Read Firefly Island Online

Authors: Lisa Wingate

Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020, #FIC042000, #Women professional employees—Washington (D.C.)—Fiction, #Life change events—Fiction, #Ranch life—Texas—Fiction, #Land use—Fiction, #Political corruption—Fiction

Firefly Island (23 page)

BOOK: Firefly Island
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“Of course, that's true in so many places.”

“Yes, yes, it is. People must do what they can, mustn't they? Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone with Jack West's means would contribute to solving the social problems around here? We have such an issue with the riffraff up in Chinquapin Peaks.” Her lips snapped closed as Reverend Hay slipped into line with us again.

I pictured the faces of the kids in the gardening program. The riffraff. “I've heard.” Claire Anne gave me a
hush up
look, her gaze darting toward the pastor. I pretended not to catch her drift. “And I was so glad to know that the hardware store planned to play a big part in the supper garden program,
donating supplies and what-not. That's just awesome. There's something so empowering about equipping people with the tools to meet their own needs.”

Claire Anne's face blanched, and her mouth dropped open, then snapped shut, then opened again. Her blue eyes swam in a sea of white. I'd rendered her temporarily speechless. The victory was . . . rather sweet.

“I'm sorry . . . did I get that wrong? Maybe Keren said it was Walmart that was donating the supplies. We've had so much going on since we got here, it's all sort of a blur.” While I had her on the mat, I figured I might as well go in for the full nelson. “I've been raising donations for the program through my blog,
The Frontier Woman
, and through some other contacts in DC. I was just thinking that, as money comes in, maybe the hardware store could let Keren buy supplies at cost. That would make the money go so much further.”

Reverend Hay glanced down at me, the hint of a smile tugging his thin cheeks, an eyebrow curving upward as in,
The new girl knows a few things.
“What a fine idea,” he interjected. “The better the families in Chinquapin Peaks do, the better the community does as a whole. Kids can't learn when they come to school hungry.”

Claire Anne strafed me with an ocular machine gun, tipping her chin up. “Well, of course they can't. I think the gardening program is a
lovely
idea. Truly. But I do hope that, while you're bringing it to the
world's
attention online, you'll give equal time to the many fine amenities of Moses Lake. We wouldn't want the masses to see this as . . . well . . . a disadvantaged area, for instance.” Another glance flicked toward Reverend Hay. “Not that I'm against helping the disadvantaged, of course. I just question whether those families can be counted on to follow through. Honestly, when you can't even wash your child's hair or make certain
they aren't bringing
lice
to school . . . I don't mean to sound cynical, of course.”

“If we never take a chance on people, we'll never know.” Reverend Hay smiled pleasantly at Claire Anne. “Of course, you understand that, or the hardware store wouldn't be helping the program. Widows and orphans. There are plenty of those in Chinquapin Peaks, just like in the Bible.”

“Of course.” Claire Anne had the look of a woman biting her tongue and tasting blood. Clearly, I'd just been crossed off her friend list, Charleston connection or not.

“I'll be sure to mention it on
The Frontier Woman
, too—the sponsorships from Underhill Hardware, Walmart, and other places,” I finished, doing the thing my father always did just after snapping the trapdoor shut—drop a little treat into the cage, so your prisoner doesn't turn violent.

“How lovely.” An eyetooth flashed, and Claire Anne's nose crinkled as she looked around the room. “Oh, there are those sweet sisters from the Binding Through Books club. I hear they're going to be in the pages of
Woman's Day
magazine. Excuse me a little moment. I must find out what month, so I can order copies. It's not every day that Moses Lake makes the national news.” Ducking out of line, she threaded her way through the tables and chairs, exiting the playing field, thoroughly beaten.

Mama B turned her attention to me and smiled. “You got a little cowgirl in you.” She shook a finger. “Not too many people can rope Claire Anne in. You go by the bank and talk to my grandson, Blaine, about a donation. You tell him Mama B said so. He just got elected to the county commission. He's been workin' to get some attention for the roads up in Chinquapin Peaks, so bad weather don't keep the kids out of school. You can put that on your
Frontier Woman
—I been readin' that, by the way. I think folks'd be interested in
what a hard time Blaine's havin' getting any money spent up in Chink.”

“Welcome to Moses Lake,” Reverend Hay added, and nudged me. “And you thought politics was just a big-city thing, I bet.”

We moved along in the potluck line before I could answer.

Daniel and I ended up at a table with Stan, my favorite feedstore guy. He introduced us to the local game warden, Mart McClendon, and his wife, Andrea, who it turned out were the parents of Dustin, my teenage friend from the hardware store. Andrea was a social services counselor and spent a lot of time working with families up in Chinquapin Peaks. We talked about the lives of the kids and how remote the place was.

