the ways Klaudia had been wounded over the years. Yet, she couldn’t shake how in some manner, this too was her fault; if she had been a better friend to Ania, a better wife to Gunnar, a better mother to Marek, a better…. She was never more than Marek Jagucki’s friend, not his lover or partner or spouse. Why was she even going to America, she wanted to scream. For what purpose, reason, notion….
“Are you hungry?” Sigrun spoke softly. “There’s a place up ahead, we could get something to eat, and I think we’re low on cigarettes.”
“Whatever you like,” Klaudia said.
Sigrun hummed, then gently laid her hand on Klaudia’s leg. “I think it was good, everything you said to him.”
“Little bastard didn’t hear a word of it,” Klaudia snorted.
“No, but the nurse did. They’re all who matter.”
Klaudia glanced at Sigrun. “Yeah, I suppose.” She inhaled, then coughed. “Thanks for taking me.”
“Beats listening to Harald shout at the television all day. I’m so sick of football, I swear.”
Klaudia wore a small smile. “Gunnar hated football, but every time we came over, he’d act just like Harald. Must be a man-thing.”
“It must be.”
Klaudia nodded, then sighed. She stared out the window, snow in drifts, bare trees poking up like they were abandoned, only wishing to be buried under the blanket of white. “I am hungry.” She gazed at Sigrun. “Lunch and smokes are my treat.”
“You’re on,” Sigrun chuckled.
Again Klaudia nodded. Then she spoke. “I don’t plan on telling Marek any of this. As far as he knows, my son is the same.”
“And if something happens, unless he’s dead, don’t call me there. I don’t want you wasting the money. I’m only going for ten days, it’s not worth the trouble.”
“And if they need to reach me, tell them I’m unavailable, I mean, unless he does die. If that happens….” She stopped speaking, uncertain of what might require her attention. She was going to have Marek cremated, no use taking up space in a cemetery. Gunnar had been cremated, his wishes not causing his wife any sorrow. She hadn’t given any thought to herself in that situation. Previously, Klaudia never thought she’d get that lucky.
Was it luck that had kept her among the living? Then she trembled, her tears restarting. Luck had nothing to do with it, only the inevitable collision with a man she loved, also feared. Klaudia wept until Sigrun pulled over for lunch. They entered the small shop, where Sigrun bought smokes while Klaudia dried her eyes in the restroom. Meeting up again, Klaudia smiled, then gripped Sigrun’s hand. Nothing more about either man named Marek was mentioned.
Stanford rose first on Sunday morning, quietly walking past the nursery and Lynne’s room. He went downstairs, seeing nothing beyond the French doors, darkness still in force. The house wasn’t cold, although he was glad to have bought slippers, and he cinched up the tie on his dressing gown. He wanted coffee, but would wait until Laurie woke.
They were all going to church that morning, although the Aherns would meet them here for lunch, then would stay for dinner. Stanford was glad to have that brief break, although yesterday Renee hadn’t seemed as annoying as in the past, and Sam was much easier to speak with, but that was probably due to what they didn’t discuss. Sam gushed about his son and daughter, who had surprised Stanford for how accepting they were with the Aherns as their new parents. Stanford and Laurie had discussed it last night after Lynne went to bed; Laurie thought it was because the children were so young, and that they so closely resembled who they called Mommy and Daddy without a single hesitation. Stanford had no idea, other than this place was a source of what could be deemed singularities, yet there certainly were plenty of them.
He and Laurie could fall under that heading, for it was as if no issue had separated them, or maybe Stanford was ignoring the elephant in the room. He gazed around, but the house was still, and of course Eric remained missing. Stanford had finally uttered that man’s name yesterday afternoon, speaking privately with Lynne before the Aherns had arrived. He still wasn’t certain what he believed about Eric’s absence, but if nothing else, he understood why after talking to Lynne before he left Florida, Laurie had been compelled to come here, then accept what everyone closely connected to the Snyders also believed. Lynne spoke about her husband’s transformations with the sagacity of how very life-altering was such a conviction.
She hadn’t pressed Stanford to swear an allegiance to such a notion, but she wouldn’t perpetrate a falsehood, for to Lynne, Eric had been altering form since he was a little boy. She didn’t know if his father’s brutality had caused the changes, nor did she seem worried that Jane or the coming baby would inherit their father’s penchant for…. Her tone had been candid; Stanford had detected no guile or hysteria in her voice. Slight remorse had hedged her words for having to speak about this, for she knew it ran counter to all he ever assumed about the supernatural. She didn’t apologize though, for which Stanford was grateful. He had come here with eyes open. He wasn’t sure if her words had changed his mind, other than reinforcing what an amazing woman he thought she was. If she was lying, she had deceived herself thoroughly. And if she was telling the truth….
He set that aside, enjoying the peace, although he felt a little lonely. Yet it was merely that in the last few days, he had grown accustomed to the presence of others, how strange was that? Before he had been happy for it to only be himself and Laurie, or Agatha in the mix. He didn’t like large gatherings, even if he knew everyone well. Or maybe he merely liked privacy in accordance to his relationship with Laurie. Last night with the Aherns and Marek, Stanford hadn’t behaved any differently around his partner, keeping a safe distance between them. But after everyone went home, he found himself standing next to Laurie, even holding that man’s hand when both were seated on the sofa while Lynne sat in the big chair. Then Stanford trembled. He had sat beside Laurie without hesitation; had he ever done that at his father’s house or in Brooklyn? Never around Laurie’s family, Stanford was certain, and probably not at his dad’s. Yet within this home, it had occurred without any anxiety on Stanford’s part, and Laurie didn’t mention it before they fell asleep last night. Just how strange was this property, Stanford mused, gazing at the living room French doors.
He walked that way, looking at nothing in particular, but as he got close, little fingerprints could be seen. He smiled, recalling those same smudges on his glasses last spring, how delicate were Jane’s prints. He inspected the door, finding where the marks stopped, then he noticed one pane seemed newer than the rest. It was up fairly high, adjacent to the handle. How had this pane been broken, when had it been replaced?
Gingerly he traced around the wood; had this happened since his last visit? He’d never noticed it before…. That word struck him, for before he never had shown any overt affection toward Laurie here, before he had wondered about Eric’s strange absences, before he had noticed Eric’s eyes were altered, his foot repaired, his…. Indeed all those odd queries had a reasonable answer, if Stanford was inclined to accept the most bizarre occurrence. He shook his head, then again glanced at that new pane.
Did he truly want to know the details? Might Laurie be aware, he probably was, for over the last few days Stanford also had to accept just how completely Laurie was now woven into these people. He was Uncle Laurie to Paul and Ann, and clearly loved. He was very chummy with Marek, and he was closer to Lynne than he was to his own sisters. Stanford understood why Laurie had considered buying property out here, for these persons, unique individuals themselves, were a family like no other. Different religions, nationalities, and temperaments were linked by devotion, and perhaps secrecy. Yet affection was the strongest element, but one was missing, and Stanford ached over Eric’s absence. After Laurie, that was who Stanford most wished to see.
Was Laurie right, would Eric return? Stanford hoped so, not only for himself, but of course for Lynne, Jane, Sam…. For all of them, but wishing would do little good to further that event. Marek had said grace before dinner last night, and while he never said Eric’s name, that man was on all their minds, and Stanford imagined he’d be thinking of Eric in a few hours at Lynne’s church. Stanford had been the only one not to light a candle for Eric on Friday morning, but he couldn’t get him from his head. Again Stanford gazed at the windowpane; if he stared hard enough, would he see why it had been replaced? Did he want to know was the bigger question. He was there, willing to accept what Laurie believed, what they all took as fact. He wasn’t certain if he agreed, but he was willing to overlook what previously he’d considered as preposterous. Until Eric returned and either proved or refuted such a notion, Stanford had to keep an open mind.
When Jane stirred, Laurie rolled over, reaching for Stan. That side of the bed was cold, and Laurie quickly got up, putting on his robe and slippers, then headed from the room. Rubbing his eyes, he found Stanford at the nursery door, looking pensive. Laurie smiled, motioning for Stan to open it, which would give Laurie just enough time to use the bathroom. Laurie had found that successful parenthood was largely a matter of timing, and with an extra pair of hands, Laurie could start his day a little more comfortably than before.
Yet it was Laurie to change Jane’s diaper, Laurie to make the coffee, Laurie to fix breakfast, but with Stan keeping Jane company, all those chores were as easy as slicing pieces of pie, which that trio ate while a mother slept. Stanford teased it wasn’t all that difficult to care for a child, but Laurie only smiled. While being apart from this man had been murder on Laurie’s soul, Lynne hadn’t shouldered parenthood by herself. Then Laurie chuckled. “I wonder how much longer we’re gonna have to wait.”
Stanford raised his eyebrows. “For….”
“The baby,” Laurie smiled. Eric briefly flashed through Laurie’s mind, but Stan sitting just feet away negated any unpleasantness. “She was acting funny yesterday, I mean, she was quiet, didn’t seem that hungry.”
Stanford nodded, then he sighed. “What?” Laurie asked.
“We talked, you know. She had plenty to say then.”
“That was before everyone showed up. She mostly sat on the sofa, I think she fell asleep a couple of times.”
“Well, yes, I noticed that too.”
Laurie let it pass, for he was fully aware that Stan and Lynne had spoken at length, and Laurie was certain of the subject. But he couldn’t dwell on that due to Stan’s presence, for Jane’s good mood, and because…. “I bet she’s gonna go into labor today or tomorrow.” Laurie smiled, then forked himself a large bite of pie.
“Perhaps. I suppose you know more about this than I do.”
“I wish,” Laurie chuckled. “All I know is she’s starting to wind down. My mother mentioned this a while back. Pregnant women need to conserve their strength. I wonder if she’ll still wanna go to church this morning.”
“Indeed. Whatever she wants, I’m up for.”
“Good. I’m gonna take a quick shower. You okay with Jane for ten minutes?”
Stanford gaped at Laurie. “Oh, um, well….”
“You go shower then,” Laurie smiled. “I’ll wait till Lynne gets up.”
“No, I suppose we’ll manage.” Stanford grinned, then gazed at Jane. “Do you think we’ll be okay?”
“More pie?” Jane asked.
The men chuckled, then Laurie got up, taking Jane’s empty plate. “One thin piece. And more milk to go with it. Honestly, it’s just vegetables and starch, no different than if she ate French toast.” He gave her some sweet potato pie, then he kissed the top of Stan’s head. “And speaking of which, I’ll make that for Lynne. She needs protein.”
To Laurie’s surprise, Stanford gripped his hand. Laurie gazed at Stan. “What?”
“I, I love you. You’re very good with her, with both of them.”
Laurie knelt by Stanford. “You are too. It just takes practice.”
“It’s much more than that. You were wonderful with Paul and Ann too. You would have made a very good father Laurie.”
“I make an even better uncle.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Stan sighed, then stroked Laurie’s face. “Go on, before she finishes this.”
Laurie stood. “If she does, don’t give her more. If she’s still hungry when Mama gets up, they can both have French toast.”
“I might want some too,” Stanford smiled.
“All right, two breakfasts for the uncle-in-waiting.” Laurie chuckled, then slipped from the kitchen before Jane noticed he had left. He pondered Stan’s words all the way upstairs, and continued thinking about them in the shower.
Laurie drove them to St. Matthew’s, glancing at Stan in the backseat. Lynne was still relatively quiet, although she had eaten a full serving of French toast, even having a second cup of decaf. Laurie hadn’t asked her much more than if she wanted to attend church. Over that subject she grew animated, strongly squeezing Laurie’s hand.
They sat in the back of the building, which Laurie knew pleased Stan; if anyone asked, Stan was Laurie’s business partner in New York. But the church wasn’t full, cold weather keeping most at home. Marek’s sermon was engaging, although the subject was lost to Laurie once Marek stopped speaking. Lynne looked pale, often shifting in her seat. Laurie walked up with her and Jane for communion, but Stanford remained in their pew. After receiving a blessing, Laurie stared at Lynne, who took the bread and wine. But she seemed distracted and Laurie wondered if she was in labor.
As they returned to their row, she excused herself for the ladies’ room. Laurie sat down, handing Jane to Stan, as he wanted to check on Lynne, however what was there for him to do other than loiter outside the restroom. Stan’s comment about Laurie being good father material rankled in Laurie’s head; he was only doing what any gentleman would in this situation. Then Laurie sighed. He wouldn’t take Eric’s place when Lynne delivered, but as if that hawk had implored Laurie to stand sentinel, Laurie would do whatever was necessary until Eric came home.
He wasn’t going to be here in time, which Laurie had assumed, but now that the time was nearly upon them, Laurie felt a strange sorrow. Stan’s comment seemed to have exacerbated that sense of who was missing, but Laurie knew Stan hadn’t meant it as such. His words had been merely been in observing a situation that neither man had ever considered. If Stan pressed the point, Laurie would retort that he had never thought about parenthood because he couldn’t have Stan’s baby. Laurie smirked, then grasped Stanford’s hand. Stanford shot him a look, but didn’t fight Laurie’s hold. They didn’t break that grip until Lynne returned.
“You okay?” Laurie asked as she sat beside him.
She smiled, then nodded. Then she leaned his way. “As soon as church’s over, we need to leave.”
His heart raced. “Are you….”
She nodded, then giggled. “Are you ready for an all-nighter?”
As soon as Laurie spoke, he winced, for the few in attendance all turned to see what had happened. Marek’s eyes went wide, then he smiled, realizing what Laurie had learned. Stanford peered past Laurie, then poked him in the side. “What is it?” Stan asked in a rushed whisper.
“Whatdya think?” Laurie chuckled. “We’ll go as soon as Marek gives the word.”
“Oh my God.” Stanford shook his head, staring toward the altar. Then he looked back at Lynne, then at Laurie. “Are you sure?” he seemed to ask them both.
Again Lynne nodded, then she reached across Laurie, gripping Stanford’s hand. “There’s still several hours to go, but yes, it’s time.”
The way she said time made Laurie shiver, and it seemed to cause an even deeper impression upon Stan, who did not release Lynne’s hand. In fact, he reached out his other, Jane in between his arms, making for an awkward position, but Laurie didn’t mind and Jane seemed oblivious. He watched how the toddler simply looked around the church, smiling then concentrating. Then she met his gaze; Laurie noticed her eyes didn’t seem as blue as before. Flecks of gray shone, immediately bringing to mind Jane’s father. A flash of pain stirred in Laurie’s chest. Then it was gone, but Jane’s irises still carried those hints of gray. Laurie blinked away tears, then stood, motioning for Stan to take his place. And for Stanford to give Jane to her other uncle.
Stanford did those things and while he cradled Lynne in an unpracticed hold, Laurie bobbed Jane in his experienced arms. “You’re gonna be a big sister this time tomorrow,” he said softly. “The baby’s finally coming.”
“Baby?” Jane said.
“Yup, your baby brother or sister.”
She smiled, then played with her hair. Then she looked at her mother. “Mama’s baby?”
“Yeah, and your daddy’s too. He’ll be home soon honey, it won’t be long now.”
“Mama’s baby,” Jane repeated. Then her eyes grew large in her little face. “Where’s Daddy?”
It was the first time she had said where, what struck Laurie first. Her calm tone then hit him, for she glanced around, not assuming he was her father, nor was Marek. She did remember Eric, Laurie was certain. “He’s on his way honey. He’ll be here soon.”
“Daddy,” Jane said again. “Daddy home soon.”
“Soon little girl, soon,” Laurie said, his voice cracking. “But first, let’s have a baby.”
Marek gave the benediction as Jane clapped, repeating baby. Before they could leave the pew, a group surrounded them, asking if Lynne was all right. Laurie smiled at Marek, who laughed heartily as Lynne noted that she was fine and would see them in a couple of weeks with a newborn in tow.
The Snyder house was full of people by the time Dr. Salters arrived, making the doctor wonder just who would assist in delivering. Lynne assured her it would only be women in what was called the labor room; Renee’s sister-in-law was on her way, which made the doctor stare at her patient. “You mean more are coming?”
Lynne laughed, now seated on the same bed where Jane had been born. “I realize it seems like a lot, but some of them will be gone by bedtime.”
Lynne meant the Ahern children, but she wasn’t sure if Jane would also sleep at Sam and Renee’s house. Sally was accompanying her mother and would babysit her nephew and niece, but Lynne wanted Jane to meet the new baby as soon as was possible. If Lynne delivered late at night, maybe it would be best for introductions to occur tomorrow. But if Eric was here, Lynne assumed he too would want Jane to share in this moment, a thought which made Lynne teary. “Dr. Salters, don’t worry. Once things get rolling the only ones on this floor will be ladies.”
The doctor nodded, then cleared her throat. “Well, this is your show Lynne. I think you’ve already found that a second child seems to take care of itself.”
Lynne laughed, although a contraction made her grimace. “On the contrary, I think a second baby brings people out of the woodwork.”
Both women chuckled, then the doctor grabbed her bag. “Well, for the time being, do what makes you feel as good as can be. You’ve still got a ways to go.”
Lynne nodded, glancing at her belly. She was less than halfway dilated, but contractions were now regular, and becoming stronger. In the meantime there was time for her to make a pie. She didn’t mention that to the doctor, who helped her from the mattress. They walked down the stairs together, finding a contingent in the living room. Renee met them, Jane in her auntie’s arms. “So, what time are we looking at?” Renee asked.
“Mrs. Snyder has several hours to go. I’ll be back around four, but do call if things progress more quickly.” The doctor tickled Jane’s chin. “You’ll be a big sister this time tomorrow.”
“Baby,” Jane laughed.
“Baby indeed,” the doctor smiled.
Renee and Sam escorted the doctor to the front door, then returned, finding Lynne still on her feet, speaking with Laurie, who threw his hands into the air while Lynne giggled. “She wants to make a pie,” he said. “A pie, now?”
“Well if not now, when?” Lynne grasped Laurie’s hand. “Actually, I wanna make two. There’re a lot of us, and more will be visiting. I might try three, but….”
“Two will be a God’s plenty,” Laurie laughed. “Whatever makes the pregnant woman happy.”
“Happy is a state of mind,” Lynne retorted. Then she inhaled deeply, another contraction hitting.
“You okay?” Sam asked.
