Distant Shores Page 40

"You're missin' the angle. See how they lean backwards? As if the wind's been pushin' 'em for a thousand years and they've given up."

Given up.

In the face of great pressure, they'd quit trying to grow straight. Not unlike what Elizabeth had done in her marriage. She dabbed her brush in the paint and went back to work.

It felt as if only a few minutes had passed when Anita said, "Oh, lordy, it's past two o'clock. We need to get to the house. Hurry up!" She stuffed her knitting back in her bag and started toward the stairs.

Elizabeth watched her stepmother go. Anita was really huffing and puffing up those stairs. You'd think there was a prize to the winner.

She picked up her supplies, carefully held her painting with two fingers and climbed the steps behind Anita. Elizabeth was almost to the top when she smelled smoke. "Anita? Do you smell that?"

And there were voices, as if a radio were turned on high.

Elizabeth came to the top of the stairs and paused, looking around.

Balloons poked through the open windows of her house and drifted upward. Suddenly the front door banged open. Marge, Anita, and Meghann--Meghann!--crowded onto the porch, singing, "Happy Birthday."

Elizabeth almost dropped her stuff. No one had ever thrown her a surprise party before.

Meghann rushed toward her, arms outstretched. She wrapped Elizabeth in a fierce hug, whispering, "You didn't think I'd miss it, did you? Happy birthday."

Then all three of them were there, laughing and talking at once.

Elizabeth couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so special. She'd always been the one who organized everyone else's birthday parties and cooked the food and bought the presents. Even on her own birthday, she'd written detailed gift lists and made her own cake.

She saw Anita, standing over by a brand-new red barbecue.

Marge took the still-damp watercolor from her. "Oh, Birdie, this is exquisite. Is it for me?"

The compliment warmed her. "Of course."

After Marge walked away, Meghann moved closer. "Anita planned all this, you know. Even sent me a plane ticket." She smiled. "Like I couldn't afford it." She sobered. "It's not what I would have expected of her. You know, after all the Anita-the-Hun stories."

Elizabeth flinched. She'd come up with that nickname in eighth grade history class; it had sunk into Anita like a fishhook. In the past few days, it had haunted Elizabeth, shamed her. "She's not who I thought she was," Elizabeth said. "I'll be right back."

She walked across the yard.

Anita had pulled an intricately knitted lavender cardigan over her linen dress. Her hair was drawn back into a thick white coil. She was bent over, busily moving oysters from a tin bucket onto the grill. At Elizabeth's approach, she straightened. "Surprise."

"This is all your doing," Elizabeth said.

"It was nothing." Anita smiled. "Meghann and Marge are the kind of friends who'll drop anything to party. Besides, I always wanted to throw you a surprise party."

Elizabeth knew how much she'd hurt her stepmother over the years, and yet, Anita had still organized this party. It was the kind of thing Elizabeth would do for her daughters. "Thank you," she said, knowing it wasn't enough.

Anita gently smoothed the flyaway hair from Elizabeth's eyes. "You're welcome, Birdie."

Elizabeth grasped her stepmother's hand, held it. "I want us to start over."

Anita's eyes rounded. "Oh, my . . ."

Meghann came up beside them. She looped one arm around Elizabeth and hip-bumped her. In one hand, she held a white plastic pitcher. "Can I interest you ladies in a margarita? Don't worry, Anita, I can make you a virgin."

Anita laughed shakily, wiped her eyes. "Honey, there ain't nothin' you can do that'll make me a virgin again, but I'll sure-as-tootin' take a margarita."

After that, the party kicked into high gear. Marge set a portable stereo out on the porch and hooked it up, pointing the speakers toward the yard. Meghann brought out a huge CD holder and started playing music Elizabeth had never heard before--stuff from Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam. It was raucous and loud and fun.

They barbecued oysters on the grill and cooked clams in a coffee can filled with butter, wine, and spices. A half salmon, drenched in lemon and onion slices and butter, lay on an alder plank on the barbecue. Dungeness crabs sat in a bucket of shaved ice.

Elizabeth and Meghann carried the kitchen table out into the yard. Within minutes, they'd covered it with food--a bowl of pasta salad, ears of corn wrapped in tinfoil, and a loaf of homemade garlic bread.

Elizabeth couldn't remember when she'd had so much fun. They all danced and talked and laughed. It was like being twenty again, only better.

While the salmon was cooking, Marge turned Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" up to the edge of pain.

Laughing, Elizabeth stood at the table, arranging the silverware. She had just put the knives in a plastic glass when she heard the car drive up.

Jack turned onto stormwatch lane. "This road is still terrible." He heard the testiness in his voice and wished he'd tempered it. It wasn't enough that they were getting close to Birdie. Nooo. The girls had to choose today to give him the near silent treatment. On the flight across the country, Jamie had hardly spoken to him.

His daughters had talked--plenty--in fact. Enough so that his hangover had graduated into full-scale brain warfare. But they talked to each other. Jack's feeble and obviously uncool remarks fell down an empty well.