“It's worse with the bridge out of commission on County Road 47,” Andrea pointed out. “Access is so much more restricted. Some of my clients are on school buses for almost two hours in the mornings and two hours in the afternoons. Little kids. Kindergarteners.” She tapped the tabletop with a fingertip. “Fifty thousand dollars—that's what the county commission won't come up with. The federal government already committed the rest, because it was flood damage. That bridge directly affects several hundred families. I wonder if those stuffed shirts on the county commission even think about how difficult an extra thirty minutes or hour commute is for workers who make ten dollars an hour processing chickens at the Proxica plant in Gnadenfeld, or how an extra hour a day on the bus limits a kid who's already academically—”

“Did I hear someone taking my name in vain?” cut in a voice, and a young couple joined us at our table.

“Not you, Blaine,” Andrea clarified. “The rest of those idiots on county commission. We
like
you.”

The man—dark-haired, nice looking, thirty-something—laughed. “You must be talking about your pet project again.”

“Yes. My bridge.”

“You just need to tell them that my wife is going to haunt them until they rebuild that bridge,” the game warden, Andrea's husband, joked. He laid a hand over hers, like he was trying to keep her from winding up. Daniel gave me a
what-in-the-world-have-we-walked-into
look.

“I got a bridge!” Nick piped up. “In my sandbox!”

All of us looked at him and laughed, and the tension broke. We talked about the food and about the expansion to the church fellowship hall, which Blaine's wife, Heather, was designing. She was also doing the architectural renderings of an addition to the Moses Lake School, which brought up the subject of education again, which led to another discussion of the bridge. By the time Nick started getting restless in his booster chair, Daniel was ready to escape the onslaught of small-town issues, of which he'd been blissfully unaware while spending his time closeted with Jack.

“Guess there is no utopia, no matter how far off the beaten path you go,” he remarked as we drove home, Nick drifting to sleep in the backseat.

“Just kind of a microcosm of the usual issues,” I agreed. “But you know, what's different here is how cheap some of the solutions are. Ten thousand dollars for a greenhouse for Keren's gardening program. Less than a hundred dollars to help a family get a few backyard chickens and a coop so they can raise their own eggs year-round. Fifty dollars for gardening equipment and seeds. It's just not that much money.”

“No, it's really not.” Daniel glanced over at me, his lips curving into a wry twist. “I heard you rope in the hardware store lady, by the way. Nicely done. But are you sure you want to get wrapped up in all this?”

Gazing out the window, I took in Chinquapin Peaks, so beautiful at a distance, such a puzzle of stark contrasts up
close. “I don't see how I can ignore it. These are the kids Nick will go to school with. It's going to affect him, whether we want it to or not. He'll be sitting in class with the kids who didn't get enough to eat that morning, or the ones who are growing up with parents who don't care, or the ones who have been yanked back and forth between foster care programs. We're involved, whether we want to be or not.”

Daniel nodded. “I just meant that you're getting a lot of irons in the fire, with the house problems, Nick, and
The Frontier Woman
. And now gardens, bridges, kids in Chinquapin Peaks, and . . . the baby news.”

The last words,
the baby news
, pressed me back against the seat. Somewhere along the way today, that had slipped from my mind in favor of everyone else's issues. I'd given up hoping for holy lightning to strike, and instead distracted myself with other things. “Irons in the fire,” I deflected. “You're starting to sound like Jack.”

“Well, you don't have to insult me . . .” He smirked, those beautiful eyes catching the light, glowing bright, like emeralds.

If there was such a thing as holy lightning, it struck me then, but not in the way I'd expected. I thought of the question Keren had asked as we sat watching the children play during my first visit to the summer class.
Do you ever just have the feeling that God's using you right where you are?

Looking at my hands in my lap, contemplating the idea, I considered the possible uses for those hands. “Sometimes I feel like I'm here for a reason—here in Moses Lake, I mean.” A blush stole into my cheeks, and I glanced at Daniel, gauging his reaction. “I mean, I don't mean to sound like I've gone all prophetic and profound or anything, but sometimes, I think I'm here because of those kids. With the contacts I have—with the contacts
we
have—maybe we can make a difference.”

Daniel's hand slid over mine. “You're the most amazing
person I know, Mal. If you've got a feeling about it, then you need to go for it.”

“What if I said I feel like . . . kind of like . . . it's something I'm meant to do?” It seemed weird to say it out loud, sort of presumptuous even, but I
was
feeling something, and it was something bigger than me, larger than my own concerns.