She nodded, then breathed out slowly. “Okay, maybe one pie.”
“One pie and we’ll cut it into very small pieces,” Marek said.
“Or you could make caramel slices,” Lynne smiled. “Yes, one pie. Sam, you can pick up the slack.”
He chuckled as Lynne, Laurie, Renee, and Jane headed to the kitchen.
By the middle of the afternoon, a boysenberry pie was cooling on the counter, but a sweet potato pie was in the oven, caramel slices waiting to go in. Lynne had retired upstairs, hoping to rest, while Jane did the same. Fran and Sally had arrived, then Laurie drove Sally, Paul, and Ann to the Aherns’, although they would come back for dinner, assuming Lynne wasn’t having the baby. From how her contractions had slowed, Renee predicted Lynne would deliver sometime in late evening. Fran spoke with Marek as Sam took charge of the kitchen, leaving Renee and Stanford with little to do. Renee didn’t wish to impede upon Fran’s conversation; she was also a little wary of how Fran would react when Lynne was having the baby. Yet, another pair of hands was necessary and the Canfields did have a good camera. Fran had brought extra rolls of film just in case.
Laurie had mentioned using Lynne’s camera, but the Aherns hadn’t brought theirs, for neither would have a minute to use it. Sam would be cooking while Renee…. She smiled, thinking back to when Jane was born; while Eric wouldn’t be here, so many others were. Renee understood the doctor’s slight hesitation with such a crowd, but Eleanor Salters had no idea how necessary was each person. Even Stanford’s presence was essential, although as he came Renee’s way she bristled. He had been personable last night, asking how Ritchie was faring in the rehab facility, but neither she nor Sam knew his thoughts toward Eric. At least he and Laurie were back together, she mused, as Stanford cleared his throat, stepping to her side.
Renee faced him, then nearly giggled. Smudges edged his glasses, his shirt was rumpled, and he looked happy. “Well,” he began, again clearing his throat. “I guess it’s just a matter of time.”
She nodded. “I hope she’s getting some rest. It’s gonna be a long night.”
“Yes, we’ll be drinking lots of coffee today.”
“Yeah, the real stuff too.” Renee chuckled. “After a while, decaf just doesn’t taste right.”
Stanford smiled. “I wholeheartedly concur.”
Renee nodded, then gazed out the French doors, winter having settled over the area. No flowers bloomed, other than those Laurie had bought a few days ago. Several vases were full of them in the labor room, for which Renee was glad. Then she sniffled. Her prayers for Eric to be with them this day were being answered in another manner and she lifted up that man for God’s peace. Then she sighed.
“Are you all right?” Stanford said softly.
“Oh yeah, it’s just….” She smiled, then shrugged. “Like you said, it’s gonna be a long day.”
She stepped right in front of the French doors, staring at that new pane. Jane couldn’t reach that high, but one day it would be decorated with fingerprints. Maybe then it wouldn’t be so noticeable. Renee almost touched it, but didn’t want to broach that subject, much less with Stanford. However, he traced the glass, making Renee suck in her breath. Stanford removed his hand, then placed it on her shoulder.
She fought turning to face him, but knew he wanted to speak to her. Finally she met his gaze, and then she gasped softly. His eyes were brimming with tears, which he didn’t try to blink away. “Might we go in the sunroom to talk?” he said.
She nodded, then followed Stanford, who walked to the far corner of the room. He glanced out the window, wiped his face, then turned to where Renee stood. “When was that glass replaced?” he asked.
“A few years ago.”
She looked at the floor; a few toys were strewn about, but Jane and Ann preferred playing in the living room for it was cozier. Renee shivered, not that she was chilled, but from a memory, that while slightly faded, would never leave her. Dare she be honest with this man, what did he assume concerning Eric?
“Please Renee. I realize it may be somewhat unpleasant, but….”
“Are you sure you wanna know?”
He nodded, but something in his eyes pleaded for a lie. He desired the option of believing the truth, as if he could will his own version to be factual. Maybe that was the businessman in him, supervising the situation. But one of the first things Renee had to accept when she learned about Eric was that no one controlled what happened, not that man, nor Lynne, nor anyone else who knew. Eric transformed, but in a way, they all took part. Stanford wanted to know, but not to participate. “Stanford,” she began, “all I can tell you is that the door broke the day I learned about Eric. Lynne had it fixed right after he left. It’s been like that for coming on four years.”
For almost four years Renee’s life had moved in a direction she’d never anticipated, but for the last four months the very same could be said; motherhood had been a dream, but not one she thought would come true. She had pondered how differently her role today would feel as Lynne had another baby, but changes wouldn’t merely depend on Eric’s absence, but Renee’s own heart now as a mother of two. How much closer would this bind her to Lynne and the new child, and would she get to be a godmother again? She hoped so, and she smiled, no room for anything sad or worrisome. “Stanford, I know this’s hard to wrap one’s head around, I mean, oh goodness. It’s, well, so strange, but it’s also….”
“Here you are.” Laurie came to their sides. “I asked Marek and Frannie and neither knew where you’d gone. Took me forever to get away, but when someone asks Uncle Laurie to read one more book….” His chuckle was soft. “Sally said to let her know when to give the kids some dinner, but if Lynne’s still sleeping, I can go back for them so we can all eat together.”
“That sounds fine.” Renee was relieved for Laurie’s presence, and it seemed Stanford felt the same, for he had stepped away from Renee, closer to his…other half, she smiled inwardly. Gazing at them, Stanford looked less pained, while Laurie sported a grin. Yet, it was hedged in slight apprehension. Would their relationship ride out this storm, Renee wondered. She hoped so, then prayed for them, adding all four Snyders alongside. “I’m gonna check on my husband and those caramel slices. And thank you Laurie for running the kids home.”
She squeezed his hand, but didn’t extend that affection to Stanford. Walking away, she heard their voices, but didn’t try to discern what was said. Stopping at the stairs, no sounds were detected other than soft snores. Marek and Fran sat on the sofa, both with eyes closed, Fran’s rosary beads in her hands. Renee relished the quiet, for it wouldn’t last much longer, what she would tell Sam if he asked what she had been doing.
Lynne woke at four, by which time the children were back, supper only waiting on the expectant mother. After a jovial meal, Marek drove Sally, Jane, and the Ahern children to Sam’s house. Marek would return once all three kids were sleeping, and had told Lynne he would pace along with the New Yorkers and Sam through the wee morning hours. Lynne had laughed, but it was interrupted by a squeal as a contraction hit. Now those pains were every few minutes, but Lynne was still far from delivering. Sam recalled this from last time, although it was novel for Laurie and Stanford. Those two tried to remain calm, but every time Lynne complained, both were on their feet as if the baby would arrive at that moment.
Sam remained in the kitchen, pots bubbling, but custard would wait until the newest Snyder entered the world. Renee teased that would be Sam’s tradition, but it seemed fitting, for once Lynne had the baby, no one would sleep for hours. Sam had baked an apple pie, and would make sure no one went hungry; he relished the tasks, for a distinct emptiness filled his heart, and try as he might, no amount of cooking or conversation removed that vacuum. It hadn’t been so noticeable when Paul and Ann were still here, but after they left again Sam was stricken by a desolation that he knew was due to his new role as a father and the one missing this blessed event. Yet, he didn’t feel that Eric was far, and while that eased some of Sam’s mood, it didn’t seem fair that they were celebrating together while the second most important person was…. He wasn’t dead, Sam knew that, for over the last few days he sensed Eric was connected to them. Did that make it easier or more difficult, Sam wasn’t sure. Lynne seemed to be holding up all right, Frannie too. Those were the ones Sam watched most carefully. Right after Marek and Sally left, Louie had called to check on his wife. Sam reported that she was doing well, and Louie let out a sigh of relief. He would visit tomorrow, but without Sally, it was up to Louie to make sure his household stayed together.
Jane wasn’t even two, but how different was this than when she arrived, Sam considered. Then he chuckled inwardly; in two years he had come to terms with Laurie and Stanford, and was so grateful Stan was with them. A few times Sam had referred to that man by the nickname Laurie used exclusively. At first Stanford had given Sam a wary stare, then it was accepted as though Sam had been permitted in Eric’s stead. Stanford was still calling Fran Mrs. Canfield, but Laurie said Frannie, making Fran grin. Would she be all right, Sam wondered, poking his head through the kitchen doorway. The New Yorkers sat together on the sofa and quickly Sam stepped back into the kitchen. Then the phone rang, and he answered it. “Snyder residence.”
It was Marek, announcing he was heading back, asking if Sam needed anything. “Can’t think of what it might be,” although Eric’s name was on the tip of Sam’s tongue. “See you soon.” Sam hung up the receiver as Laurie entered the kitchen. “That was Marek,” Sam said. “He’s on his way back.”
“Good. Stan and I were thinking of starting a card game. You in for a hand of bridge?”
Sam smiled, shaking his head. “I’d say yes, but since I don’t know how to play, you guys would kill me.”
Laurie laughed. “Okay, well how about….” He rattled off several games, but Sam grew sheepish. For how well the Nolans played cards, Sam’s family wasn’t so inclined. “All I know is poker,” he said. Then he laughed. “Good thing Renee’s busy. She’d beat us all.”
“Poker you say? Now that’s a true man’s game.” Laurie smiled. “You think Marek might be willing to join us?”
Sam had heard about that pastor’s ability to bluff. “Um, maybe. You can certainly ask him.”
“As soon as he’s back, let’s get started. Who knows when that baby’s gonna get here.”
Sam nodded, but once Laurie was out of the room, he snickered. Then he emitted a belly laugh, in part for how surprised the New Yorkers would be at a minister’s acumen with cards, and that if Renee was included, she would indeed fleece them all.
At nine p.m., the New Yorkers were down a few dollars each, while Sam was holding his own, Marek in charge of the game. Dr. Salters arrived at ten, by which time Laurie was five dollars in the hole, Stanford eight. Sam had lost about fifty cents, although he’d won back that much at various intervals. Marek said all his winnings would go straight into St. Matthew’s coffers, which seemed to spur on the New Yorkers. However by eleven, the game was called on account of Laurie’s empty wallet. He didn’t want to know how much he had lost, but Marek told him just to be thankful Father Markham hadn’t been invited. Laurie would have lost his shirt hours ago.
While Stanford put away the cards, Laurie walked to the bottom of the stairs. Other than the expected sounds, Lynne was facing this ordeal rather stoically. She never called out for Eric, nor had she screamed, and Laurie was grateful for her discretion. Then a loud groan was noted, and he gripped the hand rail, tempted to head up. He could hear a door being opened, then Frannie emerged on the landing. She smiled, but Laurie knew they were still waiting. “How’s she doing?” he asked as Fran came down.
“She’s incredible. Just need some more ice.” Fran patted Laurie’s shoulder, then headed to the kitchen. He followed her, Marek on his heels, while Stanford remained seated at the card table. Sam stood at the stove, but looked in his sister’s direction. The siblings didn’t speak, but after retrieving ice from the freezer, Frannie approached Sam, kissing his cheek, then whispering in his ear. Then she turned to face Laurie and Marek. “I won’t lie; it’s tough and she’s tired. Thank the lord she slept this afternoon. The doctor thinks maybe by midnight, Renee feels the same.”
“Another hour?” Laurie sighed. “Good God, how’re we all gonna last?”
Frannie giggled, then patted his cheek. “Don’t let Lynne hear you say that.”
He nodded. “Is she really okay?”
“She is. When the baby arrives, I’ll give a shout. She does wanna see you all, so no going to sleep, you hear?”
Fran chuckled, then headed from the kitchen. Marek followed, but Laurie couldn’t move. Now he understood why the men in his family avoided such scenes, for the waiting was torturous. Then he wanted to kick himself; not only was Lynne doing all the work, but Eric wasn’t beside her. She’d been waiting for her baby as well as her husband, and who knew when that man was coming back? He still was, Laurie didn’t feel that was erroneous, but for how much longer would Eric be separated from his family, how much of this baby’s life would he miss, how was Lynne supposed to cope with a newborn and a toddler…. Laurie heard Stanford step into the room; all Laurie wanted was to go home and start over with Stan. But how in the world would Lynne get along without him?
“I don’t know about you fellows, but I need some air.” Stanford came to Laurie’s side, but didn’t attempt to hold Laurie’s hand. “If something happens, just holler.”
“I’ll step out with you.” Marek had reentered the kitchen. “Just need my overcoat.”
Laurie gazed at Stan, who wore his heavy jacket and scarf. “What about a hat?” Laurie asked him.
Sam handed Stanford his hat. “I’d join you, but I’ve got too many pots to watch.”
“I’ll keep Sam company,” Laurie said. “Too damn cold out there for me.”
Stan smiled and Laurie imagined if they were alone, Stan would tease about the weather in Manhattan. Or maybe he wouldn’t broach that subject, fearing Laurie would prefer to stay here. Laurie was torn; he wasn’t looking forward to snow, but he did desire his own bed, Agatha’s coffee, even returning to work. But tipping the scales was a sense of duty, as well as how much he loved these people, especially the woman upstairs who would give him a telling off if she had heard him complain. He didn’t mean Renee, for her tongue had softened since children had entered her life. Lynne had wormed her way deep into Laurie’s heart, not to mention that baby. And who would take care of Eric and Jane and….
Suddenly Laurie found himself alone in the kitchen; had Sam stepped out as well, and how had Laurie not noticed? Then Sam walked back in, whistling a tune Laurie didn’t know. “What’d I miss?” Laurie asked.
Sam smiled. “Not too much. Had to use the john. Marek said something to you, but you were a million miles away.”
Laurie chuckled for Sam’s colloquialism, and that indeed he’d been far away. “The john, huh?”
“An army leftover,” Sam laughed.
“Yeah, I bet.” Laurie sat at the table, then looked toward the front door. “It’s cold out there, they’ll be back soon.”
“I agree, but I think Stan was getting antsy. Hard to wait, but truthfully, it shouldn’t be too much longer. Fran said that Lynne’s nearly ready to push. Once she starts, it won’t be very long at all.”
“Guess you know more about this than me.”
“What I know is strictly third hand, but from some very reliable sources.”
Laurie smiled. “That I do believe. How is your sister, I mean….”
Sam inhaled, then joined Laurie at the table. “I think this’s good for her, in that it’s been over a year and, well….” He looked at the doorway to the living room, from where a few cries were heard. Those sounds pierced Laurie, for it seemed Lynne might have called for Eric. But Sam didn’t seem to have heard that name, or if so, it didn’t bother him. “She’d been hinting that if Lynne wanted to have the baby here, she’d be happy to fill in. That’s all she ever said about it, I mean, about him being away, that she would fill in.”
“She doesn’t know, does she?”
“Not that I’m aware. And she’s never asked either. What she thinks is between her and God. And Laurie, that’s just fine with me.”
Again Sam glanced toward the rest of the house. Laurie looked at the clock, which read eleven thirty. Was that possible, hadn’t Frannie just been down for ice and an update? But if she’d been correct, they wouldn’t see her again until there was news to share. Laurie stood, then walked to the window closest to the front door. Were Stan and Marek hoping someone would magically appear? Was Laurie? “Sam, what’s gonna happen after, I mean, after we go home?”
The word home nearly got stuck in Laurie’s throat, but he had to say it, for he had promised Lynne that if Stan asked him to come back he would, and much to Laurie’s surprise, Stan had uttered that query just last night. Maybe he’d felt it needed to be stated, for Laurie hadn’t shied away from displaying how much these people meant to him, and that included the Aherns, Marek, and now Frannie Canfield. Laurie had spent Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas here, also mourned John Kennedy. And the biggest event was taking place right over his head; he would be one of the first to meet the newest Snyder, but then he’d been one of the first to learn about that member of his family. How could he leave, but then how could he stay?
“Marek’s friend will be here, not that she’ll be much help, but she’ll be around. Fran too, and my sister Joanie. And to be honest, I can’t picture Renee much at our place for the next few weeks.” Sam smiled. “We’ll make do until he comes back. And in the meantime….”
“In the meantime, we have to wait, right?”
“Well, we’re getting practice for that now.”
Laurie smirked. “How will you handle it, I mean, taking care of him plus your kids. That’s a big job, a couple of them.”
Sam nodded. “God will put us on the right path. He’s brought us this far, I gotta believe he’ll keep steering the ship correctly.”
Laurie wished he had Sam’s depth of faith. “From your lips to his ears,” Laurie said.
“That’s all we can do.” Sam smiled, patted Laurie’s shoulder, then returned to the stove. He glanced at the clock. “It’s a quarter to midnight. Those guys are gonna freeze out there.”
Laurie went to Sam’s side. “Time to start custard?”
Sam chuckled. “I think it is. Maybe that’s what the baby’s waiting on.” He pulled a heavy saucepan from a cupboard near the stove. “Can you get out milk and eggs?”
Laurie retrieved those items, then gazed at the door. As he did, it opened, and for a second, Laurie trembled. Marek and Stan walked through the doorway and Laurie’s heart throbbed in his chest. “Any news yet?” Marek took off his coat, placing it over a chair while Stanford did the same.
“Nope, but I’m starting custard. You guys hungry?”
Stanford came to where Laurie stood in the middle of the kitchen. “Actually custard and a caramel slice would hit the spot.”
“Oh, that’s a combination.” Marek joined them. “Count me in for that.”
“Too decadent for me,” Sam laughed. “I’ll have custard and apple pie. Laurie, what’s your poison?”
“Oh, uh, just pie, thanks.”
“You okay?” Stan asked him.
Laurie nodded, but he felt anything but. Yet, as Stan headed out of the room, Laurie’s heart sank; he loved that man so much that being separated from him even for a moment was unbearable. Stan probably had needed the restroom and Laurie stayed where he was. Marek and Sam chatted as Sam started a pot of real coffee, he noted, to which Marek said amen. When Stan returned, Sam asked if he wanted a cup, and Stanford said please. The four men stood near the stove, then Laurie glanced at the clock; it was nearly midnight.
