Authors: Marybeth Whalen
a novel by
He says, “I keep my life in this paint box.
I keep your face in these picture frames.
When I speak to this empty canvas, it tells me
I have no need for words anyway.”
he first thing Macy Dillon noticed when she entered her mother’s house on her dead father’s birthday was the missing pictures. The front room—a place she and her brother Max had dubbed “the shrine” —was usually filled with photos and mementos from her father’s short life. It was a place Macy had a habit of breezing through, if for no other reason than to avoid the memories the room evoked. But this time she paused, noticing space where there had once been pictures, gaping holes like missing teeth. Macy looked down and saw some boxes on the floor, the framed photos resting in them. Perhaps her mother was just cleaning. That had to be it. Macy couldn’t imagine her mother ever taking down the shrine. She glanced up, her eyes falling on one of the photos still standing. In it, her father, Darren Dillon, stood beside Macy on the pier
at Sunset Beach the summer she was five years old, the sun setting behind them, matching smiles filling their faces.
“Mommy? Is that you? We’re back here making Grandpa’s birthday cake!”
Macy followed the sound of her daughter’s voice coming from the kitchen, feeling the pang she always felt when she heard her daughter refer to Darren as Grandpa. He died years before Emma was born, so she had never known him as a grandpa who doled out candy and did magic tricks. Instead, Emma Lewis knew her grandpa only through an abundance of pictures and stories. Her grandma had made sure of that since the day she was born.
Macy made her way to the back of the house where the sunny kitchen faced the backyard. The large bay window gave a perfect view of the tree house and tire swing she had loved as a child. Earlier this spring, Macy’s brother had refurbished both so Emma could enjoy them. Macy smiled at the thought of Max’s kindness toward the little girl who had come along unexpectedly and who had, just as unexpectedly, stolen all their hearts, as though they had been waiting to breathe again until the day she was born and injected fresh life into what had become a lifeless family.
Macy leaned down and kissed the top of her daughter’s head, then touched her mother’s back lightly, noticing the slight stoop to her shoulders that had come with the weight of both grief and age. “You guys sure look busy in here,” she said.
Emma stared intently into a bowl where a creamy off-white substance was being turned blue by the food coloring her mother
slowly dripped into the bowl. “Grandma’s letting me stir,” she told her mother without looking up. “We’re making blue icing for Grandpa’s cake ‘cause it was his favorite color. Right, Mommy?”
Macy’s eyes filled with tears, surprising her, as she nodded. She could still see her dad pointing to the sky. “I think blue is God’s favorite color too,” he’d once told her. “It’s the color of the sky, the ocean, and your eyes.” He had tweaked her nose and tickled her until she giggled.
Looking away, Macy willed herself the emotional control she would need to get through the meal. She wished her mom, Brenda Dillon, wouldn’t carry on this ridiculous tradition of marking the day with a cake and Dad’s favorite meal, wouldn’t continue insisting that Macy and Max join her in the morbidness. Macy had heard that other families moved forward after loss. But her family seemed determined to stay in the same place, trapped in grief. She hated involving her impressionable daughter in the grim annual tradition and wondered if she would have the courage to tell Brenda that she and Emma and her husband, if she had one, would no longer participate.
Emma smiled at her and looked up at her grandmother. “Mommy, did you tell Grandma what we’re doing tonight?”
Macy tried to paste on a smile instead of grimacing at her daughter’s mention of their plans for after the depressing dinner. She had hoped that Emma would forget and that Chase, Emma’s long-time missing father, would back out, as Macy knew he was likely to do. When she agreed to the plans, she hadn’t thought about them falling on this very night. She hadn’t thought about anything besides making her daughter happy,
keeping the radiant smile on her face by giving her whatever her heart desired. It was, Macy reasoned, the least she could do for bringing such a beautiful little person into her wreck of a life. If that meant sleeping in a tent in the cold of their tiny backyard at home, then that’s what they would do. If it meant she had to invite the man who seemed to know best how to slip into the cracks of her heart, then she would go along with it.
