Distant Shores Page 45


This ought to be the best day of his life. Twenty-four hours ago, they'd offered him the best job in broadcasting: NFL Sunday.

He'd been dreaming of a moment like this for years, maybe his whole life, and yet, now that it was here, he felt curiously numb.

The door to his office cracked open. "There you are," Warren said. "I just heard the news about your photo shoot. People magazine, huh? Pretty hot stuff."

"I'll probably be the oldest guy in the issue."

Warren frowned. "That's it. There's something wrong with you. Let's go."

Jack grabbed his coat and followed Warren out of the building. By tacit consent, they went straight to the pub on the corner and headed for the back booth.

"Double bourbon on the rocks," Warren said when the barmaid appeared.

She looked at Jack.

"Club soda with lime."

"Now I know something's wrong," Warren said. "A club soda?"

"I've been drinking pretty hard lately. It blurs the lines."

"Isn't that the point?"

"I used to think so. Now I'm not so sure." He paused, then said, "Fox just offered me NFL Sunday."

Warren sat back. "Jesus, Jack. Most guys would give their left nut for that job, and here you are, slurping club soda and practically crying. What gives?"

Jack glanced to the left. It wasn't his way to talk about shit like this, but these silences--and the new loneliness--were killing him. And if there was anyone who ought to understand marital problems, it was the thrice-married Warren. "We told the kids about the separation."

"Ouch. That's the reason I've never had kids. How'd they take it?"

"Badly. They cried and screamed and stomped around. Then they went back to school. I've been getting the silent treatment ever since."

"It'll pass. They'll come to accept their new family after a while. Trust me."

There it was, the source of his sleepless nights. New family. "What if I can't accept it, either?"

"What do you mean?"

"I miss Birdie." There, he'd said it.

"You made a bad trade, Jacko, but you're not the first guy to do it. You thought the heat of all this was real, but at the end of the day, all that matters is finding a woman who loves the real you." He looked at Jack. "One who'll be there for you in the bad times. And that, my friend, was Birdie. You never should have let her go."

"She left me."

"Birdie left you?"

"The marriage went to shit slowly. I'm not even sure when. I think it started with me, though, when I lost football. All I could think about was what I'd lost. I'd gotten married so young; I never got to be the young hot shot of my imaginations. You know, the superstar who slept with a different woman every night. I wanted that." He sighed. "For years, I dreamed about going back in time and making a different choice. I guess, after a while, all that dreaming of somewhere else became a goal; it ruined our marriage. Maybe a part of me even blamed her for tying me down. I don't know. All I know is that I was desperate to be someone again. Then this job came along, and I got it all back." He smiled bitterly. "For the first time in my whole adult life, I'm free, rich, and famous. I can do anything I want. Hell, I'm sleeping with a beautiful woman half my age, and she doesn't care that I don't love her. It's what I always dreamed of. And I hate it. I miss Birdie all the time."

"Have you told her?"

He looked up. "I'm afraid it's too late."

Warren took a sip of his drink. "I've never met a woman who'd stay with me for twenty-four years. Who'd get me off dope and forgive my screwups. If I found a woman like that, Jacko, I'd never let her go."

"What if she tells me it's too late?" He paused. "What if she doesn't love me anymore?"

Warren looked at him. "Then you aren't gonna have a movie ending, my friend. Sometimes, a bad choice can haunt you forever."

TWENTY-SEVEN

The drive home from the gallery seemed to take forever.

Elizabeth had failed.

The realization was like a canker sore; no matter how much it hurt, you couldn't leave it alone.

She felt Anita looking at her from the passenger seat, staring worriedly every now and then, but fortunately, her stepmother kept her opinions to herself. This was not the time for one of those pumped-up pep talks. Elizabeth had listened to plenty of those in the last few months, from Meghann and Anita and Daniel. She'd listened to her friends and let herself believe.

And here she was. Forty-six years old and a failure.

She turned onto Stormwatch Lane and drove home. When she'd parked the car, she turned to Anita and forced a tired smile. "Thanks for everything today. It meant a lot to me that you were there."

Anita looked stricken. "Birdie, I don't know what to say."

"Don't say anything. Please. It was bad enough to live through. I can't talk about it, too."

Anita nodded. If there was one thing bred into southern women, it was the ability to politely ignore unpleasantness. "I'll go cook us a nice dinner."

"I'm not very hungry. I think I'll go soak in a hot bath." She almost sat there a second too long, looking at her stepmother. She felt the first hairline crack in her composure. If she wasn't careful, she'd break like old porcelain, and that wouldn't help anyone. She reached for the car door and shoved it open, then hurried toward her beloved house.

It welcomed her with soft lights and sweet scents and safety.

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She drew in a deep breath and slowly released it. When she heard Anita come up behind her, she bolted upstairs and shut the bedroom door behind her. She went to the window, trying to draw comfort from her view, but night came early this time of year, and there was nothing but darkness beyond the glass.

