“But I’ll be with you, Bobby,” he says.
“I need Joy.”
I see how hurt Daniel is by that.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I say, studying Daniel’s profile.
“Pleeease, Joy?” Bobby whines. Tears glaze his eyes.
I can’t disappoint him. “Okay, but I’ll stay in the waiting room.”
Bobby wiggles out of his dad’s arms and slides to the floor. “I gotta get Freddy.”
As Bobby runs up the stairs, I stand there, staring at Daniel, who is looking now at the Christmas tree with an unvarnished sadness. I can see how much it has wounded him, this decorating of ours, and perhaps, his absence from it. I should say something, do something, but any word from me will be an intrusion.
And then my chance is gone. Daniel is moving past me, going up the stairs. Fifteen minutes later, he is back in the lobby, dressed in worn jeans and a forest green sweater. We leave the lodge and head for the truck. Bobby opens the door and climbs up into the cab, settling into the middle section of the bench seat. He is clutching a battered, well-loved stuffed lamb. I slide into place beside him. Daniel shuts the door and goes around to the driver’s side.
The drive to town takes no time at all, but even in the mile and a half or so between there and here, I am blown away by the beauty of this place. Giant evergreen trees grow everywhere—along the roadsides, in great, dark forests that block the path to the snow-covered mountains in the distance.
“It’s beautiful out here,” I say, seeing the ghostly image of my own face in the window glass; behind it, all around me, are the green and black blur of the trees we pass.
The town is exactly as I remember it: a few blocks of quaint storefronts, draped in holiday garb. Traffic is stopped here by signs and pedestrians; there are no traffic lights. On this bright blue afternoon the sidewalks are busy. Everywhere I look, pods of people are gathered to talk. It looks like a Hallmark card until we turn a corner.
Here, the street is overrun with people and vans.
“Damn it,” Daniel says, slamming on the brakes. “This is getting old.”
I am just about to ask what’s going on when I see the letters painted on the side of the van beside me.
It’s the media.
Of course. I turn my face away from the window instinctively. I know they aren’t looking for me—can’t be—but, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Still, I catch a glimpse of the police station and the crowd clamoring at the door.
Daniel turns onto another road and we are in the clear. He maneuvers the old truck into a parking spot and kills the engine, which slowly sputters and dies.
In the silence that follows, Bobby looks up at his dad. “How come I gotta see the doctor again?”
Daniel unhooks Bobby’s seat belt. “You’ve had some hard knocks, boyo. Anyone would be sad after losing their mum.”
Bobby sighs and crosses his arms. There’s a wealth of emotion in the sound. “But not everyone talks to her ghost.”
Daniel sighs. “I’m tryin’ to help, Bobby.”
“It would help if you believed me,” Bobby says. Slithering out of the cab, he runs on ahead.
I walk across the parking lot with Daniel. We are so close our arms are nearly touching, but neither of us pulls away. For a moment, as we enter the building, I imagine we’re a family, the three of us, here for Bobby’s regular checkup. If it were true, I’d follow them down the hallway and turn into the doctor’s office. I’d answer all the doctor’s questions about my son’s health. No doubt the three of us would go for ice-cream cones when it was over.
Instead, I go to the waiting room and sit down, alone. At some point, while I’m staring out the window at a rhododendron the size of a luxury car, a nurse comes up to me. She puts a hand on my shoulder and peers down at me.
The touch startles me. I hadn’t even heard her approach.
“How are we today?” she asks.
I frown. Had I fallen asleep? Had some kind of nightmare? I don’t think so. I was staring out the window, thinking about the big green leaves on the rhododendron; that’s all. I open my mouth to say “I’m fine, thanks,” but what comes out is, “I’m alone.”
The nurse with the plump, apple cheeks smiles sadly. “You’re not alone.”
It makes me feel better, that assurance, but when she leaves, I am alone again. Waiting.
For the first time since I ran away from Bakersfield and the crash, I wonder what it is I’m waiting for.
A fter the doctor’s appointment, as we’re heading across the parking lot, Daniel says, “I could go for some ice cream right about now. How about you?”
“Yippee!” Bobby squeals, bouncing with each step.
“Ice cream sounds good,” I say, trying not to smile. It is the first time I’ve felt welcomed by Daniel, included.
Beyond the parking lot is a lovely tree-lined street with small, well-tended houses on either side. The yards are full of color, even on this chilly December day—bright green grass, yellow bushes, blue-green kale in terra cotta pots. Ornamental cherry trees line the sidewalk, and though the limbs are bare now, it’s easy to imagine them awash in pink blossoms. Come spring, this street must look like a parade route with the air full of floating pink confetti.
As we reach the corner, we merge into the crowd out Christmas shopping on this sunny day. All around us, people are talking to one another. Every person we pass calls out a greeting to Daniel and Bobby.
