Authors: Denise Hunter
Meridith paid the driver and started down the flagstone path, pulling her suitcase. The house looked older as she neared. The white paint was peeling in spots, and the thick vines that crawled up the house hadn’t appeared overnight. The porch was not quite level, as if time and gravity had weighed it down.
A plethora of wind chimes stretched the length of the porch, bits of shells, glass, and bamboo tinkling and rattling together. She wondered if Eva had collected them. If her dad had gifted her with the chimes on her birthday, on their anniversary.
The detail made everything too real. Her dad had lived here. His kids were inside right now. Her brothers and sister.
Something thudded hard inside her, and she told herself it was only the echo of the suitcase bumping along the walk. She steadied her breathing as she approached the steps.
A woman’s voice leaked through the screen door. “She’s here . . . Come on, Max. Noelle! Hurry up, honey!”
Meridith lowered the suitcase’s pull bar and carried it up the wooden steps. The porch spindles were poorly spaced, she noted. Just wide enough for a child’s head.
The screen door opened, and through it came a plump brunette. Her dark hair was cut in a long bob so glossy it looked like a bottle of sunshine had been poured over it. A cluster of faint freckles covered her nose, and a twinkle lit her eyes.
A small body was latched on to her right leg.
“Welcome! You must be Meridith.”
A large dog darted out the door and sniffed Meridith’s hand.
“Yes, hello.” Meridith pulled her hand from the dog’s slimy nose and extended it to the woman, but found herself enveloped in a fleshy hug. She stiffened. Her fingers tightened on the luggage handle until her nails bit into her palm.
“I’m Rita Lawson from the church,” the woman said, drawing away. “And this is . . . Ben, honey, you have to let go just for a second. Give your sister a hug.”
The sandy-haired child turned his face toward Rita’s waist.
I understand just how you feel, buddy
. “That’s okay,” she said to Rita, then addressed Ben. “Hello there, Ben.” Meridith extended her hand, but the little boy only buried himself more deeply into Rita. She saw little of her father in his face.
He must favor his mom.
Rita ruffled his short hair. “He’s feeling a little shy, I guess,” she said, then mouthed
. “Ben is seven and a little sweetheart, aren’t you, honey?” Rita rubbed the dog behind the ears. “And this is Piper. Such a good girl!”
The golden retriever wagged her tail.
“Well, come in, Meridith, you must be tired after a long day of travel.” Rita let Piper inside, and Meridith imagined the dog hairs flying around on the loose, getting in guests’ food.
She followed Rita, stepping over a high threshold. Tripping hazard.
She noted the wide staircase that undoubtedly led to the room where she’d be sleeping and left her bag at the base. The house smelled of something savory, a hint of lemons, and a faint essence of Old House. The wood floors creaked under her feet as she followed Rita and her extra appendage across a living room that was dominated by a massive cobblestone fireplace. Original, Meridith guessed. Antique furniture circled an oval rug, driftwood sculptures posed on every table, and paintings of beach scenes on the walls reminded guests they were on vacation.
She had a sudden mental image of the apartment where she’d grown up. Sticky carpet and Goodwill furniture, tiny rooms with dirty walls. This was a far cry from Warren Street.
Clomping footsteps on the stairs drew her attention to a dark-haired boy. He had a stout build that probably had him shopping in the husky department and chubby cheeks that dimpled when he smiled shyly.
“Max, come here.” Rita encouraged him, but the boy willingly extended his hand.
“Hi.” He ducked his head, but not before Meridith saw her dad’s brown eyes.
“I’m Meridith. It’s nice to meet you.”
Rita gestured to one of the vintage mahogany-framed sofas that flanked the fireplace. “Have a seat.”
Ben settled into Rita’s side on the other sofa, Max beside him. Piper plopped down on Max’s scruffy tennis shoes.
“Max is ten,” Rita said, looking toward the stairs. “Noelle, honey, come downstairs, please!” She addressed Meridith. “You must have a million questions, and I’ll try to answer as many as I can, but I have to leave in about”—she checked her watch—“ten minutes to pick up my daughter from cheerleading practice and my son from wrestling. Then there’s homework and dinner, but you don’t need to hear all that!”
“Do we have guests at the moment?”
