Distant Shores Page 19


Now, with the sunlight hitting the white-shingled sides, it seemed to belong in Middle Earth, an enchanted cottage tucked between a green hillside and the gray ocean.

She tried not to think about the garden, and all the plans she'd had for it. . . .

It felt as if she'd been standing there a minute or two, but suddenly the cab was pulling into her driveway.

She whispered, "Good-bye, house," and went to get her bags.

By the time she reached the airport, she was breathing badly again.

The trip from portland to New York City was like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen. It went on and on, and by the time you reached your destination, there was no sensation left in your extremities. First, there was a flight to Seattle, then on to Detroit, and finally a landing at Kennedy Airport. All that paled in comparison to the cab ride into Midtown.

By the time the taxi pulled over to the curb, Elizabeth's back was screaming in pain.

She paid the cabdriver and hurried into the building, barely nodding to the doorman. There would be time for introductions later, when she wasn't in desperate need of chiropractic care and an Excedrin.

Clutching the key Jack had sent her, she rode the elevator up to the twenty-fourth floor and found his apartment.

"Jack?"

There was no answer.

She glanced down at her watch. "Jack?"

It was only six-fifteen. He should be home in the next thirty minutes.

She set her purse down on the floor and looked around. The apartment was as elegantly impersonal as an expensive hotel room. A narrow hallway led past a tiny kitchen and into a moderate-size living room. There wasn't a personal touch anywhere. The floors were tiled in a creamy, brown-veined marble; the sofa was a sleek contemporary design, covered in taupe damask. Against either arm were glass end tables that held crystal column lamps. The coffee table was so cluttered with magazines and beer cans that she could barely see it. There were no pictures on the wall and no knickknacks on any surface.

In the corner by the window, a big black velour Barcalounger looked incredibly out of place. When she saw it, she remembered Jack's phone call last week: I got a great piece of furniture last week from Warren. You'll love it. She'd asked for a description and been told that it was a surprise. But I'm sitting in it, he'd added with a laugh.

"Nice choice, Jack," she muttered, walking toward the chair.

It had a drink-holder built into the puffy, quilted arm.

Built in.

She sat down in the chair. A footrest immediately jerked upward and tossed her into a fully reclined position. When she clutched the armrest for support, the upholstered side flipped open to reveal a built-in minifridge. A few beer cans lined the narrow shelves.

She crawled out of the recliner seat and continued her inspection of the apartment.

The small dining room held a nice glass and stone table with four taupe-upholstered chairs. A matching sideboard stood against one wall, unadorned.

There was only one bedroom, of course. This apartment was meant to be transitional; still, it meant there was nowhere for the girls to sleep. What a lovely message to give your children: Sorry, no room at the inn. She wondered if Jack had even considered that.

The bed was big and plain, with ash-gray and taupe bedding. No doubt Jack had added the Fox Sports purple mohair blanket. She was surprised he hadn't chosen pillowcases with tiny footballs on them.

She went to the kitchen (such as it was). A quick look in the fridge told her that Jack hadn't been cooking for himself. There were three six-packs of Corona beer, an industrial-size tub of mayonnaise, and a bottle of Gatorade. A half-eaten sandwich was disintegrating into a moldy pile. In the weeks he'd been here, Jack obviously hadn't eaten home much.

In the corner of the kitchen, by a small window, stood a big cardboard box. The side of it read: memories. Elizabeth had written that herself. The things in that box were the mementos she couldn't live without.

He hadn't even bothered to unpack them.

As usual, the details of their life were hers. He got to throw the game-winning passes. She got to take tickets and clean the stadium.

She poured herself a glass of water and opened the cardboard box. The top layer, sheathed in Bubble Wrap, was a collection of beloved family photos. She unwrapped them one by one, and placed them on the windowsills and countertops. Anywhere she could find.

She'd hoped it would give the apartment a homey feel, but when she finished, she stepped back and surveyed the results.

It didn't help. The pictures only reminded Elizabeth of what a home should be.

The phone rang. She answered it. "Hello?"

"Birdie? Welcome to New York. Isn't the place great?"

"Oh, yeah. Great."

"I can't wait to see you." A pause crackled through the lines. "But I've got a meeting in fifteen minutes. I should be home in an hour and a half. Not more than two hours. You'll be okay there, right?"

It took a conscious effort to simply say, "Of course."

"That's my girl. I love you, Birdie."

"Do you?" She hadn't meant to ask it. The question just popped out.

"Of course. Gotta run. See you soon."

"Okay." She hung up. It was a moment before she realized that she hadn't said, "I love you," in return. That was a first. In the past, she'd always been able to find the words, even when the emotion felt faraway. She wondered if he even noticed.

She walked over to the window. Outside, the world was a glittering combination of black sky and neon lights and streaking yellow cabs.

With a sigh, she went back to the cardboard box and unwrapped a photo album.

There they were, she and Jack, standing in front of Frosh Pond at the UW, holding hands.

