“How is she today?”
Jacey swiped a finger along the side of the cake, drawing up a big glob of pink frosting. She held it beneath Mikaela’s nose. “Can you smell the cake, Mom? It’s Suzie’s best vanilla cream, with real Grand Marnier in the frosting. Just the way you liked … like it.”
The tiny fissure in her voice was almost more than Liam could bear. “Here, pull up a chair. How was school today?”
Jacey tucked a long strand of hair behind her ear. “Good. I aced the math test.”
“Of course you did.”
She looked at him, then turned away. He noticed the quick, nervous way she bit down on her lip—a trait she’d inherited from her mother.
“What’s the matter, Jace?”
It was a minute before she answered. “The winter dance is coming up. Mark asked me if I wanted to go.”
“You know it’s okay. Whatever you want to do is fine.”
“I know, but …”
He turned to her. “But what?”
She wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Mom and I talked a lot about this dance. We were going to go into Bellingham to get a dress. She …” Her voice snagged on emotion and fell to a whisper. “She said she’d never been to a prom, and she wanted me to look like a princess.”
Liam couldn’t imagine his beautiful wife sitting at home on prom night. How come he didn’t know that about her? It was another of his wife’s many secrets. “Come on, Jace. It’ll break her heart if she finds out you didn’t go.”
“No fair, Dad.” She looked away, then, very softly, she said, “If she wakes up.”
Liam wanted, just once, to hold Jacey and say, I’m scared, too. What if this is it … or what if she wakes up and doesn’t know us … or if she never wakes up at all? But those were his fears, and it was his job to keep the lights on for his family.
“Jacey, your mother is going to wake up. We have to keep believing that. She needs us to keep believing. This is no time to go soft on her. We’re a family of warriors, and we don’t run from a fight. Do we?”
“It’s getting … harder.”
“It wouldn’t be called a test of faith if it were easy.”
She looked at him. “I heard you last night. You were talking to Grandma about Mom. You said no one knew why she didn’t wake up. After Grandma left, I saw you go to the piano. I was going to say something, then I heard you crying.”
“Oh.” He sagged forward in his chair. There was no point in lying to her. It had been a bad night, the kind where his armor felt as if it were crafted of cellophane. Remembering their anniversary had done him in. He’d sat at the elegant Steinway in the living room, aching to play again, needing to recapture the music that had once lived inside him. But ever since the accident, he’d been empty; the music that had sustained him through so much of his life had simply vanished. Though he’d never said so to Jacey, she knew; perhaps she’d noticed even before he had. The house that once had been filled with Bach and Beethoven and Mozart was as silent these days as a hospital room.
Music had always been his release. In the Bronx, when he’d felt as if he was losing his soul, he’d played angry, pounding music that screamed that the world was unfair, and in the bleak days while his father was fading into a stranger, he’d played quiet, elegiac melodies that reminded him of the sweetness of life, of the fullness of promises made. But now, when he needed that solace most of all, there was only this aching emptiness inside him.
He gave Jacey the only truth he could. “Sometimes it catches up with me and grabs so hard I can’t remember how to breathe. I sort of … fall through the floorboards of my fear, but I always land here, at her bedside, holding her hand and loving her.”
Jacey looked at Liam with a sadness that wouldn’t have been possible just a few short weeks ago. “I want to tell her I’m sorry for all the times she looked sad and I didn’t care.”
“She loves you and Bret with all her heart and soul, Jacey. You know that. And when she wakes up, she’s going to want to see those dance photos. If you don’t go, we’ll be eating macaroni and cheese out of a box for months. No one can hold a grudge like your mother.” He smiled gently. “Now, I may not know much about shopping for girl stuff in Bellingham, but I know about style because Mike has bucketloads. Remember the dress your mom wore to the Policemen’s Ball last year? She went all the way to Seattle for that dress, and to be honest, it cost more than my first car. You’d look perfect in it.”
“The Richard Tyler. I forgot all about it.”
“She wore it with that pretty sparkly clip in her hair. You could do that. Grandma could help you. Or maybe Gertrude at the Sunny and Shear salon could help. I know I’m not as good at this as your mom, but—”
Jacey threw her arms around him. “She couldn’t have done any better, Daddy. Honest.”
He turned to his wife, forced a smile. “You see what’s happening, Mike? You’re forcing me to give fashion advice to our sixteen-year-old. Hell, the last time I picked out my own clothes, bell-bottoms were in fashion.”
“Dad, they’re in fashion again.”
“See? If you don’t wake up soon, honey, I might authorize that eyebrow piercing she’s been asking for.”
They sat together, talking to each other and to the woman lying motionless in the bed before them. They talked as if it were a normal day, hoping all the while that some snippet of their conversation, some word or sound or touch, would sneak through Mike’s darkness and remind her that she wasn’t alone.
At three o’clock, the bedside phone rang, jangling through one of Jacey’s stories.
