Authors: Denise Hunter
“Never broke a bone?” he asked.
She shook her head.
She’d probably never stepped in a mud puddle, much less broken a bone. The same could probably be said for her anal-retentive fiancé.
Not fair, Walker. You don’t even know him.
He glanced at her hand in the darkened cab. The diamond glimmered under a passing streetlamp—an ordinary solitaire diamond. Boring. He’d buy his woman something unique, something that suited her, something different and special. Not that he had a woman.
“Sit tight,” he said after he pulled into the drive and put the truck in park. He came around and opened Meridith’s door, then eased Ben into his arms. Even with the wet cast, the kid weighed nothing. He was small boned like Eva, but Jake was sure he’d lost weight in the weeks since his parents died.
The house was quiet and dark except for a lamp in the living room. Meridith set the pharmacy bag on the kitchen island and unlocked the door to the back stairs. Ben slept soundly through it all.
“That room,” Meridith whispered when they reached the landing, reminding Jake he wasn’t supposed to know the way.
The moonlight flooded through the sheers, offering a beam of light.
“Top bunk.” She dashed around him to pull back the covers.
Jake lifted Ben over the railing and set him down gently, supporting his casted arm.
Meridith climbed two rungs up the ladder and eased Ben’s Nikes off his feet.
Jake drew the covers to the boy’s chin. He hoped Ben would sleep through the night. The arm was going to hurt like the dickens when the meds wore off. He wished he could stay and tend to him.
From the bottom bunk, Max let out a noisy snore. Jake turned to smile at Meridith, but she was gone. She appeared two seconds later with an armload of bedding, which she dropped on the floor.
She gestured for him to follow her from the room. The stairs creaked loudly as they descended.
“Thanks again for your help,” Meridith said once they reached the kitchen.
She fetched a glass and filled it with water. With her back turned, Jake studied the way her dark hair shimmered in the stove top’s night-light, the way it swung easily with each turn of her head.
“Maybe you shouldn’t come tomorrow,” Meridith said. “The noise and all. Ben will need his rest.”
Jake pocketed his hands. He needed to make sure the kid was okay. “I’ll work on something quiet. Maybe outside. Besides, you’re not going to keep that little boy in bed all day.”
“I guess that would be okay.” She ripped open the pharmacy bag, removed the amber container, and set it by the water. Looked like she was preparing for a long night.
“I’ll get out of your hair.” He walked toward the back door.
“Where are you going?” She followed him.
“Taking the ladder down like I should’ve hours ago.”
“Oh.” She folded her arms against the chill in the air, and he noticed again how little she was. Barely to his shoulders. Her chutzpah made him forget her small stature.
Her chin was a pixielike triangle, and her eyes were like a shadowed forest. Deep. Mysterious.
“Well. Good night,” she said.
What was he thinking? He cleared his throat. “Night.”
As he retrieved the ladder and carried it to his truck, he reminded himself of all the reasons why he shouldn’t be noticing her hair or her chin and most definitely not her deep-green eyes.
Meridith was thrilled to have the house to herself after a hectic weekend with guests, church, and helping Ben adjust to his cast. He was down to Tylenol, had slept through the night, and this morning had been eager to show off his new cast at school.
With Jake working outside it was almost like having an empty house. Today, she decided, she would clean out Eva and T. J.’s room. Clearing out their belongings would help the kids adjust and move on. Leaving the room as some kind of shrine wasn’t healthy.
She spent the morning packing clothes. Eva’s taste had been simple, mostly jeans, tunics, and T-shirts. T. J. had a few nice things hanging in the closet, but the casual clothes in the chest seemed to be the staples of his wardrobe.
When the clothes were packed away, she set the boxes on the porch for the charity that was picking them up, then she stripped the bedding and washed it.
She’d found a large box of photos and mementos in the closet and carried it to the living room to sort. As she set the box by the hearth, she decided a roaring fire would be relaxing. She’d seen a stack of logs at the side of the house.
After carrying them in and finding a lighter, Meridith poked around until she found the flue. Pushing it upward, she felt the draft and set to work lighting the fire, starting with the kindling she’d gathered and placed at the bottom of the stack.
