Distant Shores Page 24


She raced across the squishy carpet of lawn. Gigantic shrubs shivered in the wind and clattered against one another. Leaves, black and dead, swirled in the violent air, smacking wetly against her shins.

Wiping her eyes, she ran the last few steps to the house and ducked under the eaves. Her hands were freezing cold as she opened the door, went inside, and slammed the door shut behind her. Wind rattled the windowpanes and clattered across the shake roof.

She flicked the switch by the door, and the light came on.

Just then lightning flashed in the window. Somewhere close by a tree cracked open and crashed to the ground.

The lights went out.

For a split second, she panicked. Jack always took care of the house during a storm. He found the flashlights and lit the candles and started the fire. Elizabeth didn't even know if there were any candles handy, or if they were all in boxes somewhere. . . .

What if she went looking for them and fell through that rotten place in the floorboards by the guest bathroom?

Woman found stuck in broken floorboards; dead for days before body discovered.

She took a deep breath. "Okay. First things first. You need to start a fire and find some candles."

She focused on those two tasks, feeling her way through the house, slowly. Without the furniture, there was nothing to hang on to. Just outside the back door, she found a stack of firewood. Thank God Jack took care of things like this.

Clutching the wood, she inched back into the kitchen, where she found yesterday's newspaper. At the fireplace, she arranged everything in the hearth. Then she felt up the stones for the tin matchbox holder, found it, and struck a match.

Within a few moments, she had a great fire crackling in the hearth. A red glow spilled across the center of the room, and just that easily, her fear dissipated.

She waited awhile, with her hands outstretched before the heat. When she was sure it was a good, solid fire, she went in search of supplies. In the pantry, way in the back, beneath a stack of area phonebooks, she found a box full of emergency candles and out-of-date calendars. She placed the candles along the mantel and on every windowsill. When she was done, the house was bathed in a beautiful golden glow.

She felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

I . . . have made . . . fire.

She grabbed the sleeping bag she'd recently purchased, unzipped it, and wrapped it around her, shawl-like. Then she went out onto the porch to watch the storm.

She'd never done anything like that. Always, she'd been afraid of nature's furies. It was another trait she wanted to shed. In the past days, she'd come to understand the importance of upheaval. The tallest mountains were created by violence and chaos; like them, a woman's independence was born of fire.

Out to sea, thick gray clouds rolled ominously across the sky; their passing was reflected in a kaleidoscope of shadow on the water's turbulent surface. Wind whistled through the tree limbs, scattering dead leaves and pine cones.

It was all so loud: crashing waves, howling wind, rattling glass, hammering rain. Now and then a limb would crack away from its tree and fall to the ground with a thwack.

She loved every moment of it. Watching it from here on the porch, instead of burrowed in the safety of her house, made her feel changed, somehow. Stronger.

After a while--she'd lost all track of time--a strange sound came into the storm. At first Elizabeth couldn't place the noise, it was so out of place and her musings had gone so deep. Then she looked up and saw two headlights in the darkness and recognized the roar of a car's engine.

She stood up, wrapping the sleeping bag more tightly around her as she stepped into a corner full of shadows.

The driver was probably lost . . . would turn around in the driveway and disappear.

The car stopped. The headlights snapped off, and the yard was plunged into darkness again. The porch was a small oasis of orange light.

The car door opened. Someone got out.

Elizabeth realized sharply, suddenly, how vulnerable she was out here. All alone. No phone. No one to come looking for her . . .

The stranger crossed the yard and stepped into the light.

Jack.

Rain flattened his hair and dripped down the sides of his face. He tried to smile, but it was tired and didn't reach his equally tired eyes. "Hey, Birdie."

She felt smaller somehow, just standing in front of him. She wished she were surprised to see him, but she thought maybe she'd been expecting him.

Still, she felt an odd reluctance to let Jack in. It was theirs, this house, but in the past few days it had become hers, and she'd become surprisingly possessive of her new solitude. "Come in before you drown."

He followed her into the house. Inside, she saw him look down for the rag rug that belonged in front of the door. It wasn't there.

Rain sluiced down his pant legs and formed a puddle.

"You better get out of those wet clothes. You'll catch a cold," she said matter-of-factly. It had always been her pattern--take care of him. "I'll get you a robe." She turned away from him and went upstairs.

She opened the closet door and pulled the robe off its hanger. Then she spun around and slammed into Jack.

At the contact, he stumbled backward. "Sorry. I thought you knew I was behind you."

They were like a couple of fourteen-year-olds on a first date. Nothing but nerves and emotions hanging out of their suddenly too-small sleeves and collars. "I'll make you some tea."

"What I'd really like is a Scotch on the rocks."

"Sorry."

He took the robe and went into the bathroom to change, closing the door behind him.

She stared at that door, seeing it as proof of everything that stood between them.

