Authors: Denise Hunter
“Yeah, she did.” Ben frowned.
“You know how he loves his ropes.”
Benny loved practicing knots and rigging up hauling devices for his bike.
“Why’d she take them?”
“Because they’re too
, of course. He might hang himself, you know.”
“Shhhh.” The woman obviously had issues, if not mental illness. Still there was nothing that seemed cruel or dangerous. Nothing helpful. He’d have to— “Children,” Meridith called.
The kids scrambled for the stairs. “What?”
That’s not obvious. Jake sighed.
“Great,” Noelle whispered.
Max cast one last persecuted look before they trampled down to meet their fate.
Their guests arrived just after dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Brown were a lovely couple from Maine taking a trip down the coastline to celebrate his retirement. Mrs. Brown had vacationed on the island as a child and couldn’t resist the chance to reminisce.
By the time the children and the Browns were tucked away for the night, Meridith was ready for bed herself. She closed her bedroom door and changed into her nightshirt. It wasn’t until she slipped under the covers that the full weight of her exhaustion hit. The clock only read twenty-five past ten, but her body said it was much later.
She flipped off the lamp and let her body sink into the mattress.
Between readying the rooms, dealing with her failed cinnamon roll recipe, getting the kids through homework and dinner just in time to plaster on a fake smile for the Browns, she was ready to pull the covers over her head and greet oblivion.
Only to do it all again tomorrow.
But it was the weekend, so at least she wouldn’t have to deal with Mr. Fix-it. She could be thankful for that.
The first strains of Vivaldi’s “Spring” filled the room. She felt for her cell phone on the nightstand, then read the screen. She fell back against the pillows and tried to conjure some enthusiasm as she flipped it open.
“Stephen. Hi.” He didn’t usually call so late, but it was an hour earlier there.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“No, no, I was just settling in for the night.” Meridith pulled the covers to her chin and closed her eyes.
“Sorry I haven’t called in a few days.”
“That’s okay. I know you’re busy.”
“How are things there? Are the kids behaving any better?”
She felt a strange urge to defend them but pushed it aside. “They’re as good as can be expected. The repairs are underway, and we have guests for the weekend, a nice couple.”
“I drove by your house today and checked on things after I grabbed a quick lunch. Your neighbor has been watering your plants and collecting your mail as she promised.”
She’d told him Mrs. Winters was taking care of everything; why couldn’t he just leave it at that? Meridith sighed. She must be tired to be so irritable. “Thanks for checking.”
“You’re welcome. You say you’ve hired the contractors? I hope you got reasonable bids.”
“I did. I ended up hiring one contractor to do all the work.” Jake’s dark eyes and cocky grin sprang to mind. She shook the image away. “He seems competent.”
“Is he licensed for all that work? You have to be careful about contractors. They’re not the most ethical creatures.”
“I checked him out. He had glowing references and a very reasonable bid.”
“Well, it sounds like you’ve got it under control. I expected no less from my little go-getter.”
He began talking about one of his client’s sloppy records and the debacle it had caused for him that day. Meridith wanted to tell him about her ruined cinnamon rolls and a story Max had shared over dinner, but by the time he finished his detailed story, her energy had evaporated and she was eager to be off the phone.
She needed to tell him about her decision to keep the children, but it was late, too late to introduce a heavy topic, and besides, she was losing energy by the second.
Ten minutes later she flipped her phone closed and drifted off to the muted sound of the wind chimes.
A voice screamed. Meridith bolted upright.
What was that?
Had she been dreaming? She checked the clock. It was after midnight. Her heart beat so hard, the bed shook with the pounding. Her ears perked, listening for whatever had woken her.
Max! She leapt from the bed and raced toward the boys’ room. What if someone was hurting him? What if the nice-seeming Mr. Brown really wasn’t nice at all? If only Jake had finished the upstairs partition.
It seemed to take an hour to reach the room. She flipped on the light. Max thrashed in the bed, his face screwed up as if he were in torment. He whimpered. In the top bunk, Ben somehow slept peacefully.
Meridith perched on the bed’s edge and shook his shoulders. “Max!”
