Distant Shores Page 7


She wanted to answer, but couldn't. He didn't seem to notice anyway. His mind had already followed young Sally out the door.

Later, as she walked through the station's empty parking lot, she wondered--and not for the first time--how often could a woman bend before she broke?

Elizabeth hated to fly alone. It made her feel like a stick of licorice in a bowl of rice. Noticeable and wrong.

She didn't say a single word except "thank you" on either of the flights, just kept her nose buried in a romance novel.

At the rental-car agency in Nashville, she chose a sensible midsized white Ford Taurus and filled out the paperwork. Amazingly, she'd never done this before. She'd always stood silently by while Jack did all the writing. Her job had been to keep the documents in a safe place until they turned the car back in.

When everything was finished, she got into the car and drove south.

Each mile driven calmed her nerves.

She was back in her beloved Tennessee, the only place in the world beside Echo Beach that felt like home.

At the Springdale exit, she hit her turn signal and eased the rental car off the freeway.

First, she noticed the changes. Springdale had definitely grown up in the three years since her last visit. The main part of town had migrated east, as if all those glorious old buildings were carriers of some communicable disease. They stood clustered together, a brick-and-mortar enclave huddled around what had once been the only stoplight in town.

Now a four-lane road ran through Springdale, with long, strip malls on either side. A Wal-Mart sat kitty-corner from a Target; foes locked in a discount dogfight in a blue-collar town. There were golden arches and neon Winn-Dixie signs and even a Blockbuster Video store. Everything was decorated red and green for Christmas. Countless signs advertised holiday sales.

But there, tucked on the corner of First and Main, between a sprawling new Kroger and a Cracker Barrel restaurant, was the tavern her daddy had loved. More than once, Elizabeth had dragged him home from there. . . .

Why, darlin', he'd always say in that roaring voice of his, with laughter just below the surface, it can't be time for supper yet?

A mile out of town, the road thinned down to two lanes again, and she was back in the place where she'd grown up. On either side of the quiet road, empty tobacco fields stretched to the horizon, broken only by occasional groves of bare trees. A few homesteads presided over it all, the houses hidden from view by carefully planted evergreens. The only signs of progress were dozens of manufactured houses and the billboards that looked down on them. Up ahead, there was a four-way stop. On one of the corners was a tall pole; a rusted orange tractor sat atop it on a metal plate. It had been the landmark entrance to Sojourner Road for as long as anyone could recall.

Elizabeth turned onto the long gravel road that bordered her father's land.

To the right, everything belonged to Edward Rhodes. Acres and acres of tilled red earth. Soon, the crops would be planted. By July, the corn would be as tall as a man and go on forever. By October, the leaves would be brownish gold and thin as paper,and when the early winter winds came, the rustling stalks would sound like a hive of bees. That was the cycle of the land, the measure of time. Everything in her daddy's world had been tacked to seasons. Things came and went and lived and died according to sunlight.

At last, she came to the driveway. A huge, scrollwork metal arch curved above the road. Swinging gently in the breeze was the copper sign, long since aged to blue-green, that read: sweetwater.

Elizabeth eased back on the gas. The car slowed as she drove down the driveway. On either side of her, bare, brown tree limbs reached beseechingly toward the winter-gray sky.

She was home.

The Federal style brick house stood proudly on a manicured yard. Clipped evergreen hedges outlined the perimeter, the perfectly shaped line broken here and there by ancient walnut trees. One of those trees still held the tire swing that had been young Elizabeth's favorite place to play on a sunny summer's day. Beneath it, the ghost of a long-unused footpath remained.

Elizabeth parked in front of the carriage house turned garage and shut down the engine. When she stepped outside, she smelled chimney smoke and wet earth and mulch. She pulled her garment bag out of the car and headed up to the front door, where she rang the bell.

There were a few moments of silence, then the shuffling of feet and a muffled voice.

Daddy opened the door. He wore a blue-checked flannel shirt and a pair of crumpled khaki pants. His white, flyaway hair was Albert Einstein wild, and his smile was big enough to break a girl's heart.

"Sugar beet," he said in that gravelly voice of his. His molasses-thick drawl stretched the words into taffy, Sugah beeat. "We didn't expect ya'll for another hour or so. Come on, now, don't stand there a-starin'. Give your old man a hug."

She launched forward. His big arms curled around her, made her feel small again, young. He smelled of her childhood, of pipe smoke and expensive aftershave and peppermint gum.

When she drew back, he touched her face. It had always amazed her that a hand so big could be so gentle. "We missed you something awful." He glanced back down the hallway. "Hurry up, Mother, our little girl is home."

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There was an immediate response. Elizabeth heard the gatling gun sound of high heels on marble flooring. Then she smelled flowers--gardenias. Her stepmother's "signature" scent.

Anita came running around the corner, wearing cherry red silk evening pants, stiletto black heels, and an absurdly low cut gold spandex top. Her long, platinum blond hair had been coiled and teased until it sat on top of her head like a dunce cap. When she saw Elizabeth, she let out a little screech and barreled forward like Bette Midler on speed. "Why, Birdie, we didn't expect ya'all so soon." She started forward, as if she were going to hug Elizabeth, but at the last minute, she came to a bumpy stop and sidled up to Daddy. "It's good to have y' home, Birdie. It's been too long."