A new day was set to dawn, one in which a child would enter the world while his or her father remained lost to those who loved him most. But as if this was New Year’s Eve all over again, Laurie couldn’t escape the sense of renewal. Stan was beside him, and how precious was that gift? Laurie’s heart now beat hard as a sense of newness, also goodness, engulfed him. Love carried those emotions all through Laurie, his toes tingling, his ears ringing, his fingers tapping. He would write to Seth later that day, and of course he’d call Agatha and his mother, while Stan told Michael. Then Laurie gazed at Stanford, who had sat down, his hands clasped together on the table. Sam’s back was to them, Marek too, so quickly Laurie joined Stan, gripping his hands, then releasing them. Stan stared at him, a look of terror immediately changing to appreciation. Laurie wanted to burst into laughter; instead he bit his lip, then he turned around as footsteps were heard entering the room.
Frannie shook, but she also smiled as tears fell down her face. Sam was beside her before Laurie could stand, but he joined them, Marek and Stan on his heels. “Well,” Laurie asked, “what do we got?”
“A beautiful little girl, oh my goodness, she’s just perfect.”
“When?” Marek asked.
“Born at 11:52, ten fingers, ten toes, and the brownest eyes you can imagine. About like yours Pastor,” Fran laughed, wiping tears from her face.
A collective shout was raised as Sam hugged Frannie. Stan and Laurie beamed while Marek patted their shoulders. Then Laurie approached Frannie, grasping her hands. “How’s Lynne?”
“She’s just fine, wants to see you all in fifteen or twenty minutes. Miss Caroline Emma wants to meet you too.”
“Named for her grandmothers,” Sam smiled.
“Yup,” Fran said, still wiping away tears. “Lynne also wants pie and custard, hope you’re making it.”
“It’s cooking and you can tell her so.” Sam laughed, then wept, still smiling. “God bless them both. Oh my goodness.”
Marek stepped toward Fran, hugging her. “Give that to Lynne in the meantime.”
Laurie embraced Frannie next. “Oh yeah, give her our love.”
“Well, she does wanna see you all. I’ll be back when she’s ready. Sam, if you could call Louie, I know he’d be happy to hear the news.”
“And Laurie, Lynne asked me to give you this.” Frannie placed a tender kiss on Laurie’s cheek. “Said she’d be too tired to do it herself.”
He nodded, then laughed, as tears rolled down his face. “Tell her I can’t wait to see them both.”
Frannie smiled, then once more hugged her brother. Slipping from the room, she left an exuberant group in her wake. They were also exhausted, but giddiness trumped fatigue. Raising their coffee cups, they toasted Lynne, Baby Caroline, and their own private joys, which for Laurie was culminated by Stan at his side. He’d nearly hugged him, but at some point tomorrow he wouldn’t hide his affections. Glancing at the clock, it was still Sunday, the twelfth of January, 1964, and Caroline Emma Snyder had joined their world. “Welcome home baby,” Laurie said softly.
“Here here,” Sam added. Then he sighed. “Wonder what they’ll call her.”
Laurie pondered that too. “Well, whatever it is, it’ll be amazing. Did Fran say what color hair she had?”
“I don’t believe so. Brown eyes though,” Marek chuckled.
“Well, Lynne has brown eyes,” Sam added. Then he looked at Marek. “But then so do you.”
“One for each of her uncles,” Laurie smiled. “Maybe the next one will have my eyes.”
Laughter was hearty, but it died quickly. Then Stanford cleared his throat. “Better for them to have yours. Mine are barely the color of mud.”
Laurie stared at that man’s plain hazel eyes, but they sparkled so brightly, Laurie couldn’t help himself. He grasped Stan’s hand, giving it a firm squeeze. “A very intriguing mud, I must say.”
Marek grinned. “If anyone has eyes the color of mud, I believe it’s me.”
Laurie smiled, but was still staring at Stan, and still gripping his hand. “Well for now, let’s again toast little Miss Snyder number two. My God, what’s Jane gonna think?”
Sam and Marek noted their observations, but Stanford said nothing. He gazed at Laurie, a small smile forming, squeezes being shared between them. Laurie couldn’t look away from those hazel eyes, which weren’t like mud, but a clear running stream or the brightest rainbow. Then a newborn’s cry halted all speech, making the men run to the stairs. Renee stood on the landing, a baby in her arms. “Lynne’s ready for visitors,” Renee called quietly. “Sam, bring four bowls of custard and three big cups of coffee please.”
As Sam laughed, Laurie was first up the steps. Renee lifted the blanket, revealing a now placid girl with blonde curls. “She has her daddy’s hair,” Renee warbled. “Go on in, Lynne really wants to see you.”
Laurie nodded, taking one more peek at the baby. “What’s she calling her?”
“Cary,” Renee said. “Cary, meet your Uncle Laurie.”
Laurie set a light kiss on Cary’s tiny forehead, noting a scent he’d never before inhaled. As he stepped away, that fragrance led him to the bedside of a woman tired and bedraggled, but so beautiful. Lynne’s face was streaked with tears as Laurie sat next to her. Then she was in his arms, crying hard, laughing too. “Thank you,” she muttered between sobs. “Thank you Laurie.”
He was too shaken to speak, but kissed her, stroking her head, knowing a deep peace. His world was completed when Stan stood beside him, telling Lynne how lovely was her daughter and how proud of her Eric would be.
A cool morning dawned on a houseful, some sleeping, some awake. Lynne and Cary dozed while Renee and Fran drank strong coffee in the Snyder kitchen, Sam at their sides. The New Yorkers were in bed, Marek snoozing on the sofa, but Louie was on his way. He would stop at the Aherns, where he would collect Sally and the children, then Renee would decide what happened next. Lynne had wanted that quartet to meet the baby, although Renee and Fran would wait until Lynne and Cary woke to make those introductions. In the meantime, Renee missed her kids, and Sally had gotten a full night’s rest. At least one person would be alert for the morning.
Louie would stay too, if necessary, Fran had mentioned earlier, but Renee expected Laurie to rise with plenty of energy, or enough to last until others were rested. Dr. Salters had stayed the night, permitting Renee and Fran to nap, Sam too. For the next few days, people would take turns keeping an eye on the new mother and assorted little ones. Renee smiled, then squeezed her husband and sister-in-law’s hands. How different was this from when Jane arrived, but no negative connotations hovered.
Fran squeezed back, then smiled. “My goodness, what a bunch of memories we all made tonight, or last night, or….” She yawned, then shook her head. “I will say this, I am not as young as I used to be. Louie and Sally better have slept well, ’cause we’re gonna need reinforcements.”
Sam chuckled. “I agree. I’m not even as youthful as I was two years ago when Jane was born.”
The siblings laughed together and Renee joined them, finding peace in their happiness, for which she was grateful. Fran had stayed strong throughout Lynne’s labor, and all four women wept when Cary emerged, lusty howls quieting once she was set at her mother’s bosom. A few times Lynne had called for Eric, but only as though to engage his spirit. Fran had told Lynne that her husband would be home soon, conviction ringing through Fran’s weary tone. Then Cary arrived, looking to Renee like a blonde, brown-eyed version of her big sister. Sam had thought the same, Lynne too. The rest could give their opinions in another few days when they would have the proper perspective to judge. Renee felt a little proprietary toward newborn Snyders, for only she, Sam, and Lynne had seen both from the very start.
Tears welled in Renee’s eyes, yet, Eric seemed present, although Renee wasn’t sure how other than in Cary’s blonde fluff. Maybe it was from how Lynne asked for him, or was she merely calling to him that she was now having their baby. Could he sense it, Renee wondered. Did he even know who he was?
If he was still a hawk, then probably not. If he was himself…. But if that was the case, why wasn’t he here? Now that Cary had arrived, Eric’s absence seemed ghastly. Renee fought tears, then stood, wiping her eyes. “Be right back,” she said, going to her feet. She headed for the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Sam glanced at where she went, then sighed. He’d been considering Eric’s whereabouts, wondering if Renee was thinking the same. Then Sam gazed at Frannie, who gripped her mug, a wide smile on her face. Sam grinned back, although he was torn. Then joy rippled through him. “What a good morning it is,” he said softly.
Frannie sipped her coffee, then nodded. “It’s a lot of things and that’s top of the list.”
Her tone was conciliatory, yet she smiled. Sam nodded, then sighed again. “You okay?”
“I am. Wasn’t sure how I was gonna feel, I mean, but it really is just fine.” She inhaled, placing her mug on the table as she exhaled. “If I’ve learned anything over the last couple of years, it’s life’s a constant blend of sweet and….” She looked at her cup, then at her brother. “Educational.” She patted Sam’s hands. “It’s wonderful, and it gets more so every day. But sometimes we need a little kick in the pants to remind us how beautiful it is. We get wrapped up in the busyness of life, but the most precious part is just beyond our grasp, and when we let go of what we’re holding, there it is, right in our arms.”
She had lifted her hands from Sam’s, then placed them back again. “Renee cut the cord and I was sitting beside Lynne, and when Renee brought Cary over, Lynne had me hold her first. It was just for a moment, but long enough that I…. I didn’t know if I could do it, I mean, I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure, but then there was a baby in my arms, crying her head off.” Fran had a small laugh. “Then I gave her to her mother and Lynne knew just what to do. A woman feels awkward with a first child, but then it’s so natural, and I think a baby knows it. Babies know where they need to be. And sometimes Sam, it’s not where we want them but God knows best. He knows best for all of us.”
Sam nodded all through her words, a few tears falling down his face. He wanted to ask his sister how she could be so insightful, also peaceful, yet a knock on the door interrupted, children’s voices greeting them. Louie and Sally both tried to shush the youngsters, but Paul and Ann were giddy. Jane stared at those close, then reached out for Sam. He took her from Sally’s arms while Louie went to Fran’s side, Ann and Paul asking for their mother. Jane leaned against Sam’s shoulder, then called for her mother. Then she asked for pie.
“Oh my goodness,” Sam said. “Pie already?”
“She’s been wanting pie and Lynne all morning.” Louie chuckled. “How is everyone?”
Fran stood, then hugged her husband. “Sleepy or sleeping. Actually, I’ll go see how mama and baby are. There’s coffee in the pot, pie on the counter. Make yourselves at home.”
Louie walked to where coffee and mugs waited while Sally seated Paul and Ann at the table. Sam still held Jane, but he watched as Fran left the room, Renee meeting her at the doorway. The Ahern children clamored for their mother and Renee sat between them, offering hugs and kisses. Then Jane again asked for her mama. “You’ll see her soon, and your little sister,” Sam said softly, kissing Jane’s cheek. “Wonder what you’ll think about that.”
“We were talking about the baby all morning,” Sally smiled. “She can’t say Cary yet, but she says baby very well.”
“Baby or Cary, either one’ll be fine.” Louie sat at the table, drinking his coffee. Then he gazed at Sam. “And everything else’s okay?”
“Yup,” Sam said. “Couldn’t be better.”
Louie smiled. “That’s wonderful.”
“Indeed it is.” Sam stepped toward his brother-in-law, then patted Louie’s shoulder as Louie clasped his hands around the mug, bowing his head.
When Fran returned, Laurie was with her, asking for pie and coffee. Renee laughed, telling Laurie it was now a self-serve kitchen, and Laurie chuckled, saying that was perfectly fine. Fran took Jane from Sam’s grasp, noting that Lynne was awake and wanted to see her big girl. All who had seen Cary agreed, for Jane wasn’t the littlest anymore. As she snuggled against Frannie, best wishes were sent for Lynne and Cary, then Fran and Jane left the room while Laurie squeezed in between Ann and Paul. “So, what do you two think, a new baby in the family,” he smiled.
“Is she a good baby?” Paul asked.
“Oh, she’s very good.” Sam knelt behind his son. “You’ll get to meet her soon.”
“She can’t do very much though,” Paul said. He ate some pie, then glanced at Louie. “Is Johnny coming over today?”
The adults chuckled, but Paul sighed when he was told that Johnny was in school. Then Paul looked at Renee. “Am I going to school today?”
“Not today,” she answered.
“Neither am I,” Sally said. “We’ll play hooky together.”
“What’s that?” Paul asked.
“Never mind,” Sam chuckled. “You’ll meet Cary soon, then someone will take you and Ann home.” Sally would again look after the children, then Sam gazed at Laurie, who wore a small frown. But plenty of folks were available and Lynne was in good shape, according to the doctor. Then Laurie cleared his throat, but he didn’t speak. Sam nodded at him as Fran’s words ran through Sam’s mind. Maybe schedules weren’t set in stone, but meals waited in Sam’s deep freezer, plenty of food in Lynne’s refrigerator, and lots of coffee to shore up tired eyes. Joanie had told Sam to just call and the New Yorkers weren’t leaving immediately. Sam wouldn’t consider anything past that morning, for soon enough it would be afternoon, then suppertime, and Cary would be nearly one day old. Best to enjoy each moment as it came, trusting that God would provide both for the physical and emotional needs.
Stanford then entered the kitchen, looking freshly showered. Greetings were exchanged and Sally stood, getting that man some coffee. He graciously thanked her, then sat next to Louie. “How is the new mother this morning?” Stanford asked.
“She’s got both of her daughters at the moment,” Renee said. “Actually, I’ll go see if she’s hungry, or maybe Eleanor wants something.” Renee patted Sam’s shoulder, then left the kitchen. While she had told Laurie to get his own coffee, Sam was happy to cook a real breakfast for any and all. “So, who’d like some eggs?” he asked.
“Me please,” both Stanford and Louie said, making the children giggle.
“Me too, but put me to work.” Laurie stood, then joined Sam at the stove.
Within minutes, an assembly line was organized as Sam fried eggs, Sally at the toaster, Laurie getting out plates. Fran returned with Jane, and orders from the ladies upstairs. Then Marek entered the kitchen, looking sleepy but offering his services. “Pastor, you sit,” Fran said. “As soon as most everyone has a plate, we’ll need a special grace for all the blessings under this roof.”
“That I can do with ease.” Marek took a chair next to Ann. “Have you met Cary yet?” he asked her.
She shook her head, but didn’t speak. Sam glanced at his daughter; with so many people, Ann probably wouldn’t do more than nod.
“Well, she’s very little. She has blonde hair and eyes like mine.” Marek chuckled. “Most babies have blue eyes, but Cary has her mother’s brown eyes.”
Ann stared at Marek. “Are her eyes like yours or her mama’s?”
“Well, I guess you could say they’re like both of us.”
“Are you Aunt Lynne’s brother too?”
No one spoke, then Marek had a soft chuckle. “I am; I’m her brother in Christ. In fact, we’re all related in one way or another. According to your mommy, Cary looks just like Jane did, except for her coloring.”
“Oh well, that’s nice.” Paul nodded, then looked around the room. “This’s a lot of people for one family.”
Now the adults laughed. “I’ve seen bigger,” Louie said.
“It’s just the right amount,” Fran smiled, approaching her nephew. She patted Paul’s cowlick, but it sprang right back up again. “I’ll run breakfast upstairs and when I come back, Pastor can say grace.” Fran turned around, where on the counter were two full plates. Conversation buzzed in her wake, Sam hearing Ann asking Marek if the baby liked pie. Marek replied that not yet, but soon enough. Ann thought that was good, then asked where Jane went. As Fran returned with that girl, a new round of questions began, but of course Jane had little thought toward her new sister. She went to Marek’s lap and grace was said, with prayers for a new baby and her parents offered as well. Sam ate standing up, Fran at his side, while children asked if pie was for dessert.
Dr. Salters left shortly after breakfast, noting she’d be back in a few hours. Fran and Louie took the children to Sam and Renee’s, but Sally stayed at Lynne’s; she and Laurie would take the next shift, with Stanford and Marek as backup. Sam and Renee would nap in the room next to where the New Yorkers might later catch forty winks, but both of those men were running on new fuel, having managed a few hours of rest after some tender love had been made. Laurie would call Agatha again, for she had wanted a full update once the day was underway. Sally did the breakfast dishes, Marek assisting, as Laurie went upstairs to check on the new mother. “Do you need anything?” he asked, sitting next to where a baby rested at Lynne’s side.
“Not really.” Lynne smiled, then gazed at her daughter. “It’s funny, because at this point after Jane was born, I thought I’d never recover.” She giggled, then winced. “I’m achy, but it’s different this time. Not so debilitating.”
“Better you than me,” Laurie smiled.
Lynne chuckled, then grimaced. “Don’t make me laugh. Actually, I think she wants her uncle.”
Laurie carefully picked up the baby, then kissed Cary’s forehead. “I hear she looks just like Jane, other than her hair and eye color.”
“She does. Which probably sounds silly, she’s pretty squished looking. But maybe they’ll look like each other.”
“Maybe.” Then Laurie sighed. “I thought it was special being here a few days after Jane arrived. I can’t tell you what it’s like now.” He cradled the baby close. “She’s just so damned beautiful.”
“I fully agree.” Lynne met Laurie’s gaze. “And I meant what I said last night. I know it’s been a long few months, but I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”
He nodded. “I can honestly say it was and still is my absolute pleasure.” He stared at the baby, then back to Lynne. “And equally, I don’t know how the hell I’m gonna leave here.”
She smiled. “It won’t be easy, but….”
“He asked me, Saturday night, if I’d come home.” Laurie grinned, then grew somber. “Like he had to make sure I was going back. I told him of course I’d go home. But now, Christ.” He stared again at the sleeping infant. “I keep thinking about….” Laurie hesitated. “Eric. I can’t help it, I mean, this’s so, so….”
“He’s here Laurie, he really is.”
Laurie glanced around the room, then met Lynne’s hopeful eyes. “Well, I’m glad one of us thinks so.”
She smiled. “At times last night I felt so alone, I missed him so much, and then suddenly it was like he was right beside me. And the closer the time came for Cary to be born, the more I felt him. And then she was here, and so was he. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. I hope he felt that too, but I did, and I still do. He’s right here.” She placed her hand over her heart, then touched the knitted cap on Cary’s head. “And her too, she’s a blonde with brown eyes, can you imagine?” Lynne giggled, then groaned, then smiled again. “And when he sees her for the first time, she’ll still have these pale curls and dark eyes, and maybe she’ll be a little bigger, but not too big. Jane asked for her daddy, for the baby’s daddy, and I told her soon. And I have to believe that Laurie. You’ll go home, Eric’ll come back, and….”
Lynne reached for Laurie’s hand. “We’ll be all right, don’t worry. But I do have a question, for you and Stanford both.”