She ran a bath and poured a capful of almond-scented oil into the water. She let the tub fill past the point of caution, knowing water would spill over when she climbed in. So, she would clean up the mess. That, at least, was something she did well.

She undressed and lowered herself into the nearly scalding water. Sure enough, it splashed onto the tile floor. Heat enveloped her; steamed up toward her face. The sweet, cloying scent of almonds filled the tiny bathroom.

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.

Images of the endless day tumbled through her mind. Customers buying sculptures and lithographs and photographs and other artists' paintings . . . walking past her work.

She wished she could cry, but it wasn't that kind of hurt. She felt numb. A prisoner who'd dared to believe in parole and then been sent back to her cell, unforgiven.

The worst of it was she'd believed in herself. She'd known better, and yet still she'd stumbled into that quicksand and been caught. She'd believed, she'd dared, she'd dreamed.

And she'd failed.

Her work wasn't good enough. That much was clear.

What now? She'd walked away from every good thing she'd ever built so that she could find herself.

Well, she'd found a woman whose greatest gift lay in helping others, in loving people and supporting their dreams. As she sat in the hot water, she asked herself why that hadn't been enough.

She was no artist. She must have known that twenty-five years ago. That was why she hadn't pushed harder to attend grad school. She'd known the truth, or suspected it. Turning away from that road had saved her from this terrible moment.

She stayed in the bath until the water turned cold and her skin pruned. Then, reluctantly, she climbed out. Wrapped in a towel, she flopped on her bed.

She saw the phone, and she thought, Call Jack.

She wasn't sure why exactly, except that he had always been her safe place. She scooted toward the nightstand, picked up the phone, and punched in his number. Bits of conversation flitted through her mind as it rang. She searched for the perfect first sentence.

I love you. Nice and direct.

I miss you. Certainly true.

I need you. The God's honest truth.

The answering machine clicked on, told her that Jack and Birdie weren't home right now.

Jack and Birdie.

He hadn't changed the message. That gave her courage. "Hey, Jack," she said, rolling onto her back, staring up at the peaked ceiling. "I thought maybe it was time we talked about the future." She paused, trying to think of what to say next, but nothing came to her. She was afraid that if she spoke, she'd start to cry.

She hung up, then dialed her daughters' number.

Another answering machine. She left a forcibly upbeat message, sneaked in a short apology and a thank-you for the flowers, then hung up.

She lay there a long time, staring up at her ceiling, watching a spider spin a web in the rafters. He was always there, that same little black spider, returning to his spot no matter how many times she dusted his web away. There was a life lesson in that.

There was a knock at her door. "Birdie, honey?"

Elizabeth closed her eyes. She really wanted to be left alone in her misery a while longer. "I'm okay, Anita."

"Dinner's ready."

"I can't eat. Sorry. But thanks for cooking. I'll see you in the morning." She heard footsteps walking away . . . then coming back.

The door opened. Anita stood there, clutching a flat black metal strongbox. "Come on, Birdie. It's time for you to see this." She patted the box in her arms. "This belonged to your mama. If you want to see what's inside, you'd better come downstairs." Then she turned and walked away.

Elizabeth didn't want to follow, but Anita had dangled the biggest carrot of all: Mama.

With a sigh, she rolled out of bed and got dressed.

Downstairs, she sat down on the sofa beside Anita. That metal box was on the coffee table now, waiting.

Elizabeth stared at it. For a blessed few seconds, she forgot about the debacle at the gallery.

She imagined a letter to a daughter, or better yet, a journal of precious memories. Photographs. Mementos. She turned to Anita.

Anita looked pale in the lamplight. Fragile. She'd chewed on her lower lip until it was raw. "I brought this with me. I knew I'd know if the time was right to open it." She tried to smile, but the transparent falsity of it only underscored her nervousness. "Your daddy loved you. More than anything on this earth."

"I know that."

"He was a man of his time and place, and he believed that men protected their women from anything . . . unpleasant."

"Come on. I know that."

Anita reached for the box, flipped the latch, and opened it. Elizabeth noticed that her stepmother's fingers were shaking as she handed the box over.

Elizabeth took it onto her lap.

Inside, a rubber-banded pile of scallop-edged photographs were piled in one corner. A long cardboard tube lay diagonally from end to end.

She withdrew the pictures first. There, on the top of the heap, was Mama. She was sitting on the porch swing, wearing pink pants and a flowery chiffon blouse with small cap sleeves and a Peter Pan collar. Her legs were tucked up underneath her; only a bit of bare feet stuck out. Her toenails were polished.

She was laughing.

Not smiling, not posing. Laughing.

A cigarette dangled from her right hand and a half-finished cocktail was at her feet. She looked marvelously, wonderfully alive.

For the first time, she saw her mother as a real woman. Someone who laughed, who smoked cigarettes and wore pedal pushers, who polished her toenails.

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