When the kindling caught, she rolled up yesterday’s newspaper and encouraged the flame. The logs were dry and should make for an easy light.
But the smoke was going the wrong way. She leaned over the tiny fire, closed the flue, then opened it again.
The fire grew, and smoke rolled past her. What in the world?
Maybe she had the flue closed instead of open. She pulled the handle and waited for the smoke to drift upward.
The log caught fire, and the smoke increased, pouring into the living room.
She moved the handle back the other direction. No change. Was something blocking the opening? She turned, coughing.
Maybe she’d better extinguish it before the smoke detectors went off. She went to the kitchen for the fire extinguisher she’d seen in the cupboard.
“What the—” Jake’s voice carried from the living room.
“I know, I know,” she exclaimed, grabbing the extinguisher. So much for a nice relaxing fire. Why did everything in this house have to be so difficult?
She pulled the pin as she rushed back toward the living room through the thick wall of smoke, coughing and waving her hands as she approached the fireplace. She aimed the extinguisher and pulled the handle. Nothing.
She squeezed again to no effect, then noticed as the smoke cleared that the fire was already out. Jake was pulling up the old window sashes.
“You trying to burn the place down? That fireplace hasn’t been used in years.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that?”
“The inch of dirt in the grate?”
“I thought it was ashes.” She set down the extinguisher and opened another window, coughing. “What’s wrong with it anyway?”
“Bird’s nest, cracked flue pipe, who knows?”
The smoke was slowly rolling out the windows, the air inside clearing. “Shouldn’t the smoke detectors be going off?”
He opened the door, heedless of the bugs that were probably coming in. “Count your blessings.”
Great. Something else wrong. Maybe they needed fresh batteries.
“I’ll have a look at the fireplace later if you want.”
“The smoke detectors are priority one now. Start on that next,” she said, still stung by his tone.
He gave a mock salute and left the room.
Meridith carried the box of photos into the kitchen and set it on the island. Not as comfy in here, but at least she could breathe, and she had plenty of room to sort.
She opened the window and door to air out the room, then settled on a stool. The photos had been tossed into the box haphazardly. She found pictures of T. J. and Noelle in the Galaxie for some parade, mixed with photos of Christmas and Ben’s birth.
As she sorted, an idea formed. She’d make an album, one for each of the children, something to remember their parents, their family. As the idea settled, she became excited as she anticipated their responses. She would buy special acid-free albums and use scrapbooking decorations as she’d done for her own high school scrapbook. It would be a keepsake the children would treasure all their lives.
Meridith began sorting the photos by child. She’d worry about chronology later. She found a photo of Max when he was younger, sitting on a motorcycle with a man who could only be Uncle Jay, but a black helmet covered the man’s head. Too bad. She was curious to see what this paragon looked like. And there didn’t seem to be any other photos of him. Strange.
She paused over a recent photo of Noelle with her mother cuddled on one of the Adirondack chairs down by the shore. It must’ve been spring or fall. Eva, wearing a periwinkle hoodie, had her arms wrapped around Noelle and smiled with her whole face. Noelle’s head rested on her mother’s shoulder, and she turned a shy smile toward the cameraman—her father?
Meridith felt a tweak of jealousy. The photo captured a moment of contentment between Eva and Noelle, and Meridith knew instinctively it was the norm, not the exception. Noelle was a lucky girl to have been loved that way.
The second the thought formed, she chided herself. How could she be jealous of a relationship that had just been stolen from the child? She was certain Noelle didn’t feel lucky at all. Though maybe someday, when they were on better terms, she’d articulate how blessed Noelle had been to have loving parents.
Meridith laid the photo in Noelle’s pile and pulled a small shoe-box from the larger box. She opened the lid and found the box filled with more memorabilia.
A smoke alarm beeped loudly. At least Jake was working on them.
She withdrew a paper from the shoebox and unfolded it. It took a moment for the words to register, for the title to ring a bell.
The heading read
Restaurant Hospitality Magazine
and below that was an article on food safety in restaurants—her article. It was printed off the computer. Her photo was centered on the page.
