“But would you give it all up . . . the caring and the love and trying . . . would you give it up because in the end there is pain?”
He touched her face gently. “You’re not asking about my job. . . .”
“It’s all the same, Nick. All we have is the time, the effort. The end . . . the pain . . . that’s out of our control.”
A single tear streaked down her face, and though he longed to wipe it away, he was afraid that the tiny bead of moisture would scald his flesh. He knew that this moment would stay with him forever, even after he wanted to forget. “I’ll never forget us, Annie.”
This time he didn’t care how much it hurt; he let himself dream that the baby she carried was his.
Annie showed up at her dad’s house bright and early. For a moment after she got out of the car, she simply stood there, staring at her childhood home as if she’d never seen it before. The windows glowed with golden light, and a riot of colorful flowers hugged the latticework below the wrap-around porch. She wouldn’t be here to see the chrysanthemums bloom this year, and though she hadn’t seen them flower for many, many years, now it saddened her.
She would miss seeing her dad. It was funny; in California she had gone for long stretches of time without seeing him—sometimes as much as a whole year would slip by without a visit—and she hadn’t had the ache of longing that now sat on her chest like a stone. She felt almost like a girl again, afraid to leave home for the first time.
With a sigh, she slammed her car door shut and walked up to the house.
She hadn’t even reached the porch when Hank flung the door open. “Well, it’s about time, I haven’t seen you in days. I was—”
“It’s time, Dad.”
She nodded. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Oh.” He slipped through the door, closing it behind him. He sidestepped around her and sat down on the wicker love seat. Then he motioned for her to sit beside him.
She sat down in her mom’s rocking chair and leaned back. Memories of her childhood were close out here; they came encoded in the sound of the rocker on the wooden porch. She could almost hear her mother’s voice, calling Annie to come into the house.
Hank stared out at the green darkness of the forest. “I’m sorry, Annie. About all of it.”
Annie felt her throat tighten. “I know, Dad.”
Hank turned to her at last. “I made you something.” He went into the house and came out a moment later, carrying a present.
She took the thin box, wrapped in beautiful blue foil, and opened it. Inside was a thick, leatherbound photograph album. She flipped the cover open. The first page held a small black-and-white Kodak print that had seen better days; the edges were dog-eared, and tiny white creases covered the print in maplike patterns.
It was a rare photo of Annie and her mom, one she’d never seen before. Her mother was wearing a pair of white pedal pushers and a sleeveless shirt, with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was smiling. Beside her, a spindly Annie was standing next to a brand-new bike.
Annie remembered that bicycle. She’d gotten it for her birthday, amid a shower of balloons and cake and laughter. She remembered how proud her mother had been when she first rode it. There you go, Annie, honey, you’re on your way now.
Slowly, she turned the pages, savoring each and every photograph. Here she was at last, Annie . . . from the early, toothless days of kindergarten through the midriff-baring teenage years.
It was her life spread out before her, one frozen moment at a time, and each one brought a bittersweet remembrance. Lady, the puppy they’d brought home from the grocery store . . . the Christmas tree ornament she’d made in Mr. Quisdorff’s woodshop class . . . the white satin sleeveless dress she’d worn to the junior prom.
The memories crowded in on her, clamoring to be held and savored, and she wondered how it was that she’d forgotten so much. In every photograph, she saw herself, saw the woman emerging through the freckled, gap-toothed features of the girl in these pictures. The final page of the book was reserved for the family photograph she and Blake and Natalie had posed for only two years ago.
There I am, she thought, gazing at the smiling, bright-eyed woman in the black St. John sweater . . . and there I’m not.
“I couldn’t find very many pictures of your mom,” Hank said softly. “I went through a dozen boxes up in the attic. That’s pretty much what there is. I’m sorry.”
Annie was surprised to hear his voice. She’d fallen so deeply into her own thoughts, she’d forgotten that her dad was beside her. She gave him a small smile. “We’re like that, we moms. We take the pictures, but we don’t record our own lives very well. It’s a mistake we never realize until it’s too late. . . .”
She flipped back to the beginning of the album, to a five-by-seven black-and-white copy of her mom’s graduation picture. She looked so heartbreakingly young. Though you couldn’t tell, Annie could recall perfectly the hazel hue of her mother’s eyes. She caressed the photograph. Did you ever look for yourself in mirrors, Mom? Were you like the rest of us? Is that why you dreamed of opening a bookstore?
She wondered now, for the first time in years, what her mom would be like today. Would she be dying her hair, or would she have allowed her beautiful blond to fade into gray? Would she still be wearing that electric-blue eye shadow from the seventies, and those fuzzy hot-pink bits of yarn to tie up her layered ponytails? Or would she have gracefully turned to a conservative shoulder-length cut by now?
