Distant Shores Page 42

That took the wind out of Jamie's sail. The anger seeped out of her; without it, she crumpled to her knees, whispering something Jack couldn't hear.

Elizabeth slid to the floor beside her. "My girls," she whispered.

Jamie and Stephanie launched themselves at her. The three of them clung together, crying.

Jack stared down at them longingly. He wanted to join them, to for once be part of that inner circle, but he couldn't move. They'd always been a trio first, a family second.

It was Jamie who looked up at him first. Jamie, his warrior princess, whose face was ravaged now by pain. "Daddy," was all she said, reaching out.

She hadn't called him that in years.

Elizabeth reached behind her, felt around for Jack's hand. When she found it, she squeezed hard.

He slid off the sofa to his knees and took them all in his arms.

Elizabeth felt as if she'd just gone two rounds with Evander Holyfield. She sat in the porch swing, gliding back and forth. A full moon hung above the midnight-blue ocean, its light a silver beacon across the waves.

The last four hours had been the worst time of her life.

They'd all sat together, alternately weeping and shouting. Jamie had vacillated between fury and despair; Stephanie had been stubbornly silent, refusing to accept that her parents might not get back together.

Now, finally, the girls had gone to sleep.

She heard the screen door open and bang shut.

Jack stepped onto the porch. With a sigh, he slumped down onto the swing beside her. The chains groaned at his weight.

Elizabeth wrapped the woolen blanket more tightly around her shoulders. "We should have lied to them."

"I don't know how you had the guts to tell them," he answered. "When they started crying . . . shit, it was awful."

"It's my fault," she said. "I refused to go to New York. I wrote that letter. I had to be the one to tell them."

"We both know better than that, Birdie. This is a thing we did together."

It meant so much to her, those few and precious words. He'd shouldered part of her guilt. "I still love you," she said, realizing suddenly that it was true. That it had always been true. She turned to him. "Until tonight, I'd forgotten that."

He looked at her steadily. "For years, I asked you what was wrong. You never really answered, did you?"

"You don't know what it's like to disappear, Jack. How could you? You've always been so confident, so sure of yourself."

"Are you kidding, Birdie? I went from all-star in the NFL to nobody. Nobody."

"That's different. I'm talking about who you are inside. Not what your job is."

"You never understood," he said. "For a man, what you do is who you are. When I lost football, I lost myself."

"You never told me that."

"How could I? I was ashamed, and I knew what it had been like for you as a player's wife."

He was right. She'd grown to hate his football years; the better he did in the sport, the farther he moved from the family.

So she hadn't been there for him in his time of need. Instead of his safe harbor, she'd been another port to avoid. "I'm sorry, Jack."

"Don't say that. We've wasted too many years on that."

"Not wasted," she said softly. "We did okay, Jack. We buoyed each other up for twenty-four years. We built a house and home that was a safe and happy place. We created two beautiful, loving young women." She managed a smile. "Not too bad for a couple of kids who ran off to get married in the last semester of college. There were a lot of years when I thought we had everything."

He stood up and offered her his hand. She took it greedily, held on so tightly his strong bones shifted within her grasp. "You're something special, you know that?"

He'd never said that to her before. The simple compliment meant more to her than she'd thought possible. "You, too."

"Well. Good night, Birdie."

"Good night."

She went to her bedroom alone.

Jack pulled into the airport's underground parking lot. When he turned off the rental car's engine, the silence was deafening.

Jamie and Stephanie sat in the backseat, huddled together. There had been no clamoring to sit up with Dad. Not this time.

He glanced in the rearview mirror. "We'd better get going. You don't want to miss your flight."

"That's for sure," Jamie said, reaching for the door handle. "We want to get the hell out of this state."

Stephanie threw Jack a sympathetic look, then followed her sister out of the car. They didn't wait for Jack. Instead, they bolted for the terminal, walking so fast it looked as if they were fleeing a crime scene. Through the endless security checks, neither girl looked at him.

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With a sigh, Jack followed them.

At the gate, they were forced to stop. Jamie finally turned to him. For a single second, their gazes met and her armor weakened. In her blue eyes, he saw a pain so raw and deep it rocked him back. She was hurting so damned much . . .

And he and Birdie had caused it. An ache spread through his heart, a combination of guilt and shame and regret. Regret most of all.

"Jamie," he said, moving toward her, hands outstretched.

"You do not want to touch me right now," she said loudly, stepping away from him.

He knew then the truth of a broken heart; it wasn't some poetic metaphor. It was muscle and sinew tearing away from bone. It hurt more than any blown knee ever could. "I'm sorry, Jamie. We're sorry."

Jamie's face crumpled. She appeared unsteady on her feet. "Bite me." She turned and stomped away from him. Even after she'd reached the Jetway door and stopped, she didn't look back.

"You know Jamie," Stephanie said, "when she gets scared, she gets pissed off."