“Anything,” Laurie said, blinking tears from his eyes.
“Eric and I never talked about this, but I know he’d feel the same. I’m gonna ask Renee and Sam to be Cary’s godparents. But I’d also like her to have some extras because there’s so much for her to know.” Lynne smiled. “I’d be so pleased if you and Stanford would be her godfathers. I wanna ask Fran and Louie too. You think about it and….”
Laurie nodded, then placed Cary on the mattress, wiping his eyes. “Oh Lynne, that would be an honor, Jesus Christ, absolutely!” He gazed at Cary, who didn’t seem startled by his outburst. Then he laughed quietly. “I’m sure Stan’ll agree, after a minute or two. Yes, please, count us among the godparents.”
“Oh Laurie, thank you. I don’t know if I’ll have her baptized soon or…. I’d rather wait, just a bit. Jane was six weeks old, so we’ll see in a month what’s happened.” Lynne beamed, then she breathed deeply. “Do you think you could be here for it, I mean, I know you’ll have just been home a short time, but….”
“Oh honey, wild horses couldn’t keep us away.”
She nodded, her mouth trembling. “Good, oh that’s so good.”
Laurie placed his hand along Cary’s side. “I have to tell you something, and maybe you’ll think I’m turning into a sentimental old man, but last night I was scared shitless, I mean….” He laughed as Lynne smiled. “About how I was gonna leave here. I knew I couldn’t break my promise to you, and I do wanna go home, but it was like how in the hell can I go, how on earth would that be possible? I was still feeling that way this morning, hell, I was feeling that way two minutes ago. But now it’s like, don’t worry Abrams. You’ll be back in less than two months and maybe you’ll even get to hold this little beauty while Marek works his Lutheran magic.” Laurie chuckled while Lynne did the same. “Although I’m sure Renee’ll have other ideas, but if she’s feeling generous, I’d love to be the one holding Cary while that occurs.”
Lynne nodded. “I don’t think Renee will mind. Oh Laurie, I love you so and, and….” She began to cry, but her smile shone. “You’re such a part of my family, of our family. Eric would want you here because, because….” She sniffled, then kissed her daughter’s head. “You were the first we told and there was a reason for that, because of now. I want my girls to know just how special is their Uncle Laurie and their Uncle Stanford. Are you sure he won’t mind, I mean….”
“He’ll be shocked, then very pleased with himself.” Laurie stood, then sat, leaning over, kissing the top of Lynne’s head. “You mind if I go tell him?”
“Not at all. Bring him in here, that way it’ll stay just between us for now. I’ll tell Renee and Sam next, then the Canfields.”
“Just like how we all learned about the girl here.” Laurie caressed Cary’s head. “Good God Lynne, I’m gonna have to call Agatha and my mother again. Neither’s gonna know what to say.”
“Well, if there’s any way Agatha could be persuaded to travel….”
Laurie burst into laughter, waking the baby. As she whimpered, he picked her up, cuddling her. “We’ll see. How could she resist?” Once Cary was quiet, he laid her next to Lynne. “Let me go get Stan and you can tell him. I wanna see his reaction.”
Laurie reached the door, then turned back, watching how Lynne murmured to her baby. His heart raced, but peace was the result of such excitement. Leaving would still be hard, but not impossible if they were returning in a matter of weeks. As he stepped from the room, he shivered. Would Eric be away that long? Then Laurie closed his eyes, saying a prayer. As he reached the downstairs, he motioned for Stan, who had been reading, although it looked more like Stan was falling asleep. Laurie only said that Lynne wished to speak to them both. Stan sat up, then stood, coming to Laurie’s side. As they took the stairs, Stan led, Laurie smiling all the way behind him.
All day on Saturday, John had felt something ominous was approaching, but he recalled nothing new, nor did Susie Bolden arrive with information regarding his family. On Sunday, John again sensed his wife was very near, but as the Richardsons left for church, nobody intruded. Walt had noted they might not be home anytime soon; Dora’s mother had invited them for lunch. As the morning passed, John grew pensive, then he took a walk around the back acreage. The day was dry, although cool. Susie had brought John some better-fitting clothes, but he wore Walt’s old coat, which Dora had taken in along the sides. It still hung on John, letting in some of the stiff breeze. He didn’t use the right sleeve, perhaps that permitted the wind’s intrusion. He trekked along the property’s perimeter, then returned to the shed, wondering if he was once again a father.
John lay down for a nap, but it was interrupted by strange noises outside. He sat up suddenly, which made his shoulder ache, but he stayed quiet, hearing footsteps. He had no idea who it might be, other than perhaps the boy with whom Luke had gone the day Kennedy was shot, which John had decided was probably the same day he’d been wounded. John wished to call out, but as the footsteps reached the front of the shed, he chose to surprise the visitor. Silently he moved to the door, then someone took a deep breath. John waited a few seconds, then as the knock came, he flung open the door, finding a chastened-looking youngster turning away.
“Hello,” John said. “Are you searching for somebody?”
The boy shook his head, then trembled. “Luke said there weren’t nobody here, he said….” The boy swallowed hard, then frowned, although John felt the youngster was more scared than angry. “Who’re you and why’re you hiding in this shed?”
“Who are you?” John asked, gripping his bad arm. “And do you always go snooping after folks leave for church?”
“I’m not snooping,” the boy said, staring at John’s right side.
“I think you’re most definitely snooping, perhaps spying even.”
“Are you Hiram?” John kept his voice flat.
The boy nodded, then immediately shook his head.
“Well, are you or aren’t you?”
“I’m, my name’s….” He paused, then smiled. “Fred, I’m Fred.”
“Fred who? Luke’s spoken of most of his classmates, but I’ve never heard him mention a Fred before.”
The boy grimaced. “All right, I’m Hiram. But I didn’t shoot you.” The boy looked apologetic, also wary. “Rumors been going round, but I ain’t never shot nobody.”
John nodded, wondering if Walt knew that John’s presence had been leaked, or maybe it was only this boy, who John did think had pulled the trigger. Although, now looking at the child, it wasn’t done in malice, or not premeditated. Hiram was indeed frightened, but he used anger to deflect his fear. “Well, someone shot me,” John said softly. “I’ll never use my right arm again.”
He released that limb, which hung limply at his side. John stepped into the doorway, allowing Hiram a full view of the damage. The boy gasped, then then moved back. “Oh mister, that looks just….” Hiram met John’s eyes. The child was petrified, all fury diffused.
“Next time you think about shooting anything, you think about this. I hear you were trying to shoot birds. Unless you were planning on eating those birds, for what good reason would you shoot anything?”
“I, I, I dunno sir, I didn’t mean you no harm, I was just gonna….” Hiram shook his head. “It was Luke’s fault. He wanted to shoot something and pestered me all day and night, yes he did. And then, then, then….” Hiram bit his lip, tears falling from his eyes. “But I didn’t mean no harm, no sir. I never meant to….”
Hiram had backed away and John stepped toward him. “How old are you son?”
Hiram couldn’t stop staring at John’s right side. “Eleven, sir.”
“Eleven years old is far too young to be handling weapons, unless you or someone you love is starving or in harm’s way. You never know who you might hurt.”
Hiram nodded, then sighed. “We was just gonna shoot some squirrels.”
“Well, you shot me instead.”
Hiram shook his head. “No, I never saw nobody, just that….”
Hiram met John’s gaze. “That hawk, it was just a hawk, but, but….”
As Hiram spoke, John trembled. “A what?”
“Luke saw it up in the tree. He was getting all scaredy cat on me, but dangit, we’d already skipped school and….” Hiram crossed his arms over his chest. “That dang hawk was staring at me like he was so much better than me. Stupid old bird.” Hiram huffed, then kicked the ground. Then he gazed right at John. “No old bird’s gonna get the better of me, not when….”
“But you didn’t shoot a hawk,” John said, although something within him felt deeply aggrieved. “You shot me.”
Hiram dropped his arms to his sides, then stared at the ground. “Well, if I did shoot you, I never meant to.”
“But why’d you wanna kill the hawk? What had it done to you?”
Now Hiram looked up, his dark eyes shining. “It was just sitting on that damn branch, staring like it thought it was so much better than me. And I, I….” Hiram jammed his hands into his sides. “Who are you anyways, and why’re you hiding in Luke’s daddy’s shed?”
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know who I am. I can’t remember anything.” John nearly said this was also Hiram’s fault, but he didn’t believe the damage to his right arm was linked to his amnesia.
Hiram’s eyes went wide. “Whatdya mean you don’t know who you is?”
“I have no idea where I’m from, how I got here, or what my name is.”
The boy tapped his foot, again folding his arms over himself. “Well that’s right strange. Hmmm….” He looked all around, then back at John. “Makes no sense, none t’all.”
“I agree. Just like shooting a bird just because it was staring at you.”
Hiram glanced at John, nearly offering a retort. Then the boy sighed. “It was looking at me with a mean gaze.”
“Maybe it felt you wanted to hurt it for no good reason.”
“Well, it was staring at me first.”
“Did I stare at you that way?”
Hiram had been ready to continue the argument, then he shook his head. “I ain’t never seen you before in my life.”
“That makes two of us. But if you didn’t shoot me, who did?”
“I don’t know sir.”
The way Hiram said sir reminded John so much of Luke, yet it was the only way the boys’ behaviors were related. Perhaps it was a southern element; respecting one’s elders was so ingrained, but Hiram possessed such anger within him. “Can I ask you something Hiram?”
“You can ask,” he said slowly.
John wore a small smile, also wondering if that statement was regional. “Has someone made you….” John carefully considered how to phrase the rest of his sentence. “Feel like they don’t respect you?”
Hiram pondered this, then he nodded.
John nodded too. “Sometimes when someone makes us feel bad, we wanna take it out on someone else. But shooting a hawk, or anything else unless you’re gonna eat it, isn’t the way to get back at that person. Not that you should try to get back at them, that won’t solve the problem. But taking it out on something helpless isn’t the answer either.”
“But….” Hiram raised his hands in the air, then shook his head. “Mister, I’m sorry your arm’s all messed up, but I didn’t shoot you.” Then Hiram shoved his hands into his pockets. “How long you gonna stay here, in Luke’s shed, I mean.”
“Until I know who I am, or my family finds me.”
“Hmmm, well, yeah, there is that.” Hiram kicked the ground again. “Listen mister, I won’t tell nobody about you if you don’t tell nobody you think it was me who shot you. Not that I did shoot you, you understand. That sound fair?”
John nodded. “On one condition.”
“That you don’t shoot any more animals unless you’re gonna take them home for supper.”
John stepped toward Hiram. “You see this?” He pointed at his right arm. “Do you know how much it hurts? It’s not just that I can’t do anything with it, but every day and every night I’m in pain. Even if you don’t kill an animal, if you wound it, it will always feel that until eventually it wishes it was dead. Now maybe someone made you feel bad and that’s a terrible thing to do to a person. But you’re a human being, and you can go to that person and tell them what they did was wrong. But animals can’t do that. Do you want some bird or rabbit or squirrel going around feeling that way?”
At first, John’s words went over the boy’s head. But then Hiram started nodding, tears falling down his face. “No sir, I don’t want that sir.”
“All right then. You keep quiet about me, I’ll keep mum about you, and you don’t go shooting anything but tin cans, all right?”
“Yes sir, I’m sorry sir!” Hiram nodded, then turned around, at first walking away, but by the time he reached the front of Richardson house, he was running. John remained there until Hiram reached the main road, going left toward Karnack.
The Richardsons didn’t return until mid-afternoon. Dora apologized, then asked John if she could fix him a late lunch. John smiled, noting that he’d made a sandwich, but that he would certainly be hungry come suppertime.
Luke and Tilda spoke of their afternoon, but John didn’t mention his visitor until Walt appeared, sending the kids inside the house. Walt also extended his regrets for their delayed return, but Walt sounded more sorry for himself than for John, which made John smile. “What,” he asked, “don’t you and Miss Hannah get along?”
Walt rolled his eyes. “Usually, but all she wanted to talk about was the…babies.” Walt sat on the metal chair, then cleared his throat. “Got kinda tiresome after while.”
“I imagine.” John wondered what had been harder for Walt to acknowledge, the notion of twins or that John’s own child was due any time. “Well, seems like those babies are doing all right.”
“Yeah, I must admit, maybe.” Then Walt sighed. “How was your day?”
“I had a guest.”
“Callie come by?”
“No, a boy by the name of Hiram.”
Walt stared at John, then coughed. “Are you serious?”
“Yes I am.”
Walt stood, then cracked his knuckles. “What’d he say?”
“He wanted to know who I was. Obviously, that wasn’t a satisfactory conversation.” John couldn’t hide a smile. “I told him I thought he was the one who shot me. That sobered him up pretty quickly.”
“You told him that?”
“Uh-huh. We made a deal; he says he won’t tell anyone I’m here, and I won’t mention that he did this.” John looked at his right arm. “I also told him to stop hunting animals unless he was starving. We’ll see if he keeps that part of the bargain.”
“Good lord.” Walt sighed, then sat down again. “I can’t believe he came round here.”
“I accused him of snooping. He didn’t like that much. A pretty angry little boy.” John hesitated, but needed the truth. “Does his father beat him?”
“I figured. Tried to point out that taking one’s anger out on somebody else doesn’t do anyone any good. Not sure he understood, but he did get what I meant about hurting others for no reason.”
“Well, I’ll tell ya, some folks got to know you’re here, I mean, I’m shocked nobody else’s asked. Callie says no one’s asked him neither. But Hiram came here this morning. Hmmm.” Walt scratched his head. “Gonna hafta see what happens tomorrow at work.”
“Will his father ask about me?”
“Doubt it. Did Hiram, I mean, he have a black eye or anything?”
John winced, then shook his head.
“Well, if he ain’t sporting marks, Pop has no idea. Pop ever find out Hiram shot anybody, even an outsider, he’d kill that boy.”
Now John felt nauseous and his left foot ached. He stood, wondered if it was a cramp, but the pain resonated near his ankle. He bent it back and forth, but still a sense of agony persisted. “Well, I made it pretty clear that I knew he’d been the one to cause this.” John again glanced at his right shoulder, but for some odd reason his ankle ached more. “I can’t imagine he’d tell anyone about it, or about me for that matter.”
“Hiram’s no dummy, but he’s just a kid. Like I said, I’ll keep my ears open.”
John nodded, sitting down. “Just wanted you to know.”
“Pop don’t never come to church. Sometimes Essie brings Hiram, although neither was there today.”
“Is Essie his mother?”
Walt sighed. “Essie is Pop’s third wife. Norma was Hiram’s mama, she died not long after having him. Which might’ve been the best for Norma, but not Hiram. Anyways, Pop don’t beat up too much on Essie, she don’t stand for it. Not sure why she stays with him, but he beats the…. Hey now, you okay?”
John had leaned over, putting his head between his knees. Deep breaths didn’t lessen the nausea, nor did thinking about anything else. John kept coming back to Hiram’s anger at the hawk, then to a strange sensation as if he could hear Hiram yelling at that bird. John wondered if he had been abused as a child, or God forbid, had he hurt his own….
“Hey now, listen here! You ain’t nothing like Pop Bellevue, so git that right outta your head. Pop’s a crazy bastard, surprised ain’t nobody taken him out to be truthful. A few’s threatened, but Pop’s always one step ahead. Now listen, I mean it, you just….”
“How do you know I haven’t done something similar to my….” John didn’t think he had, but it would explain why none of his family had found him. Yet, if that was true, why did he also feel his wife missed him, was praying for him, that she did love him? “Oh God, I just need to know who I am, why I’m here, why….” He inhaled sharply, then exhaled, gagging. The scent of bird was as though Walt had brought a dead hawk into the shed.
John looked around, but it was only the two of them. He breathed in deeply, but the smell had vanished. Then he stared at Walt. “Why do you think I haven’t done anything to my wife?”
“Two things; one, you keep saying you think she still loves you. Now Pop’s the kinda man who can forget on a dime, but I don’t think you are.”
“Oh you don’t, huh?”
“Well, not stuff like that. You know what I mean.” Walt frowned, then he sighed.
“What’s the other?” John challenged.
“The other is Susie’s never wrong. If she thought you was trouble, I’d have driven you to the state line ages ago.”
“Has she said anything you haven’t told me?”
“I hope she has some news soon.” Then John sighed. “Sorry, maybe you don’t like that kind of thinking, but right now I’d take any scrap.”
“I understand. And I’ll say this. If Susie thinks, well, if she knows something, she’ll come tell you. Or Callie’ll pass along the news.” Walt said that with conviction, then he grumbled, standing up. “Dora’s got supper cooking. Again, sorry we’re so late.”
“Sorry to be such a….” John went to his feet, looking Walt in the eye. “Pain in your backside.”
Walt nodded, then smirked. “At least my life ain’t boring no more.”
“And in summer, boring will be the last thing you’ll imagine.”
John spoke confidently. He had to believe the twins would be all right, although he understood Walt’s pessimism. Or maybe it had turned to guarded optimism. But now that Hiram had entered the equation, Walt was again leaning toward the negative side of the scale. John didn’t blame him, for Walt was right. Hiram might have agreed to John’s compromise, but he was just a boy. If his father had any idea of what Hiram had done…. John prayed for that child, then for his own family. Maybe tomorrow he might hear from Susie Bolden. He hoped so, and that his first visit with Hiram Bellevue was also his last.
All day at work Walt considered John’s weekend visitor. Shortly before closing time, Pop Bellevue stopped by the garage, but he didn’t give Walt any notice. Pop argued with Walt’s boss, who promptly told Pop to leave. Pop grumbled, still not paying Walt any mind. Walt drove home relieved that at least for now Hiram’s father was still in the dark about John.
When Walt reached his driveway, Callie was just pulling onto the main road. Walt rolled down his window, finding a wide smile on Callie’s face. “Well, whatdya know?” Walt asked.
“Seems John’s a father again. Little girl, born late last night.” Callie chuckled, then grew somber. But his joy couldn’t be hidden, for he laughed again. “Never seen that fellow look so happy, thankful too. Course, don’t know much past that, but at least he don’t hafta fret about that no more.”
