A grown-up’s words, Angie realized; the explanation given to a child who longed to see the Christmas lights. Angie wanted to place a hand on the girl’s shoulder to let her know that she wasn’t alone, but such an intimacy felt unwelcome right now. "Maybe you’d like to come with me. I should say with us. The DeSarias descend on the town like locusts. We eat hot dogs and sip hot cocoa and buy roasted chestnuts from the Rotary booth. It’s hokey, I know, but–"
Angie heard a defensive edge in the girl’s voice; beneath that, she heard heartache. She could also tell that Lauren was ready to bolt into the night, so she chose her words carefully. "What’s wrong, honey?"
At the word honey, Lauren seemed to shrink. She made a sound and spun away from the window. "See yah."
"Lauren Ribido, you stop right there." Angie surprised herself. She hadn’t known she had the Mom voice in her.
Lauren slowly turned to face Angie. "What do you want from me?"
Angie heard a well of pain in the girl’s voice. She recognized every nuance of that sound. "I care about you, Lauren. Obviously you’re upset. I’d like to help."
Lauren looked stricken. "Don’t. Please."
"Be nice to me. I really can’t take it tonight."
It was the sort of thing Angie understood, that kind of fragility. She hated that someone so young should be in such pain, but then again, what was adolescence if not acute confusion and overwhelming emotions? The whole thing was probably over a bad test score. Unless … "Did you and David break up?"
Lauren almost smiled. "Thanks for reminding me it could be worse."
"Put your coat on."
"Am I going somewhere?"
Angie took a chance. She headed back to the kitchen for her coat. When she returned, Lauren was standing by the door, wearing her new green coat. Her backpack was slung over one shoulder.
"Come on," Angie said.
They walked side by side down the dark street. Every few feet an ornate iron streetlamp tossed light down on them. Normally, these streets would be deserted at ten-thirty on a weeknight, but tonight there were people everywhere, readying downtown for the holiday festivities. The chilly air smelled of burning wood and the ocean.
Angie stopped at the corner, where women from the local Soropotomist Club were giving away cups of hot cocoa.
"Would you like marshmallows?" the woman asked brightly, her breath a feathery white plume.
Angie smiled. "Sure."
Angie cupped her hands around the insulated cup. Warmth seeped into her fingers; steam wafted toward her face. She led Lauren into the town square. They sat on a concrete bench. Even from this distance, you could hear the ocean. It was the heartbeat of the town, steady and even.
She glanced sideways at Lauren, who was staring gloomily into the cup. "You can talk to me, Lauren. I know I’m a grown-up, and therefore the enemy, but sometimes life throws you a curveball. It can help to talk to someone about your troubles."
"Troubles." Lauren repeated the word, made it sound small somehow. But that was part of the teen years, Angie knew. Everything seemed big.
"Come on, Lauren," Angie urged. "Let me help you."
At last, Lauren turned to her. "It’s about David."
Of course it was. At seventeen, almost everything was about a boy. If he didn’t call often enough, it could break your heart. If he talked to Melissa Sue at lunch, it could make you cry for hours.
Angie waited. If she had spoken, it would have been to tell Lauren that she was young and that someday David would be a fond memory of first love. Not what a teenager wanted to hear.
Finally, Lauren said, "How do you tell someone bad news? If you love them, I mean?"
"The important thing is that you’re honest. Always. I learned that the hard way. I tried to spare my husband’s feelings by lying to him. It ruined us." She looked at Lauren. "It’s college, right?" Angie softened her voice, hoping it would take the sting out of her next words. "You’re afraid you and David will be separated. But you haven’t even heard back from the schools yet. You need all the facts before you react."
Overhead, the moon came out from behind a bank of clouds. The silvery light fell across Lauren’s face, making her look older suddenly, wiser. Her plump cheeks were planed by shadow; her eyes seemed impossibly dark and full of secrets. "College," she said dully.
"Lauren? Are you okay?"
Lauren looked away quickly, as if to hide tears. "Yes. That’s it. I’m afraid we’ll be … separated." The word seemed almost too much for her.
Angie reached out, placed a hand on Lauren’s shoulder. She noticed that the girl was trembling, and she didn’t believe it was from the cold. "That’s perfectly normal, Lauren. When I was a senior I was in love with Tommy. He–"
Lauren jumped up suddenly, pushed Angie’s hand away. Moonlight traced the tear tracks on her cheeks. "I gotta go."
"Wait. At least let me drive you home."
"No." Lauren was crying now and not trying to hide it. "Thanks for the pep talk, but I need to get home now. I’ll be at work tomorrow night. Don’t worry."
With that, Lauren ran into the night.
Angie stood there, listening to the girl’s footsteps until they faded away. She’d done something wrong tonight, either by commission or omission; she wasn’t sure which. All she knew was that it had gone badly from the start. Whatever Angie had said, it was wrong.
"Maybe it’s a good thing I never had kids," she said aloud.
