Authors: Donna Alward
The disappointment in her eyes was worse than being arrested. Worse than the punishment she’d doled out, which had been walking the highway ditches three Saturdays in a row picking up garbage wearing an orange jumpsuit just like inmates wore.
He stood, looking in at the empty kitchen, and felt his anger build. It was damned unfair. Unfair that she’d taken sick just when he’d come back for good. Unfair that she’d had to suffer, that she’d had to die. Unfair that she hadn’t said anything about the recurring pain until the truth couldn’t be ignored. Now he was left all alone. No family. Not one relative he knew of that cared if he lived or died.
He’d needed her. He’d pushed her away more than he ought to. And now he wouldn’t have a chance to make it right. One thing he knew for sure. He didn’t give a good damn whether he’d been adopted or not. Roberta Sullivan had given him far too much for him to push her memory aside just because she’d died. She was, and always would be, his mother. He’d loved her as a son and he mourned her the same way.
A hornet buzzed by his head, reminding him that he was standing with the door open. He stepped inside and closed it, the catch clicking loudly in the silence. He felt a grief so intense he hardly knew what to do with it.
He’d seen horrible things, gruesome things, some of the worst parts of humanity, and he’d come through all right. Well, mostly. So why couldn’t he handle this without feeling like he was going to fall apart?
The house was too quiet. His footsteps echoed off the hardwood as he walked farther into the kitchen and threw the package his mom’s lawyer had given him that afternoon onto the worn table. Inside were his mom’s final papers, bank statements, and a safe deposit box key. God only knew what his mom had placed in the thing. Probably more papers and his childhood treasures. All of which he was definitely not up to going through at the moment. Instead, he walked over to the sink and turned on the radio on the kitchen counter. It was set to a country station out of Portland, so he turned the dial to the classic rock station instead. The familiar guitar licks of Angus Young and AC/DC filled the air and he let out a breath.
This was his house now. It was where he’d grown up. He shouldn’t feel so weird about the possibility of moving back in. But it was like trying to put on shoes that were a size too small. The shape was familiar but didn’t quite fit. The man he’d become bore little resemblance to that long-ago kid. He’d thought he’d had it so rough, but those had been the easy years. It really was true what they said: you couldn’t go back.
He turned on the tap and poured himself a glass of water. He could always sell the house, he supposed, looking around the room. A thin film of dust covered the surfaces. No one had lived here for several weeks. But he knew that under the dust was a place that his mom had taken great pride in—especially considering she’d shouldered all the financial responsibility after his dad took off. It would be stupid to sell when he was scrambling to pay rent for a run-down bachelor apartment on the northwest side of town.
If Jewell Cove had a “bad” area, that was it. It wasn’t the picturesque rainbow-colored buildings of Main Street with their fancy window boxes and stained-glass windows. It was people struggling to make ends meet and keep their heads above water. It had suited him just fine, because people minded their own damn business.
He went from the kitchen into the living room, past her favorite chair and the silent television and the video cabinet that held her chick-flick DVDs. Beyond that was the back porch, where a few pieces of wicker furniture made a nice spot to sit in the sun. Rick frowned, realizing that this porch would be the perfect spot to work on his painting. Lots of natural light and space that wasn’t taken up with anything important. Cabinets along one end, below the windows, where he could store his paints and brushes … and privacy, so no one need know what he got up to in his spare time. Not that anyone would believe it if they saw it. He wouldn’t have believed it either, but he could honestly say that his new hobby had been the one thing that had kept him sane since leaving the hot, dusty hell where he’d been deployed.
Was he really considering doing it? Moving back home?
He went up the stairs to the master bedroom, looked in on the abandoned bed and floral duvet, stared at the closed closet doors, and ventured into the bathroom where the scent of her lavender soap still mysteriously clung to the air even though she hadn’t lived at home for over a month.
He couldn’t do this. Couldn’t go through her things like they didn’t matter, like they belonged to someone else.