Walt smiled, although a small part of him inwardly flinched. He wished Susie had news to share with Dora about the twins, but strangely, Susie hadn’t revealed any hint to whether they would survive. Sometimes Walt thought about the babies John had mentioned, but rare were the moments he also pondered those infants’ faith. All he wanted to do now was gauge John’s mood. And tell him that so far Hiram had kept his part of their bargain.
He also wanted to share that news with Callie, but as Callie gripped the steering wheel, then stared at Walt cautiously, maybe he already knew. “Well, that’s good to hear,” Walt said slowly. “He take it all right?”
Callie nodded. “Was a little quiet at first, I mean, just ’cause he wasn’t there. Then he smiled, acted as if he might have known it already. Then he….” Callie gazed at Walt.
“Told me about Hiram Bellevue coming by yesterday. You see Pop today?”
“I did. Didn’t seem to know a thing about it.” Or not yet, Walt nearly added, but could see that thought on Callie’s anxious face.
“Well, we’ll see how long that lasts. Hopefully he’ll be far away before Hiram opens his big….” Callie cleared his throat, then inhaled deeply. “I better git. Susie and the girls are waiting.”
“Give them my best and Callie….” Walt wanted to say thanks, but something held him back. “See you in a day or three.”
“Yup.” Callie rolled up his window, turning onto the main road. Walt watched him leave, then pulled into the driveway, his heart feeling lighter than it had all day.
Over dinner the adults didn’t speak about Callie’s news. Glances darted over the children’s heads, although a few times John thought Luke might ask what was going on. Yet the boy remained quiet, his blue eyes giving John pause. He had a baby girl, but other than she was born sometime late Sunday evening, he knew no more about her. John was grateful for the information, but he did wish Susie had come, maybe hearing it straight from her might have elicited a spark of knowledge; had John and his wife discussed names? Callie didn’t say why Susie hadn’t joined him, although he apologized for only now getting round with the news. Callie had looked weary, and it was nearly suppertime. As John finished his last bite, he then chastised himself; Callie had worked hard all day, his own dinner delayed by stopping at the Richardsons’. Then John sighed inwardly. Callie worked his small farm, while Susie taught in the area’s only school for Negro children. Their lives were far from leisurely, often fraught with danger. John possessed no sense that he’d lived in a similar manner, then he shivered. He must have to have been shot at Caddo Lake.
What sort of man was he, John mused, as Luke, Tilda, and Esther asked to be excused from the table. He was now a father of two daughters, which made him smile, then he frowned. One of those children was starting off with no father at all. Would he get back to his family or might he continue living in Walt’s shed? John wanted to celebrate Callie’s news, but so many uncertainties clouded that announcement. John gazed at Gail, who smiled at him. John wished to pick her up, but she wasn’t his child.
“Thank you for the fine supper,” John said to Dora. She nodded at him, her eyes misty. He wondered if perhaps she had been observing him, for she tended to Gail, who seemed done with dinner. Dora looked at Walt, who then took Gail from her tall seat. Sometimes Walt would put his youngest on his lap, but that evening he simply set Gail to the floor. She didn’t clamor for her parents, but walked to where her siblings had gathered near the sofa. Their voices were a pleasant hum as Luke read aloud comics from the newspaper. Only Tilda understood, but her gentle laughter stirred Esther’s, and soon Gail giggled alongside them. John relished their collective delight, for he couldn’t deny how it wound into him. He had spent time around other happy families, for these sounds were echoes to his past. Maybe they were related to his best friend’s family, large Catholic groups with whom John must have spent considerable time.
He wanted to discuss that with someone, but neither Dora nor Walt would have been appropriate. Maybe the next time Callie stopped by, but perhaps such realizations were only for John to ponder. He knew so little that what he did recall felt to fill his entire head. And now at the top of that rather small pile was a baby girl, born on January twelfth. John stood, then took his plate to the sink, as had become his custom. At first Dora had complained, but John had retorted that it was the least he could do. Usually afterwards, John might sit in a chair near the window while Esther and Gail played quietly, Luke and Tilda now helping their mother wash dishes. That night John merely nodded to Dora and Walt. Then he slipped out the front door, walking slowly to the shed.
Twenty minutes later, Walt knocked. He had kept his eye on John throughout the meal, also wondering if Luke might ask what was between the adults. But Luke hadn’t said anything to his father after John left, other than hoping Mr. Doe had a good night’s sleep. The way Luke still called John Mr. Doe resonated within Walt. Long after John found his way home, Luke would recall their mysterious guest, but hopefully those memories would be pleasant ones.
“Come in,” John called. Walt entered the shed, finding John seated on the edge of his bed. Walt didn’t speak immediately, instead pulling the metal chair from the table, placing it a couple of feet from where John sat. Walt took that seat, then cracked his knuckles. He remained quiet while John tapped his right foot.
“Sorry I didn’t stay longer,” John began, still tapping his foot. “Did you see Hiram’s father today?”
“Yup. Didn’t seem to know a thing.” Previously Walt had endured few scenes with Pop, who was a good twenty years older than Walt. “If he’d had something to say, he would’ve said it.”
“Well, that’s good to know.” John’s tone was weary and Walt nearly stood, offering his goodnights. Then John met Walt’s gaze. “I was thinking about that most of the day, well, that and….” John sighed, cracking the faintest hint of a smile. “I will say I was sure happy when Callie arrived.”
“I imagine.” Walt permitted a small grin. “Congratulations are in order.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Then John cleared his throat. “I was trying to think if we’d talked about names, my wife and me, but nothing rang a bell. Guess it’s enough to know I have another daughter.”
“Two girls will keep you plenty busy,” Walt smiled.
“Yeah, one of these days.” John stood, then faced the window, but it was dark out. He kept his back to Walt. “I’m glad to know, I mean, don’t get me wrong.” He turned toward Walt, an odd look on John’s face. “But it’s like wondering about something that has no bearing on my life today.” He turned back to the window. “I’m not there with them, I’m….” He sighed deeply, then looked at Walt. “I suppose someday I will be, better than thinking I won’t, but in the meantime….”
“You wonder about what you’re missing. I felt the same while I was in Korea. Not that we had any kids yet, but just how was Dora and my folks. Every day felt like the longest I’d ever lived.”
John sat down. “You never talk about your parents.”
“They died about five years ago, Dad first, then Mama. Both got the flu, went one right after the other.”
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Nope, just me.”
John nodded, then sported what to Walt was again the hint of a smile. “I don’t have any either. Neither does my wife. For years it was just us, I mean….” He paused, then his eyes were wide. “And I mean just us, like something had happened that nobody else knew about.” John looked around the small shed, then met Walt’s gaze. “Maybe that’s why nobody’s found me yet. She’s been pregnant and there wasn’t anyone else to look for me.”
“See, I told you there was a reason.” Walt hid his hesitation. If this man’s best friend was Catholic, there must be plenty out looking for him.
John nodded. “Yeah, maybe.” For a moment he chuckled. Then he shook his head. “But that doesn’t make sense. If I was missing, wouldn’t she’ve….”
Now John looked past Walt, but Walt didn’t mind. “She’s been busy. And now she’s really got her hands full.” Walt’s tone was light. “When you get back, better expect to lend the hand you got. Might only be one, but it’ll be much appreciated.”
John nodded, then stared at Walt. “Do you think I’m gonna get home?”
“Of course,” Walt laughed. “Like I said, you can’t live in this shed the rest of your life.”
“Nope. Where’m I gonna put Luke come summer? He can’t keep sharing a room with a buncha girls. And speaking of which, about time for me to say goodnight.” Walt stood, putting the metal chair back at the table. “You just concentrate on the good news you learned today. Tomorrow’ll have enough of its own to deal with.”
As Walt reached the door, John cleared his throat. “Thanks, I mean, for everything you’ve done.”
Walt turned back. “Wish I could say it’s my pleasure. And in a way, I guess it has been.” Walt smiled. “Never had such a diversion, but then like you said, my life’s never gonna be boring again.”
“No, I don’t think it will,” John smiled.
Walt rolled his eyes, then waved. “See you tomorrow.”
“Most likely,” John said, as Walt stepped from the shed, closing the door behind him.
As an amnesic slept another night in Karnack, an American spent another day in Tel Aviv. Seth had received a brief phone call yesterday, his mother sharing news that Rose had given to Wilma. The Snyders had another daughter, named for her mother. Seth had been surprised to receive the information so readily; he had expected a letter from Laurie to be how he learned of the baby’s arrival. And he still presumed a note was on its way, with more details than his mother had offered. Seth stared at a lump of clay on his worktable; they might call the baby some variation of Lynne, however Seth couldn’t imagine what that might be. In another week he would know, and until then he carried the distinct pleasure that Eric was again a father.
Having not yet met Eric’s wife, Seth concentrated on how Eric might be taking the news. He wasn’t sure how he knew that Eric was indeed aware, but no longer was Seth troubled by what most would label as conjecture. Not that he discussed it with Tovah or Ben, or even Dr. Margolis. Someday he hoped to talk about it with Eric, although just when that might occur was as hazy as when Seth would return to America or Eric to his family. Seth spent his time fully present in where he was, which at that moment was at an artist’s studio not far from where he still lived, with his cousin and her husband. But Seth had outgrown their small house when it came to his work. Now he spent much of his time around other artists who gathered in an airy loft where conversations were spoken in a mix of tongues. Fortunately for Seth, most of it was in English, although Tovah teased he was starting to pick up Hebrew.
Seth had smiled at her declarations, for he was hopeless with that language, relying on his cousin or Ben to translate when no other English speakers were close. Most of the time he got by fine with one language, his gift with clay his main outlet of expression. Initially his talent had seemed rusty, but several figurines had been completed, a few already sold. He’d tried to give the money to Tovah, but she had refused. Seth used those earnings to rent a space in this studio, also to buy more supplies. Aunt Shelia and Uncle Mickey had paid for his ticket to Israel, but Seth would make his own way home.
When he thought of home, Brooklyn immediately came to mind, but just as quickly he considered a place never before visited, yet from Laurie’s letters, the Snyder residence seemed like another extension of Seth’s life. He gazed at where he stood, in a brightly lit large room, surrounded by others of a similar mindset. Creation buzzed in this space, be it via clay or paints and canvases. Seth had never previously worked so closely with others, and he fed off their energies. One woman in particular had caught his attention; Adrienne Ross was a painter who primarily used watercolors. She was younger than Seth, also spoke with a thick Scottish accent. Sometimes they went for coffee during the afternoons, during which times Seth found himself captivated by her melodious voice, missing most of what she said. It had taken him four such outings to discern she had come to Israel on a dare from her older brother. That had been three years ago, she had said, and she had no plans to return to Glasgow.
All Seth had shared was that he was from New York, living with a transplanted relative. In a way, to say more would be diving back into a life Seth felt was no longer his to live. Eric had been right; Seth had needed to completely set aside his past, and what better place to do so than in a still emerging nation where many of the occupants were trying to do the same. But Adrienne was of a different generation, or she seemed that way to Seth. Her youth was part of it; she couldn’t be more than twenty-five. Growing up in a part of Europe basically unspoiled by the war was another. She possessed no memories of hardship, or of gross anti-Semitism. She had a casual laugh, which meshed well with her light brown hair and green eyes. Those eyes did remind Seth a little of Laurie, but her gender and that thick accent made her irises all her own.
She wasn’t like any woman he’d known before, or maybe he had been so mired in depression, he had never been able to see women past their immediate attributes. Other than Norah, Seth hadn’t experienced any romantic attachment since his early teens. Not that Seth was attracted to Adrienne, although she was pretty. He merely found her interesting, as well as her choice of location. Yet her artwork reflected her heritage, landscapes depicting Glasgow scenes and those of vast green fields, which made Seth wonder if her family raised sheep. He glanced in her direction and she met his gaze with an inviting smile. Seth grinned back, then headed her way.
“So what are you working on today?” she asked as he came near. Then she giggled. “Don’t tell me it’s another hawk.”
“No, I’ve exhausted that series.” He had made several versions of Eric, selling all of them. “Actually I think you’re going to be my next subject. A woman and her easel could be very interesting.”
“Impossible,” she said. “How in the world would you sculpt all this?”
She pointed to her work area, then crossed her arms over herself. Then she smiled at Seth like a challenge had been issued. He laughed as a strange mirth rose within his chest. “It’ll be a surprise,” he said softly, sitting on a nearby stool. “You always seem lost in another world when you’re sitting here. Do you think of home when you paint?”
“This’s home,” she said quietly.
Adrienne sighed, then pulled back her hair, letting it fall over her shoulders. Seth gazed at the floor, shivering as he did so. Watching her, he knew the same feeling as when Norah had touched his hands, a sensation so rarely explored that now stirred, he felt awkward. Yet he didn’t move away, for she hadn’t answered his question. Maybe she had, during one of their coffee breaks, but he hadn’t paid attention. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to pry.”
She stared at him, then offered a smile. “Seems you haven’t listened to much of what I’ve said previously, guess I don’t feel like repeating myself.”
He chuckled. “Well, I’m so engrossed by your accent. It’s like listening to….”
His heart pounded, for it was similar to how Eric had communicated. How had that man, as a hawk, shared so much? Seth cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, perhaps that came off as rude. It’s just that I’ve never met anyone from Scotland. I assumed you were going back at some point.”
She sighed, then stared into the room. “I could, I mean, it’s not like there’s anything keeping me here.” She brushed lint from her slacks. Then she looked at Seth. “You haven’t been listening to me all this time.”
Her tone was plaintive, striking Seth deeply. Then he inhaled sharply, as if Eric was near, placing more pearls of wisdom into his head. Norah’s approach had been direct, but she was much older than Adrienne, also with a clear purpose to her actions. Seth wanted to laugh; Adrienne looked wounded and only now did he realize their chats over coffee had meant far more to her than the value he had gleaned. “You’re right, I wasn’t really listening to your words.” His tone was sincere, then he smiled. “You just sound so incredibly Scottish. How in the world are you here?”
“I told you the last time we had coffee.” Now she batted her eyelashes. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear a thing I said.”
He didn’t mind her flirting, for now she had his attention, and it was what he deserved. “Maybe I could take you out for dinner to make up for my extremely boorish behavior, which is all in the past, I assure you.”
She nodded. “I’d like that very much.”
“I would too.” He ached to grasp her hand, wondering how soft was her skin. He also was curious as to her age. “How old are you?”
She gaped at him, then grinned. “How old do you think I am?”
He rolled his eyes, then wanted to laugh at himself. “Well, I know you’re younger than me.”
For years, he’d felt positively aged. “I’m thirty-four.” Saying that, he noted how her eyebrows shot up. “What, do I look older?”
“No, you look….” She took a breath, then let it out slowly. “So much younger.”
“Really?” He kept his voice flat, but again his heart throbbed. “Well, that’s nice to hear, but the truth is….”
She reached for his hand, an electric shock felt by both, but neither flinched as Adrienne then gripped Seth with force. “I’m twenty-three. You don’t think that’s too young, do you?”
He shook his head, setting his other hand on top of hers. “You came over here at twenty, that’s pretty young.”
She giggled. “I guess you were listening.”
“A little. A dare from your brother, if I recall.”
She nodded, but looked at the floor.
“Why don’t we continue this tomorrow night?” He released her hand, not wanting to appear pushy. Yet her interest in him was obvious, and to Seth’s surprise, his curiosity was also piqued, then he smiled. He was far more than curious, as if a veil had been removed. “May I take you to dinner?” he asked.
Now she met his gaze. “I’m busy tomorrow. What about Sunday?”
“Sunday would be lovely.” He asked where she lived, then chuckled as it was just blocks from Tovah and Ben’s home. “I’ll come for you at six, if that’s all right.”
She smiled, then again grasped his hand. He clutched hers within both of his, staring at her green eyes. They weren’t as vibrant as Laurie’s, but just as warm. Seth kissed the back of her hand, then stood, leaving her speechless. He returned to his work station, clearing his table, then gazed across the room. Adrienne sat quietly, her hands clasped in her lap, her head bowed as if in prayer.
By Cary’s fourth day, routines had been established, although they were fluid depending on who was slated to visit. Laurie and Stanford were Lynne’s mainstays, but the Aherns, Fran, Marek, and Sam’s sister Joan traded shifts, providing Lynne time to recuperate as well as giving Jane some much needed attention. She was adjusting well to the newcomer, but a few times she had wept uncontrollably, only soothed by her mother, Laurie, or Renee. Twice she had called for her daddy, but to the relief of all she wasn’t placated by Laurie, Stanford, Sam, or Marek. When Jane grew that inconsolable, Lynne tended to her eldest, quietly reminding Jane that Daddy would be home as soon as possible.
Laurie noted to Stan how rare were the instances Jane had previously asked for her father, but Laurie carefully chose his words, for he hadn’t wanted to infer how much time he’d spent out west or Eric’s continuing absence. That the New Yorkers had been made Cary’s godfathers had deeply affected Stan, and of course Laurie was thrilled for such a position. Renee had already told Laurie he’d be the one holding Cary during that ceremony, which Lynne had decided would be held on Easter Sunday, just as Jane had been baptized. No one mentioned whether or not Eric would be present, but the Canfields and McCampbells would attend, and Laurie thought Agatha might consider flying west. She had been so pleased for Laurie and Stan’s inclusion in Cary’s life, but the notion of not spending Easter with her own kin was much to consider. Laurie had written another letter to Seth detailing all this news, although he’d omitted Jane’s few tantrums. But Laurie felt her outbursts were auspicious; if the painter’s own daughter was asking for him, of course he had to come home.
If Laurie knew where to look, he’d leave at once, but Eric could be anywhere, and unless he was human again…. Laurie hadn’t spoken of that to Stanford, but yesterday he’d raised that subject with Sam when the men were alone in the kitchen. Sam felt the same, yet they had nothing upon which to even start a search. Sam said he’d gone to mass that morning, lighting a candle for Eric, but Sam’s tone hadn’t been overly distressed. He’d smiled at Laurie, looking a lot like his oldest sister. Laurie appreciated Fran’s acceptance of his relationship with Stan, as well as garnering a healthy respect for her depth of faith. For all she’d suffered over the last few years, a smile usually graced her face, which often put Laurie’s fears to rest.
