"Stop!" Angie called out.
"A lady is called when the date arrives. Go upstairs. I’ll answer the door."
"Really?" Lauren’s voice was barely above a whisper.
As soon as Lauren was upstairs, Angie went to the front door and opened it.
David stood on the small porch. In a flawlessly cut black tuxedo with a white shirt and silver tie, he was every teenage girl’s dream.
"You must be David. I’ve seen you drive up to the restaurant. I’m Angie Malone."
He shook her hand so hard she swore she felt the bones clamp together. "David Ryerson Haynes," he said, smiling nervously, looking past her.
Angie stepped back, ushered him inside. "Of the timber family?"
"That’s us. Is Lauren ready?"
That explained the Porsche. She called out Lauren’s name. Within a second she appeared at the top of the stairs.
David gasped. "Whoa," he said softly, moving toward the stairs. "You look awesome."
Lauren hurried downstairs and went to David. She looked up at him, her smile trembling. "You think so?"
He handed her a white wrist corsage, then kissed her.
Even from across the room Angie could see the gentleness of that kiss, and it made her smile.
"Come on, you two," she said. "Photo op. Stand by the fireplace."
Angie snapped several pictures. It took an act of will to stop. "Okay," she finally said. "Have fun. Drive safely."
She wasn’t even sure they heard her. Lauren and David were lost in each other’s eyes.
But at the front door, Lauren threw her arms around Angie, holding on in a death-grip hug. "I’ll never forget this," she whispered. "Thank you."
Angie whispered back, "You’re welcome," but her throat was suddenly tight and she wasn’t sure if her words carried any sound or not.
She stood there as David led Lauren to the car and opened the door for her.
In the amount of time it took to wave, they were gone.
Angie backed into the house and closed the door. The silence seemed oppressive suddenly.
She’d forgotten how quiet her life was. Lately, if she didn’t turn on the stereo, she would hear nothing except her own breathing or the patter of her own footsteps on the hardwood floor.
She felt herself slipping down a slope she knew too well; at the bottom it was lonely and cold.
She didn’t want to go down there again. It had taken so long to crawl up. She wished she could call Conlan right now. He’d once been so good at talking her down from the ledge. But those days were gone, too.
The phone rang. Thank God. She ran to answer it. "Hello?" She was surprised at how ordinary her voice sounded. A drowning woman shouldn’t speak in so certain a voice.
"How did the dance preparation go?" It was Mama.
"Great. She looked beautiful." Angie made herself laugh, prayed it sounded more natural than it felt.
"Are you okay?"
She loved her mother for asking. "I’m fine. I think I’ll go to bed early. We’ll talk in the morning, okay?"
"I love you, Angela."
"Love you, too, Mama."
She was trembling when she hung up. She thought about doing a lot of things–listening to music, reading a book, working on the new menu. In the end, though, she was too tired for any of it. She climbed into her big king-sized bed, pulled the covers up to her chin, and closed her eyes.
Sometime later, she woke up.
Someone was calling her name. She glanced at the clock. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock.
She crawled out of bed and stumbled down the stairs.
Mama stood in the kitchen, her clothes dappled with raindrops, her red-splattered apron still in place. She put her hands on her hips. "You are not fine."
"I will be."
"I will be ninety someday. That doesn’t mean getting there will be easy. Come." She took Angie by the hand and led her toward the sofa. They sat down, cuddled together the way they’d done when Angie was a girl. Mama stroked her hair.
"It was fun helping her get ready for the dance. It wasn’t until later … after she’d left … that I started thinking about …"
"I know," Mama said gently. "It made you think of your daughter."
Angie sighed. Grief was like that; both she and Mama knew it well. It would sometimes feel fresh, no matter how long she lived. Some losses ran deep, and time moved too slowly in a lifetime to heal them completely.
"I lost a son once," Mama said into the silence that fell between them.
Angie gasped. "You never told us that."
"Some things are too difficult to speak of. He would have been my first."
"Why didn’t you tell me?"
Angie felt her mother’s pain. It connected them, that common loss, brought them to a place that felt like friendship.
"I wanted to say only hopeful things."
Angie stared down at her own hands. For a split second she was surprised to see that her wedding ring was gone.
"Be careful with this girl, Angela," her mother said gently.
It was the second time she’d been given this advice. Angie wondered if she could follow it.
SUNSHINE ON AN AUTUMN’S MORNING WAS A GIFT FROM God himself, as rare as pink diamonds in this part of the world.
Lauren took it as a sign.
She stretched lazily, coming awake. She could hear the hum of cars on the street. Next door, the neighbors were fighting. Somewhere, a car horn honked. In the bedroom down the hall, her mother was sleeping off a late-night bender.
To the rest of the world it was an ordinary Sunday morning.
Lauren rolled onto her side. The old mattress that had been her bed for as long as she could remember squeaked at the movement.
