He brushed the tangle of hair from her face. “Annie knows an awful lot.”
She turned away from him, trying to hide the tears that burned her eyes. “I’m startin’ to forget her, Daddy.”
He slipped an arm around her and drew her close, gently stroking her moist cheek. “Mommy had the prettiest eyes in the world, and when she looked at you, it felt as if the rain had stopped and the sunlight was on your face. And she had a crooked front tooth—it sort of slanted sideways, and a tiny mole right next to her ear. She loved you, Izzy . . . she loved you more than her own life.”
“She loved both of us, Daddy.”
He didn’t say anything. He just kissed her, right on the tip of her nose, and it reminded her of when she was a baby; he used to do that all the time. For the first time since her mommy died, Izzy wasn’t scared. The scream that had been inside her for months shriveled up like an old raisin and rolled away. She knew, finally, that everything was going to be okay.
Her daddy loved her again.
She squeezed her eyes shut, really hard so she wouldn’t cry like a baby. When she could breathe again, she slowly opened her eyes.
She couldn’t believe what she saw. “Daddy?” she said softly.
She slowly lifted her left hand. Clear as day, she could see the little black glove that grew out of her sleeve. She bit down on her trembling lower lip, afraid it was a mistake. Slowly, she took off the glove, and there was her hand. “Do you see it, Daddy?”
He looked right at her hand—she was sure he saw it— but he didn’t smile. Instead, he looked at her. “What should I see?”
She swallowed thickly. “I see my hand . . . and my arm. Do you see ’em?”
Her daddy made a raggedy sound. “Yeah. I see your hand.” Very slowly, like he was afraid she was going to stop him, he took the glove from her.
She giggled, wriggling her fingers. “I guess I’m stayin’ here with you, Daddy.”
“Yeah, Izzy-bear. I guess you are.”
He made a sniffing sound. Izzy looked up and saw the strangest thing: her big, strong daddy was crying.
She loved both of us.
Much later, when Nick was in bed, with his arms wish-boned behind his head, he finally allowed himself to think about what Izzy had said to him.
She loved both of us.
It was the sentence he’d been unable to believe in for so long, spoken with such certainty in the voice of a child.
The tears he’d hidden away for over a year came spilling down his cheeks. He had loved his wife, loved her from the time he first saw her, and somehow in the last few years he’d forgotten; he’d seen all that darkness and forgotten the light. She had loved him, too, with all her broken heart; she had loved him.
“I loved you, Kath,” he whispered into the quiet solitude of his bedroom. “I loved you . . .”
The Mystic Rain Festival started on schedule, on the first Saturday in May, just as it had for each of the last hundred years. A low-slung gray sky hung over downtown. Rain fell in a stuttering curtain on the storefront awnings. Fresh green leaves floated in murky gutter water, swirling alongside the sidewalks.
Annie wore a slick yellow raincoat, with her Levi’s tucked into high-topped black rubber boots, and a Seattle Mariners baseball cap. Hank stood beside her, munching on a homemade scone he’d purchased at the Rotary Club booth.
The parade moved slowly down Main Street, splashing on the wet pavement. There were fire trucks, police cars, Boy Scout troops, and six little girls in pink tutus from Esmeralda’s Dance Barn.
Annie was enchanted by the schmaltzy, small-town production. She knew from experience that the parade would clatter down the six blocks and then turn around and come back.
She had missed this. How was it that she hadn’t known that? She’d gone to California and raised her daughter behind iron gates and in air-conditioned rooms, in a city where hometown parades had celebrity marshals and corporate sponsors.
She didn’t want to go back there.
It surprised her, the sudden certainty of her decision. It was the first time in her life she’d come to a conclusion without thinking of other people’s feelings, and it felt good.
She didn’t want to live in California anymore, and she didn’t have to. After the divorce, when Natalie went away to college, Annie could return to Mystic, maybe even open that bookstore. . . .
Dreams. They were such precious commodities, and she’d given so many of hers away without a fight. Never again.
She turned to her dad. “Let me ask you something, Dad. Do you think this town could use a bookstore?”
He smiled. “Hell, yes. We’ve needed one for years. Your mom used to dream of opening one.”
Annie shivered. For a strange, disorienting second, she felt as if her mom were beside her. “Really? I was thinking the same thing.”
He turned to her, looked at her long and hard. “You’re hurting right now, Annie, and you’re running, but don’t forget where your real life is. You’re never going to live in Mystic again, and besides, you’re not a businessperson. You’re a housewife.” He slipped an arm around her, drawing her close.
His lack of faith stung. For the first time, she wondered how long her father had been spoon-feeding her a diet of self-doubt. When had it begun? When she was a child? The first time he told her not to worry her pretty head about something? Or all the times he’d told her that Blake would take care of her?