Then she remembered her own teen years. She and Mama had engaged in daily knockdown, drag-out fights about everything from skirt length to heel height to curfews. Nothing Mama said had ever been right. Certainly her advice about sex, love, and drugs had fallen on deaf ears.
Maybe that had been Angie’s mistake. She’d wanted so much to solve Lauren’s problem, but perhaps that wasn’t what the teenager wanted from her.
Next time, Angie vowed, she would just listen.
DATE NIGHT WAS A HUGE SUCCESS. IT SEEMED THAT many of the West Enders, young and old, had been looking for an excuse to go out for dinner and a movie. The weather had probably helped. This had been a gray and dismal November, and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, it didn’t look like it would improve much. There wasn’t a lot to do in a town like this on a cold and rainy night.
Angie moved from table to table, talking to their guests, making sure that Rosa and the new waitress, Carla, were getting the job done. She refilled water, delivered bread, and bused many of the tables herself.
Mama’s specials had been especially good tonight. They’d run out of the risotto with mussels and saffron by eight, and it looked like the salmon over angel-hair pasta with roasted tomatoes and artichoke heart aioli wouldn’t last another hour. It was surprising how good this success felt.
Angie had given that some thought lately. Ever since she’d seen Conlan, in fact. After all, she had a lot of time to think. In a small town, a single woman with no children and no romantic prospects had plenty of thinking time.
Once she began to contemplate her life, she couldn’t seem to stop. She thought about the choice she’d made, so long ago, before she’d even been old enough to understand what truly mattered.
At sixteen she’d decided to be Someone. Perhaps because she’d grown up in a big family in a small town, or maybe because her father’s adoration and respect meant so much to her. Even now she wasn’t sure what had shaped her choices. She knew only that she’d longed for a different, faster, more sophisticated life. UCLA had been the beginning. No one else in her high school class had gone to college so far away; once there, she’d studied things that set her even farther apart from her high school friends and her family. Russian literature. Art history. Eastern religions. Philosophy. All of that learning had made her aware of the bigness of the world. She’d wanted to seize it all, experience it. And once you strapped yourself into a race car and roared onto the fast track, you forgot to slow down and see the scenery. Everything was a blur except the finish line.
Then she’d met Conlan.
She’d loved him so much. Enough to vow before God that she’d love no other man in this lifetime.
She wasn’t sure when it had started to be too little, that love, when exactly she’d started to judge her life by what it lacked, but that had been the end result. It was ironic, really; love had set them in search of a child, and that search had depleted their ability to stay in love.
If only loss had brought them together instead of pulling them apart.
If only they’d been stronger.
These were the things she should have said to him at the theater. Instead, she’d acted like a silly teenager with an unreciprocated crush on the quarterback.
She was still thinking about it when the restaurant closed, so she poured herself a glass of wine and sat down by the fire. It was quiet in the restaurant now that everyone had gone. She saw no reason to go home. Here, she was comfortable. There, it was too easy to go down the dark road of feeling alone.
She took a sip of wine, told herself the shiver she’d just felt had been caused by the fire’s heat.
The kitchen door swung open. Mira walked into the dining room, looking tired.
"I thought you’d gone home," Angie said, pushing a chair toward her sister.
"I walked Mama out to her car. While we were standing in the rain, she decided to tell me that my teenage daughter is dressing like a hooker." She sank into the chair. "I’ll take a glass of that wine."
Angie poured a glass, handed it to her sister. "All teenagers dress like that these days."
"That’s what I told Mama. Her answer was, You better tell Sarah that she is advertising a product she is too young to sell. Oh. And that Papa would be spinning in his grave."
"Ah. The big guns."
Mira smiled tiredly, sipped her wine. "You don’t look too happy, either."
She sighed. "I’m in trouble, Mira. Ever since I saw Conlan again–"
"You’ve been in trouble since the day you two split up. Everybody knows that except you."
"I miss him," Angie admitted quietly.
"So what are you going to do?"
"To get him back."
Just the sound of it hurt. "That train has left the station, Mira. It’s too late."
"It’s never too late until you’re dead. Remember Kent John? When he dumped you, you waged a campaign that was for the record books."
Angie laughed. It was true. The poor guy hadn’t stood a chance. She’d gone after him like a cold wind. "I was fifteen years old."
"Yeah, and now you’re thirty-eight. Conlan’s worth more than some high school jock. If you love him …" Like any good fisherman–and everyone in West End knew how to fish–Mira let the bait dangle.
"He doesn’t love me anymore," Angie said quickly.
Mira looked at her. "Are you sure?"
IN HER WHOLE LIFE, THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME LAUREN had ever skipped a whole day of school. But Angie had been right: Lauren needed facts, not just fear.
She sat stiffly in her window seat on a Greyhound bus, watching the landscape change. When she’d paid her fare and climbed aboard, it had been dark outside, predawn. Light was just creeping over the hills when the bus drove through Fircrest. There, it made several stops. At each one she tensed up, praying no one she knew got on. Thankfully, she was safe.