Daniel didn't answer at first.

He probably thought I'd gone round the bend. I probably had. I could always claim hormones . . .

“Then that's probably what it is.”

A lump of emotion rose in my throat. No one had ever believed in me like Daniel did. All my life, people had been babying me, protecting me, cautioning me to keep my plans small, to stay on the safe side, to work within the box, to stay in my own neighborhood. “Will you be okay with it if I talk to Jack about the supper garden program . . . whenever there's a good opportunity, I mean? And maybe about the bridge in Chinquapin Peaks? Jack must be the biggest landowner in the area. He could put pressure on the county commission. For heaven's sake, he could pay for that bridge without even batting an eye.” My heart sped up just at the thought of talking to Jack. He had at least four different personalities, ranging from vaguely aloof to paranoid and hostile. Even so, I felt strangely empowered, unexplainably larger than myself.

Daniel's fingers toyed with mine. “Can I
stop
you from talking to Jack?” He followed the question with a wry look.

“Probably not.”

“Then I guess it's okay.”

When we got back to the house, we took Nick to the lakeshore for the afternoon. We built a small fire, cooked hot dogs, chased lightning bugs, and created a lantern jar. I thought again of how perfect things would be if every day could be like this one. If there were no Jack West to worry about.

After Nick and Daniel were asleep, I awoke consumed with the need to put the day into words—to write and write and write. I wrote about the potluck at church, the strange collection of townsfolk we'd met, and the kids in Chinquapin Peaks. I wrote about the people who wanted solutions for them and those who saw them only as a problem, an inconvenience. I wrote about Reverend Hay's observation that if we never give people a chance, we never know what they're capable of. I wrote about the seeds we plant, and how we can never be sure which will grow and which will lie fallow, but seeds in the hand have no chance to grow at all. The only way to guarantee a harvest is to take a risk.

Long after the moon rose and drifted out of sight above the window, I was writing and scheduling pieces for
The Frontier Woman
. In the dark of midnight, by the light of a single lamp, I wrote about the baby, about the fact that what I really wanted, what every mother wants, was a better world for my child, for this son or this daughter—this little piece of my heart who would grow within my body and tear from my body and travel into the world, with all its hills and valleys, with all its blind corners and unexpected precipices.

When I finished writing, I pulled my legs into the chair and sat reading what I'd created. I deemed it ridiculously emotional and sentimental, but I saved it anyway, tucked it in a small corner of my hard drive, where I might pull it up one day and show it to my son or daughter, and say,
See, I had hopes for you before you were ever born.

The most difficult mountain to cross is the threshold.

—Danish proverb
(Left by Donna Sue, on a lakeside getaway with Mary Kay)

Chapter 17

I
n the cyber world, the difference between keeping a secret and revealing it is the touch of a button—a few lines of code, an accidental click, a careless email forward, a glitch in programming logic that causes something unexpected to happen for reasons no one can explain. If there was one lesson I should have learned after starting
The Frontier Woman
, it was that one.

When the phone rang early Monday morning, my head was pounding as I reached toward the nightstand. Daniel's side of the bed was empty, the house quiet, Nick apparently sleeping in after our big day at the church and the lake. Outside, the morning was cloudy and the light muted, so that it seemed earlier than seven o'clock.

Grabbing the receiver, I fell back against the pillow, rubbed my eyes, and muttered, “ . . . Ellll-oh?”

“What. Is going. On?” Trudy was on the other end, and she did not sound happy.

“Trude? Huhhh? Wha . . .” I blinked, tried to clear the
sleep clouds from my eyes, but they were red and sore from my late-night blog-o-rama. There was a note from Daniel on the nightstand.
Jack called, coming back today
. My head pounded harder. No wonder Daniel was up and gone so early this morning.

The nirvana I'd felt last night while writing articles about the supper gardens and the kids in Chinquapin Peaks flipped over in my stomach and became a sense of dread. “Oh, man, I think I stayed up too late. I have a blog hangover.”

“Yeah, really?” Trudy was not amused. “Well, if you don't already, you will when I get through with you. And when Mom gets to you, you're going to be dead meat, little sister.”

Adrenaline pushed through my body, thick and slow like syrup, waking me up piece by piece. Trudy was really in a mood this morning, and it was somehow aimed at me. I hoped this over-the-top emotion didn't have anything to do with another failed in vitro. She wouldn't talk yet about the fact that this one had made it farther than any of the others, and as day after day passed with no bad news, I was hopeful. “What's Mom upset about? What did I do?” It takes a special kind of skill to get in trouble with your family from hundreds of miles away. “Listen, Trudy, I'm not feeling so great this morning. Can you just tell me what's wrong?”
Please, please don't let her foul mood have anything to do with bad news about the in vitro.
How could I sit here and console Trudy about the loss of another chance at a baby, when I was hiding my own pregnancy?