They were mad at him for forgetting to meet them. He could understand that. What bothered him was the nagging sense that there was more to it. That this was . . . normal and he hadn't realized the truth of their relationship until now.

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Whenever the family had been together--mealtimes, holidays, vacations--Birdie had been there, stitching their disparate conversations together.

Hey, Jack, did you tell Jamie about . . .

Stephanie, does Daddy know . . .

Jack had always cared deeply about the big picture of his daughters' lives. He'd wanted to know what they believed in and what they wanted to be when they grew up, and what kind of women they were becoming. But he'd never really concerned himself with the minutiae of their daily lives. That had been Elizabeth's province. But it was that minutiae that fueled conversation.

Now, without Elizabeth, there was a distance between Jack and his girls. He didn't remember enough about their ordinary lives to really communicate, and he was afraid of saying the wrong thing, showing his ignorance. Today would not be a good day to screw up on something like a boyfriend's name or a major that had changed a year ago.

Such an error would make Jamie roll her eyes and say, Hel-lo, Dad. Like, get a clue.

He wasn't strong enough to be mentally body slammed by a teenager. Not today.

So he confined himself to safe topics. "We got lucky. It's a beautiful day."

"Totally," Jamie said from the backseat. "I can't believe it's not raining."

The view was breathtaking. For the two years Jack had lived here, all he'd noticed was the falling rain and gray skies. All he'd cared about was earning his way out of here, but now, he saw the grandeur and wildness of the coastline. Jagged, cliff-faced rocks, stunted trees, endless gray beach. Today's sunlight turned the sea into glittering silver.

No wonder Elizabeth loved it here. It was spectacularly wild. How was it that he'd never noticed the beauty before?

He rounded the last bend in the road and slowed down. There were a few cars parked along the side of the driveway. When he got out of the car, he noticed the music. It was some old disco song--maybe a Gloria Gaynor.

He pulled in behind a pale blue Toyota Camry and parked. "We'd better grab the stuff and hike in from here."

"You make it sound like we're at the base of Mount Rainier, Dad."

It was Jamie, of course. He was barely listening. His heart was a jackhammer trying to crack through his rib cage.

He should have called. Warned her.

The girls could have been a surprise, but he should have told her he was coming.

The girls ran on ahead. Jack followed, but couldn't work up much speed.

When they reached the yard, the first thing he noticed was the women. They were standing around a table. He barely had time to register that Anita and Meghann were here before Elizabeth turned around.

The girls ran toward her, screaming.

Jack couldn't move. He knew suddenly how it felt to return from war and see the face of the woman you loved for the first time. It hurt like hell to look at her, to be here, on the outside, looking at a life that had once been his. The thought of what he'd done last night with Sally made him physically ill.

Elizabeth was blonder, he saw, and thinner. She had a streak of yellow paint across her cheek and that tiny detail tossed him back to their first meeting.

"Dad, get over here!" Stephanie yelled, waving her hand.

Elizabeth looked up, saw him for the first time. He walked toward her, then clumsily took her in his arms. "Happy birthday, Birdie."

"Hey, Jack," she said. "It's good to see you."

There was something about the way she said his name, a softness that wounded him. When she drew back, he had trouble letting her go.

The party went on long into the night. At dusk, Marge pulled out a brown paper bag full of fireworks, and they all went down to the beach to light them.

Elizabeth stood apart from the crowd, watching her daughters and friends in the flickering red-and-gold glow of the falling sparks.

Jack was off by himself; he'd stayed that way all day. Oh, he'd mingled, been friendly, but he'd kept his distance. She had just started to go to him, when Stephanie came up beside her. "You haven't lit a single firework. And it's your day."

Elizabeth laughed. "Honestly, honey, I've never lit a firecracker." Her father had set the hook on that fear early. Girls don't play with fireworks, he'd said every Fourth of July; you'll blow your little fingers off. You let the boys handle this.

Stephanie pulled her forward, then bent down, rummaged through the sack. She withdrew a small, striped thing that was shaped like a rocket. "Just stick it in the sand and light it; then step back."

Elizabeth lit the fuse, then stumbled back so fast she tripped over a piece of driftwood and fell down. The canister rocketed into the dark sky and exploded. White sparkles rained down.

It was beautiful, as perhaps all dangerous things were.

"That's the end of the show, kids," Marge said when the sparks finally faded away.

Within a few minutes, they'd cleaned up the beach and gone up the stairs. One by one, the women got into their cars and drove away, including Anita and Meghann who'd decided to spend the night at the Inn Between in Echo Beach.

Elizabeth hugged everyone good-bye and watched them leave. Finally, she was in her darkened yard with only her family around her.

"I'm exhausted," Stephanie said. "We're on East Coast time, don't forget." She looped an arm around Elizabeth's shoulder. Together, the four of them went into the house.

She led the girls to the guest bedroom. It smelled like Anita, of talcum powder and lavender sachets.

Jamie plopped down on the bed. Stephanie lay down beside her.

"The party meant the world to me," Elizabeth said. "Thanks."

"We missed you," Jamie said simply, kicking off her shoes. She pulled off her jeans and crawled into bed.

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