"Yes, it has."

"Well . . ." Anita's painted smile came and went. One of those awkward pauses fell, the kind that always punctuated Anita and Elizabeth's conversations. "I better check my cider. Daddy, you show our Birdie up to her room."

Elizabeth tried to keep her smile in place. Of all her stepmother's irritating habits (and they were legion), calling her husband "Daddy" was top of the heap.

He grabbed Elizabeth's garment bag and led her upstairs to her old bedroom. It was exactly as it had always been. Pale, lemony walls, honey-oak floors, a big white French Provincial four-poster bed that Daddy had gone all the way to Memphis for, and a white bookcase and desk. Someone--Anita, probably--had lit a candle in here; the room smelled of evergreen. There was still a framed, autographed picture of Davy Jones on the wall by the bureau. It said: To Liz, love always, Davy.

Elizabeth had found it at a garage sale out near Russellville one Saturday afternoon. For three years--between seventh and ninth grades--it had been her prized possession. After a while, she'd practically forgotten that it hadn't been signed for her personally.

"So, where's golden boy?" Daddy asked as he hung up her garment bag.

"He broke a big story and needed another day to wrap it up. He'll be here tomorrow."

"Too bad he couldn't fly down with you." He said it slowly, as if he meant to say more, or maybe less.

She couldn't look at him. "Yes."

Her father knew something was wrong between her and Jack. Of course he knew; he'd always seen through her. But he wouldn't push. If there was one thing a Southern family knew how to keep, it was a secret. "Your mother made us some hot cider," he said at last. "Let's go sit on the porch a spell."

"She's not my mother." The response was automatic. The moment she said it, she wished she hadn't. "I'm sorry," she said, gesturing helplessly with her hands.

There were other things she could say, excuses and explanations she'd tried on like ill-fitting sweaters over the years, but in the end, they amounted to empty words, and she and her father knew it. Elizabeth and Anita had never gotten along. Simple as that. It was years too late to change it . . . or to pretend otherwise.

Daddy heaved a big-chested sigh of disappointment, then said, "Walk your old man outside. Tell me about your excitin' life in that heathen Yankee rain forest."

As they'd done a thousand times before, they walked arm-in-arm down the wide, curving mahogany staircase, crossed the black-and-white marble-floored entry, and headed for the kitchen, where the cinnamony scent of hot apple cider beckoned.

Elizabeth steeled herself for another round of stiff, awkwardly polite conversation with her stepmother, but to her relief, the kitchen was empty. Two mugs sat on the pale wooden butcher block. A silver sugar bowl was between them.

"She always remembers your sweet tooth," Daddy said.

Elizabeth nodded. "Go on outside; I'll bring our cider out."

As soon as he started for the door, she poured two cups of cider and carried them outside.

The back porch wasn't really a porch at all; rather, it was a portico-covered square of stone-tiled space. Winter-dead wisteria and jasmine twined the white pillars in veins as thick and gnarled as an old man's arm. Overhead, it hung in sagging, ropy skeins that bowed the massive white beams downward. Now, in the midst of winter, it gave the area a vaguely sinister look, but come spring, when the green shoots exploded along those seemingly dead brown limbs, that same wisteria would turn this back porch into a fragrant bower. Beyond, huddled in darkness, was her mother's garden.

Several black wrought-iron chairs hugged the back of the house. Each one faced the sprawling yard. Elizabeth handed Daddy his cider, then sat down in the chair next to his. The chairs creaked back and forth on runners that had been old ten years ago.

"I'm glad you could make it home this year."

Something about the way he said it bothered her. She looked at him sharply. "Is everything all right? Are you healthy?"

He laughed heartily. "Now, sugar beet, don't try to make me old before my time. I'm fine. Hell, your moth--Anita and I are plannin' to kayak in Costa Rica this spring. There's a place called Cloud Mountain--or some damn thing--that speaks right to m' heart. Next year we're gonna climb up to Machu Picchu. I'm just glad you could make it down here, is all. I miss seein' you and my granddaughters."

"I believe you forgot to mention Jack," she observed dryly.

"Like you keep forgettin' to mention Anita. Hell's bells, honey, I reckon we're too old to be fabricatin' feelings. But as long as you're happy with golden boy, I'm happy with him." He paused, glanced sideways at her. "You are happy, aren't you?"

She laughed, but even to her own ears, it was a brittle sound, like glass hitting a tile floor. "Things are great. The house is finally coming together. You'll have to come see us this year. Maybe for the Fourth of July. That's a beautiful month on the coast."

"I've been hearin' about your beautiful coast for two solid years now, but every danged time you call me it's rainin'. And that includes the summer months."

This time Elizabeth's laugh was real. She leaned back in her chair, stared out at the yard that had once seemed so big. The shadowy stalks in Mama's garden glinted in the moonlight. She could hear the snarling rush of the creek down below, almost a river this time of year. Come summer though, it'd be a lazy ribbon of water where dragonflies came to mate.

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