Distant Shores Page 21


When she opened her eyes, the doctors and nurses were standing still; the machines were cold and black. Anita was sitting by Daddy, her cries had dwindled down to soundless gasps and occasional shudders. The makeup on her face had been washed away in streaks.

Anita looked through the glass at Elizabeth. "He's gone," she mouthed helplessly. The words made her start to cry again. This time, her sobbing was a shrunken, heart-wrenching sound.

Slowly, Elizabeth walked into the room, went up to his bed. She pressed a hand to Anita's frail shoulder, clutching hard, though she'd only meant to squeeze reassuringly.

Daddy lay there, his eyes closed, his great barrel chest sunken and still. "Hey, Daddy," she whispered. It was a split second before she realized that she'd expected an answer. But, of course, there wasn't one.

His heart--the one that had loved her so well--had finally given up.

THIRTEEN

Elizabeth pointed to an empty stall in the airport's underground parking lot. Jack turned the car into it and parked.

She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. She'd been careful all the way here. No radio (the last thing she needed was to hear a sad song), no runaway thoughts, no memories. She kept her eyes on the road and her mind on the funeral. Arrangements, she could deal with. Emotions, she couldn't.

She got out of the car--

(Daddy's car, but don't think about that.)

--and walked briskly toward the terminal.

Jack sauntered along behind her. She'd snapped at him often enough in the last few hours that he was giving her a wide berth. He'd obviously figured out that it was better to say nothing at all.

She saw the girls first. Stephanie was standing at the gate, with her boyfriend, Tim, beside her. As always, Stephanie looked impeccable. Her shoulder-length dark brown hair was drawn back from her face and held in place by two silver clips. She wore a pair of black wool pants and a pretty yellow sweater. Tim, in Dockers and a striped Brooks Brothers' shirt, was holding her hand. Jamie was close to them, yet separate, and dressed in baggy denim overalls. A baseball cap was pulled down low on her forehead.

Elizabeth quickened her step. "Hey, girls . . . Tim," she said softly, pulling her daughters into her arms.

For the first time in hours, Elizabeth drew in a full breath.

When they separated, Jack came up beside them. He slipped an arm around her waist. She wondered if he'd known that she was losing her control, or if it was sheer dumb luck on his part. Either way, his touch steadied her.

Jamie looked up at her dad. She managed a tired smile. "Holy shit. You're gorgeous. Did you have a face-lift or something?"

Elizabeth was startled by that. With all that had happened in the past day, she hadn't bothered to really look at her husband. Now she did, and she saw what Jamie meant.

He shrugged. "They made me color my hair. Just when I'd gotten used to the start of gray, they took it out. I haven't been this blond since eighth grade."

Jamie frowned. "You look like a movie star, no kidding."

Elizabeth took a step backward. She felt old suddenly, flabby and wrinkled. She hadn't had time to color her own hair, and more than a little gray threaded her darker roots. And she'd slept so poorly last night that her skin was the color and consistency of tapioca. And here was her husband of twenty-four years looking like Jeff Bridges in The Contender.

Jack looped an arm around Jamie. "They did this treatment that peeled the skin off my face. It hurt like hell and for almost a week I looked like a burn victim. That's why rich people look so good. They spend money on stuff you can't imagine and pain is no reason to say no."

Stephanie put an arm around Elizabeth's sadly thick waist. "You're as pretty as ever, too, Mom," she said.

"Thanks." It was all she could say.

The mechanics of death in a small town ticked forward like a well-oiled clock. Everyone pitched in. An intricate ballet played out first in the funeral parlor, then at the graveside, and now at the house.

There were pictures of Daddy everywhere, on tables and counters and windowsills. Some were ornately framed; others sat in plastic-wood frames from the nearest Piggly Wiggly. Everyone who'd come to Sweetwater after the funeral had brought a casserole and a photo. Wherever Elizabeth walked in the house, she was sure to hear soft laughter, a few sighs, and her father's name spoken in a whispered voice.

In a town like this, people came together in triumph and in tragedy. Every emotion was shared, but none were openly discussed. No one asked Elizabeth how she felt or offered an expensive grief-therapist's name. That's how it was done in The Big City. Here, they squeezed your shoulder and remarked that you were "holding up well."

Southern women had been hiding emotions behind competence since crinolines were in fashion. It was bred into them, like the ability to make a flawless mint julep or bake a perfect ham. Elizabeth did as was expected of her.

But as hard as she tried to keep the grief away, it stalked her.

When she couldn't take it anymore, she escaped to the back porch.

It was the last place she should have chosen. She'd sat here so often with Daddy, listening to the cicadas and his tall tales. Memories pressed in on her from all directions. She recalled standing down at the pond trying to land one of the trout they'd thrown into the water as fry . . . or walking the fields at harvest time, when the air smelled of sweet white corn and tobacco smoke. . . .

This was where they'd come on the day after Mama's funeral, too. It had been spring then, not nearly so cold as today. Like today, the house had been full of guests speaking quietly and pictures. You want to sleep in my room tonight, sugar beet?