While he didn’t worry too much about Eric, Laurie was acutely aware that his time on this side of the country was coming to an end. Stan hadn’t broached their return to Manhattan, although Laurie’s mother had pointedly asked for a date. Now that they knew when the baptism would occur, it was merely a matter of Laurie feeling that Lynne was recovered enough to take over her role as mother to…. One child had been a lot for her to manage alone, and while Cary needed very little at this point, she also required more than just Lynne. Laurie always heard that newborn’s cries whether he was in the kitchen or sound asleep in bed. In the middle of the night, he would approach the master bedroom, knocking once, asking if Lynne needed assistance. Sometimes she said yes, which meant that Cary needed a diaper change. Lynne was on her feet, had even hinted she wanted to make a pie before the weekend, but the rigors of childbirth still dogged her few steps, and Laurie felt very proprietary about her, Jane, and a newborn who had claimed a significant portion of his heart. He chalked that up to being one of the first to know about her, being one of her godparents, and the simple fact that for the last few months he had been a surrogate for her father. For weeks it had been Laurie’s voice that Cary had listened to, a tone unlike all the rest around her. But many different tenors surrounded that tiny girl, from a Polish accent to the rapid chatter of Ahern sisters alongside the calmer intonations of a mother, aunt, and uncle who knew a deep truth but didn’t allow that oddness to flavor their speech. Lynne, Renee, and Sam were a trio unto themselves, and while Laurie felt to be a part of that group due to his knowledge, something set him apart. As he made coffee on that Thursday morning, the house quiet, he pondered that notion. Stanford was out of that loop, for while he accepted Eric’s absence was somewhat mystical, Laurie still wasn’t sure what Stan truly thought. They hadn’t spoken about it, and Laurie wasn’t sure if or when they would. That didn’t bother Laurie, for the necessary element was that once again Stan trusted him. Laurie sat at the table, a smile on his face. Between a unpredictable sketch, then Lynne’s words, at least Stan had permitted there was a possibility Eric did indeed turn into a bird.
But that didn’t explain Laurie’s feelings, which he hadn’t noticed after Jane was born, or with any of his sisters’ offspring. And it wasn’t as if Laurie felt he was Cary’s father, nor did Lynne seem to share that idea. Two nights ago Cary had cried so loudly that even Stan stirred, but that night Lynne had rebuffed Laurie’s offer of help. Gently, of course, he chuckled to himself, but then only hours ago, when Cary had wailed, Lynne eagerly let Laurie change the baby, then he sat on the bed’s edge as Lynne breastfed the somewhat fussy infant. The adults hadn’t spoken, but a few times Laurie had gripped Lynne’s free hand, receiving a firm squeeze in return. He had laid Cary in her bassinette, then left the room wordlessly, feeling a great swelling within his chest. But he didn’t delude himself with thoughts about fatherhood, for it wasn’t that at all. It was connected to….
He sighed, then glanced at the counter. The scent of coffee wafted and he inhaled deeply, wishing Agatha was there, for her brew was far superior to his. Then he laughed quietly; over the last week, he’d found Renee made the best coffee, almost as good as what he enjoyed at home. And to his surprise, home meant the buzz of Manhattan, Agatha’s exceptional brew, visits to Brooklyn, work among sculptors. But just as Laurie absorbed those sentiments, he heard the faint whimpers of his goddaughter, then heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. Laurie rushed from the kitchen, finding Stan toting Jane, both looking sleepy. “Lynne could use a hand,” Stan mumbled, wiping his eyes.
“What about you?” Laurie said.
Stan shook his head, then switched Jane to his other side. “Coffee made?”
Laurie smiled. “Yup. I’ll get you two some breakfast as soon as….”
Stan’s grin nearly made Laurie laugh. “Just check on Lynne. I’ll make toast. Then we’ll see what happens.”
“Toast,” Jane nodded.
“Toast for two, it seems.” Laurie kissed Jane’s cheek, rousing her giggle. “Good morning and I’ll be right back.” He took the stairs, knocking once on Lynne’s door, as a baby now howled. He didn’t wait for Lynne’s response, finding her setting Cary to her chest. There was little modesty between him and this woman, not that he’d seen more than the scene now in progress. But Lynne’s grateful smile spoke for her, then she sighed. “She’s pretty wet, but I don’t think she’ll leak through.”
“She knows what she likes,” Laurie grinned, then he sat next to Lynne. “I’ll change her as soon as you’re ready.”
“Thanks. As soon as she started crying, my milk came in and….” Lynne chuckled. “Now that it’s in, this’s first on the agenda.” Then Lynne shook her head. “Sorry if that’s more than you wanted to know.”
Laurie laughed. “Not a problem, though you would’ve made Stan go crimson.”
Lynne nodded. “And let me also say how much I appreciate your liberal take on all of this.”
“You’re looking at a New York Jew. They don’t come much more liberal than me.”
She giggled as Laurie chuckled, then he grew still. That he was also homosexual usually followed those qualifiers, often trumping both. But that facet of his character now seemed unimportant; he wondered if that was solely due to how open-minded was the woman beside him, or the inclusive nature of this property. This place permitted a host of peculiarities, so maybe he and Stan weren’t all that odd.
Then Laurie shivered as another truth wound its way into him. This was his family, but not as his relatives accepted family, nor as Stan’s did. Family was a more ethereal concept that bypassed biology, religion too. He wasn’t Cary’s father, but forever he would be linked to her as a godfather, which seemed to fulfill a slightly paternal itch that Laurie had never before realized. He ached for Eric to return, slightly rued his own eventual departure. But even that no longer carried the trepidation of before. He smiled, then gripped Lynne’s hand. “Thank you for….” He paused, for he’d already told her how leaving no longer seemed impossible. But how to fully explain this sense of…. He released her hand, then cracked his knuckles. “Letting us be a part of her life, of your lives. It’s still gonna be hard leaving but….”
She nodded, a few tears falling down her cheeks. Laurie watched her blink away more, but he didn’t try to remove them. For years she and Eric had lived such an isolated existence; how difficult had it been to include others, not just in keeping their secret, but the simple fact of opening one’s heart and home to more? She’d been right when telling him how they had longed to share Eric’s alterations if only to note that what the New Yorkers kept under wraps was understood. Never before had Laurie assumed he and Stan could live openly beyond their own home. But here, among so many, no pretense had been necessary. Not even around Sam’s youngest sister had the men kept a necessary distance. Not that they had held hands, but for the first time they stood beside one another like any other couple. Laurie took a deep breath; not even at his mom’s would Stanford have been so liberated. But here they were free.
Laurie wasn’t sure he needed to say any of this to Lynne. He wasn’t even sure he’d bring it up with Stan. He merely smiled, feeling a little like Cary, new emotions coursing through him, although at least he had a vocabulary with which to discern them. Then he chuckled as the baby pulled away from her mother, gazing in his direction. Her dark brown eyes were mesmerizing against her pale skin and fair hair. “She has Marek’s eyes,” Laurie said softly. “They’re almost black.” Then he shook his head. “I mean they’re yours certainly, but….”
“They’re darker than mine. We’ll see if they lighten some.” Lynne turned Cary to her other breast, but she seemed uninterested. Then Lynne handed the baby to Laurie. “Change her, then I’ll try again. But at least half of me feels better.”
Laurie stood, taking Cary to the changing table. The baby stared at him, her features still those of a newborn, but as if she had grown during the night, Laurie studied a face that appeared slightly changed, older perhaps, or at least not as squished-looking as yesterday. He smiled, keeping that to himself, then cooed at the placid baby. “You’ve got a belly full it looks like, although your mama might like you to have just a bit more.”
Cary seemed to understand, or maybe she was just staring absently. Laurie changed the wet diaper, then wrapped her securely in a blanket. “I’ll get some breakfast started,” he said, handing the baby to her mother. “What would you like?”
Lynne set Cary to nurse. “Eggs and toast would be lovely. And if you send Stan up in about ten minutes, I’ll join you all in the kitchen.”
Laurie frowned. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yes indeed. I have a hankering for pie and I can’t make one up here.”
Laurie chuckled. “Well, I won’t argue too hard about that, neither will Stan. Sam’s pies are good, but they’re not yours.”
She grinned. “Give me ten minutes. Then one of you can come for us.”
Laurie nodded. “It’ll probably be me.” Stan might have felt comfortable toting Jane downstairs, but Laurie doubted that man would want to usher a new mother and her baby along that same route. “I’ll be back and breakfast will be waiting.”
“Sounds good.” Lynne wore a grateful smile, then gazed at her baby. “Tell Stanford thanks for getting Jane. I heard her, but Cary was starting to fuss and….”
Laurie was at the door and he stared at Lynne, but she didn’t meet his gaze. “He threatened to make toast, better go inspect the damage.”
Now Lynne looked Laurie’s way. “Thank you for everything.”
“It’s my sincere pleasure,” he smiled, opening the door, hearing Jane loudly asking for breakfast. Lynne must have heard it too, for her laughter followed Laurie out of the master bedroom.
By noon a sweet potato pie cooled on the counter, Ann asking when she could have a slice. The Aherns had arrived just as Laurie had shut the oven, both Sam and Renee gently chiding the new mother, who had allowed Laurie the duties once the tin was prepared. Lynne remained downstairs on the sofa while activity swirled around her. Stanford often sat at Lynne’s side, although when Cary had grown hungry, he’d excused himself to the kitchen. Otherwise he seemed as relaxed as Laurie, yet he said little. Neither man had mentioned when they might be heading east, but Lynne expected them to announce their departure within a few days. Stanford had made some long distance calls, always telling Lynne to let him known the charges. She would do no such thing, for his presence had been essential, and not only for Laurie. He was a huge help with Jane, who was especially fond of the still somewhat stuffy art dealer, although Stanford was a changed man. Lynne might have undergone the leading visible alteration, but every person within her family was now different.
This included Paul and Ann; both looked bigger, as did Jane of course, but those two had taken great interest in Cary. Paul called her Cousin Cary, as he had referred to Johnny last fall. Ann liked to stroke Cary’s head, seemed fascinated by her small size. Renee noted this was probably the first newborn Ann had seen, or that she remembered. Neither child seemed jealous by the attention their parents showed Cary, for their roles as godparents had been clearly made known. Renee had wondered if Paul would start calling Cary his godsister after the baptism, while Sam hoped that event would stir a similar interest in Paul and Ann. Lynne would leave all those musings for much later; while Easter was early that year, it was still a good two months away.
More on her heart was if Eric would be present, perhaps Agatha too. Stanford assured Lynne they would be back in late March, his voice wistful, as though he desired a manner in which they didn’t have to go back at all. Lynne considered how blessed she was for their continued stay, but instead of dwelling on its impending end, she gave thanks for the current state of her cozy home. The children could be heard in the kitchen while Stanford added wood to the fire, meeting Lynne’s smile with his own. He came her way, clearing his throat. “Do you need anything?”
She was waiting for lunch, but her water glass needing refilling. “Something to drink would be lovely.”
He glanced at the coffee table, then grabbed the empty cup. “Be right back,” he said warmly.
She giggled after he left, wondering if his clients would notice a change. His father would, Agatha too. Maybe his secretary even, then Lynne smiled widely as Laurie brought her a plate. Stanford was on his heels, a glass in each of his hands. “Lunch for the mama,” Laurie said, putting the plate on Lynne’s lap. He sat beside her as Stanford placed the beverages on coasters. “Sam’s talents never cease to amaze me.”
“He’s the best cook I know.” Lynne admired the casserole, then took a large bite. She swallowed, then smiled. “You two go eat, don’t want it to get cold.”
Stanford nodded, heading to the kitchen, making Laurie laugh. “His plate’s waiting, I just didn’t have enough hands to bring yours and the drinks at once.”
“I feel like a queen,” Lynne said, taking another bite.
“You deserve it.” Laurie patted her leg. “But Renee thinks after lunch you should try to nap.”
“Forever a nurse,” Lynne smiled. “And she’s right. But I also needed to be down here for a while.” She gazed at the fire, burning brightly. “You’re not gonna be here forever and….”
A lump swelled in her chest, but she ignored it, then took another bite of lunch. Laurie squeezed her knee, then cracked his knuckles. “Believe me, I wish I could be in two places at once.”
She nodded, then met his gaze. “I feel so much better than yesterday. Dr. Salters had told me I’d bounce back more quickly this time, Frannie and Joan said the same. I think it took me well over a week to make a pie after Jane was born, so….” She smiled, although her heart still ached. “When are you two thinking of heading back?”
She assumed Stanford must have an idea of when he needed to return, although whether or not the men had actually discussed it was another thing. Yet Laurie’s stricken face surprised Lynne. “We haven’t made plans, I mean, unless you want us to go soon.”
Tears welled in her eyes. She set her plate on the coffee table, then grasped Laurie’s hands. “I just thought maybe you’d talked about it. I’m certainly not rushing you off.”
Now he smiled. “Probably sometime next week, I mean, we can’t stay forever, although….” He laughed, then brushed aside a few of his own tears. “To be honest, I’m surprised Stan hasn’t mentioned it.” He glanced toward the kitchen, then sighed. “I feel so at home here, so does he. Maybe going back isn’t exactly what either of us wants.”
“If there was some way you both could conduct business out west, I’d tell you to just stay put.”
Laurie nodded, then released Lynne’s hands. “My mother’d have both our heads, but I’d take you up on it.”
He stared at her as if he had more to say. Then he shrugged. “I suppose by the beginning of next week Stan will start getting antsy. But until he makes an issue of it, I’m keeping my mouth shut.” He sighed, then smiled. “I made you a promise, and told him the same. But in the interim….” Laurie stood, then gestured to the living room. “It’s like this’s my home now, like….” His eyes twinkled. “Your husband doesn’t corner the market on strange transformations, how about that?” His tone had been hushed, then he laughed out loud. “I can’t tell you how differently I feel, and I don’t just mean from when I arrived.” Again he dropped his voice, rejoining Lynne on the sofa. “But it has more to do with me than with Stan.” Laurie paused, then tenderly held Lynne’s hand. “I realized it this morning, that here, we’re just like everyone else. I might not dip him back in my arms….” Laurie chuckled and Lynne did too. “But out here there’s no pretense, not even around others. Now maybe it’s just this house,” he drawled. “Lots of interesting things happen on this acreage. But I’ve never felt so, so….” His eyes grew wide and he spoke with conviction. “Able to love him. So much’s been stripped away, but not just concerning Eric.” Laurie cleared his throat. “To be honest, I still don’t know what he thinks, he hasn’t said anything blatantly, but it’s also us Lynne. Something’s changed with me and Stan; it’s the separation in part, but also….”
He seemed hesitant, also eager, as if he spoke what lay on his heart another round of changes would be ushered in. He smiled, then kissed her cheek. “I love you, I really do. And I love your girls. Being Cary’s godfather means so much to me, to Stan too. And it’s not just about Cary, it’s Jane as well. But I think you know that.”
“I do,” Lynne nodded.
He smiled. “It’s just that I came here feeling so….” He chuckled. “Absolutely shitty, to be perfectly honest. And while leaving’s gonna be hard, it won’t be anything like how I arrived. God, I wish I could explain it better, not that how good I feel’s gonna be much help to you.”
“Oh Laurie, it is. I love you too.” She grasped his hand, squeezing hard. “And I care a great deal for Stanford. And that you two are together is so wonderful.” She inhaled deeply as tears ran down her face. She wanted to infer that his happiness negated some of the impending loneliness, for Lynne knew that sentiment was inevitable. She missed Eric, but the household was so busy. Once the New Yorkers left, the emptiness would be hard to ignore. “I’ll be counting the days till you come back.”
“We’ll be counting them too. Not sure if Agatha will accompany, but if not, I wouldn’t rule out a summer trip for that woman.”
“We’ll be happy to have her anytime she wishes.” Using a plural subject, Lynne didn’t only mean herself and the girls. “I’ll write her in a day or so, giving her the option. As long as you don’t mind being without her for a week or more.”
Laurie laughed. “For you, I’ll rough it.”
They chuckled together, then Laurie embraced Lynne. While neither stated the obvious, Lynne felt through that hug the conviction upon Laurie’s heart. Eric would return. It was only a matter of time.
One week later, Marek took the New Yorkers to the airport, although neither Laurie nor Stanford wanted to leave. Lynne’s wellbeing was both men’s main reason to stay, but then their motives diverged, yet Jane and Cary were mixed among their hesitations. Those sisters were Laurie’s next concerns, followed by having to give his mother a rational explanation to why he and Stan had separated, and what had brought them back together. Laurie would also miss St. Matthew’s, which he would not reveal to his mom, and he would pine for others, including the pastor who warmly shook his hand, then offered a strong hug. While Laurie awaited Lynne’s opinion about Marek’s coming guest, he hadn’t spoken with Marek about more than Lynne’s care, the occasional question about a sermon, or the tasty delicacies featured in Lynne and Sam’s kitchens. But as they shared one last handshake, much more was inferred, for Laurie now possessed a deep bond with this man, who said he would keep in close contact with both New Yorkers.
As Marek joked he would be back at this airport in less than a week, Stanford considered how comfortable he’d been here, not only compared to previous visits, but as if this was his home. He loathed mentioning it to Laurie, only because it might unearth other issues which Stanford didn’t wish to address. Primarily he didn’t want to talk about Eric, but a close second was how good it had been to stand near Laurie without any fear of reprisal. Not even around Fran’s daughter had Stanford felt a hint of judgment; Sally seemed perfectly at ease with the notion that the New Yorkers, as they were always referred to, were more than just friends. At first that term had irritated Stanford, but soon he realized what it symbolized; while he and Laurie would never possess any legal bond, they were as firmly committed as Sam and Renee Ahern, Fran and Louie Canfield, and Joan and Russell McCampbell. It was as if The New Yorkers was Stanford and Laurie’s shared surname.
Only around Lynne had Laurie been so bold as to grasp Stanford’s hand, which also initially stirred Stanford’s anxiety. But quickly he’d warmed to Laurie’s advances, and by last night, Stanford had been the one to initiate that gesture. He wondered if they would continue that sort of closeness at home, or would going home aggravate things. For Stanford, returning to New York carried a host of problems.