He moaned and jerked his head.
She shook harder. “Max! Wake up.”
His eyes opened. They were glassy, staring sightlessly into the corner.
“Max, you were having a nightmare.”
The poor kid. It might’ve been kinder to let the nightmare continue. At least then he wouldn’t wake to the reality that his parents were indeed gone.
Max blinked, looked around the room, trying to find his bearings. His gaze lost the foggy look, then settled on Meridith.
“You were having a nightmare,” she said again, not knowing what else to say. His eyes teared up, then overflowed.
Meridith swallowed against the lump in her own throat. “It’s okay.”
She wished she had words that would erase the pain on his face.
He drew in a shuddery breath and closed his eyes. A fat tear clung to his long eyelashes.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
He shook his head. Poor dear. She wished she knew what to do. Wished she were more like Rita and could just envelop him in a tight hug, but her hands lay in her lap, uncertain.
“Okay. Well. Try to get some sleep.” She eased off the mattress.
“Don’t go!” His fear-filled eyes popped open. His chubby fists clenched the quilt, then loosened, opening and closing compulsively.
“It’s okay. I’m right across the hall.”
He bolted upright, his head narrowly missing the top bunk. “Please!”
Meridith looked at the tiny twin bed. No room there, but there was a large rug beside the bed. If she grabbed her covers, she could make a pallet.
“Okay. I’ll be right back.” She went to her room, dragged the covers from the bed, and grabbed her pillow and clock. When she returned, Max was still upright, waiting.
She spread the blanket on the rug, lay down, then folded it over. Only when she was settled did Max lie back.
She listened to Ben’s soft breathing and wondered how long it would take poor Max to fall back asleep.
“Meridith?” he whispered.
“What’s heaven like?”
His quiet question echoed through her mind, searching for an answer that would put his mind at ease. “There are golden streets. And gates of pearl. It’s beautiful there.”
“And God’s there.”
“Yes. God’s there.”
He was quiet so long she thought he might have drifted off. But then he spoke. “They loved God a lot, so they’re happy to be with him, right?”
Meridith couldn’t imagine any parent being happy absent their children. Still. “Heaven is a happy place. No tears or anything . . . only joy.”
The words seemed to soothe his worries, and he fell quiet, his breaths gradually growing deeper.
She wondered about Max’s nightmare. Did he have them often? Was it normal for a child who suffered a trauma?
What did she know about kids? Normal kids, much less those who’d recently suffered a tragedy? How was she equipped to handle this? What if she did everything wrong and they ended up with a childhood as warped as her own? The anxiety knotted her insides, tensing her muscles.
She started her progressive relaxation technique, beginning with her facial muscles and working down into her torso, legs, then feet. Five minutes later her muscles were more relaxed, but her mind still fretted.
She hated this. Hated the lack of peace she’d had since coming here. She wanted life back the way it was, back to orderliness and structure. Back to her quiet world.
Beside her a deep snore erupted from Max. At least he was sleeping. Now if only she could quiet her own nightmare. After taking a few calming breaths, she began counting backward from one thousand in multiples of twenty-three.
Meridith tugged the sheet and tucked it tightly under the mattress. In the doorway, Ben ran his fingers up the painted doorframe, humming. He’d hardly left her side since he’d rolled out of bed.
The Browns’ room was tidy, the bed hardly slept in. The room still bore the lingering remnants of old lady perfume. Meridith pulled up the quilt and fluffed the pillows.
After gathering the dirty towels, she went to the laundry room to retrieve a fresh stack, Ben following. The leftover smells of cinnamon and bacon filled the house, and Meridith felt a swell of pride that breakfast had turned out so well. The Browns had raved over the cinnamon rolls and quiche Lorraine, making her efforts worthwhile. Of course, Noelle had taken one bite of her roll and pronounced it subpar to her mother’s. Meridith wasn’t about to admit it had taken her two tries to get them right.
Still, she was glad it was Saturday and she could spend the day bonding with the kids. And best of all—no Jake.
