Authors: Kevin Alan Milne
Books by Kevin Alan Milne
The Paper Bag Christmas
The Nine Lessons
Available from Center Street wherever books are sold.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Alan Milne
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue
Center Street is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
The Center Street name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
First Edition: June 2010
For my better half, Rebecca
The Beginning of the End
Have patience: rainy days will soon return.
September 21, 2009
OPHIE JONES KNEW EXACTLY WHAT THE SQUATTY LITTLE
bus driver was going to say, long before the Gig Harbor Express to Tacoma lurched to a halt in front of her stop on Harborview Drive. She anticipated the woman’s words, the disappointment-laden inflections, and even the accusatory facial expressions. Every nuance of what was about to transpire was, for all intents and purposes, a foregone conclusion. As the bus’s door swung open with a hydraulic wheeze, Sophie entertained herself by rehearsing the pending exchange in her head.
Again? Oh snap, girl! What’s wrong with you? Leave that thing at home!
Sophie stepped slowly from the curb and up onto the bus, while simultaneously closing the extra-large black umbrella that rested on her shoulder. She half-smiled at the woman behind the wheel but felt instantly silly for trying to be nice. What was the point, since there would not be so much as a courtesy smirk in return?
Knowing not only
was about to happen, but also
, she began counting down.
The bus driver scrunched up her face, lowered her chin and opened her mouth just enough to expose a mouthful of shiny amalgam fillings, and then drilled into Sophie and the unwieldy umbrella with her eyes.
She let go of the steering wheel with both hands and folded her arms across her torso, letting them hang just below her name tag and across the Puget Sound Public Transportation insignia on her stiff cotton shirt.
A nasal sigh, a disappointed shake of her head, and then…
, girl! What’s wrong with you? Leave that thing at home! It’s a beautiful Monday morning.”
Sophie chuckled softly as she leaned the umbrella nose-down against a safety bar and paid the fare. She found nothing particularly humorous about the woman or her comments, but she did find it mildly amusing that the driver was so predictable.
“And if it rains?” Sophie replied, completely unaffected.
“You see any clouds today? We ain’t had a dang sprinkle in a week, thank Jesus Almighty and knock on wood.” She thumped the thick metal steering column with her knuckles.
Sophie shook her head in dismay. Though she didn’t like the woman’s attitude, she couldn’t deny that the driver was right about the weather. The air outside was brisk, but the early-morning sky was an unblemished sheet of powder blue from one edge of the horizon to the other, and the local forecast called only for sun. None of that mattered to Sophie. “Expect the worst,” she quipped, trying once again to force a smile.
“I know you do, girl,” the driver balked. “And
The woman said something else under her breath while Sophie found a seat, but the words were drowned out by the revving engine as the bus started to roll. Sophie would have ignored her, anyway. Even on the best of days, it was way too early in the morning to get riled over the offhanded remarks of bus drivers.
But this was not the best of days.
For Sophie, this day was the single worst day of the year, like an annually recurring nightmare that she couldn’t escape. If it weren’t for the fact that she had a business to run, she’d have gladly turned down the blinds, turned off her cell phone, gone back to bed, and slumbered the day away in peaceful oblivion.
, Sophie thought, as she shuffled along the aisle to her favorite seat at the rear of the bus. Few other Gig Harbor commuters ventured that far back, so she usually had the elevated rear bench all to herself. Sophie preferred silent contemplation during her morning travels, and her perch at the back kept her safe from the idle chit-chat and coffee talk that others seemed to thrive on. While the bus rumbled along she stared out at the lush green landscape whistling by, watched as several eager boats left the harbor for a day in the Sound. She studied the tall cable supports of the Narrows Bridge, which connected the town of Gig Harbor and the Olympic Peninsula to Washington’s mainland. On most days, those sights would be enough to distract her from the bitter realities of life.
But this was not most days.
For Sophie, this was a day for regrets, and nothing could quell the renewed sense of heartache and disappointment that this particular date evoked each year. No amount of pine trees, sails, or suspension cables passing through the glare of a dirty bus window could help her forget her past. A
day for self-loathing,
she told herself, as she wedged the enormous umbrella into a space between her seat and the floor heater.
My own personal pity party. I can be as miserable as I want on my—
“Happy birthday, Sophie!”
Jumping at the loud and unexpected verbal intrusion, Sophie blurted out, “What the—?” She gasped audibly before the familiar female voice registered in her mind. “Holy crow, Evi! Are you trying to give me an aneurism? What are you doing here?” Sophie consciously ignored the blatant stares of the handful of commuters who’d craned their necks to see what was going on.
“I thought I’d surprise you! Looks like it worked.” Evi smiled as wide as she could and added a wink for good measure while sprawling out on the vacant seat one row up.
Sophie glared back at her with mock contempt. “Brilliant,” she deadpanned. “I have one friend in the whole world, and how does she show me that she cares? By sneaking up on me, making a public scene, and reminding me what day it is.”
Evi was still beaming. “Like you need any reminders,” she teased. “And for the record, I didn’t sneak up on you. I got on the bus two stops before you did, but you were so self-absorbed when you got on that you walked right past me. I was even waving!” She stopped to wink. “But forget it. It’s your birthday, so I forgive you.”
“Yes, my birthday—the worst day imaginable.”
“Oh, shut it,” Evi countered cheerfully. “We both know that the worst day was forever ago, which makes today just another start of something good.”