We duck into a cute little ice-cream shop that proudly offers seven flavors. Behind the counter, a television is playing. On it, Jimmy Stewart is running down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls. The girl serving ice cream—a pretty teenager with a pierced nose and jet black hair—smiles at us. “Hey, Bobby. You want your regular?”
Bobby grins. “You bet. Double scoop.”
The girl looks at Daniel. Her blush and stammer reminds me how good-looking he is. Even a teenage girl notices. “I’ll have a pralines and cream,” he says in that velvet brogue that makes the girl smile.
I am just about to order a single scoop of cookie dough ice cream on a sugar cone when a picture of a crashed plane fills the television. On-screen, a local broadcaster is standing in front of the charred wreckage, saying, “ . . . plane crashed in the woods northeast of here. Survivors have been airlifted to several local hospitals for treatment. Authorities are in the process of identifying survivors and contacting family members. All of the named passengers on the manifest have been accounted for.”
Thank God. Everyone survived.
“However, witnesses report that an unidentified woman bought a last-minute ticket on the flight . . .”
Panic seizes hold of me. They’re trying to find me. Without thinking, I mumble, “excuse me,” and push past Daniel and Bobby. I can’t get out of here fast enough.
Outside, I collapse onto a park bench and lean back. My heart is beating a mile a minute.
I look up just in time to see Daniel and Bobby come out of the ice-cream shop. Both are frowning.
“Are you okay?” Bobby asks me.
I can see it in his eyes, the fear and worry. He is a boy who knows how life can turn on a dime, how people can be there one day and gone the next.
“I’m fine,” I say, but I’m not. I’m not even in fine’s neighborhood.
They’re searching for me.
What do I do now? How much longer do I have in anonymity?
My purse. They could find my purse.
“What is it?” Daniel asks, looking down at us.
I’m panicked and shaky. I want to say I can’t go back, but the words would make no sense to him. When I look up, I catch Daniel’s gaze and lose my place. Something about the way he’s looking at me makes my heart speed up.
“Is everything okay?” he asks.
His concern touches a place deep inside me. I have been alone—lonely—for too long. Apparently the slimmest strand of caring surprises me. I am stunned by how much I suddenly want to stay here. And yet, now I know that the clock is ticking. Once they discover my name, I will have to return home.
“I’m fine. Really.”
I get to my feet, feeling unsteady. Bobby sidles up close to me.
Together, the three of us walk down the crowded street. The decorated windows catch my attention, give me something to think about beside the news story. Occasionally, we go into stores, and when we do, we are welcomed. People look at us and smile and wish us a Merry Christmas. Dozens of knickknacks and souvenirs tempt me; an ornament made of Mount St. Helens’ ash, a wind chime made of copper and shells, a T-shirt that reads: “Wet and wild in the rainforest,” but I don’t have any money with me. I make a mental note to come back to some of these shops on my way out of town. I’ll want to add plenty of brochures and flyers and maps to my file cabinets back home.
I push the thought aside and focus on enjoying the day.
We stroll pass a diner with a Christmas painting on the window, then a frame shop.
Bobby stops dead.
I glance down at him. “Bobby?”
He’s staring at the building to our right. It’s a gorgeous stone church with stained glass windows, a big oak door, and a nativity scene in the yard.
Daniel looks down at his son. “We could go in and light a candle for your mum.”
Bobby shakes his head, juts out his chin in a telling way. He isn’t going to move.
“Maybe Christmas Eve,” Daniel says gently, taking hold of his son’s hand.
For the next half hour, we window-shop on Main Street, and then Daniel buys a bucket of fried chicken and we sit at a picnic table in the park to eat. Bobby sets out a paper plate, napkins, and a fork for me, but to be honest, I’m not hungry. The news story has ruined my appetite. Apparently I’m not the only one who has been upset by our little trip to town.
“So, Bobby,” Daniel finally says, snapping open a Coke. “You want to talk about it?”
Bobby stares down at his plate. “Talk about what?”
“You being mad at God.”
Daniel studies his son. In that one look, I see a world of emotion; a man who knows how to love. “I’d take you, you know.”
Bobby looks up at his dad, then at me. “I need Joy.”
“We all could go to church,” I say quickly, but it’s too late. The damage has been done. Bobby has chosen me over his father again. I have to do something fast to change the mood. Somehow, I have to get these two to remember who they are to each other and what they have left. Sometimes that’s all that matters: what remains. “Tell me about the time you and your dad went to the carnival.”
“The time he le-let me keep the change?” Bobby asks.
I nod. “That time.”
Bobby glances at his dad. “You remember that, Daddy? When we went to the carnival?”
That’s all it takes—a word from Bobby—and Daniel’s face changes. His smile takes my breath away. “Aye. At the county fair, it was. I’m surprised you remember that.”
“You carried me on your shoulders.”