He would worry about Lynne. He’d wonder how the children were coping without additional people to care for them. Jane’s tantrums had lessened in the last ten days, but she’d remained clingy and to Stanford’s shock, she seemed to like him best. She still went to Marek and Sam, but in the mornings, it was Stanford to tote Jane downstairs while Laurie fixed breakfast and fussed over Lynne. Stanford would fret about how Sam and Renee would juggle their offspring while keeping an eye on the Snyder ladies, and what about this Pole, who had a guest of his own arriving next Monday. Stanford gazed at Marek, then smiled, for the pastor wanted more than a goodbye handshake.
Stanford permitted an embrace, which seemed to ease some of his uncertainties. Then Stanford cleared his throat. “If you’re ever on our side of the country, please stop in. I mean, you’re welcome to stay in Manhattan.”
Marek’s eyes twinkled. “Depending on how next week goes, I might need a room for a night on my way to Oslo. But,” he laughed, “that could be counting chickens long before they’re due.”
Stanford stared at Marek; he’d said little about his impending visitor, but from Lynne, Stanford had learned it was a woman from Marek’s hometown. She wasn’t staying at the Snyder home, but at St. Matthew’s. Stanford wished to smile, for that seemed rather scandalous, but Marek projected no need to hide her, or his feelings. Stanford easily saw how excited Marek was, then Stanford gazed at Laurie, who seemed weary. Cary had cried much of the night and Laurie had tried calming the baby to no avail. That Jane hadn’t stirred still amazed Stanford, but he couldn’t dismiss how necessary had been their presence. Lynne required extra hands and….
And still Eric was missing. Now the full weight of that truth bore down upon all three men, yet the painter wasn’t mentioned. Although, as Marek once again wished them safe travel, it was reiterated, for it should be Lynne’s husband seeing them off. Instead it was her pastor, who would make the occasional house call, but within a week would have his own friend to entertain. Stanford inwardly shivered, aching to grasp Laurie’s hand in part to gauge Laurie’s mood as well as to shore up his own strength. But that action was impossible, for once again the pretense had begun.
For the last few weeks, Stanford and Laurie had lived in a special realm where none of the usual limitations intruded. Not even at his father’s house would Stanford have dared to hold Laurie’s hand. When Stanford’s mother died, Laurie was comforting Stanford’s youngest sister, and not for several hours did Stanford know Laurie’s healing touch. How vital were those exchanges, which up until that moment Stanford had always disregarded. He was a man, with little need for outward affection, except that for much of January he’d been steeped in it. From Jane and Lynne to how warmly Fran Canfield had hugged him, or even this Pole, who had silently demanded an embrace. Then Stanford glanced at Laurie, who he loved most. That he couldn’t reach out for him made Stan sigh. Laurie met Stanford’s gaze. “You okay?” Laurie asked.
Immediately Stanford nodded. “Oh yes, just thinking about….” He prattled off acceptable notions; the length of their travel, getting back into the routine of work, of which there was plenty, foremost being the wrap-up of Eric’s European exhibition. But thinking of that caused Stanford to again sigh, for considering Eric triggered two distinct pains. Eric was still missing and was it actually possible that he was, as the rest believed, a hawk?
Other than Stanford’s conversation with Lynne and what he’d asked Renee about the French door, not a single whiff of that had been uttered in Stanford’s presence. But to a very select few it was an indelible part of their lives, yet the Canfields seemed unaware, as did Sam’s youngest sister and her family. The Aherns’ youngsters had no idea and Jane didn’t understand either, although she had started asking for her daddy. Was that due to Laurie and Stanford, or might that toddler realize something none of the adults could. Stanford had to admit that Lynne’s home was remarkable, but no longer could he equate the significance solely to Eric’s talent. Only now that Stanford was preparing to leave could he sense how tremendous were those proceedings, some more positive than others.
Overall, most were good. In fact, only one held negative connotations. But as Laurie made noises about checking in for their flight, Stanford pushed aside the one topic about which they had yet to speak. Again Stan shook Marek’s hand, thanking him for the ride. Marek wished them well, adding he would see them again in March. His voice was light and he walked away without looking back. Stanford found himself wishing it was already weeks in the future, by which time Eric would have certainly come home.
In Karnack, John Doe wasn’t any closer to recalling his identity, but no longer was his presence a closely guarded secret. At school Hiram had loudly boasted that Luke’s daddy was keeping a man locked inside their shed. Luke had dismissed such nonsense, but other boys pressed for information, and while Luke tried to lie, eventually John’s existence was admitted. Not that the Richardsons permitted anyone onto their property; John’s privacy needed to respected, and his injuries concealed. While the children and Walt, the Boldens too, were comfortable with his damaged arm, Dora still grew nauseous if she stared at the right side of John’s body.
That was the only time Dora felt ill. She often was fatigued, and now when Luke and Tilda returned from school they were kept busy with chores. But during the last weekend of January, Luke had time for conversation. Since Hiram had broken the news, Luke felt even more protective about Mr. Doe, although Luke didn’t possess the worries of his father and Mr. Bolden. Luke only knew that other kids wanted to meet the man living in the Richardsons’ shed, but Luke didn’t want to share Mr. Doe with anyone.
Something had happened in the last couple of weeks, changing Mr. Doe. He could still be moody, and he didn’t recall anything that might lead to him leaving, but Luke sensed Mr. Doe wouldn’t be with them for much longer. Luke was still an insightful child, not the way Miss Susie could predict things, but he’d seen how Mr. Doe now paid more attention to Gail, how kind he was to Luke’s mother, and that Luke’s father was more chatty than Luke had ever witnessed. Around Mr. Doe, Walt was nearly as friendly as Mr. Bolden, although Luke’s father possessed a formality that Luke chalked up to just how his daddy was and always would be. Luke was happy that his parents hadn’t fought since Mr. Doe’s arrival, for now there was nowhere else for Walt to sleep. Maybe that was due to the babies, Luke also considered. Then he wondered if the coming twins were something Mr. Doe remembered, not how Miss Susie recalled things. Luke would never ask something so personal, so instead he brought up the weather. “Not getting warmer anytime soon,” he said, looking toward the mostly closed shed door.
How Mr. Doe didn’t catch cold out in the shed, Luke didn’t ponder. Mr. Doe was a special man, but was he cursed? Some of the kids at school said so, why else was he living in Luke’s shed? Luke hadn’t denied that Mr. Doe had lost his memory, but he didn’t provide any other reason for the man’s presence. He never spoke about the day he and Hiram had skipped school, and thankfully Hiram had enough smarts not to mention it either. No one asked how long the man had lived at the Richardsons, and Luke hoped nobody would ever put those events together.
Yet now it was cold out and winter would last another good month, maybe even up to Easter. Would Mr. Doe be here then, Luke wondered, or might he even be living in this shed when the babies came? Luke wouldn’t be sharing a room with his sisters then; his father and Mr. Bolden were going to add onto the house once the rains had stopped. Luke would have his own room, at least for a little while. If the babies were boys, or even one little brother, Luke would have a roommate. But better to share his new room with a baby, even one so small. It beat having to sleep in the same space with a bunch of girls.
Luke shared that notion with Mr. Doe, who smiled. “Sounds like you’re looking forward to a room of your own.”
“Oh yes sir. And if one of the babies is a boy, I can tell them all about baseball and fishing and….” Luke rattled off his favorite pastimes, then sighed deeply. Hunting no longer topped the list. Then he stared at Mr. Doe. “I wonder what you used to like to do.”
“I think about that too. I think I liked to paint.”
“Really? What, like houses or pictures or….”
Mr. Doe shook his head. “I don’t know exactly, but sometimes I find myself staring at the sky, and all I can think is what colors I would choose if I wanted to paint it.” His voice grew sad. “Doubt I’ll ever do that kind of thing again though.”
“You could try with your left hand,” Luke said.
To Luke’s surprise, Mr. Doe smiled. “Indeed. It’d make for some pretty impressionistic pieces, more abstract to be honest.” Then Mr. Doe laughed. “I can only imagine how those canvases might turn out.”
Luke stared at his friend, who still used words Luke didn’t understand. But more to catch Luke’s attention was how Mr. Doe’s face changed, like he had remembered something. “Mr. Doe, you okay?”
John stood, gently fingering his limp right arm. “It’s on the tip of my brain, like if I could just….” He walked to the shed door, opening it, then stepping outside. Luke followed, finding Mr. Doe staring at the flat gray sky.
“Whatdya see up there?” Luke asked softly.
“My life.” Then Mr. Doe huffed. “Nothing more than a big hazy mess.”
Luke sighed quietly, for Mr. Doe’s voice was back to the same dismal tone of a few weeks ago. Then Luke swallowed hard. He might get a spanking for being impertinent, but he had to ask. Then he smiled; impertinent was a word he’d learned from Mr. Doe, describing Tilda, who reminded Mr. Doe of someone from home. Tilda hadn’t liked it, but Luke thought it fit her perfectly. “Mr. Doe, you said Tilda reminded you of somebody, and I think Gail does too.” Luke paused, for he didn’t wish to cause Mr. Doe any unhappiness, then he continued. “Why does the sky make you think you used to be a painter?”
Now Mr. Doe stared at Luke. “You all remind me of people Luke. Gail’s about the same age as my….” Mr. Doe took a deep breath. “I have two daughters, one was born just two weeks ago.”
“Oh Mr. Doe, my goodness, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry!” Luke wanted to cry, but instead he stared at the ground. “Don’t tell Daddy I was pestering you so.”
Now John knelt beside Luke. “I won’t say anything. It’s okay Luke, don’t worry.”
Mr. Doe nodded. “Actually, you have the same color eyes as my oldest. She’s about Gail’s age.” Then he looked back at the sky. “But where they are and why I’m here, I just don’t know.”
Luke helped Mr. Doe to stand, but they didn’t return to the shed. “Mr. Doe, if you were a painter, maybe you were here, thinking about painting the lake.” Thinking about Caddo Lake made Luke’s stomach hurt. “Maybe you were gonna paint it.”
Luke wished that Mr. Doe could use his arm, for at least that way they could test it. Sometimes Mr. Doe could grip things with his right hand, although not always. Luke had an idea, then told Mr. Doe he’d be right back. Before John could speak, Luke sprinted to the house, wondering if his father would approve.
Walt and Luke returned together, Luke carrying a pad of paper and two pencils. One was thicker than the other, both with newly sharpened leads. Luke had been surprised that his father wanted to accompany him, but as they approached the shed, Luke was relieved. If Mr. Doe didn’t want to participate in the experiment, Luke could scurry back to the house, leaving his father to apologize on his behalf.
The last thing Luke wanted was to upset Mr. Doe. It was bad enough learning he had two children, one of which was just a couple of weeks old. Now Luke understood Mr. Doe’s recent change of mood, all the more reason to try to stir his memory. He had a family to go home to, a new baby to meet. Luke’s heart raced and he sprinted past his father, then waited at the closed shed door, still gripping the paper and pencils.
Walt knocked and Mr. Doe told them to come in. Hiding the supplies behind his back, Luke let his father go first. Walt cleared his throat, then spoke of Luke’s idea. Luke watched Mr. Doe’s face go from a look of surprise to doubt. Luke coughed, gripping the items behind his back. Then Mr. Doe gave a one-arm shrug. “What the hell?” he laughed. “Might as well give it a try.”
Luke almost squealed as Walt chuckled. “Here you go Mr. Doe.” Luke displayed the pad and pencils, then set them on the table near where Mr. Doe sat. Luke pulled out the other chair, then gazed at his father. “You wanna sit Daddy?”
“No, you go ahead son.”
Walt stood opposite Mr. Doe while Luke took the seat on Mr. Doe’s right. Luke wanted to speak, but as Mr. Doe picked up the thinner of the pencils with his left hand, Luke fell silent. At first Mr. Doe tried to draw with that hand, but nothing more than a stick figure emerged. “Well, this won’t do,” John said. He glanced at Luke, a small smile on his face.
Luke nodded, so wishing to put that pencil in Mr. Doe’s right hand. That arm still rested at Mr. Doe’s side, and Luke wasn’t sure if Mr. Doe could even lift it. Maybe Luke was too close, maybe Mr. Doe felt embarrassed. Then Luke gazed at his father, but Walt’s thoughts were hard to read.
“You need assistance?” Walt then said.
“No.” Mr. Doe carefully lifted his right arm onto the table, then weakly wiggled his right fingers. Luke’s pulse raced as each digit twitched. Did Mr. Doe have enough strength, had Luke been impertinent? Tilda had wanted to join them, but Walt expressly forbade it. Luke had seen his sister’s frown, which now made him smile. Then he almost shouted, looking at the paper now within Mr. Doe’s reach. The wider pencil was gripped awkwardly in his right hand, marks coarsely scribbled onto the sheet, but they weren’t randomly applied. Luke saw his own face, crudely drawn but certainly recognizable.
“Hey, that’s me!” He laughed, then stood, leaning over for a better view. “How’d you do that?”
“I have no idea, it just drew itself.” Mr. Doe’s voice was warm, also astonished. With his left hand, he ripped off the page, gave it to Luke, then drew another. Within a minute, Walt’s face adorned the pad as Luke hooted in delight.
“By God, I don’t believe it.” Walt picked up the pad, studying it. Then he gazed at John. “You can barely feed yourself left handed, but lord almighty, look what you can do.”
Luke stood, joining his father, also peering at the paper. Walt’s dark hair and eyes were no more than heavy marks from the side of the pencil lead, his dad’s mouth a few brief strokes, yet this was Walt Richardson. Then Luke glanced at his image; he looked a lot like his father, although their coloring was different. “I wonder if Mama has a boy if he’ll have hair like yours Daddy.”
As Luke spoke, he realized his mistake. Walt gave him a stern look, but Mr. Doe laughed. “Maybe he will. You and your sisters all have your mother’s coloring. Time for something new, I think.”
Luke smiled, but retook his seat. Then he sighed. “Does doing that make you remember anything?”
“Not immediately. Just makes my hand ache.” John tried gripping the pencil again, but he groaned. “Oh, now it really hurts.” He tried making a fist, but couldn’t do more than curl his fingers into the shape of a C. “Well, if nothing else, here you two go. If Tilda wants her own drawing, she’s gonna have to wait.”
“Well, I’ll tell you Mr. Doe, she’ll be bugging you daily till you feel better.” Luke spoke lightly, in part that Tilda would be jealous, and that he didn’t want Mr. Doe to get discouraged. “I just thought that if you could draw something, maybe….”
“Luke, go see if your mama needs any help.”
Luke stood, not collecting his drawing. But as he reached the door, Mr. Doe spoke. “Take this with you.”
Luke turned to find Mr. Doe holding the paper in his left hand. Walt’s image remained on the table. Luke smiled, returning for his sketch. “Shall I take these inside too?”
He’d pointed to the pad and pencils. To his delight, Mr. Doe shook his head. “Unless you need them, just leave them here.”
“No sir, don’t need them t’all.” Luke wanted to clap his hands for Mr. Doe’s upbeat tone as well as the outcome of his experiment. At least Mr. Doe wasn’t mad at him, although Luke wished Mr. Doe had recalled something important. He left the shed, nearly skipping back to the house. Tilda met him on the porch, demanding to know all she had missed. He didn’t show her the drawing, instead letting his mother see it first. Dora was suitably impressed, while Tilda and Esther hollered they wanted their likenesses drawn. As Luke explained the scene, he didn’t notice how long his father remained outside with Mr. Doe. When Walt returned, his sketch in hand, Mr. Doe didn’t accompany him.
It was late Sunday night when Klaudia finally closed her suitcase. The day had been fraught with more than what to wear, yet she had to leave Marek’s care in the hands of professionals. Three more seizures over the last ten days had left her son bedridden, and as she told both Sigrun and the head nurse, if he died while she was away, maybe that was for the best.
If that occurred, Sigrun was to call Klaudia at St. Matthew’s. Klaudia had Eric Snyder’s phone number, but under no circumstances would she share it with anyone. She was surprised Marek Jagucki had given it to her, for that artist was now famous all over Europe. Klaudia had followed up on that exhibit, feeling a tad special for having access to one of the subjects, although she still felt awkward with the painter’s phone number in her possession. She had certain ideas about that man and his wife, and of course their two girls. Klaudia wasn’t keen on meeting Mrs. Snyder, and she was loathe to spend time with the babies. But she hoped to at least speak to Eric Snyder, if for no other reason to say she’d met one of the most talented painters of their generation.
Her flights started early tomorrow morning; from Oslo she traveled to Paris, then to New York, onto Chicago, then further west until she landed in a small town where Marek would be waiting for her. She wouldn’t arrive until late in the evening, one of the longest days she would ever spend. She smiled at herself, not thinking of how tortured were those first days after Gunnar had taken away their baby, nor the weeks after the Jagucki family had been murdered. Tomorrow would be extended via technology, which was perfectly acceptable in this modern age. Klaudia smiled at herself, for this trip was noteworthy for multiple reasons; how few people traveled to America, meeting such a heralded artist, and that this visit wasn’t costing her anything. She would buy something for Sigrun, but other than a souvenir, Klaudia wouldn’t spend much money. And she had already purchased what she felt was her own kind of keepsake; condoms waited at the bottom of her luggage. She had bought them a few weeks ago at a drugstore on the other side of the city. Fortunately the cashier had been a woman of her age who had smiled at Klaudia as if approving. They were mature women who knew what they wanted, and what wasn’t necessary. Babies were for those foolish enough to think life revolved around families. Klaudia had lost the need for kin after her parents died, for she had never felt that with Gunnar, even in the last stages of her pregnancy.
A family was more than a husband and wife; families were…. Superfluous, she smirked, then she inhaled deeply. She had also packed cigarettes; it might be a day or two before she could buy any after she landed, and without proper reinforcements, Klaudia would be miserable. The jet lag would usurp her first day, although she was prepared to struggle through it to get on Pacific Time. She was truly going to America, she then smiled, focusing more on the nation than the person she would encounter.