Each picture was a stepping-stone on the path of their marriage. First at the UW . . . then the house in Pittsburgh when he'd played for the Steelers, then the second house in Pittsburgh, bigger than the first . . . then the house on Long Island . . . in Albuquerque, and so on and so on.

Elizabeth wandered down the photographic hallway of her married life, seeing all the compromises she'd made.

She'd moved and moved and moved.

Every time had been the same: Another trade, another job, another city? Sure Jack.

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Here she was again, waiting for Jack. It seemed as if she'd passed her whole life that way, a woman set on pause.

At eight-thirty, her cell phone rang. It would be Jack, she knew, calling to tell her he'd be a little later than expected. Only an hour, honey, I promise. And just like that, this new city would take them on the same old ride.

She fished the phone out of her purse and answered. "Hello?"

"Birdie?" said a thick-as-molasses Southern voice. "Is this you?"

"Anita?" She glanced at her watch. It was too late for a friendly call. Fear sidled up to her, slipped a cold arm around her waist. "What's the matter?"

"Your daddy had a stroke. Y'all better get down here fast."

TWELVE

The first thing Elizabeth did was call Jack.

Oh, baby, he'd said softly, I'm so sorry. I can be home in thirty minutes. I've got blah blah blah to do yet. Will you be okay by yourself until I get there?

Of course she would. Her husband had never handled tragedy well. Even when he showed up, Elizabeth knew she'd really be alone.

Next, she called her daughters. Stephanie was loving and accommodating; she'd probably gone on-line during their phone conversation and ordered plane tickets. Jamie didn't say much. She'd been hit too hard by the unexpected news. She and her grandfather were so close . . .

Elizabeth heard the fear in Jamie's voice when she said: Maybe he'll be okay. You think he'll be okay, don't you?

Elizabeth wanted to rush in then, to salve her daughter's pain, but this was no time to make promises.

After that, Elizabeth concentrated on the details. By the time Jack got home, she'd made most of the necessary arrangements and packed his suitcase.

It took them more than two hours to get to the airport, go through security, and find the gate. Once there, they sat side by side in silence.

Finally, the flight was called and they boarded the plane, finding their seats in first class.

When they were in the air, a flight attendant appeared in the aisle in front of them. A loudspeaker reeled off emergency instructions.

Elizabeth didn't hear a word of it. When you were flying across several states to see your father, who might or might not be dying, it was impossible to think about much else.

Thank God for Christmas.

(Don't think that way.)

"Are you okay?" Jack asked again.

Elizabeth squeezed his hand. "No."

Finally, the plane landed in Nashville. She and Jack hailed a cab and headed north.

Forty-five minutes later, the taxi pulled up in front of a sprawling gray hospital.

"This entrance okay?" The driver asked, turning around to face them.

"Fine," Jack answered, handing a wad of bills to the driver.

Elizabeth got out of the cab and crossed her arms, waiting while Jack gathered their bags.

She was close to falling apart, but she wouldn't allow herself that luxury. If there was one thing motherhood taught a woman, it was how to hold herself together in a crisis.

Still, she clung to her husband's hand as they walked through the electric doors and into the sterile, antiseptic-scented lobby.

At the front desk, she said, "We're looking for Edward Rhodes, please."

The receptionist looked up. "The Colonel's in intensive care. Sixth floor west."

Jack squeezed her hand. "The elevators are right there."

She looked up at him, wanting suddenly to be alone with her fear. "Do you mind if I go alone?"

"What if you need me?"

"That's really sweet, but I'd rather be by myself. Besides, you hate hospitals. And they don't let many people into the ICU."

"You'll come and get me when you know something?"

"Of course."

He pulled her into his arms and kissed her hard. Against her lips, he whispered, "He'll be okay."

"I know." She was unsteady by the time she turned away from him. Without a backward glance, she headed toward the elevators.

On the sixth floor, she stepped out.

The ICU was a hive of white-coated activity. Elizabeth went to the main nurses desk and asked for her father. The nurse--an elderly black woman with hair the color of cold ashes--immediately sobered.

"Hello, Miss Elizabeth. I'm Deb Edwards. I reckon you don't remember me. I used to work for Doc Treamor."

"Hello, Deb. It's nice to see you again." She was surprised by how strong her voice sounded. "How is he doing?"

"Not well, I'm sad to say. But you know your daddy. He's stronger than ten ordinary men."

Elizabeth managed a tired smile. "Thank you." Then she walked down the hallway toward his room.

It was walled in glass on three sides. Through it, she saw a bed sitting amid a cluster of cranelike machines. Lights blinked from ugly black boxes; green lines graphed the unsteady beating of his heart.

There was a man in the bed, lying perfectly still and straight, his legs two parallel lines under the white blankets, his hairy, age-spotted arms pressed in close to the hump of his body.

He didn't look like her daddy. Edward Rhodes was a man who was always in motion, a man who took up space.

She moved toward him, her footsteps loud on the linoleum floor.

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