Authors: Mary Manners
Tags: #christian Fiction
“Mama, Mama!” Allie’s voice rang above the din of rambunctious kids who scurried toward cars and buses like ants storming a picnic. “Can we go to the park?”
“I promised, didn’t I?” Misty rounded the hood of the car and opened the rear passenger door along the curb.
“Yep.” Allie tossed her lunch box into the car and launched herself into the backseat.
“What, no hug today?”
“Oh, Mama.” Allie turned back and threw her arms around Misty’s neck. “Did you have a good day?”
“Did your computer crash again?”
“Not today.” Though the thought of last week’s fiasco made Misty cringe. Repairs had really put a dent in her meager savings. “The project’s almost done.”
“So, it’s gonna be dead soon?”
“It’s gonna meet the
line.” Misty laughed. “I hope.”
“Oh yeah, I meant that.” Allie tossed her backpack aside and reached for the juice box Misty had placed in her booster seat’s cup holder. With the experience of a soon-to-be-six-year-old, Allie unwrapped the straw and punched it into the tiny hole at the top of the carton. She took a few long sips, and then smacked her lips with approval. “Yummy.”
“Good.” Misty leaned in to kiss Allie’s rounded nose. The child smelled of peanut butter and sunlight and lemon-scented markers. A red ring clung to her mouth—most likely the result of cherry Kool-Aid from her kindergarten class’s snack-time. Her cheeks were smudged with dirt from the school playground, and sand littered her white anklet socks. Again, Misty thought of Jack. Allie loved the outdoors as much as he did. Misty guessed it was in her blood.
Misty tugged the seatbelt strap that held Allie’s booster seat in place. “Good and tight?”
“Uh huh…just right.” Allie’s head bobbed sharply, a gesture also similar to Jack’s. Misty forced the thought aside. No matter how hard she tried to eradicate his memory from her life lately, Jack Seaton seemed everywhere.
“Good. To the park then. What will you ride first?”
“Of course. That corkscrew’s your favorite.” Misty rounded the car and slipped into the driver’s seat. She cranked the engine, jostled the car into drive, and eased carefully into passing traffic. The whirr of the rear passenger window signaled that Allie had lowered it to allow the spring breeze to rush over her.
So much like Jack.
They cruised to the corner.
“Mama, can we keep Ralph this weekend?”
“Yeah. The hamster from my classroom. Mrs. Barnett says he needs a family to visit this weekend and no one’s volunteered. She told me to ask you if he can visit our house.”
“I’m sure she did.” Misty lowered the volume on the radio and thought of Lucky, the fluffy black cat they’d adopted from the Mill’s Landing animal shelter the year before. She didn’t imagine he’d take too kindly to an interloping rodent. “What about Lucky?”
“I think he’d like Ralph.” There was the telltale head-bob again. “Maybe they’ll be friends.”
“And maybe Ralph will become an afternoon snack.”
“Oh, no, Mama…not that.” Allie scratched a splatter of dirt from her cheek. “I’ll have a talk with Lucky, OK? I’ll ask his ’pinion and give Mrs. Barnett a yes or no tomorrow.”
Misty grinned. Allie’s analytical mind never ceased to amaze her. The kid was a professor in a pint-sized body. “Sounds like a plan.”
Jack tugged off his soiled jeans and shirt, dropping them by the laundry closet on his way to the bathroom. The day had been forever long, with one mishap after another. What he wanted now was nothing more than a hot shower, a cold drink, and something substantial to fill the empty cave that was his belly.
He staggered down the narrow hallway to the bathroom. His back cried out, and his head throbbed with the dull, incessant ache of stress. This project was his greatest challenge to date—one he’d once feared was a bigger bear than he could handle.
But, he’d handled it, and now the project neared completion. A fine-tune here, a little spackle there, and everything would be just peachy. He’d sign on the dotted line soon and grab his cut of the commission.
And then what?
The close of a project usually filled him with a sense of adventure about what came next. But this one, for some reason, was different. He felt a little sad, kind of empty if he cared to admit it. The project had whittled away nearly two years of his life. He ate with it, slept with it, breathed it twenty-four seven.