Jack wanted to say, I'm scared, too, but he didn't know how to be that honest with his daughters. It was his job to be the family's strength. "I guess we're all scared."

Stephanie was doing her best not to cry. It was a terrible thing for a father to watch. His Stephie, always so strong, looking as if she were held together by old Scotch tape. "It's like discovering one day that you're schizophrenic. Everything you've believed in is suddenly suspect. I don't know how to live in a world where our family is broken up."

"Keep believing in all of us, Steph. Someday you'll understand. Mom and I have been together since we were your age. That's a long time. Things . . . pile up between people. But we're not even talking about divorce."

Stephanie gave him a pathetically hopeful look. "We thought you were lying about that."

"No. We're just taking a little breathing room; that's all for now."


In the background, a voice came over the loudspeaker, announced the boarding of flight 967.

Jack glanced over at Jamie. Her back was to him. Even from this distance, he could see how stiff she was.

Poor Jamie. Always so terrified of bending. She was probably tearing apart inside, but she wouldn't show it. "Take care of your sister. She acts tough . . ." He couldn't go on. He remembered the day Jamie had broken her arm. All the way to the doctor's office, she'd sat stoically silent. It hadn't been until late that night, in her dark bedroom with its Big Bird nightlight that she'd finally cried. She'd curled into Jack's arms and whispered, It hurts, Daddy.

Back then, all he'd had to do was stroke her hair and tell her a bedtime story.

"She's really pissed off at you and Mom. Did you see her at the house? She wouldn't even let Mom ride to the airport with us. I've never seen her so mad."

"I wonder how long she can avoid talking to us."

"Jamie? How long until the polar ice cap melts?"

"Take care of her. And of yourself. I love you, Stephie."

Stephanie looked up at him. "Be honest with us, Daddy, okay? If it's time for us to stop hoping, tell us."

"I promise." He saw by the look on her face that he'd said the wrong thing. Of course. In the past, his promises hadn't meant much. It was another change he'd have to make in the future.

They called the flight again.

"Come on, Stephanie!" Jamie yelled, waving her sister over.

"Bye, Dad." Stephanie shouldered her carry-on bag and hurried toward Jamie. They both boarded the plane without a backward glance.

Jack went to the window and stared out. A hazy reflection of his own face stared back at him. Beyond it, the plane pulled away from the Jetway. Slowly, Jack headed for his own gate.

The make-believe spring lasted until the end of March. Then the rains returned with a vengeance. Each day, Elizabeth walked to the mailbox in her Eddie Bauer raincoat and knee-high boots, with high hopes. Time and again, she returned empty-handed. Twice in the past weeks, Stephanie had written. Short, pointed letters; each one contained a burning, unanswerable question.

Who stopped loving whom?

Were you lying to us all those years?

Do you want a divorce?

The questions were youthful demands for certainty in uncertain times. Elizabeth knew that her answers were too vague to be of much help. How could it be otherwise? Some issues were simply obscured by the fog of too many lost years.

Jamie hadn't written at all. Nor had she returned any of the phone messages Elizabeth left on their machine.

Elizabeth had always been so close with her daughters. This new distance--and their hurt and anger--was almost unbearable. The old Birdie would have crumpled beneath its weight, but the newer, stronger version of herself knew better. Sometimes a woman had to stand up for what she needed, even against her own children. This was one of those times. And yet, the silence ate at her, ruined her ability to sleep well.

"It would have been better to lie to them . . . or to go back to Jack," Elizabeth said to Anita for at least the hundredth time since the birthday party weekend. "I could have moved to New York and restarted my old life. Everyone would be happier." She stepped back from her painting, frowned, then added the barest streak of Thalo purple to the sunset. It was the painting she'd begun the first night Anita arrived. She'd finished four of the pieces for the Stormy Weather Arts Festival, but the rains had forced her back inside. So, she'd turned her attention back to the portrait.

At the kitchen table, Anita sat knitting. She barely looked up. "I don't suppose everyone would be happier."

"Everyone else then," Elizabeth said, standing back from her work again. It was lovely. Perhaps the best work she'd ever done. "Okay. That's it. I'm done."

"Can I finally see it?"

Elizabeth nodded, suddenly nervous. It was one thing to be happy with your art. It was quite another to show it off. She stepped aside and let her stepmother stand directly in front of the easel.

Anita stood there forever, saying nothing.

"You don't like it. I know the colors of the sunset are a little crazy; I wanted to emphasize your softness by exaggerating the world around you. You see how it seems that the sky is drawing the color out of you, leaving you a little paler?"

Elizabeth studied the work for flaws. In it, Anita looked frail and ethereal, yet somehow powerful, like an aged queen from King Arthur's court. There was the barest sadness in her gray eyes, though a hint of a smile curved her lips. "Maybe you think I gave you too many wrinkles. I thought--"

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