She stared at the paper as if it would explain itself. How had her father acquired it? Why? Maybe Eva ran across it while doing research for Summer Place and printed it out.
Meridith set the article aside and grabbed a rubber-banded stack of greeting cards. Maybe she should turn the children’s albums into scrapbooks, so she could include the cards and pictures they’d drawn.
She removed the rubber band and opened the first card. Her hands froze as she read the signature.
. The writing was large and sloppy, the size of the letters inconsistent. It was a birthday card. She opened the next card. Father’s Day, her signature.
Her heart drummed out a hard, heavy beat. Christmas. Father’s Day. Birthday. At least twenty cards, some with a sentence or two accompanying the signature.
I love you, Daddy. You’re the best
. Then the later ones.
I miss you, Dad
She closed the card in her hand, bundled them back into the rubber band. So he’d kept her cards. Big deal. Would’ve been nice if he’d picked up the phone and asked if they had grocery money. If they’d been evicted. If her mother was conscious.
She wanted to toss the shoebox aside, but she forced herself to finish. A few coloring-book pages; a cheap ring, warped and tarnished; school photos; a poem written on pale-green primary writing paper:
Daddys give hugs and kises
Daddys make hambergers on the gril
Daddys read bedtime storys
Meridith wadded up the paper and threw it into the wastebasket. Daddies don’t leave their child with an incompetent parent. Daddies don’t remarry and forget their firstborn child. She’d written him letters, waited for him to contact her. Sometimes she’d nearly picked up the ringing phone, praying it was him, even though her mom had forbidden answering it because of the bill collectors. Eventually she stopped writing, stopped hoping. Her mom said her daddy had left her, too, and it was best she just put him from her mind.
Her first year in college she’d finally gotten a few letters from him. But it was too little too late, and she’d discarded them unread.
She looked down at the stack. But he’d saved all these as if he cherished them. Was it possible . . . what if he had written her, and her mom had disposed of his letters? What if he’d called, and she’d told him Meridith didn’t want to speak to him?
Meridith forced herself to grab the last few things in the shoebox. Then she could throw it away and forget what she’d found. Forget these memories and the questions they stirred.
The photos took her by surprise. She flipped through them, four all together. They were of her. Her high school graduation. Her college graduation. How did he . . . ?
Maybe her mother had taken them, sent them to her dad. But no, she would never have done that. And her mother hadn’t even attended her high school graduation.
How had he gotten them? No one had attended her high school graduation. But there she was in the picture, walking across the stage. And there she was afterward, clutching her diploma, her long hair fluttering in the breeze. The college graduation pictures were taken from a distance, zoomed until the shot was grainy.
Was it possible . . . ? But he couldn’t have been there. Why would he come so far, get so close, and not speak to her? Why wouldn’t he hug her and tell her he was proud of her? Because she hadn’t responded to his letters and calls? Because he thought she didn’t want to see him?
Her breath seemed trapped in her lungs by the knot that swelled in her throat. She had to get out of there.
The stool squawked across the floor and she fled outside, across the porch and down the steps toward the beach. The air nipped at her flesh, raising goose bumps, and she curled her arms around herself.
She stopped at the edge of the lawn where the grass gave way to the sea oats and sucked in air like it would clear her lungs. It was the smoke. That’s why her eyes burned, her throat ached.
Had her father come to her graduations? She let time rewind, reliving her high school ceremony. She’d waited in the folding chair for her name to be announced, wishing, not for the first time, that her last name didn’t put her near the end of the alphabet.
“Meridith Elaine Ward.”
Returning to her seat among the 212 graduating seniors, Meridith felt lonelier than she had in all her life. If it were true, if her father really had been present that day, had come all that way and watched her receive her diploma, she wasn’t sure which she wanted to do most: hug him or hit him.
Not that it mattered. It was too late to do either now. Her eyes fell to an old piece of driftwood just inside the sea oats. Some time in the past it had been pulled from its home by a storm and spent heaven knew how long drifting aimlessly before reaching shore. Only to lay here, discarded for months or years.