Macy’s mom looked at her. “What are you doing tonight?” Her eyebrows were already raised as though she sensed the answer would not be one of which she would approve. Brenda, a willing and hapless participant, had accompanied Macy through the drama that was her relationship with Chase. She had whispered cautionary advice to her daughter when Chase first pursued Macy. She had found a way to rejoice over Emma despite the lack of a wedding ring on Macy’s finger. She had let Emma and Macy move in when Chase had suddenly left, just like everyone expected. She had encouraged Macy to find work and a place of her own. She had championed her daughter’s single-mother status, telling people how proud she was of her daughter as Macy scraped her life together, renounced Chase completely, and moved forward.
When Macy didn’t say anything, Emma rolled her eyes, a habit she had picked up, far too young, from the evil Hannah Montana. Emma knew every word to “Best of Both Worlds” and often forced Macy to put the song on repeat play.
“Since Mommy won’t tell you, I will,” she announced. “We are sleeping under the stars tonight …” she paused dramatically, “in a tent!”
Macy thought she had dodged the bullet of giving any more information than that. Her mother relaxed visibly.
“That sounds like fun!” her mother said, taking the spatula out of Emma’s hands to give the thick icing a forceful stir, the lines of blue spreading and melding as she did. Macy watched, wondering if she had ever really stood and paid attention as her mother made the traditional blue icing for Dad’s birthday cake. Had she always looked away in an effort to protect herself from the reality of what they were marking?
“It’s going to be fun!” Emma said, sticking a small finger into the icing and scooping out a dollop she popped into her mouth with a giggle. “We’re going to be like cowgirls. And we don’t have to be scared, because Daddy’s going to be there to protect us because he’s a real cowboy.”
Macy raised her eyes skyward, her hopes of dodging the taboo subject vanished. She could imagine Chase telling Emma he was a real cowboy, explaining his absence over the last five years in a made-up story. He was good at making up stories.
She looked at her mother, who was staring at her over the top of Emma’s head, her frown knitting her brows together.
“Your daddy’s going to come?” her mother asked Emma, still staring at Macy. “Really now.”
Macy stared right back at her mother. “Emma invited us both,” she said, feigning a stalwartness she didn’t possess. “It was what she wanted.”
“Oh, well then,” her mother said, “if Emma invited you both then all’s well.” She shook her head slowly at Macy over the top of Emma’s head. “Hey, Emma, why don’t you go get
our special Grandpa candles out of the buffet in the dining room? You know where I’m talking about?”
Emma nodded vigorously and scampered out of the room, eager to help. Sometimes Macy wondered if Emma ever shared the bizarre aspects of her life with her teacher or friends at school or day care. Disappearing fathers and dinners for dead grandfathers were sure to make people wonder about the environment the child was being raised in.
Macy just looked at her mother. “Don’t,” she said.
“Don’t what?” her mother asked, hefting the bowl of icing onto the counter beside the freshly baked cake. She slapped a scoop of icing onto the center of the cake and began to spread it around a little too forcefully. Looking down at the cake, she added, “Don’t tell you what a horrible idea it is for you to spend the night under the stars with Chase Lewis?”
A memory flashed across the canvas of Macy’s mind. Chase leaning close to her, his breath on her face, igniting her insides as he always did whenever he stood so close. She could feel the heat of his body, the beat of his heart. She could hear his Texas drawl as, lips centimeters from her ear, he said, “We make a good couple, I think. Mace and Chase. We rhyme.”
She pushed the thought of him from her mind and focused on trying to catch her mother’s eye. “Emma will be there,” she pointed out.
“A five-year-old is going to serve as your chaperone? You’re really going to stand there and offer that up?” Her mother spun around, waving the blue-tinted spatula at Macy to emphasize her point. “You’re smarter than that, Macy. Do I need to remind you where you were when he left?”
“At least I’m not in the
place I was then,” Macy said, turning things back on her mother. “You’re doing the
same thing now that you were doing ten years ago. Nothing about your life’s changed, Mom. At least things change in my life.”
It was a weak argument, but it worked to deflect the heat she was feeling under Brenda’s disappointed gaze.
Her mother sighed, lowering the spatula in defeat. She turned back to the cake and stood for a few seconds, not moving. Macy was about to launch into how awful it was that her mother kept special candles for a man who’d been dead for ten years when she heard a door slam and then, from the dining room, Emma’s voice calling, “Uncle Max is here!”