David lay sprawled on his back, his hair a tangled mess that obscured half his face. One arm hung off the side of the bed, the other was angled across his head. She could see the red smattering of pimples that dotted his hairline and the tiny zigzag scar that traced his cheekbone. He’d gotten that in sixth grade, playing touch football.
"I bled like a stuck pig," he always said when retelling the story. There was nothing he liked more than bragging about his injuries. She always teased him that he was a hypochondriac.
She touched the scar, traced it with the tip of her finger.
Last night had been perfect. Better than perfect. She’d felt like a princess, and when David led her out onto the stage, she’d practically floated along behind him. Aerosmith’s "Angel" had been playing. She wondered how long she’d remember that. Would she tell their children the story? Come on, kids; come listen to the story of the night Mommy was crowned homecoming queen.
"I love you," David had whispered, holding her hand as the tiara was placed on her head. She remembered looking at him then, seeing him through a blur of tears. She loved him so much it made her chest ache. She couldn’t imagine being apart from him.
If they went to different colleges …
That was all it took, just the thought of different colleges, and she felt sick to her stomach.
David came awake slowly. When he saw her, he smiled. "I’ll have to tell my folks I’m at Jared’s more often."
He pulled her into his arms. She fit perfectly against him; it was as if they’d been built for each other.
This was what it would be like when they were at college together, and later, when they were married. She would never feel alone again. She kissed him, touched him. "My mom never wakes up till noon on Sunday," she said, smiling slowly.
He drew back. "My uncle Peter is meeting me at home in an hour. I have an appointment with some big wig from Stanford."
She drew back. "On Sunday? I thought–"
"He’s only in town for the weekend. You can come along."
Her smile faded, along with her romantic hopes for the day. "Yeah, right." If he’d really wanted her to come along, he would have asked her before now.
"Don’t be that way."
"Come on, David. Quit dreaming. I’m not going to get a scholarship at Stanford, and I don’t have Mommy and Daddy to write a check. You, however, could get into USC."
It was an old discussion. His heavy sigh showed that he was tired of it. "First of all, you can get into Stanford. Second of all, if you’re at USC, we’ll see each other plenty. We love each other, Lauren. It doesn’t go away because of a few miles."
"A few hundred miles." She stared up at the tattered acoustical tile ceiling. A water stain blossomed across one corner. She wished she could smile. "I have to work today, anyway."
He pulled her closer, gave her one of those slow kisses that made her heart beat faster. She felt her anger dissolve. When he finally released her and got out of bed, she felt cold.
He gathered up the tux and redressed.
She sat up in bed with the blankets pulled across her bare br**sts. "I had a great time last night."
He walked around the bed and sat down beside her. "You worry too much."
"Look around you, David." She heard the throatiness of her voice. With anyone else, it would have been embarrassing. "I’ve always had to worry."
"Not about me. I love you."
"I know that." And she did. She believed it with every cell in her body. She clung to him, kissed him. "Good luck."
After he’d gone, Lauren sat there a long time, alone, staring at the open door. Finally, she got out of bed and took a hot shower, then dressed and walked down the hallway. She stopped at her mother’s bedroom door. She could hear snoring coming from inside.
A familiar longing filled her. She touched the door, wondering if her mother had even thought about the dance last night.
Sometimes, in the early morning, when the sunlight slanted just so through the dusty blinds, Mom woke up almost happy. Maybe this would be one of those days; Lauren needed it to be. She knocked quietly and opened the door. "Mom?"
Her mother lay in bed, sprawled across the top of the blankets. In a flimsy old T-shirt, she looked spindly and too thin. She wasn’t eating enough lately.
Lauren paused. It was one of those rare moments when she remembered how young her mother was. "Mom?" She went into the room and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Mom rolled onto her back. Without opening her eyes, she murmured, "What time is it?"
"Not even ten." She wanted to push the hair out of her mother’s eyes, but she didn’t dare. It was the kind of intimacy that could ruin everything.
Mom rubbed her eyes. "I feel like shit. Phoebe and I partied pretty hard last night." She grinned sleepily. "No surprise there."
Lauren leaned forward. "I’m the homecoming queen," she said quietly, still not quite believing it. She couldn’t contain her smile.
"Huh?" Mom’s eyes slid shut again.
"The dance? It was last night," Lauren said, but already she knew she’d lost her mother’s attention. "Never mind."
"I think I’ll call in sick today. I feel like shit." Mom rolled over again. Within seconds, she was snoring.
Lauren refused to be disappointed. It had been stupid to expect anything else. Some lessons should have been learned a long time ago.
With a sigh, she got to her feet.
AN HOUR LATER LAUREN WAS ON THE BUS, HEADING through town. The sun had disappeared again, tucked itself behind a rapidly darkening bank of clouds. By the time they reached the last stoplight, it had begun to rain.