But he had to. He was the only one. He didn’t want a bunch of women from the church coming in and pawing through his mom’s stuff like a flock of crows. He took a moment and inhaled, and then exhaled slowly, dropping an intentional barrier over his emotions, deadening himself to the grief and sentimentality that had overtaken him so often lately. He knew how to do it. To block out the darkness and guilt and simply do the job at hand. God knows he’d managed it while overseas, any time Kyle’s name was mentioned. Dead inside. Yeah, that was it.
Jaw set, he went back out to his truck and retrieved the bundle of boxes and packing tape he’d brought along. Methodically he made up the boxes, adjusting to the awkward task using his prosthetic. Then he went through his mother’s clothing and personal effects, boxing them up for Goodwill. It was what she would have wanted. He had no use for her clothing, the shelves of old romance novels, face creams and makeup and hair rollers. Someone else might as well get good use out of them.
Lifting the boxes into his arms was awkward, but once he had the weight balanced it was no problem to carry them downstairs and into the back of his truck. Box after box of shirts, jeans, dresses, shoes. It was okay as long as he didn’t stop to think too much about them belonging to his mom. Detached. Unemotional. He could do this.
When her bedroom and bathroom were done, he ventured into the third bedroom, the “spare” room as she’d always called it, and the closet there. It contained very little: a few heavy winter coats that were out of season and a handful of banking boxes tucked in behind the clothes. Rick took one out, lifted the lid, and saw a row of coiled spines—photo albums.
His stomach clenched.
He put the lid back on. There were some things he simply couldn’t tackle today. One of them was a trip down memory lane.
He jumped as a deep voice called up the stairs. Tom, if he could venture a guess. Part of his every-other-day check-in. Rick wanted to be annoyed, but the truth was he’d started to look forward to the short visits from Tom and Josh. Not that the two of them ever showed up together. Things weren’t that easy between the cousins yet. After falling in love with the same woman, Tom and Josh hadn’t spoken for years. But after Erin’s death, they’d both agreed to put the past behind them. Plus, Tom had Abby now. “Up here,” he called back.
Boots sounded on the stairs and Tom’s dark head peered around the corner. “Hey, buddy.”
Rick shut the closet door. “Hey.”
“I went by your place and your truck was gone. Asked Jack if you were working today and he said you were off. Figured I might find you here.”
“Detective Tom. I thought your brother was the one for police work.”
Tom grinned. “Law enforcement is so not for me. Bryce can have it,” he replied. His face sobered. “Packing up your mom’s things?”
“Some. Clothes and personal stuff. I don’t know what to do with the rest.”
Tom nodded. “You thinking of moving in? The furniture would come in handy.”
Rick shoved his hands in his pockets, looked around the room. It was so familiar, with the same dresser and curtains and bedspread that had been there for a good twenty years. His bedroom was the same, too—a boy’s room with white walls filled with thumbtack holes from old Red Sox and Bruins posters, a pine bed, and dark blue spread. Baseball trophies lined a shelf. His mom hadn’t changed it even after he’d joined the Corps and left home. Like she’d expected him to come back the same Rick he’d been when he left.
“I don’t know. It’s definitely nicer than my current situation, but…”
“But there are a lot of memories here. And it’s still feeling very fresh.”
Rick met Tom’s even gaze. “Yeah,” he agreed. “That.”
“I bet Josh felt the same way when Erin died. Having to live in their house, you know? You should talk to him.”
Rick chuckled, a dry sound. “I’m not going to be the one to bring up Erin with Josh. You … you’ve got Abby now. Josh isn’t in a good place like you. He’ll tell me to shut the hell up and go pound sand.”
Tom smiled. “Probably. Listen, you need a hand with anything?”
Rick’s throat tightened. Tom had never judged, not even when Rick had messed up. He’d bailed Rick out of trouble more than once since he’d come home to stay and had been the one to convince Jack Skillin to give him a job. Rick was an only child, and Tom and Josh were the closest thing to brothers he’d ever had.
And Jess and Sarah and Bryce, too. That whole clan had accepted him. But when push came to shove, they weren’t blood. “I think I’ve done all I’m going to today.”
“Then let’s get some lunch. Crab cakes are today’s special at Breezes.”