"Hold on, Birdie," she said, squeezing her eyes shut, fisting her hands. Fingernails bit into the soft flesh of her palms.

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It didn't work. She had to get out of here. In about ten seconds, she was going to lose it. She went back into the house and disappeared in the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind her.

She closed the toilet lid and sat down.

There, on the floor by the toilet was a magazine. Travel and Leisure.

When she picked it up, it fell open to a two-page, dog-eared spread on Costa Rica. There was an advertisement for an adventure camp on the Caribbean coast. Someone--Daddy--had drawn a star in red ink on the page.

There's a place in Costa Rica, sugar beet, called Cloud Mountain--or some damned thing--that speaks right to m' heart.

The magazine fell to the floor and hit with a thump. She cried at last, for all the times she'd had been with her father and all the times she hadn't, and for all the times she never would be.

When the tears had worn themselves out and left her dry, she got unsteadily to her feet.

She splashed cool water on her face, then smoothed her hair back and returned to the fray. As she moved through the crowd, she felt stiff and fragile. If anyone noticed how awful she looked, no one commented.

She checked on the food and opened bottles of wine, then headed for the library, where her family was hiding out.

Stephanie and Tim sat together on the sofa. As usual, Stephanie was the picture of decorum. A plain, scoop-necked, long-sleeved black dress clung to her lithe body. There were red streaks on her porcelain cheeks, and her gray eyes showed the residue of tears. Tim was holding her hand. They looked like a couple from central casting--young love handles grief well.

Jamie, on the other hand, had taken no great care in dressing. She sat slouched on an ottoman, her white-blond hair a tangled mass that covered half of her face. Her navy blue dress was already wrinkled. Her pale blue eyes were swollen and red.

"I can't listen to any more stories about him," Jamie said softly, her eyes welling up.

Elizabeth understood. It was difficult out there. Everyone had loved him so much and they wanted to share their favorite story, but every word lodged in your heart like a shard of glass.

Jack rose from the leather wing chair and walked toward Elizabeth, never taking his gaze from her face.

He pulled her into his arms. She held herself back, afraid that if she relaxed, she'd break.

"He loved you," Jack whispered against her ear, too softly for the children to hear. "The first time I met him, he told me he'd kill me if I ever hurt you. He reminded me of that promise when I asked for your hand in marriage. His exact words were: 'You hurt my sugar beet, Jackson Shore, and I'll whoop you s' hard you'll see the Milky Way.' "

Elizabeth looked up at Jack. She'd never heard that story before. It brought her daddy back to her for a perfect, heartbreaking moment; she heard his booming, laughing voice, calling her his sugar beet. She opened her mouth to say something--she wasn't sure what--but nothing came out.

Jack touched her face gently. "You don't have to do everything alone, Birdie," he said, "go ahead and cry."

He was trying to help, but somehow that only made her feel more alone. She knew sorrow would hit her later, hit her hard, the sudden, aching realization that her father was Gone, that she'd never pick up the phone and hear his voice again, or go to her mailbox and get a letter written in his bold, sweeping hand. "Oh, Jack . . ."

"Let me help you, Birdie," he said, stroking her hair.

She loved him for trying, but there was no way to help a person through something like this. Grief was the loneliest road in the world.

"It helps just to have you here," she said, and it was true.

She clung to him then, taking strength from the feel of his arms around her, and for a single, magic moment, it felt as if they loved each other again.

FOURTEEN

Jack was back in New York. Thank God.

He knew it was a weakness in him, a moral failing, but he hated death's accessories. The sobbing, the gathering, that god-awful, primitive ritual called a viewing.

As expected, he had looked down the church aisle and seen that flower-draped casket, and all he'd been able to think about was his mother's funeral.

There had been no flowers then, no expensive mahogany casket, and saddest of all, no mourners. Just one skinny boy in a borrowed coat, and a slouched-over, broken stalk of a man, only a few years away from his own death.

Jack loved his wife and he adored his children, but two days in that grieving, too-quiet house had been more than he could stand.

Thankfully, Birdie was good in a crisis. Jack hadn't even had to beg to leave--or to make up a feeble excuse--she'd released him, said, Go on back to New York; there's nothing for you and the girls to do down here.

He'd made a lackluster effort at argument. If you need me . . . But she hadn't. Birdie was pure steel when it came to hard times.

Now he was free again.

He stepped out of the cab, overtipped the driver (he was becoming a celebrity again), and hurried into the studio. He went straight to his office, stowed his carry-on bag in the closet, and sat down at his desk.

The stack of paper was huge, as was the pile of pink phone messages. He'd forgotten how much the phone rang when you were somebody. They'd promised him a secretary to handle all this office grunt work--that was a given. He couldn't go around answering his own phone anymore, and when the fan mail started coming in, he'd need someone to do that for him, too.

He didn't look forward to training another secretary. It took weeks, sometimes months, to teach someone your likes and dislikes, your quirks and demands. Interviewing, reading resumes, choosing the right candidate.

What he really needed was an assistant. Someone to train his secretary as well as to help him formulate questions for the athlete interviews. There was a lot of research involved in looking smart off-the-cuff.

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