Liam reached for the phone and answered, “Hello.”
“Hi, Liam. Sorry to bother you. It’s Dawn at the school.”
He listened for a minute, then said, “I’ll be right down,” and hung up. He turned to Jacey. “It’s Bret. He’s in trouble again. I’ve got to go down to the school. You want to come?”
“Nope. Grandma’s going to pick me up here after her errands.”
“Okay.” Liam scooted back in his chair, hating the fingernail-on-chalkboard sound of the metal legs scraping across linoleum. As he stood up, he leaned over his wife. “I’ve got to go, Mike, but I’ll be back as soon as I can. I love you, honey.” He leaned closer and kissed her slack lips, whispering, “Forever.”
That’s what Bret Campbell was thinking as he sat on the hard bench in the nurse’s room. His right eye, where Billy McAllister had punched him, hurt like crazy. He was doing his very best not to cry. Everyone knew that crying was for girls and for babies, and he wasn’t either one.
Mrs. DeNormandie tapped Bret on the hand. “Hey, bruiser, why don’t you lie down? I’ll give you an ice pack for that eye. Mrs. Town just called your daddy at the hospital. He’ll be right down.” She turned to the small white fridge beneath the window and took out an ice pack. It was all floppy like a bag of peas and was the same color as the fluoride Dr. Edwards put on Bret’s teeth at checkup time. “Here you go.”
Bret leaned cautiously against the bumpy wall. He wasn’t about to lie down. What if Miranda or Katie saw him? They’d be laughing at him forever, and they already made fun of him for eating ham sandwiches and carrying a Goosebumps lunchbox to school. This morning, he’d decided that the next time Katie said something about his sandwich, he was gonna pinch her right in the fat part of her arm. Of course, he’d decided that before the fight with Billy. Now Bret figured he was going to get such a talking-to from Daddy that he didn’t dare add a girl-pinch on top of everything else.
He closed his eyes and pressed the ice pack to his throbbing eye. He could hear Mrs. D. moving around the small room, reorganizing stuff and shutting and opening doors. It sounded just like when Mommy was getting ready for dinner.
DON’T THINK ABOUT THAT.
It wasn’t like Bret wanted to think about his mommy. When he did … when he accidentally remembered things like the way she used to scratch his back while they were watching TV or the way she yelled too loud when he caught a ball during Little League or how she cuddled with him every night for ten minutes before it was really bedtime … if he thought about those things too much, it was bad. He didn’t cry so much anymore—not until night, anyway. He just sorta … froze. Sometimes whole minutes would go by and he wouldn’t notice a thing until somebody smacked him on the back or yelled at him or something. Then he’d blink awake and feel totally stupid for spacing out.
That’s what had happened at recess today.
He’d stepped out into the snowy yard, and that was all it took. It happened like that sometimes, the remembering.
All he could think about was his mom and how much she loved the snow. The next thing he knew, Billy McAllister was standing in front of him, yelling, “What’s your damned problem, Brat?”
“Sorry, Billy,” he’d mumbled, not sure what it was he’d done that made Billy mad.
“Come on, Billy,” Sharie Lindley had said, “he didn’t do anything. Besides, Mrs. Kurek told us to be nice to Bret. Remember?”
Billy’s frown hadn’t faded. “Oh, yeah. I forgot. His mom’s a vegetable. Sorry, Brat.”
All Bret remembered was the way he screamed, My mom’s no carrot, and launched himself at Billy. The next thing he knew, Mr. Monie, the principal, was there, breaking up the fight, blowing his whistle. And now Bret was here, in the nurse’s room, feeling like a geekozoid and wondering how he’d face his friends again.
Bret flinched at the familiar voice and slowly turned. “Hi, Dad.”
Dad stood in the doorway. He was so tall, he had to kind of duck his head forward, and because of that he looked … bent. His silvery blond hair was too long now—Mommy used to cut it—and it fell across his wire-rimmed glasses a little. But Bret wasn’t fooled by those bits of glass. He’d learned long ago that his daddy’s green eyes saw everything.
Mrs. DeNormandie looked up from her work. She was organizing tongue depressors in a glass jar. “Oh. Hello, Dr. Campbell.”
In the old days, Dad would have smiled at Mrs. DeNormandie and she would have smiled back, but now neither one of them smiled. “Hey, Barb,” Dad said quietly, “could you give us a few minutes?”
“Of course.” She put the tongue depressors away and quickly left the room, shutting the door behind her.
Quiet fell, the icky kind that spelled big trouble.
“How’s the eye?” Dad said finally.
Bret turned to him, letting Daddy see for himself. He dropped the ice pack onto the floor. “It doesn’t hurt.”
Dad sat down beside Bret. “Really?” he said in that we-don’t-lie-in-this-family voice.
“Okay, okay. It hurts worse than when Jacey’s cow stepped on my foot at the fair.” At his dad’s soft look, Bret almost started to cry again. If Mommy were here—