“She was beautiful,” Hank said quietly, “and she loved you very much.” He touched Annie’s cheek with his papery, old man’s hand. “I should have told you that—and given you these pictures—a long time ago. But I was young and stupid and I didn’t know. . . .”
There was an emotional thickness in Hank’s voice. It surprised Annie, his unexpected journey into intimacy. “What didn’t you know?”
He shrugged. “I thought you grieved for a few respectable months and then got on with your life. I didn’t know how . . . deep love ran, how it was in your blood, not your heart, and how that same blood pumped through your veins your whole life. I thought you’d be better off if you could forget her. I should have known that wasn’t possible.”
Annie’s heart constricted painfully. Never had her father shown his grief and his love in such sharp relief. It moved her to touch his velvety cheek. “She was lucky to be so loved, Dad. By both of us.”
“She’s still loved—and still missed. No one can ever take her place for me, except you, Annie. You’re the best of Sarah and me, and sometimes, when you smile, I see your mama sitting right beside me.”
She knew then that she would remember this day forever. She would buy a wicker love seat for her deck, and she would sit there with her new baby and remember what she had once allowed herself to forget.
“I’ll visit more often this time,” she said. “I promise. And I want you to come down for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year. No excuses. I’ll send a ticket.”
“It better be coach.”
She smiled. It was exactly what she would have expected him to say. “Hell, Dad, I’ll put you on a bus if it’ll get you down there.”
“Are you going to be okay, Annie Virginia?”
“Don’t worry about me, Dad. That’s the one thing I learned up here in Mystic. I’m stronger than I thought. I’m always going to be okay.”
It rained on the day Annie left. All the night before, she and Nick had lain awake in bed, talking, touching, trying in every way they could to mark the memory on their souls. They had watched in silence as the sun crept over the dome of Mount Olympus, turning the glaciers into spun pink glass on the jagged granite peaks; they’d watched as the clouds rolled in and wiped the sunlight away, and as the rain tiptoed along the surface of the lake, turning from a gentle patter to a roaring onslaught, and then back to a patter again. They’d stared at each other, their gazes full of pent-up longing and fear, and still they’d said nothing.
When finally Annie rose from the passion-scented warmth of his bed, he reached out and clasped her hand. She waited for him to speak, but he didn’t. Slowly, hating every motion, she slipped out of her T-shirt and dressed in a pair of leggings and a long sweatshirt.
“My bags are in the car,” she said at last. “I’ll . . . say good-bye to Izzy and then . . . go.”
“I guess we’ve said our good-byes,” he said softly. Then he smiled, a tender, poignant smile that crinkled his eyes and made her want to cry. “Hell, I guess we’ve been saying them from the moment we met.”
“I know . . .”
They stood for a long time, gazing at each other. If it were possible, she fell in love with him even more. Finally, she couldn’t stand how much it hurt to look at him.
She pulled away from his hand and went to the window. He came up behind her. She wanted him to take her in his arms, but he just stood there, distant and apart.
“I’ve been married for almost twenty years,” she said quietly, watching her own reflection in the glass. She saw her mouth move, heard the words come out of her lips, but it felt as if it were another woman talking.
And it was. Annalise Colwater.
Slowly, slowly, she turned to face him.
“I love you, Annie.” He said it like he said everything, with a quiet seriousness. “It feels like I’ve loved you forever.” His voice was gravelly and low. “I never knew it could be this way . . . that love could catch you when you fell. . . .”
The words made her feel fragile, as if she were crafted of hundred-year-old glass and could be shattered by the touch of the wind. “Oh, Nick . . .”
He moved closer, close enough to kiss, but he didn’t touch her. He just stared down at her through those sad blue eyes and gave her a smile that contained all his joy and sadness, his hope and fear.
And his knowing. His knowing that love wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be. That sometimes it could break your heart. “I need to know, Annie . . . am I in love alone?”
Annie closed her eyes. “I don’t want to say it, Nick. Please . . .”
“I’m going to be alone, Annie, we both know that. As the months pass, I’m going to start forgetting you—the way your eyes crinkle in the corner when you smile, the way you bite down on your lower lip when you’re nervous, the way you chew on your thumbnail when you watch the news.”
He touched her face with a tenderness that broke her heart. “I don’t want to make you cry. I just want to know that I’m not crazy. I love you. And if I have to let you go to make you happy, I’ll do it, and you’ll never hear from me again. But, God, Annie, I have to know how you feel—”
“I love you, Nick.” She smiled sadly. “I’m crazy in love with you. Over the moon in love with you. But it doesn’t matter. We both know that.”