Elizabeth remembered that night in the garden, when she’d blithely asked Anita why she hadn’t had kids.
"Oh, honey, that’s a question for another time, maybe between different women."
"In other words, mind my own business."
"Yes. That question cuts to the heart of me, is all. I’m not goin’ to answer it as idle chitchat at midnight two days after my husband’s death."
It must have wounded Anita deeply to hear that question asked aloud.
"I knew I’d be alone one day," Anita went on, fiddling with her wedding ring. "I thought a baby would help. So, after Edward and I got back together, we tried. I had three miscarriages. All boys. Each one took a bigger piece of me, until . . ." She shrugged. "Three was enough, I guess. I figured God knew what he was doing."
Elizabeth felt herself softening toward Anita, glimpsing a woman she’d never imagined before. It felt strangely like coming home. "I had a miscarriage once," she said softly, surprising herself by the admission. "I never told anyone except Jack. It about broke my heart." She touched her stepmother’s ankle, squeezing it gently. It was the first time she’d ever done such a thing.
Anita made a sound, a tiny gasp, then turned to her. "I have something for you. I brought it all the way from Tennessee. And it wasn’t easy."
None of this was easy, Elizabeth thought but didn’t say. Instead, she helped her stepmother to her feet. They climbed up the rickety wood steps and emerged onto the soggy grass.
When they reached the porch, Elizabeth noticed the big cardboard box leaning against the house. "I wondered what was in that thing."
Anita rushed into the house and came back out, holding a knife. "Open it."
Elizabeth took the knife and split the box down the seam.
"You ought to put it down," Anita advised.
Elizabeth slid the box onto the slatted porch floor. It hit with a loud metallic clang. She knelt down and opened the box.
Inside, she saw shiny green poles . . . white knotted rope.
"It’s Daddy’s hammock."
"Y’all used to snuggle together in that thing for hours, rockin’ back and forth. I remember hearin’ your giggles from the kitchen while I was cookin’ dinner."
Suddenly Daddy was there, beside her. Heya, sugah beet, hand your old daddy one o’ them sweet lemonades, won’tcha?
"We used to watch the fireflies together," Elizabeth whispered, remembering it in vivid detail. "They flew all around us when we were in this hammock."
"He’d want you to have it," Anita said. "It’d be perfect over there by the stairs, so you can sleep in it on a sunny day and listen to the ocean below . . . and remember how much he loved you."
Elizabeth finally looked up at Anita, her eyes stinging. She couldn’t say anything, not even thank you.
Anita smiled. "You’re welcome."
March howled into new york on an arctic blast. In the middle of a night so cold that even Times Square was deserted, it began to snow. At first it was just a flake here and there, drifting across the city, but by dawn, God had finished screwing around. Snow fell so hard and fast Jack could barely see the buildings across the street.
He stood at his window, sipping a latte. On the street below, cars were few and far between. City buses rumbled slowly forward, angling toward the stops. Neon signs looked faded and worn against the pewter sky, like collectible postage stamps from a forgotten era. Cottony clouds hung low in the sky, severing the high-rises in half.
He was just about to head into the shower when the phone rang.
"Hello, Mr. Shore. This is the Bite Me insurance agency and we need authorization to distribute your assets, since you have Fallen Off The Face Of The Planet."
He couldn’t help laughing. "Mea culpa," he said. It was always better to take responsibility with Jamie. Otherwise, she’d chew you up and spit you out.
"No shit, mea culpa. That’s not even a question. I suppose you’ve been so busy big-manning it that you didn’t have time to call me back about the swim team."
"We only talked about that two days ago. I knew you wouldn’t do anything right away."
"Hel-lo, Dad, I think you need to cut back on the peroxide. That conversation was more than a week ago."
He frowned. "A week? No way."
"Oh, yes, way."
"God, I’m sorry, baby. I meant to get back to you. Things have been crazy around here. People mag–"
She snorted at the familiar meant to. "Yeah, right. It’s always other people’s fault."
He made a mental note to pay closer attention to the calendar. "I’m working fifteen hours a day."
"That must be why you were out when I called you last night . . . at two o’clock in the morning. Working."
Thank God he wasn’t talking to her face-to-face. He felt himself flush. "I took a sleeping pill last night. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately . . . you know, without your mom." That was actually true.
And false, of course.
"I didn’t even know you missed her. You never mention her."
"I do . . . miss her. She’ll be out here any day." Suddenly he knew what Elizabeth meant when she said it was tough to lie to the kids.
"You’ve been saying that for too long. Stephie and I have come up with a plan. You’re invited to make it all happen."
He immediately relaxed. So that was it: Jamie had a plan, and verbally roughing him up was her way of assuring his guilt-ridden participation. "And what exactly am I looking forward to this time, sending you girls to Europe this summer? Or, maybe scuba diving in Aruba for spring break?"
"Stephanie and I are gonna fly into Kennedy Friday morning. You’ll meet us at the airport; then we’ll all fly to Oregon together for the weekend."