“Not until the weekend, and even then, it’s only one couple. This is a slow time for tourism, as you can imagine. Mrs. Hubbard probably knows more about running the place, but bless her heart, she’s recovering from pneumonia just now.”
“She goes to our church too,” Max said.
“Well, I’m certain I’ll figure things out. I appreciate all you’ve done for the children, Rita.”
“Oh, it’s my pleasure. Max, will you go tell your sister to come along?”
“I already did.”
“Well, go get her, please. Ben, you go with him.”
After the two boys were up the stairs, Rita leaned closer to Meridith. “I wanted a few minutes to chat with you in private. The kids have had a terrible blow, of course. You saw how clingy Ben is, and Noelle . . . well, she’s thirteen, and you know how that is even under happier conditions.”
“Max is probably the most stable of the group. He likes to talk, build models, and I think that helps him cope. But of course their loss is devastating and their world is suddenly unstable.”
Meridith knew all about unstable. “Do the children know I’ve been granted guardianship?”
Rita nodded. “You might as well know Noelle isn’t happy about that—no offense, she just doesn’t know you. The boys have been less vocal about their opinions. I left their schedule on the island in the kitchen and wrote down everything I could think of that might be helpful.”
“Thank you. That’ll make this easier on everyone.”
Rita folded her plump fingers in her lap. “I wasn’t sure if you’d ever visited.”
The truth embarrassed her, though she had no reason to feel that way. It wasn’t as if her dad had invited her into their lives. Well, he had now.
“No, I haven’t,” Meridith said.
“Well then, that makes your sacrifice all the more admirable. You must have a very big heart, and I’m sure God will bless you for it.”
Well . . . I’m only doing my Christian duty after all.” An awkward pause prompted her to continue. “Has there been any word from their uncle?”
“Unfortunately, no. You may know he’s traveling at the moment, and I guess he doesn’t carry a cell phone. Noelle says he checks e-mail sporadically, but I really wanted to tell you—”
A clomping on the stairs alerted them to Max’s appearance.
Close behind him, Ben two-footed each step, hand on the railing, then ran to the couch and curled into Rita’s side.
“Here she comes,” Rita said.
At the top of the stairs, fuzzy purple socks appeared, then jean-clad knees, followed by the rest of Noelle. She was short and slight, with straight blonde hair.
When she reached the bottom of the steps she stopped, her thin arm curled around the thick balustrade.
“Well, come on over and meet your big sister, honey.”
Noelle approached, stopping just shy of the area rug. She favored her little brother in coloring and body frame, but her small triangular chin was a duplicate of Meridith’s.
“Hi, Noelle. I’m Meridith.”
Noelle pressed her lips together, crossed her arms. “Hi.”
Rita scooted to the edge of the couch, checking her watch. “Noelle’s into the computer, chatting, e-mailing, all that.”
“She chats with her
,” Max said.
“I don’t have a boyfriend, runt.”
“Come sit down, Noelle,” Rita said.
Meridith thought the girl might defy the woman, but she walked around the armchair and plopped into it.
Ben loosened himself from Rita’s side, then squeezed into the chair with Noelle. She curled her arm around him.
Rita stood. “I hate to take off like this, but . . .”
“I understand.” Meridith walked her to the door.
“The kids can show you to your room. If you have any questions, anything at all, I left my cell and home numbers on the schedule. Oh, and dinner’s in the Crock-Pot.”
She was a godsend. “Thank you for everything.”
“Bye, kids.” Rita gave one last wave, snagged her purse and jacket, and then she was gone.
Meridith closed the door and turned toward the three faces of her siblings: Max wore a casual grin, Ben peeked from his sister’s armpit, and Noelle stared back defiantly.
Meridith looked at them, the silence opening a wide chasm between them, and wondered if she’d bitten off way more than she could chew.
A rattle of some kind sounded from behind the wall, breaking the silence. Maybe the dishwasher was running.
The children seemed to be waiting for Meridith to make the next move. She crossed the room and set her hand on the sofa back. “Does anyone have homework?”
“We do it after school,” Max said.
Ben peeked out. “I don’t have none,” he said softly.
“Don’t have any.” Noelle tossed her hair over her shoulder.
