“I yelled at her,” Jacey said. “Mom wakes up after a month in a coma and I yelled at her.”
“Don’t worry about it, honey. You just go back tomorrow and tell her you love her.”
“I do love her, but I’m mad at her, and I’m afraid she’ll never remember us. That she’ll only remember … him.”
“I wish you were still a little girl right now,” he answered in a quiet voice. “If you were, I’d make up a story or tickle you or offer you an ice-cream cone.”
She smiled. “Something to change the subject.”
“You bet. But you’re almost grown up, and I can’t protect you from all the hurts in life anymore. The truth is, love comes in a million colors and shades. Some are so clear they’re almost see-through; others are black as pencil lead.” He stopped, unable to think of anything to say that didn’t sound lame or pathetic. So he took a deep breath and told her what he believed. “Jacey, I don’t know what your mom’s past means to this family, but I know this: We will always be a family, the four of us. Somehow we’ll get each other through it. That’s what families do best.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
His heart constricted. A little girl’s word: Daddy. It reminded him of all they’d been through together. They would get each other through this, one way or the other, and when it was all over, they would know how and where the love came to rest among them. “I love you, too, Jace. Now, come here, give your old man a hug.”
She slid off the bed and dropped onto his lap, twining her arms around his neck.
The beanbag chair was too little, and together they slid off its slick surface and landed in a heap on the floor. Laughing, they separated and crawled awkwardly to their feet.
“Good night, Dad.”
“Good night, Jace.”
He left her room and closed the door behind him, then went downstairs. He drifted from room to room aimlessly. It wasn’t until he found himself in the living room, standing beside the grand piano, that he realized he must have been coming here all along.
He sat down. The piano keys were dark. Not that he needed light to play; he didn’t need anything—not sheet music, not light, not an audience. All he needed was Mikaela …
He plunked a single key with his forefinger. The note—B flat—reverberated in the room, reminded him of the times he’d sat here, his family clustered around him, his wife seated close beside, and played his heart out. The lone note died.
He drew his hands back from the keys. He couldn’t play yet.
Julian sat in one of the back booths at Lou’s Bowl-O-Rama, staring down into his fourth schooner of beer. It was almost ten o’clock—apparently prime bowling time in Pleasantville.
He could hear the commotion going on behind him—people clustering together, pointing at him and whispering. The word that most often rose above the static hum was Mikaela.
They were easy to ignore. Part of being a star was learning to be alone in a mob of people, all of whom were looking at you. You learned to look without seeing, peruse a crowd without making eye contact. Celebrity 101. Unfortunately, at some point you realized that being alone in a crowd was hardly a skill you wanted to perfect.
He took another sip of beer.
He couldn’t forget the emptiness he’d seen in himself today. He should have known it was there all along, of course, but he’d never been the kind of man who really thought about things like that.
Love was a word he’d used carelessly over the years. So often, he’d told people—reporters, friends, other women—that Kayla had been his one true love.
He could never say that now that he’d seen Liam, glimpsed into the heart of a man who truly loved.
Julian realized he liked the idea of love. That’s why he’d married so often. But what he really wanted was something else—like that movie (or had it been a book first?) The Bridges of Madison County.
The perfect male fantasy: a few days of passionate, reckless sex that didn’t change your life, then ripened into a bittersweet regret. Sure, you’d lost that one true love, but there was something inestimably romantic in loss. And why not? That love hadn’t been tested by time or boredom or infidelity. It remained caught in a shining web of timelessness, and as the years went on, it grew brighter and brighter.
Regret, Julian now understood, was the only true emotion he’d retained from his marriage to Kayla. It tasted like fine port, that regret; over time, it had mellowed into a sweet, full-bodied wine that could intoxicate.
It was better than the truth: that he’d loved her, married her, watched her leave him, and moved on. That his love for her had been a fleeting emotion.
Or worse, that there was a hole in his soul that could never be filled, that real love was beyond him.
Someone clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, Juli, I’ve been looking all over town for you. Are you bowling?”
Julian didn’t smile. “You know me, Val. I love a sport where you wear other people’s shoes.”
Val grinned and sat down. “What’s next, steer roping?”
Julian turned to him. “Val, do you ever think about what happens to guys like us when we get old?”
“My personal role model is Sean Connery. Sixty-eight years old and the babes still go for me. You can be Jack or Warren, but the God—Connery—he’s mine.”
Julian stared into his beer. “I think we end up alone, sitting in some expensive chair in an expensive house, looking through photo albums of who we used to be, what we used to have. I think we lose our hair and our looks and no one comes to visit us.”