"It’s Mom’s birthday. You didn’t forget, did you?"
Shit. "No, no. Of course not. I was going to fly out to be with her for the weekend, but then this thing at work–"
"Don’t even finish that sentence. Honest to God, Dad, you’re coming with us. I mean it. You’re a television personality, not a cardiac surgeon. No one is gonna die if you take Friday off."
What a mess. "You’re right," he said dully.
"You can meet us at the airport, right? So we can all fly together. We’ll buy the tickets on-line and put them on your Visa."
"Sure. Why not?"
"And, Dad, it’s a surprise. So don’t tell her, okay?"
Jack closed his eyes and sighed. "Oh, it’ll be a surprise, all right."
Last night, Elizabeth and Anita had stayed up late into the night, talking. They didn’t venture again into intimate territory. They simply talked, two women who’d known each other all their lives and yet had never really known each other at all. To their mutual surprise, they’d found a lot of common ground.
In the morning, after a breakfast of poached eggs and toast, they walked along the beach, talking some more. It was a glorious spring day, bursting with sunlight.
Later, while Anita napped, Elizabeth went to town and stocked up on groceries. It was late afternoon by the time she returned home. She picked up her mail, then turned onto Stormwatch Lane.
Out to sea, the first pink and lavender lights of evening were beginning to tint the sky. She parked in the gravel.
Anita was on the porch, staring out at the ocean. She wore a long, flowing white dress and a beautifully knit coral sweater. Her white hair was twisted into a single braid that fell down the middle of her back.
The light was stunning. Perfect. It drizzled over the house like sweet melted butter, softening all the edges. Anita’s face was full of light and shadow right now: sad eyes, smiling mouth, furrowed brow. Her dress seemed to be spun from crushed pearls.
Elizabeth felt a flash of inspiration. "Could I paint you?"
Anita pressed a pale, veiny hand to her chest. "You want to paint my picture?"
"I don’t promise that it’ll be any good. I’ve only just started again. But if you’d be willing–"
"I could sit on that log over there by the cliff."
Elizabeth turned. Sure enough, there was a perfect log slanted along the edge of the property. In the newly setting sun, it shone with silvery light. Behind it, the gilded ocean stretched to the horizon. It was the exact place she would have chosen, although it might have taken her an hour to make up her mind. And Anita had chosen it in five seconds.
She looked at Anita. "Are you an artist?"
Anita laughed. "No, but I read that book, Girl With a Pearl Earring. The one everyone was talkin’ about."
"Stay here. I’ll be right back." Elizabeth raced into the house, seasoned a whole chicken and popped it into the oven alongside a few potatoes and carrots, then put the groceries away and got her painting supplies. She was outside again in less than fifteen minutes.
She set up the easel and got everything ready, then looked around for Anita.
Her stepmother was standing by the log instead of sitting on it. Her back was to Elizabeth. Her arms were crossed–that female self-protective stance Elizabeth knew so well.
The twilight sky was pure magic. Pink, purple, gold, and orange lay in layers above the sparkling silver ocean. In the distance, the gnarled trees were already black.
Anita seemed to be fading before Elizabeth’s eyes, as if the colors in the sky were drawing their strength from her. She was becoming paler and paler; her hair and dress looked almost opalescent.
Elizabeth let pure instinct overtake her. She’d never moved with such speed, such purpose. Mixing colors, slashing lines, trying desperately to capture the lonely beauty of the scene in front of her. Layer upon layer of color, everything taking on a hue that was completely unique.
She painted furiously, desperately, wordlessly, until the last bits of light seeped into the waterline at the edge of the world and disappeared.
It was almost completely dark when she said, "That’s it, Anita. No more for tonight."
Anita’s body seemed to melt downward and become smaller. Suddenly Elizabeth realized how much she’d asked of the woman. "I’m sorry. Did it hurt to stand so still for so long?"
"I loved every moment of it."
"You must be starving. I know I am. Come on inside."
Anita glanced eagerly at the easel. "Can I see it?"
"No." Elizabeth heard the hard edge to her voice and was instantly contrite. "Sorry. I mean not yet. Is that okay?"
Anita waved her hand in the air. "Of course, honey."
Elizabeth carried the painting into the house and put it in the walk-in pantry to dry. "Dinner’ll be ready in a while," she said to Anita; "go on upstairs. Take a hot bath."
"Darlin’, you read my mind."
Elizabeth set the table and made the salad, then called for Anita. When there was no answer, she went upstairs and found her stepmother sitting on the end of the bed, holding a small lace-trimmed pillow. Her head was bowed forward. She was so still that for a moment Elizabeth thought she’d nodded off.
Anita looked up. Her face was pale; in the dull light, her cheekbones created dark hollows in her cheeks. There were tears in her eyes.
Elizabeth sat down on the edge of the bed. "You okay?"
Elizabeth didn’t know what to say. Grief was like that: One minute you were tripping the light fantastic; the next minute, an old blue pillow made you cry.