The culmination was almost like a break-up.
He grimaced as he banged his knee on the sink cabinet and then stubbed his toe against the door jamb. The room was a matchbox, with barely enough space to turn around. The shower spray did nothing to ease the rope of knots along his spine, as it ran lukewarm and devoid of pressure.
Jack quickly soaped and rinsed while his mind raced with a myriad of thoughts. It was long past time for him to find a place of his own—not some rented cubbyhole that passed for living quarters. He was one of the most—no,
most—successful commercial contractor in Eastern California. He could afford to live anywhere he wanted. His reputation and an impeccable work ethic had snagged him this latest contract to develop a townhome subdivision along an untouched mountain ridge in Palm Springs. Every unit had sold within the first six months, despite a sustained downturn in the economy. The land was nothing short of a gold mine.
That train of thought was interrupted as Jack remembered the letter Mike had handed him that morning. He stepped from the shower and toweled off just enough to tug on a pair of clean jeans and a T-shirt before padding back to the laundry. Grabbing a handful of flannel, he fished the folded manila envelope from the chest pocket of his work shirt.
He lifted the paper to his nose. Mike was right. A quick sniff brought a wave of memories.
Vanilla and peaches…
Jack studied the envelope. It was postmarked Mill’s Landing, but the handwriting wasn’t Misty’s. He’d recognize her writing anywhere. They’d certainly passed enough notes during school classes…Calculus, English composition…Anatomy and Physiology was especially entertaining.
Jack shoved the memories aside. There was no return address…just his name and the location of his apartment here in California. Along the bottom, in bold letters, was scrawled “
He was in no mood for a mystery, especially after the stress-ridden day he’d just tackled. Resentment bubbled in his gut like molten lava, chasing hunger from his belly. He’d force himself to eat anyway, even if it was nothing more than a leftover sub from yesterday’s lunch. The day had been crazy; he’d nearly lost a landscaping truck—and its inexperienced driver—to the ridge. Disaster was thwarted only by the grace of God.
Jack reached into the corner cabinet and fished for a bottle of ibuprofen. Three capsules might take the edge off his headache. He shook them into his palm, tossed them down his throat. Thirst nagged at him, and he rummaged through the refrigerator for a can of soda. He popped the top and chugged the can half-empty while leaning against the counter.
His thirst satisfied, he ran a hand through unruly damp hair, slipped into a chair and dropped the letter on the table. He’d tucked the letter aside for nearly a dozen hours. Another ten minutes, while he scarfed down a turkey and Swiss sub and some caffeine, wouldn’t hurt.
But the envelope was like a magnet with supernatural forces. He unfolded the clasp and tore open the flap. Inside, he found a sheet of copy paper, scrawled with a quick note—succinct and to the point.
I’m selling the apartment complex and found this letter wedged behind one of the dressers while I was cleaning. Thought about opening it, to see if it was important after all this time, but that just didn’t feel right. So, I’m forwarding it. I figured you’d like to have it. Better late than never, right? Hope life is good.
Larry Jansen—his old, potbellied landlord from grad school days.
Another envelope, smaller…like a card, slipped out. Jack’s name was printed across the front, and the flourish of writing—the way she slanted her T’s and floated the dots above the I’s—was unmistakable.
He grabbed a knife, slit the seam. Tucked into the envelope he found a slip of flowered stationary that held the faint scent of Misty’s perfume. With trembling hands, Jack unfolded the paper. He forced back an oath as the date caught his eye…
A bite of sandwich lodged in Jack’s throat. He gulped soda, forcing the sandwich down as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. He couldn’t wrap his brain around it as he scanned the curlicues of blue ink. Emotions pounded like a platoon of sledgehammers.
Six years—almost seven—had passed since the letter was written, if the date was correct. That was before he came to California, before things officially ended with Misty. They’d been in love—the head-over-heels kind. Then he got the offer here, and everything changed. She didn’t want to leave Mill’s Landing, and he couldn’t possibly stay. He’d wanted to marry her—had asked more than once—but that would only work if they were together in California. Her stubbornness only served to gouge a deeper crevasse. A lifelong friendship that had blossomed into love…slow and easy…suddenly turned tense and cool and distant. Jack fumbled over words while Misty cried and withdrew. Though he tried, he couldn’t make it right again.