Macy couldn’t decide whether to thank her brother for his impeccable timing or curse him for interrupting. Something told her she wanted to hear what Brenda would’ve said if she’d been able to confront her.
Yet there was part of Macy that wanted to be saved from having to hear the truth. For just one night, she wanted to enjoy sleeping under the stars with her precious gift of a daughter and the man who had given Emma to her. Like a real family. There was nothing wrong with that.
Max pushed back from the table and laid his hands across his stomach with a groan. “Mom, you outdid yourself, as always,” he said.
Brenda smiled at her son and avoided looking at Macy,
a holdover from their angry words in the kitchen. Dinner would’ve been a quiet affair if not for Emma and Max bantering back and forth.
Max was the quintessential uncle — silly, fun, a big kid himself—and Emma loved him.
Without saying a word, Brenda stood and began to clear the dishes from the table. Normally Macy would jump up to assist, but this time she let Brenda leave the room without offering to help.
Max turned to her. “Okay. What’s up between you two?”
Macy shook her head. “Nothing I care to discuss with you, Uncle Max,” she responded as she nodded her head toward Emma, who was making Goldfish crackers swim through the remaining gravy on her plate.
Max grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Hey, Emma. Why don’t you go help Grandma in the kitchen?”
Emma left the Goldfish to drown in the gravy and ran to the kitchen, calling, “Let me help, Grandma!”
Macy stuck her tongue out at Max and rolled her eyes as he grinned in victory. “Okay, spill it, Sis,” he said.
“She’s mad at me. That’s all.” She gestured toward the clattering of dishes and running water coming from the kitchen. She guessed Brenda was taking her frustration toward Macy out on the dishes. “Why don’t you go help her and be the good child in this family?”
He waved her suggestion away. “I’ll go help in a minute. First I want to know why she’s mad at you.”
“Well, she doesn’t approve of a decision I made. And, in
my defense, I might have criticized her decision to have this dinner year after year.” She pointed toward the shrine that was housed in the room adjoining the dining room. She almost commented on the missing photos but decided not to bring that up. “It doesn’t bring him back.”
Max shook his head, not bothering to look in the direction she was pointing. She lowered her finger, feeling somewhat ashamed. “It makes her happy to remember him in this way. It makes him seem close. What’s wrong with that?” Max asked.
“I guess I’m just tired of living with Dad’s ghost, of living in the same place. I want her to move on.” She faced her brother, unblinking. “I want to move on.”
He shrugged. “So move on, Mace. No one’s stopping you.” He paused, looking past her, out the window behind her. “Except maybe you?” He smiled at her. “You don’t get to stick Mom with that. I have a feeling that whatever Mom’s mad about has something to do with Chase. Am I right?”
It wasn’t difficult to guess. Their usually unflappable mother got her feathers ruffled in a hurry whenever the subject of Chase came up.
Macy couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah.” She held her hands up. “You got me.”
“And?” Max asked, showing his dimples even as he pushed her for the truth she didn’t want to divulge. She loved her brother and often wondered why he wasn’t married, rarely dated, and always seemed to mess up anything good that came into his life. Not unlike her.
She shook her head, knowing the absurdity of what she
was about to reveal and bracing herself for Max’s reaction. She told herself it was really no big deal —that Max and her mother were making more of it than it really was. She had spent the last few years getting stronger, creating a healthy distance between her and Chase. One night wasn’t going to undo all of that.
“Well,” she began, looking away from Max, down at the empty space where her plate had sat, at the round indentation still visible on the tablecloth, “Chase is back.”
Max chuckled. “So I guess this is your version of ‘cutting to the chase.’ “
She looked up at him. “Ha-ha. Very funny.”
She looked back down at the circle on the tablecloth, tracing it with her finger. “He’s been coming to see Emma. That’s all. He wants to be in her life. And he should. I mean, it makes her happy.”
Max laughed loudly, and she looked up at him with a glare.
“Seriously, Mace, do you buy this? You obviously expect me to.”
“Buy what?” She looked at him, willing herself to look like an innocent bystander instead of the initiator her family was painting her out to be.
“ ‘Buy what?’ “ he mimicked her, chuckling to himself. “Look, I am not one to offer advice on love.”