Walking from her bedroom into the kitchen, she didn’t ponder that man, instead going for an open pack of smokes on the table. She lit one, taking long drags, as though storing up for future days when everything would be new. She fretted using her English, but would try it in New York, in that she would never see those people again and best to start speaking it as soon as she could. Plus she didn’t expect any of them to know either Norwegian or Polish, and the last thing she wanted was to appear as an ignorant foreigner. The memories attached to her family’s arrival in Oslo still troubled her, how her uncle had to speak on her parents’ behalf as if her father was a mere child. Her parents hadn’t lived long enough to learn Norwegian, but Klaudia had picked it up quickly. Languages were to Klaudia like solving a crossword; a few key letters inserted made the entire puzzle fall into place. But reading and understanding were different than speaking, for to say the words aloud permitted the opportunity for ridicule. Yet, it had been better to try speaking Norwegian and be corrected than to use Polish, and Klaudia hoped for the same reaction in The United States regarding English.
That Marek had paid for her ticket was his choice, but she wasn’t beholden to him or anyone else for anything. Finishing the smoke, she smiled, then considered the rubbers; of course they would sleep together, not that it was the price of her sojourn, but why else did he want to see her? She wouldn’t begrudge a few nights of pleasure, but that was as far as she would allow it to affect her. Then she laughed out loud; she wanted to have sex with him, in his church of all places. How better to defy what he espoused, what she found abhorrent. Religion was for the weak; many had made that claim and they were absolutely correct. Not that Klaudia would point out to Marek how poor had been his decision to enter the church, but she was fully prepared for any attempt he might make to change her views. She lit another smoke, placing it between parched lips. Inhaling, she allowed that after what he had endured, one either went mad, became a revolutionary, or gave their life to God. The latter was the easiest, she considered, requiring the least amount of courage.
Klaudia had never been forced to alter her life in such a manner. She was neither insane nor radical, simply a working woman on the cusp of a grand adventure. She sat at her table, peering around the room, wondering if Marek’s ghost was waiting to spring upon her, chastising her secular notions. But she was alone in her house, just like always. She’d been alone for years, never permitting her few lovers to spend the night, which made her huff. Then she coughed, placing the nearly finished smoke in the empty ashtray. She hadn’t been with anyone for over three years, then she wondered how long Marek had lived without…. He couldn’t have a girlfriend now, he would have mentioned it. She felt chilled, then shook her head. He wanted to see her, he still cared for her, he…. Loved her, which then made Klaudia stand abruptly, smashing the butt against the bottom of the thick glass ashtray. She had signed her letters as if she felt the same, but she didn’t love him anymore; she didn’t know who he was past his role as a clergyman and transplanted Polish survivor of…. They were both survivors, she coolly accepted, calming her racing heart. This was merely a reunion of those who had lived through the war.
If they used the condoms, fine. If she brought them home, she would have them for later. They would be her souvenir, of which she would never share with anyone other than some man whom she found intriguing enough to sleep with. And if that was the case, she would need no other trinket to remind her of this trip, for it would slip from her mind like other memories which were supposed to have made lasting impressions upon her life. Marek Jagucki wouldn’t be more than a faint shadow which would fade quickly as she returned to her usual existence. He wouldn’t mean any more than her own Marek, who might not even be alive when she came home. And if that happened, how easy would it be to simply excise that name from her mind? Two Mareks could be wiped away, giving Klaudia needed peace. She nodded to herself, then yawned. Sigrun was taking her to the airport at six tomorrow morning, which was now less than seven hours away. Klaudia didn’t care if she was exhausted getting onto her first flights. Sleep would be the best way to make the time go faster. Suddenly Klaudia wished she was already back, able to sweep aside the men who haunted her. Soon enough, she mused, checking that the front door was locked, then walking back to her room. Placing the suitcase on the floor, she looked at her alarm clock, set to ring at five. She nodded, turned off the light, then got under the covers, one last night where Marek Jagucki was only a figment of her dreams.
Marek spent that morning going about his usual habits, but seeing Lynne, Jane, and Cary enter St. Matthew’s without Laurie and Stanford reminded the pastor of impending alterations within his own routine. That the Aherns accompanied the Snyder ladies didn’t lessen Marek’s sense of modification; for the last few months Marek had grown used to Laurie escorting Lynne and Jane. Cary was placid during most of the service, but cried afterwards as parishioners thronged around Lynne, eager to meet the newborn. No one asked where Eric was, which didn’t sadden Marek, nor did Lynne, Sam, or Renee seemed distressed. Perhaps it was easier this way; nothing had to be explained, nor was that subject mentioned around the children.
Paul and Ann seemed to take Eric’s absence for granted, yet they’d never met him. Maybe they assumed Jane and Cary’s father was a figment of all the adults’ imaginations, another dead person who wouldn’t reappear. Marek had considered Klaudia in a similar manner, but with her arrival hours away, he found himself trying to equate that girl with the person she now was, a single mother, a widow, a survivor. Marek didn’t consider her life any less tortured than his own, in part for all she had suffered after leaving Poland. And for the catastrophe she had witnessed, even if from behind a closed door. He wondered how youth either colored that event or muted it; Paul and Ann seemed relatively unscathed by the loss of their parents, to which Marek permitted God had blessed those children with his divine protection as well as providing people perfectly suited for their care. God had done the same for Marek, keeping him from harm. But Marek wasn’t sure if Klaudia might view her life in that way. She’d made no mention of being a churchgoer, although perhaps she’d abandoned her Catholic faith in a Lutheran country. Or maybe she’d given it up due to what she had heard or perhaps seen in Poland, then definitely suffered through the birth of her son. Faith from one’s earliest days could sometimes be lost when storms blew through, for often faith was taken for granted, as if no more than the clothing one put on, then removed, as day turned to night. Marek was glad that Sam and Renee weren’t pushing for their children to be baptized, even if Paul was only a couple of years away from taking first communion. Faith needed to be carefully nurtured, lest it be trampled by harsh realities eager to crush it into dust.
Marek’s faith hadn’t been tested in a long time, although Eric’s absence seemed unnaturally cruel. That Eric turned into a hawk didn’t figure into the pastor’s prayers; something like that was best left to God’s wisdom. But now that Cary had arrived, what was the purpose to her father’s continued disappearance? Maybe it had been for Stanford, for now that man was permanently altered. Marek had never pressed to hold Jane when she was in Stanford’s grasp for she was happy there, as was the one holding her. Marek did miss the New Yorkers, but he more longed to speak to one with whom he shared a permanent bond, their friendship sealed by God’s mysterious grace. It would be such a waste if Eric didn’t return to those who loved him, also for the gift he proffered through his art. Marek wondered what Klaudia would think of the painting tucked away in the kitchen. He never mentioned it to any parishioners, for then he would never have a quiet moment in that space again. Fortunately Carla had kept still about it too; perhaps she also sensed the privilege of that canvas within the church house. Sometimes he found her admiring it, then they would share a smile.
Lately her smiles when viewing that piece were minimal. Not that she spoke of where Lynne’s husband might be, but it had been…. Nearly seven months had passed since Eric left for Florida. According to Laurie, Seth was thriving in Israel, with no immediate plans to return. Marek thought it good he was starting over in a new country, but Eric should be with his wife, children, and…. Marek had hoped to introduce Klaudia to the person responsible for their reunion, but if Eric did come back soon, that meeting might be delayed depending on Eric’s condition. Was he still a hawk, Marek hoped not. He wasn’t sure what might be preferable, but the odds of Eric turning back into a human being after so long in the wild weren’t favorable. Marek knew the details of Eric’s previous sojourns, and how difficult it had been when he returned. Thankfully Lynne hadn’t delivered while trying to manage Eric’s convalescence. But now that Cary was here, where was her father?
Marek found that child’s eyes a fascination. She was two weeks old, and still those irises were nearly black. She seemed to see out of them perfectly well, but her gaze was fleeting, what Lynne said was typical of a newborn. Marek had been around few babies, and had relished his role, although distance had been hard to maintain. Klaudia’s visit was well-timed, providing another distraction, although some at St. Matthew’s might find her presence disarming. Marek smiled, heading into the kitchen. The fallout of Klaudia staying at St. Matthew’s would be minor compared to what some wagging tongues wished to spread.
None seemed offended by Stanford’s presence, although it had been relatively brief. Many had asked where was Lynne’s brother, and Sam had noted Laurie needed to get back to work in Manhattan. The authority in Sam’s voice, as well as the glamour of Laurie’s career, silenced further inquiries, as though Stanford was a bit player in Laurie’s metropolitan life. Marek had bitten his tongue, then smiled while Renee noted how Laurie would return for Cary’s baptism. She hadn’t mentioned Stanford, but Marek knew both men had hated getting on the plane for New York. The reasons weren’t solely related to whom they were leaving, but what would be discussed, or ignored, when they got home.
Marek’s stomach rumbled and he started a late lunch, occasionally staring at his profile, wondering how he and Klaudia would initiate conversation. It might be as awkward as Laurie and Stanford’s, although Marek wasn’t planning on telling Klaudia anything that fantastic. He wasn’t sure how he would explain his absence on the day his family was killed; he needed to ascertain her tolerance for the unexpected. Then he chuckled, taking a sandwich to the table, seating himself. How strange was it that after twenty years they were going to spend over a week together? His feelings toward her were still tender, although as her visit loomed, he tried to be rational; they might not hit it off at all. Her letters were devoid of any hint to her personality; all he had to go on were his memories, which were now aged, rose-colored too, especially when it came to her. All of his relatives’ rough edges had been swept away, although his brother’s slight superiority complex remained, but now Marek understood Dominik’s demeanor. Marek’s gift with languages was outstanding; he would have been the one the family would have sent to Krakow for university. Marek never gave in to what if’s, but did Klaudia, and if so, was it only concerning their youth, or what had happened to her son? So much about her remained a mystery, much like where Eric was on that day. Marek ate his lunch, praying for them both, then placing other beloveds into God’s care. Fretting about the future was a waste of time; the future would be here when Christ was good and ready for it.
That evening, all six Richardsons possessed caricatures of themselves, a word John had used when describing the simple yet touching illustrations. Gail was the only one not fully aware of her sketch, but even Esther has shyly approached Mr. Doe for a hug, giggling as she broke away, gripping her image in her hand. Dora had been the most grateful, for John had drawn her in profile, her curviness denoting the twins, which Luke had said aloud was just how his mama looked best. John had stifled a chuckle, but Walt broke out in laughter while Dora blushed, not wishing to hide her smile.
Tilda had been John’s last subject, for he’d needed to rest his right hand. Tilda’s image was of a child attempting not to frown, hair falling into her face. Dora thought it was beautiful, but Tilda wasn’t certain about that. She had thanked Mr. Doe, for not to would have earned a sharp stare from both of her parents. Yet she spent the rest of that evening studying her drawing, wondering just how that man had done it.
He was so clumsy with his left hand, often leaving a ring of food on the table after he took his plate to the sink. His right arm was a mess, but unlike Dora, who avoided gazing at that side of John’s body, Tilda would stare when she thought no one was looking. She wasn’t sure if Hiram had shot this man, for while Hiram was mean, his gun wasn’t more than a glorified BB gun. And if he had done it, how was it that nobody knew?
While Luke was insightful, Tilda was observant. Because she was a girl, few expected much from her, but she was intelligent, also aware of her position in life due to her gender as well as where she lived and Karnack’s economic situation. She wasn’t as bad off as some of her peers; she wasn’t a Negro and she wasn’t abused like Hiram. He had been at church that morning, again sporting a black eye. His stepmother didn’t seem embarrassed about it, but Tilda wasn’t sure Miss Essie was right in the head. Who could ignore their stepchild constantly showing up with bruises?
Tilda kept all these notions to herself; everyone knew, but nobody seemed able to stop it. It was like how could it be fair that Tilda and Luke went to a real school while Myrna and Noelle were taught with all the other Negro children in a one-room building with no indoor plumbing. No one complained when Tilda and Myrna played together, and Hiram never tattled on his father; he just picked on others, sometimes getting into trouble, then showing up a few days later looking worse than the last time. Tilda had tried talking to him after Sunday School, but he ignored her, then stomped off, waiting under an old cypress tree for his stepmother.
Walt didn’t seem to mind if Tilda spoke to Hiram, but Luke stayed away from him. Tilda wondered if Luke missed their friendship, or was he glad their father had forbidden Luke to play with such a bully. Tilda sat up in bed, hearing the snores of her siblings, her father’s loud drones, her mother’s deep breaths. Tilda wondered how different it was carrying two babies, but she didn’t possess her father or brother’s concerns. As far as Tilda knew, the twins would come out just fine.
She lay back down, but the sound of cracking twigs made her tremble. Tilda looked at the window, yet the curtains were pulled; if she got out of bed, she might wake Gail. Again Tilda heard what she was certain were footsteps, heavy ones too, for now the crunching seemed like someone was walking toward the shed. Her heart raced, for even though the truth was out, Mr. Doe needed his privacy. Tilda crept to the end of her bed, then went to her knees, lifting up the bottom edge of the curtain. All she saw was darkness, and the sound was gone.
Should she wake her father? He might grumble, say she was just hearing things. But something felt tight within Tilda’s chest, which frightened her. She went to her feet, carefully avoiding her sleeping siblings, then slowly opened the door. It creaked, which made Luke cough, while Esther murmured something. But it was Gail Tilda didn’t want to stir, for if she woke, then everyone else would too. Tilda waited a moment, then as Gail’s breathing resumed to its normal pattern, Tilda left the room, walking to her parents’ closed door.
She didn’t knock, but turned the knob, which immediately halted her father’s snores. “What?” Walt mumbled. “What is it?”
Tilda approached the bed, her father now turned toward her. “I heard something outside our window Daddy. It was somebody, I know it was.”
She spoke softly, not wishing to wake her mother. To her surprise, Walt sat up, stepping into trousers lying on the floor. She stood back as her father buttoned the waist, then strode from the room. Tilda followed him as far as the front door, but Walt raised his hand. “Stay here, you understand?”
She nodded, at once terrified of her father going out alone, also relieved that he had taken her seriously. She remained near the door, but after Walt stepped outside, she went to the window, peeking through the break in the curtains. Enough moonlight shone, but only her father’s truck was visible.
If someone was snooping, they might have parked along the road, then walked on foot. It was times like this Tilda wished they still had Rusty, but that dog had died shortly after Esther was born. Now Tilda wondered if her daddy would come home with a puppy, which might be extra work, but a dog was valuable in these parts. She considered what kind of dog he might pick, still peering out at the darkness. She wouldn’t go back to bed until her father returned.
Several minutes passed, during which Tilda thought of all the different breeds of dogs she knew. Her feet were cold, but she heard nothing happening outside, and everyone in the house was unaware of Walt’s absence. Then the front door creaked, making Tilda shake. As her father came inside, she ran to greet him. Walt picked her up and she buried her face in the crook of his neck. He stroked her head the way he did with Esther and Gail. Tilda hadn’t known this sort of affection for a while, and while she was glad he was back, she was more relieved to know how much her father loved her.
“Daddy, what was it?” she said after pulling away. But she didn’t wiggle to be put down as Walt walked to the sofa. He sat, still holding her, now letting her legs swing over his lap. He took a deep breath, but didn’t immediately speak. Tilda shivered and he hugged her close. But still her father didn’t say a word.
Tilda imagined it must have been a large animal, for Walt hadn’t taken his gun, nor had she heard any arguing. “Did Mr. Doe need a walk round?” she asked. “Daddy, what happened?”
“Don’t say nothing ’bout this to no one, especially not to Luke. I’ll tell your mama in the morning. You understand me Tilda?”
She nodded, but wasn’t sure if he could see her. “Yes Daddy, I won’t say nothing to nobody. But what was out there? I wasn’t dreaming, was I?”
The sound had been too sharp and her father’s reaction too swift. Tilda expected him to say it was time for her to go back to bed, and she would do just that, also keeping everything to herself. She wasn’t a little girl like Esther; she was coming on eight years old and….
“Matilda Hannah, what happened tonight is just between us and….” Walt hesitated, then quietly cleared his throat. “Our guest. I’ll tell your mama, but under no circumstances are you to bring this up with her. She’s got enough to think about already.”
Tilda nodded, she also trembled. She couldn’t recall the last time her father had used her whole name, but she wasn’t in trouble. “Yes sir.” She ached to know what had happened, but as her father kissed the top of her head, then lifted her from his lap onto the floor, she knew better than to ask again. She took a deep breath, then let it out as she started to walk away.
To her shock, her father spoke. “Tilda, just so you know. Mr. Doe won’t be staying with us much longer.”
She turned around, seeing that her father had stood from the sofa. “Well then, best we treat him kindly till he’s gone.”
Walt approached her, then patted her shoulder. “Indeed. In the meantime, Mr. Bolden might be around when you and Luke get home from school tomorrow.”
“Are you gonna tell him about what happened tonight?”
“Yes, but like I said, don’t say nothing ’bout this to Luke.”
“Will Mr. Doe tell him?”
Walt took another heavy breath. “No he won’t. Go on now and get some sleep.”
“Yes Daddy. I love you Daddy.”
“I love you too Tilda.”
Walt leaned down, kissing the top of her head. She grinned, feeling to share a special link with her father, which led her to bed. She didn’t hear him head that way, for Tilda was asleep long before Walt returned to where his family slumbered peacefully. That was all Walt cared about, John too. And it was why, after all these weeks, that Walt had agreed with John Doe. The time had come for the Richardsons’ mysterious border to move on.
I started this novel in October 2013; at the time, I assumed I’d be penning another short story, the form I had been working in for much of that year. However, at over three-quarters completed, The Hawk currently stands at over 700,000 words. Never before have I embarked upon such a large project.
Over the last three years, other than poems for NaPoWriMo, I have written nothing else. Quilting has overtaken some of my free time, as has caring for my family; recently I have become a grandmother. I have also nursed my father through the end of his life, which fell upon the heels of my first grandchild’s arrival. Now with time to write and revise, I have chosen to share this behemoth in a beta-type manner. Part Eleven will most likely be released in spring, but please bear with this author while grandchildren, fabrics, and a new familial normal take precedence. In the meantime, thank you for joining me on this journey, which is a search for my Father as well as Eric’s. As this is a novel in progress, comments concerning this tale are welcome and can be sent to annascottgraham at gmail dot com.
Anna Scott Graham was born in 1966 in Northern California. A mother and grandmother, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, some hummingbirds, and numerous quilts.
Other books by [+ Anna Scott Graham+] are available on Shakespir.