“Well, maybe it's
morning
sickness.”

I rolled onto my knees, suddenly ready to bound off the mattress and dance around the room. “Trudy, you're pregnant? Really? How long have you known for sure? Can we tell people now?”

“We're not talking about me, but apparently
you're
in the
family way. And that's a good question: How long have
you
known?”

I hovered in an awkward squat on the bed, a dozen questions and a plethora of emotions washing over me at once. Daniel had told people? Without talking to me? Without asking when and how I wanted to share the news? Trudy knew already? And my mother. Ohhh . . . my mother! “Trudy, what are you talking about?”

Her response was a disgusted snort. I knew exactly what expression would accompany that look—her short, pert nose crinkling, her lip jerking upward to reveal that orthodontically perfect smile. “And you go putting it on your
stupid
blog
and
announce
it to the world without even
telling us
first? Really?
This
is how I find out. If you've got half a brain in your head, you'll get on there and take that post off before Mom sits down with her morning coffee and checks in with
The Frontier Woman
. And then you'd better call and give Mom the news, because there's no telling who else has already read it.”

A bass drum reverberated through my body.
Boom, boom, boom, boom
, beating the seconds away. “I didn't put that on the blog . . . I mean, that was just . . . I was just . . .” I was out of the bed and running for my laptop before I could finish the sentence.

“Mallory, there was so much stuff on there this morning, it took me forty-five minutes to catch up. Imagine my surprise when I got all the way to the end and found this . . . well, diary entry basically . . . with you pondering parenthood. At first, I thought you were just talking about Nick, and then I realized,
You're
pregnant
. You're pregnant, and you're telling the world, and you haven't even told
me
. I was right, by the way. It was the antibiotics.”

“Trudy . . . hang on a minute . . . I'm trying to . . .” Tucking the phone on my shoulder, I flipped open the laptop, waited
impatiently. “To get to the blog.” Surely she was just calling my bluff, trying to get me to admit to a positive pregnancy test. Every time she'd asked me the past two weeks, I'd hedged and told her there was nothing to report.

“What, you're not going to just take my word for it?” she taunted. “It's not like I could make this kind of stuff up. You . . .”

“Trudy, just a
minute
!” My hands were shaking, and I couldn't even think of my own password.

“I wetted my bed,” Nick's squeaky whine echoed through the house, and then there he was in the doorway, drowsily rubbing his eyes, his Spiderman pajamas dripping a little round stain on the icky yellow carpet.

“You wet your bed?” I repeated, trying to think of the blog password. CongressAvenue1. That was it.

“Not
me
,” Trudy quipped, “but apparently, there's been something going on in
your
bed.”

“Trudy, just . . . let me . . .”

I set down the phone. Nick was coming across the room, dripping all the way, his eyes two big, soulful saucers, brimming with tears. “I dweamed I was swimmin',” he sniffed.

“Nick, it's okay.” I turned back to the computer, waiting, waiting, waiting for the blog dashboard to load. “Just go take everything off and put it in the bathtub.”

His lip trembled, and a tear spilled over, drawing a glistening line down the smooth skin of his cheek. “I messed-ed up my Spidey-mans. My new ones from Nanbee and Gwampa. My big boy wa-a-ones.” The sentence crumbled into a sob. The pajamas had come in the mail from Daniel's parents two days before. Nick would have worn them morning, noon, and night if he could.

The dashboard inched onto the screen, I looked at Nick. The dashboard inched, I looked at Nick.

“I'm not a big boy-e-e-e.”

“Nick, honey.” I abandoned the computer and crossed the room, then pulled him close, cradling his head against my ribs. “It's okay. That just means it's time for the Spidermans to go in the washer and have a bath, and you know what? They get even more comfy after they're washed.”

“I'm not a big boy-e-e-e,” he whimpered again. Before the wedding and the move, Daniel had determined that Nick needed to move out of Pull-Ups pants at night and into regular undies. Daniel had reinforced the switch with copious amounts of
big boy
talk.

“Honey, even big boys have accidents sometimes.” I turned him around and steered him toward the bathroom. “But guess what? We can just run a little bath, and get out some clean clothes, and the washing machine will be so happy, because it gets to have the Thomas the Tank Engine sheets
and
the Spidermans all at once. I mean, if you were a washing machine, you'd think that was awesome, right?”