Val raised his hand. “Bring me a Scotch, will you?” he yelled to Lou, then he turned back to Julian. “You’re as much fun as detox.”
How could he make Val understand? Julian had always craved the glitz and glamour of Hollywood; he’d thought he’d die if he didn’t become someone who mattered, and he’d gotten his wish. But the years had strung together like broken Christmas lights, and not until now—in Last Bend—had he realized what he’d given up for fame. He could see clearly how he would end up—an aging, arrogant movie star who showed up at every party, drinking too much, smoking too much, screwing any woman who got close enough. Looking, he’d always be looking …
Until one day he’d realize that he’d given up on finding what he was looking for, and that the ache in his heart was permanent.
Kayla had loved him, and in loving him so deeply, she’d seen the empty place in his heart. She had known that a true and lasting love couldn’t grow in such shallow, rocky soil. No doubt, she’d hoped that he would come for her, a changed and better man, but deep down, she must have known. That’s why she’d never told Jacey the truth about him. Why spin romantic tales about a man you’d never see again?
Lou set a glass of Scotch in front of Val. “There ye’ be. Anything for you, Julian?”
“No, thanks, Lou,” Julian answered.
“You’re thanking someone? Jesus, Juli, what the hell’s going on?”
Julian turned to his friend. “Kayla’s made me … see my life, Val, and it isn’t much.”
Val looked thoughtful. “You’re like one of those teenage girls who see the supermodels in the magazines and think they really look like that. You and me, we know about the airbrushing and the bingeing and the drug use and the Auschwitz rib cages. You’re thinking that maybe you want a different life, filled with lawn mowers and block parties and Little League. But that’s not who you are. Don’t you know that all those real guys out there working seven-to-seven to support their snot-nosed kids and heavy-duty wives would kill to have your life for one day?”
“They can have it.”
Val’s eyes held an abiding sadness. “Julian, she’s married.”
“I know,” he answered. “But what if I love her?”
The falling apart of a man’s life should make noise. It should startle passersby with its Sturm und Drang. It ought to sound like the Parthenon crashing down. Not this ordinary, everyday kind of quiet.
His wife was in love with another man. There was simply no way around that; no matter how often he tried to push the thought away, it came creeping back.
Liam lay back in bed, staring up at the gauzy mosquito netting that canopied their bed. It was almost midnight, but he couldn’t sleep.
He couldn’t forget the images he’d seen on television tonight, or the quippy headlines that accompanied them.
True Love, after all these years.
Sleeping Beauty awakens to Prince Charming’s kiss.
Every program had had photographs of Kayla, all of them showing a young, vibrant woman who was clearly in love.
It was a woman he’d never seen. Until today—this second—he’d had this hope that he would catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of his wife. But all he’d seen was image after image of Kayla.
Now she was neither Kayla nor Mikaela. Without memories, she was a leaf, caught up in the swirling current of a dream, but soon she would land on earth. She would remember the fifteen years they’d spent together. He had to believe that.
But what then?
She would reach out for something solid, and the thing that would steady her, her anchor, would be her love for her children. That love was the cornerstone of her soul, and nothing—not even Julian—could separate her from Jacey and Bret.
When she came back to herself, Mike would put her kids’ needs first. She always had. She’d left Julian because of Jacey and she’d married Liam because of Bret.
In the end, she would stay married to Liam. Of this, he was certain. When push came to shove, she would again sacrifice her passion for her children’s welfare.
The realization brought no solace; instead it weighed him down.
Julian wasn’t a threat to their marriage; Liam knew that. It was Mikaela’s love for Julian that threatened everything. Before, Liam had been able to tell himself that she loved him enough. But now that he’d seen the way she looked at Julian …
He closed his eyes.
And still it was quiet, this falling apart of his life, as silent as the last beat of an old man’s heart. A quiet, echoing thud, and then … nothing.
Mikaela dreamt she was in the big log house.
She could hear the child crying again, and this time she was more afraid. She climbed the stairs and crossed the empty porch. Beside her, a rocking chair squeaked and moved, pushed by unseen hands.
She grabbed the doorknob and twisted, swinging the door open so hard, it cracked against the interior wall.
“Hello?” Her voice was a reedy whisper, beaten by the heaviness of her breathing.
The crying came again, louder this time.
She felt along the wall; this time she knew there was a light switch there, and when her fingers brushed it, she cried out in relief. The lights came on—an overhead chandelier crafted of deer antlers that threw a soft, golden net across a deserted dining room table. She had a quick, flashing image of herself sitting at that table, at a certain chair; she heard a voice saying, So, kids, tell me about your day …