So, he left—and stayed away—to avoid hurting her more. Better a quick piercing by a nail gun than the long, jagged slash of a skill saw. He hoped she’d come to her senses…hoped he’d get a phone call from her admitting the terrible mistake she’d made to let him go and that she was on her way to him. He even considered a road trip back to Mill’s Landing to try to coax her to him once again. After all, the move had been sudden. Maybe he
been more than a little pushy when he sprang it on her, expecting her to drop everything to follow him.
But those hopes were dashed when he heard through the grapevine she was pregnant. The child must belong to Spence Tucker; since he’d also heard she’d wasted no time in moving on to date his best friend. The news had caused such a surge of rage that Jack lobbed his cell phone into the seething waters of the Pacific. He’d purchased a new phone—requested a new number, assuring Misty would never place a call to him again—and became more determined than ever to banish all memory of her from his life.
Now, this. Jack fought the urge to crumple the letter and stuff it back into the envelope before tossing it into the trash. Did he really need this…or want to reopen the wound that had taken years to heal—if it truly had healed, of which he wasn’t sure.
Not sure at all.
His heart sparred with his head. Toss it—read it—toss it, you stubborn fool.
The handwriting was smudged, the paper stained. Had Misty been crying while she wrote? He pictured her baby blues—huge, round, and swimming with tears.
I know you’re planning to leave in the morning, but there’s something we really need to talk about. It’s important…more than important—it’s absolutely vital.
I’ve hurt you with the things I said about never moving to California, even if it means losing you—losing us. I know this offer is the one you’ve been dreaming of all your life. I can’t hold you back from the dreams you’ve worked so hard for—it would just be wrong. But I don’t want to go, either, for so many reasons.
I love Mill’s Landing, and I thought you did, too. My family is here...everyone I love. My mom needs me now, since Dad…
We made a pact long ago to never keep secrets from one another, and I wanted to tell you this last week, but I thought it best to know—I
to know—for sure before I said anything. The doctor confirmed today and it’s for real—you
to know, Jack—that you’re going to be a daddy.
Soda spewed from Jack’s mouth and backwashed to his nose, setting his sinuses on fire. He coughed, sputtered, and waited for the rush of optic stars to clear. Maybe he’d read wrong. Maybe he was hallucinating—the stress was finally getting to him. Or maybe Mike was in the wings, pranking him.
Mike liked a good joke as much as the next guy…but not like this. Uh uh. Jack found the words once more.
You’re going to be a daddy...
His fingers gripped the letter like a vice. Suddenly the room sweltered, despite a nip of early-spring breeze that whispered through the open window above the sink. He struggled to breathe as he continued to scan the print.
I know this is a huge shock…something neither one of us expected. But it’s a blessing, too. I know you love me, and I love you, Jack—so much that sometimes I wake up just aching inside with the thought of you. We’ve been together our whole lives, and I’ve missed you this week. It’s made me realize what’s most important.
You asked me to marry you, and my answer is yes. I want to be your wife, Jack. I hope you still feel the same.
No matter what I said about never leaving Mill’s Landing, about not moving to California, this changes everything. It’s not just about me anymore—or you. I’m sure now that my place, and our child’s place, is with you—forever and wherever that may be.
Let’s talk this out. Please, before you leave. We have to make this right for the baby—for us.
Meet me at the Landing, beneath the willows, at six. I’ll be waiting for you.
I love you, Jack.
The room began to sway, and the letter slipped from Jack’s fingers as he grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself. Suddenly, he’d tumbled from a cliff, strapped into a construction truck. The truck spun and crashed along rocks to a bottomless crevasse. His gut clenched, and the sandwich threatened to come back up, bringing the soda with it. Jack stumbled to the sink, the room listing. Chills crawled across his skin, and sweat dampened the small of his back.
You’re going to be a daddy…
The words echoed like a tsunami through his head. Jack thought of the date on Misty’s letter. Almost seven years ago…