“When are we leaving?” Max stuck his head into the laundry room. He seemed to have recovered from the nightmare, especially when she’d mentioned the idea of golf lessons after breakfast. “As soon as I’m finished with the Browns’ room. Give me fifteen minutes, and would you tell Noelle to be ready?”
The girl had been in the shower half an hour, and their lessons were in thirty minutes.
None of the children had golfed before, but they seemed eager to learn. Or maybe they were eager for a distraction. Staying busy was a wonderful coping strategy.
Meridith was delivering the towels when a knock sounded at the front door. It was too early for the Browns’ return. Besides, they had a key.
Ben followed her down the steps. Max was nearly to the door.
“I’ll get it,” Meridith said. Didn’t the children have any sense of safety? He couldn’t even reach the peephole.
She leaned into the door and peeked through the hole. Jake smiled at her with that cocky grin of his.
She huffed, pulling the door. “What are you doing here?” And with tools, she thought, her gaze running over his leather tool belt.
“I work here.”
“I work Saturdays.” His eyes went over her shoulder, and she heard Max shuffling his feet behind her.
“I’m sorry, I should’ve clarified the hours. Monday through Friday will do.”
“Thought you’d want that partition finished at least.”
Her mind raced back to the scare the night before when she’d heard Max scream. She did want that thing finished, but she couldn’t leave the man here without supervision. What if he robbed them blind? Robbed the Browns blind?
And staying was out of the question. The children were excited about the golf lessons, and they had to come first. Besides, she was sure the Browns were harmless.
“I’m sorry, but the children and I have plans today, so I’m afraid—”
“That’s okay!” Max said in a peculiar rush. “I mean, we can have lessons another time, right, Ben?”
“Uh, right.” Ben nodded thoughtfully, looking more grown-up than his seven years.
Strange, she’d thought they’d be disappointed.
“It’s settled then.” Jake stepped in, nudging her aside.
“Now wait a minute, I made reservations,” she said, and then addressed Ben and Max. “And boys, I think Noelle was looking forward to this.”
“I’d rather stay,” Noelle said from the stairs. Her hair had been carefully styled into a fashionable ponytail. “I mean, lessons are cool, but I’d rather just hang around here today anyway.”
Meridith eyed the kids one by one. Maybe there was a strange virus going around. Or maybe they were secretly eager to get that partition up too. Maybe after losing their parents they needed security.
Jake tossed her a smug grin and started up the stairs. So much for a peaceful day.
Meridith spent the morning doing laundry and prep work for the next day’s breakfast. She checked on Jake a few times, but couldn’t bring herself to hover as she had the day before. Even so, just having him in the house ruined her sense of serenity. She needed to make sure he wasn’t coming the next day. Surely he didn’t work Sundays.
She made the children a simple lunch, then they disappeared upstairs again, even her tagalong. At least they were together. Their muffled laughter seeped through the ceiling as she stuffed the towels in the dryer and started the cycle.
That done, she went out back to enjoy the unseasonably warm day for a few minutes.
The grass had greened up after the rain a couple days before, and the sun shone brightly in a sky so blue it hurt her eyes. She sank into one of the Adirondack chairs on the beach and closed her eyes.
A breeze ruffled her hair and pebbled the skin on her arms. She should coax the children outside to enjoy the fresh sunshine and soak up some vitamin D. She was surprised they weren’t outside enjoying the reprieve from winter.
The waves lapped onto the shore in quiet, relentless ripples. A seagull screeched from somewhere down the shoreline, and another bird replied. She missed home, the comfort of her padded swing, her tall shade trees and scented lilac bushes. If she closed her eyes and blocked out the sound of the waves, she could almost imagine that she was back home in her garden, dozing on her swing under the tall oak—
Jake’s voice shattered the illusion. She craned her head around, following the sound of his voice to an upstairs window. His elbows perched lazily on the ledge.
She glared up at him. “
“Wanna come take a look?”
She’d rather beat the smug grin off his face. “Be right there.”
Her bones ached as she climbed the main stairway, a repercussion of her night on the hard floor.
Just beyond the guest loft, Jake stood in front of the doorway, making some final adjustment to the latch. It looked different with the area closed off from the hall. The smell of wood and some kind of chemical hung in the air.