Her brown eyes seemed older than her thirteen years and contrasted with the youthful smattering of freckles on her nose.
Ben was tucked into her side, though he was at least peeking at Meridith now. He had greenish eyes and small features that made him seem fragile. Who was she kidding? They’d just lost their parents. They were all fragile, including Noelle.
Meridith sat beside Max. “I’m really sorry, guys. I can only imagine what it’s been like for you, losing your mom and dad.”
“He was your dad too,” Noelle said. “How old are you anyway, like, nineteen?”
Not much younger than your mother
, Meridith wanted to say. Instead she tried for a smile. “Twenty-five. I know there’ve been a lot of people coming and going, but I’d like to keep things as normal as possible. Routines are important at times like this.”
“Uncle Jay will be calling soon,” Noelle said. “And when he finds out what happened, he’ll come back.”
Meridith read the unspoken message. She and Noelle wanted the same thing, but Meridith had learned long ago to hold her cards close to her chest.
“I’m sure he will, Noelle.”
Max shifted, his eyes trained on his stubby fingernails.
“We want him to be our guardian, don’t we, boys?” Noelle said.
Max moved his head in a motion that may have been a nod or a shrug. Ben’s face disappeared into Noelle’s side.
“Why don’t we talk about this later,” Meridith said firmly. “How about you show me around so I don’t get lost.”
Reluctantly, Noelle stood, and the kids showed her through the downstairs, Piper tagging behind, her toenails clicking on the floor. The large dining room had a braided rug anchored by a long oak table. Above it hung an ornate chandelier that had three unlit bulbs. A buffet lined one wall, but the focal point of the room was the picture window that overlooked the harbor. A pier jutted out into the water, and beyond that there was nothing but ocean.
“The kitchen’s through here,” Max said, leading the way.
Meridith entered the sunny yellow room. The countertops were durable Corian, and the linoleum was clean but worn. She saw a trickle of water and followed it to a puddle at the base of the dishwasher, which hummed loudly. She turned off the machine and grabbed a towel from the stove handle.
“It does that sometimes.” Noelle tipped her chin up.
“It does that
the time,” Max said.
“How would you know?”
“’Cause Mom was always complaining about it,” Max said.
“All right, that’s enough,” Meridith said. “I’ll look at it tomorrow.”
If it had been leaking for long, the floorboards were probably rotted. If the water had gotten back to the wall, they might be looking at mold.
After soaking up the water, she followed the kids up the back staircase to the second story. The stairwell was narrow and the wooden stairs were covered with a non-skid runner, but there was no banister. She started a mental to-do list.
“Our rooms are on this side of the house,” Max said.
The upstairs opened to a loft with five doorways and a hall. Another chandelier hung from the center, shedding golden light over seafoam green walls. The wide chair rail and baseboard looked to be on its tenth coat of white paint.
“This is my room,” said Max.
“And mine.” Ben scrambled up the bed’s ladder and dived onto the top bunk, making the whole unit shake.
“Careful,” Meridith said belatedly.
A few clothes littered the floor. The room smelled like dirty socks. Boat models lined a shelf, and a decorative oar hung above the top bunk.
“Somebody likes boats,” Meridith said.
“Me.” Max grinned. “Noelle’s room is next to ours, and here’s our bathroom.” Max nudged open a five-panel door and flipped the switch. Nothing happened.
“Sometimes it don’t work,” Max said.
“Doesn’t.” Noelle disappeared into her room.
Meridith flipped the bathroom switch off, then back on. Still dark. She’d have to check into that.
When Meridith peeked into the room, Noelle was leaning over a computer desk, her hand on the mouse. Her walls were cotton candy pink, and her drapes and bedspread were a delicate eyelet white fabric. The shaggy green rug between her bed and desk was the only item that said
“I like your rug.”
Noelle barely looked away from the screen.
“Anything from Uncle Jay?” Max asked Noelle, who shook her head no.
So that’s what she was checking. Can’t wait to get big sis out of the house.
That wasn’t fair. The children needed familiarity, and their uncle was the closest family they had.
“When’s he due back from his vacation?” Meridith asked.
“We don’t know,” Max said. “He runs around during the winter on his cool Harley.”