Breezes, Rick thought dryly. Not The Rusty Fern, where they normally would have gone for a bite. But at the Fern there’d be the temptation of ordering a beer with lunch, and there was no alcohol served at the café. Not that Tom needed to worry. Rick understood his friends’ concerns, but he’d made his mom a promise. Plus, it wasn’t like it was
bad. Sure, he’d made a fuss a few times, but he wasn’t dependent on booze. He thought of Jess’s disapproving looks and something in his gut clenched.
“Hey, where’d you go? You in for lunch or what?”
Rick looked around him and felt the walls closing in. “Yeah, I’m in. I can drop that stuff off later. I’ve done enough for today, I think.”
Rick followed Tom to Main Street and parked on a side street a block from the restaurant. When they entered, the noise was deafening and the smells fantastic. Bright light beamed through the walls of windows and he could see the bay below, the blue of the water particularly intense as it could only be in autumn. Tom was right. It was a good idea. Paul Finnigan’s little fishing boat came chugging into the harbor, probably with a good-sized catch of haddock aboard. Jack had mentioned that the fishing was still good past Widow’s Point, and Paul would get in as much time as he could before putting his boat to dock for the winter.
As Rick watched the wake from the boat form a
, he thought he might like to paint it on the new pane of glass he’d found last week, maybe with a beveled edge so that it could be hung in a window, letting the light shine through the colors. Of course it would mean another trip to Portland for supplies, but that was okay. There wasn’t much work with Jack now and he was bound to get his layoff notice any day.
“Hey, I found us a table,” Tom said, giving Rick’s arm a nudge. “Come on before we lose it.”
They sat at a table in the corner, waited while a young girl Rick didn’t recognize cleared the mess from the previous diners and then reached for menus. “No need.” Tom smiled. “We’ll both have the crab cakes and home fries.”
Rick nodded. “And make sure there’s a piece of Linda’s chocolate cake left, huh?” He smiled at her, noticed her staring at his hand, and discreetly tucked it beneath the table.
She recovered quickly and smiled. “Sure thing. Won’t be long.”
Tom frowned at Rick. “That happen a lot?”
Rick wasn’t sure why the question made a thread of anxiety spiral through him. He should be used to it by now. “All the time. People don’t expect to see this.” He held up his hand, stared at the synthetic material that looked real at first,… but was clearly not on closer examination. And as much as he could use it for a lot of tasks, he would never achieve the same dexterity again.
But it wasn’t really about the hand. It never had been. He just let people think that because it was better than facing the truth.
“You can’t let it hold you back, you know.” Tom reached for his ice water. “Any ideas what you’re going to do now that business at Jack’s is slowing down?”
Rick considered saying the word
and then laughed to himself. He could just imagine what the fine people of Jewell Cove would say if they knew tough, booze-loving, ex-Marine Rick Sullivan had taken up painting birds and flowers. They’d think it was a joke.
“Not so much. I think Jack’ll give me a good recommendation, though.”
“There must be something in town somewhere. Even part time. Just to get you out of the house, you know?”
A female voice sounded behind him. “I’m sure there is. If he can stay sober long enough, that is.”
Rick’s hackles rose at the condemning tone, but he turned in his chair and regarded Jess Collins blandly. “Always nice to see
, Jessica,” he said. And it was. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known.
And also the most judgmental. Which was probably best for all involved. Because Jess deserved a much better man than him.
It just pissed him off that they both knew it.
Jess had thought to stop in, grab a chicken salad croissant for her lunch, and dart back to the shop. She hated having to put up the
sign, but Cindy White, who’d been working for her part time, had been offered an assistant job at the school and Jess’s high school girl, Tessa, only worked after school two days a week and Saturdays during the school year.
If Jess wanted to skip out at all, it meant closing the store. She paused, though, after placing her lunch order. She hadn’t expected to see Tom here, especially with Rick. She considered walking back out without acknowledging either one of them. But she’d been meaning to talk to Tom anyway, about building some extra wall shelves in her workroom. Now that her classes were really taking off, she needed the room without sacrificing work space.