Nick looked at me like I was nuts, but in short order I'd removed the stinky Spidermans, turned on the bathwater, and cheered Nick up with soap crayons. By the time I got back to the computer, it was more than clear that I'd published a blog-a-palooza of information last night. Before I'd even finished cleaning up the dashboard, the phone started ringing—Trudy again. Following that, I heard from my mother, Kaylyn and Josh calling on speakerphone with friends from their office, three former coworkers, my two middle sisters, and finally Corbin, phoning in because Carol was tied up in a Junior League meeting and couldn't call. She'd texted him and told him to find out what was going on. By then, hours had passed, and Nick was happily playing in the backyard.

“You live an interesting life,” Corbin commented. “First,
you move into an alleged murderer's backyard, and now there's a baby on the way. Kind of sudden, isn't it?”

Leave it to Corbin to state the brutally obvious. “It wasn't planned, Corbin, okay? You can tell Carol that. I'm sure she thinks we're completely nuts, but we're not.” I instantly felt bad for being short with Corbin. Of my brothers-in-law, he was the one I was the closest to. He'd covered the political beat for years, so we had something in common. “It was an accident—antibiotics and birth control pills don't mix, it turns out. Remember, I had that root canal right before the wedding?” Carol would never understand, no matter what I said. Carol's children were perfectly spaced, three years apart. Undoubtedly, no bed in her house had ever sat for hours with befouled sheets, while tinkle-soaked pajamas waited in a wad on the bathroom floor.

“Good to hear,” Corbin replied pleasantly. “I'll relay that to your sister. Find any dead bodies around there yet?”

“Ohhh, Corbin,” I groaned, letting my head fall into my palm. “Not today, all right? Listen, call waiting is beeping. Tell Carol I love her and not to worry about us, okay?” Right now I just wanted to get off the phone. I hadn't had so much as a cup of coffee. My head felt swirly and my stomach was about as happy as a bear coming out of hibernation. Nick's bed had probably dried into a crusty, smelly mess by now.

I ended the call with Corbin and pushed the flash button. Al was on the other line. We went through the baby conversation again. I had the distinct impression that the baby news was less than pleasing to Al. “All I can say is, if you're gonna have one, make sure you take the time for it after it gets here.” Al's words were strangely hard-edged, almost bitter.

“Well, it wasn't planned,” I explained for what seemed like the hundredth time. Whenever this poor child did come, everyone in the world would know it was an accident.

Al muttered something, and a sliver of discomfort needled under my skin. Who was she to question my ability to take care of a baby, anyway? She didn't have any children. And besides, weren't babies born every day to mothers who had to figure it out as they went along?

“Keren says to tell you they missed you and Nick today at the summer class.” Al's tone was flat, as if I'd offended her in some way. “She says thanks for what you wrote on your blog about the supper garden program, the kids, and the bridge up in Chinquapin Peaks.”

“Tell her I'm really hoping it'll bring some action, but I'm sorry the blog was such a mess today. I didn't mean to publish it with all that . . . personal stuff and . . .”

Outside the window, Daniel's truck came racing up the driveway, and I cut the conversation short just as he walked through the back door. He closed it behind himself and stood with his hand clutching the knob, his eyes blinking wide. “I just had a phone call from my mother.”

“Ohhh, shoot,” I groaned. I'd been so busy dealing with the shockwave on my side of the family that I hadn't even thought about Daniel's parents. “I'm an idiot. Your mother probably thinks she has the worst daughter-in-law ever.” Not only had Daniel's mother been forced to relinquish Nick to a woman she barely knew, now I was proving to be a monumental doofus, as well.

“Are you kidding? She's thrilled.” Daniel paused to scratch his head, dark curls falling through his fingers. “She thought it was a little strange to find out about it on your blog, and she wasn't exactly happy I hadn't called her first thing.” He pulled his lips on one side, frowning. “I thought we weren't going to tell anyone for a while, though.”

“I didn't mean to,” I moaned. “I was up last night writing stuff . . . just . . . just kind of for me, really . . . thinking
about the day, the baby, and Chinquapin Peaks . . . and, well, everything. I was just rambling, trying to work it all out in my head. I meant to publish a piece about the supper garden program and maybe a little bit about the bridge and the long school bus rides, but somehow, I stuck it all on there. Trudy called first thing and informed me of my blunder. I've been dealing with my family all morning.”

Laughter pressed past Daniel's lips. Considering Jack was back, he was in a remarkably good mood. Maybe Jack hadn't returned after all. Maybe God had realized that a baby news bomb, numerous family confrontations, and a wet bed were enough for one day.

BOOK: Firefly Island
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