Evi was a short brunette with an infectious smile, an easy laugh, and beautiful bronze skin that never faded in the winter. Her hair and smile were from her mother, her skin color came from her Latino father, whom she’d never met, and her laugh was simply how she’d learned to deal with life’s complexities. She was also one of the few people in the world whom Sophie trusted implicitly. Much to Sophie’s chagrin, her friend’s full name, Evalynn Marion Mason, had recently been appended to become Evalynn Marion Mason-
, the hyphenation having been added six months earlier as a result of marrying Justin Mack, a friend of theirs since freshman year at college. Sophie didn’t have anything against Justin—in fact, she was glad for her friends—but their union made her worry that life was quickly passing her by, a feeling that was amplified tenfold when Evalynn announced two months later that she was pregnant.
Outwardly, Evi and Sophie were as different as night and day. Evi was short, and Sophie was tall. Evi’s hair was straight, brown, and bobbed, while Sophie had golden locks that flowed gracefully past her shoulders. And whereas Evi was gregarious, Sophie was more reserved. Everyone who knew them assumed that their friendship was built solely on the principle that opposites attract, but Sophie knew that it was much more than that. They were more like sisters than anything else, and they depended on one another in ways that people who grew up under more normal circumstances didn’t understand. For as different as they might have appeared to outside observers, the pair had at least two things in common that stitched them together like a patchwork quilt: tragedy, and their African-American foster mom.
Sophie exhaled slowly. “You know I hate my birthday.”
“You should have just stayed in bed with your hubby this morning and left me alone to sulk.”
Sophie yawned, and then grimaced. “Then
are you here? And don’t say, ‘Because misery loves company.’ I’m proof that that isn’t true.”
Evalynn tried mimicking the bus driver’s sassy derisiveness to lighten things up. “Girl, what’s wrong with you? You know I ain’t leaving you ’lone on the day you turn twenty-nine!
Next year you’ll be a dang old maid. You best enjoy your twenties while they’re still here, girl!”
“Stop! You’re embarrassing yourself.”
A single giggle escaped Evi’s enormous grin. “No, I’m embarrassing
. It’s what I do best.” She poked her friend gently in the ribs. “Oh, c’mon. Smile, Soph! I don’t want to spend the whole day with you if you’re going to be a grouch.”
Sophie raised her eyebrows questioningly but refused to smile. “The whole day?”
“Well, I certainly didn’t get on the bus just to wish you a happy birthday. My boss assured me that she can survive with one less legal assistant today, so I took the entire day off, and I’m coming with you to help make the chocolates and stuff. I don’t want you to have to be alone today.”
“Wait. You’re coming to help
the chocolates, or to
the chocolates? Last time you ‘helped,’ as I recall, it was tough to tell what your true purpose was.”
Evalynn smacked her on the shoulder. “You know I love those peanut-butter truffles. Just have me work on something else, and I’ll be fine. Anyway, I’ve got other plans, too, that don’t involve filling molds and dipping cherries. I made some special arrangements for this afternoon that I think might help you forget it’s your birthday.”
“Arrangements? I don’t like the sound of that. What sort of
Evalynn winked. “Sorry, it’s a surprise. My lips are officially sealed. You’ll just have to wait until later.”
The next bus stop was the park-and-ride on Kimball Drive. A few people on Sophie’s bus got off there to transfer to another route, while nearly a dozen new passengers boarded. Among them was a face that Sophie didn’t recognize. The man was wearing a navy blazer and khakis, and he stood at least four inches over six feet, making him tall enough that he had to stoop to keep from hitting his head. His wavy brown hair curled playfully just above the ears, and his bright blue eyes twinkled in the morning light. If she hadn’t already given up on men, Sophie might have been inclined to give this particular specimen more than a casual once-over. She chided herself for even thinking such things.
Most of the new passengers took the first vacant seat they could find, but the unfamiliar man scanned the full length of the bus’s interior for just the right spot, even after the bus had started to roll. He pretended not to notice Sophie looking at him. With a computer satchel in one hand and a map of bus routes in the other, he carefully made his way down the aisle toward the rear, shifting his weight periodically to adjust for the pitch and sway of the moving bus.
Sophie turned her head ninety degrees and looked directly out the window, pretending to be very interested in the passing scenery.
“May I sit here?” he asked courteously a few seconds later, pointing to the empty half of the elevated rear bench.
Sophie continued staring out the window, as though she hadn’t heard him.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me. May I?”
Evalynn let out a nasally laugh as Sophie turned her head back around to face the man.
“It’s a public bus,” she said coolly. “But what’s wrong with the empty seats up there?” She pointed with her eyes to the vacant seats he’d passed by.
The man smiled graciously and sat down, laying his computer bag across his lap and unfolding the map. “The view from up here is infinitely better.” He looked right at Sophie as he spoke.
Sophie straightened slightly in her seat, her mind turning briefly to thoughts of her former fiancé. She paused to mentally compare the two. The guy now sitting beside her was, she conceded, easy to look at. Tall. Good-looking. Confident.
But he was no Garrett.
“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’ve only got one more stop anyway.”
The man continued smiling. “Well, in that case, maybe you can help me out. I’m new here. Just moved up from Oregon over the weekend, and I’m trying to figure out the transit system. How many stops are we away from downtown Seattle?”
“A lot,” she replied, finally allowing herself to smile, if only out of amusement at the man’s predicament. “This bus only does a loop between Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Back where you got on, you should have waited for the next bus.”
“I see.” He nodded quizzically. “So basically, I’m lost.”
He didn’t let it faze him. “In that case, I’m glad I made my way all the way to the backseat. As long as I’m lost, and likely late for my first day on the job, at least I got to meet you.”
Now it was Sophie’s turn for quizzical glances. “Wait a minute. Is this, like, your little shtick? Ride the bus with a map and pretend to be the new guy in town so you can pick up unsuspecting women?”
He grinned. “If it is, is it working?”
“Absolutely not!” retorted Sophie, sounding quite appalled.