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While he was dressing, she went back down to the living room and tossed another log onto the fire.

When she turned back around, he was there. The worn pink terry-cloth robe looked ridiculous on his big, powerful body. The fabric strained across his chest; the hemline hit him at midthigh.

He looked around at the candles. "There's a huge tree down on Sycamore Street. The power'll be out for hours."

"Did you fly all the way here to talk about electricity?" She sat down on the hearth, looking up at him.

"No."

"I guess you got my letter?"

"Yes." She could barely hear him, he'd said it so softly.

"Then perhaps we should talk about that."

The air seemed to seep out of him, leaving him smaller. He sat down beside her. "I don't know what you want me to say. I'm sorry for taking the job without talking to you?"

"Let me ask you a question."

He drew back; infinitesimal though the movement was, she saw it. An instinctive flinching away. "Okay."

"When you read my letter . . ." She looked him square in the eyes. "Tell me you weren't relieved."

The color faded from his cheeks. She knew he wanted to lie, to say of course, I wasn't relieved, but instead he said, "You know how long I've dreamed of a job like this one. And now, when I finally get my shot, you leave me."

"Come on, Jack. We aren't happy. We haven't been happy in a long time."

"But I love you."

It hurt, hearing those words again. "Do you? Then move back home. Let's try our new start here."

"You want me to give up my job? Is that what this is about?"

She'd known what his choice would be, but still it wounded her. "Too hard, huh, Jack?"

"I've waited years for this job. I've dreamed about it."

"Our whole marriage has been about your dreams, Jack. I followed you from town to town to town for two decades. Two decades. I've been the best wife and mother I know how to be, but now I'm . . . empty. I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't breathe, did you know that? You're the one who said I need to step up to the plate. Well, this is the plate, Jack. I need time to figure out what my dreams are." Despite her best intentions, her voice broke.

He ran a hand through his hair and let out a ragged sigh. "Jesus Christ, Birdie. You really mean it. I thought you were just trying to get my attention, so I'd move out to Connecticut or Westchester County." He sagged forward, resting his arms across his knees. Then he looked at her. "People who want time alone get divorced. Is that what you want?"

Her mouth fell open. "I didn't ask for a divorce."

"What did you think, Birdie? That we'd split up and stay married? That nothing would change? Fuck. What about the girls? What are we supposed to say to them when they ask why we're living apart?"

The girls.

Elizabeth made a small, panicked sound. The enormity of what she'd just done settled into place. When she'd asked for a separation, all she'd thought was: I need time. Just that. Now he was asking about what they'd tell their children.

She fought the urge to say, Wait, Jack, let's talk it through again.

He went upstairs and slammed the door shut behind him. A few moments later, he walked back into the living room. He was wearing his dripping wet clothes and holding an envelope. "Are you up for a little irony?"

"No," she answered quickly. "I don't think I am."

He offered her the envelope. Her fingers were trembling as she took it, opened it. Inside was an official-looking document. The word lease jumped out at her. It was unsigned, but still. "Oh, Jack . . ."

He barely looked at her. "Read it."

She closed her eyes briefly, summoning the courage she'd so recently lost. It returned in quarter measure, almost useless to her. She unfolded a color flyer of a beautiful Federal-style house in East Hampton.

"There's a view of the water from the master bedroom. The realtor is holding it for me. I was going to surprise you for Valentine's Day. I guess this is your present to me."

She looked up at him through a blur of tears. She knew he wanted her to take it back, to be his wife again, but she couldn't do it. It took every ounce of strength she possessed to remain silent. But she knew if she backed down now, she'd be lost. Maybe forever this time.

"I love you, Birdie." His voice broke, and for a second, she saw how deeply she'd hurt him.

She wondered how long she'd carry this moment in her heart, how long she'd live with this sad and terrible ache. "I love you, too."

"Is that supposed to help?" He stared at her for a minute, then walked out of the house and slammed the door behind him.

SIXTEEN

What in the hell had made him say divorce?

Jack slammed on the brakes. His rental car fishtailed on the muddy road and skidded to a stop. His headlights pointed out toward the rippling, black ocean.

He hadn't been this shaken since his mother's death, more than thirty years ago. Then, as now, his emotions had been a tangled mass with no clear beginning and no end.

If asked a week ago, he would have sworn that he and Birdie were in one of those rough patches that sometimes befell a long-term marriage. He would have said that it would pass, that nothing fundamental would change between them.

He'd thought--when he'd read her letter--that it was her way of getting his attention. The proverbial two-by-four between the ass's eyes. It had worked. He'd talked to that snooty East Hampton rental agent, then called in sick to work and driven to the airport.

It had never occurred to him that she meant it.

Not his Birdie, who couldn't make a decision to save her soul. How could she suddenly have found the guts to leave him? Her father's death must have really shaken her. He'd known she was unhappy, of course, but this . . . this he hadn't expected.

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