If she were a different kind of woman, Annie might feel angry right now, but as it was, all she felt was the vague residue of sadness. Her father was from another generation, and he’d done the best he could with his only child. If his wife had lived, everything would have been different. . . .
But she hadn’t, and with her death, Hank had been thrown into a role he couldn’t handle. All he knew of womanhood came from his own mother, a tired, washed-out woman who died at forty-seven, driven to an early grave by hard work. Like his father, Hank had grown up in Mystic, and never seen much of the world beyond. He’d thought the best he could do for Annie was to get her educated, so that she could find a husband who could give her a better life than the one to which she’d been raised.
Unfortunately, Annie had followed his lead. She’d gone all the way to Stanford—where the world had been open to her if only she’d known where to look—and she’d kept her gaze on the straight and narrow. She’d asked too little of herself . . . and gotten exactly what she’d sought. It was funny how that worked in life.
It wasn’t her father’s fault, any more than it was Blake’s or Annie’s fault. It simply was. She was lucky to have seen the truth at all, she supposed. If not for Blake, she would have walked down the road of the ordinary for the whole of her life, a middle-aged woman, and then at last an old woman, wearing the blinders that had been passed down from generation to generation.
She slipped her hand into her dad’s and gave him a gentle squeeze. The last entry in the parade, the Bits and Spurs 4-H club, clattered past on horseback, and as it rounded the corner and disappeared, everyone clapped and cheered. When the applause died down, the crowd began to disperse, slipping off the sidewalk and onto the street.
Annie and Hank strolled arm in arm down the sidewalk, past the artisans’ booths and hot-dog stands, past the Victorian house with a FOR RENT sign in the window.
Hank stopped at the Lutheran church stand and bought two mocha lattes, handing one to Annie. The pungent aroma of the coffee swirled between them, and the heat of it soothed her scratchy throat. Neither of them noticed the gentle patter of the rain; it had never bothered Annie. It was funny how she’d forgotten that. In California, she used to race for an umbrella at the first hint of precipitation. Here, the only people who used umbrellas were tourists.
“So, Natalie gets home in six weeks.”
Annie took a sip of coffee, then nodded. “June fifteenth. I can’t wait.”
“What will you say to Blake when you see him?”
The question surprised Annie. It wasn’t something she wanted to think about, and it was unlike her father to ask. She shrugged. “I don’t know. For weeks, all I wanted was to see him again, to make him remember what we had together, but now I can’t seem to grab hold of what we had.”
“Is it because of him?”
She started to ask what he meant, but when she looked up, she saw Nick. He was standing across the street, with Izzy on his shoulders. They were both eating ice cream cones. He turned, and across the crowded street, their eyes met and held for a heartbeat. He flashed her a smile, waved, then moved on. She tried to frame an answer for her dad, but she honestly didn’t know how Nick fit into the picture. “Who knows what causes anything? All I know is that I’m not the same woman I was before.”
“You be careful, Annie.”
She glanced across the street again, but Nick was gone. She felt a pang of disappointment. “You know what, Dad? I’m tired of being careful.”
“When you play with fire, you get burned.”
She laughed. “More bumper stickers, Dad?”
He laughed with her. “How do you think people come up with bumper stickers? Some things are just plain true.”
On Monday Annie, Nick, and Izzy drove to Sol Duc Hot Springs and hiked deep into the Olympic National Forest. Afterward, they swam in the lodge’s huge swimming pool and relaxed in the steaming, sulphuric hot springs. When dusk started to fall, they piled back into the car and headed home.
By the time they unpacked the car and got everything put away, it was almost midnight. Nick offered Annie his room, and she took him up on the offer. She called her dad, who was waiting up for her again, and told him that she’d be home first thing in the morning.
Is that wise, Annie Virginia? he asked in a quiet voice. She told him not to worry, and hung up the phone. Afterward, she wasn’t so sure she’d made a smart decision, but the truth was that she didn’t feel well. She wanted to collapse in a convenient bed and sleep for ten hours. Her back hurt, her head hurt, and she’d felt nauseous for most of the drive home. She was definitely not cut out for hiking.
She was careful to avoid Nick as she hurried upstairs, brushed her teeth, and fell into a deep sleep.
The next morning, she woke up feeling even worse. A headache pounded behind her eyes, and she had to lie very still in bed, concentrating on each breath, or she was certain she was going to throw up.
She counted slowly to ten, then angled up to her elbows. Sunlight slanted through her bedroom window. The glare hurt her eyes and intensified her headache. A beautiful morning in May, and she couldn’t enjoy it.
Swallowing thickly, she threw back the comforter and stumbled into the small adjoining bathroom. She didn’t bother turning on the light—she could see the shadowy pockets under her eyes perfectly well. She moved like a hundred-year-old woman, taking forever to brush her teeth and wash her face. When she was finished, she felt even worse.
She went back to bed and snuggled under the covers. A chill racked her body, and she closed her eyes.