Distant Shores Page 9


"Hell, don't ask me. I was about as detached as her own father. My career is going to do a swan dive when this airs."

"Anyone who could sit with that girl and not be moved has no right to ask her those questions. She deserved your emotion."

There didn't seem to be much to say after that. He and Sally grabbed a hamburger with fries at the local drive-through restaurant window and ate their dinner on the road. Afterward, they spent the next four hours in the editing room. The poor holiday-crew editor finally threw his hands in the air. "That's it, Jacko. Either it's done or throw the sucker away. I'm goin' home."

Jack glanced at the clock. It was ten p.m. Too late to stop by the news director's house. Damn. He'd have to do it first thing in the morning; unfortunately, he was scheduled to fly out at seven a.m.

There was no way he could make that flight.

Elizabeth would kill him.

The nashville airport was quieter than normal for the holidays. Another sad sign of the uncertain times. Since September 11, every potential trip was considered carefully, weighed in importance. More and more people had chosen to stay home.

Elizabeth had arrived almost an hour early, and now she had to bide her time. She browsed through the newsstands and flipped through a magazine that promised her a "YOUNGER, FIRMER STOMACH IN TEN MINUTES A DAY--"

(Yeah, right.)

--and bought the newest Stephen King novel.

Finally, she went to the gate and took a seat in front of the dirty picture window that overlooked the runways.

She tapped her foot nervously on the floor. When she realized what she was doing, she forced herself to sit still.

It was embarrassing. A grown woman this excited to see her children. They'd probably have to lock her up or tie her down by the time she had grandkids.

She had never been one of those women who took her children for granted.

Stephanie had been twelve years old, a seventh grader with budding breasts and gangly legs and braces when Elizabeth had first realized: Time is running out. She'd watched her almost teenage daughter flirt with a boy for the first time, and Elizabeth had had to sit down. That was how unsteady it made her. In a split second, on a blistering cold winter morning, she'd glimpsed the fragile impermanence of her family and she'd never been the same since. After that, she'd videotaped every semiprecious moment, so persistently that her family groaned in unison every time she said hold it! They knew it meant she was going for the camera.

She heard an announcement come over the speaker and she looked up.

The plane had pulled up to the Jetway ramp.

She stood up but didn't move forward. The girls hated it when she crowded to the front of the line. She'd learned that back in the old ski bus days. Once she'd even--God forbid--dared to walk into the school to meet them.

We're not babies, Mom -- Jamie had said impatiently.

Of course, Jamie said almost everything impatiently. Her younger daughter had been in a hurry from the moment she was born. She'd started walking at nine months, had been talking at two years, and she hadn't slowed down since. She ate life with unapologetic enthusiasm and took as many helpings as she wanted.

"Mom!"

Stephanie emerged from the crowd of passengers. As usual, she was the picture of decorum--pressed khaki pants, white turtleneck, black blazer. Her chestnut-brown hair was pulled off her face and held in place by a black velvet headband. Her makeup was lightly, but perfectly, applied. Even as a child, Stephanie had had an invisible, unshakable grace. Nothing was beyond her grasp. Everything she did, she did well.

Elizabeth ran forward, hugged her daughter fiercely.

"What?" Stephanie said, laughing as she drew back. "No camera to record the auspicious event of our deplaning?"

"Very funny." Elizabeth's throat felt embarrassingly tight. She hoped it didn't ruin her voice. "Where's your sister?"

"There was a seating mix-up. We got separated."

Jamie was the last person off the plane. She stood out from the crowd like some gothic scarecrow. First there was her height, almost six feet, and her hair color--cornsilk blond that fell in a wavy line to her waist. And then there was her outfit. Skintight black leather pants, black shirt that must have sported a dozen silver zippers, and black combat boots. The mascara around her blue eyes was thick as soot.

She pushed through the crowd like a linebacker. "God almighty," she said instead of hello. "That was the worst flight of my life. The child next to me should be institutionalized."

Nothing was ever in between to Jamie; it was either the best or the worst.

She kissed Elizabeth's cheek. "Hi, Mom. You look tired. Where's Dad?"

Elizabeth laughed. "Thanks, honey. Your dad had to stay behind for a day. Some big story."

"Gee, what a shock." Jamie barely paused for a breath and started talking again. "Could they put more seats in that plane? I mean, really. When the guy in front of me leaned back, my tray dropped down and almost snapped my jaw off. And you have to be Calista Flockhart to get out of your seat."

Jamie was still talking when they pulled up to the house.

Daddy and Anita must have heard the car drive up (they'd probably been standing at the window for the last thirty minutes, waiting impatiently); they were already on the porch, holding hands, grinning.

Jamie bounded out of the car, hair flying, arms outstretched. She launched into her grandfather's open arms.

Elizabeth and Stephanie gathered the bags together and followed her.

"Stephie," Anita said, teary-eyed, taking her granddaughter in her arms.

After a quick round of hello-we-missed-you-how-was-your-flight? they all went inside.

The house smelled like Christmas; fresh-cut evergreen boughs draped the mantel and corkscrewed up the banisters; the cinnamony scent of newly baked pumpkin pies lingered in the air. On every table, vanilla-scented candles burned in cut crystal votive containers. There were artifacts of the girls' childhoods everywhere--clay Christmas trees that leaned like the Tower of Pisa, papier-mache snowmen covered in glitter and acrylic paint, egg cartons cut into nativity sets.

They spent the rest of the day talking and playing cards, wrapping presents and shaking the packages already under the tree. By midafternoon, Stephanie and Anita had disappeared into the kitchen to make homemade dressing and a bake-ahead vegetable casserole.

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Elizabeth stayed in the living room, playing poker for toothpicks with Jamie and Daddy.

"So, missy," Daddy said, puffing on his pipe as he studied his cards. "How're things at Georgetown?"

Jamie shrugged. "Hard."

That surprised Elizabeth. Jamie never admitted that anything was difficult, not this child who wanted to climb Everest and publish haiku and swim in the Olympics.

"Jamie?" she said, frowning. "What's wrong at school?"

"Don't lapse into melodrama, Mom. It's just a tough quarter, that's all."

"How's Eric?"

"That is so over. I dumped him two weeks ago."

"Oh." Elizabeth felt oddly adrift suddenly, unconnected. Once she'd known every nuance in her daughters' lives; now boyfriends appeared and disappeared without warning. In the other room, the phone rang and was answered. "Are you seeing anyone else?"

"Hell's bells, Birdie. Who gives a rat's hindquarters about boys? How's the swimming, that's what matters. Are we gonna get seats to see you at the next Olympics?"

Jamie had vowed to win Olympic Gold when she was eleven years old. The day she'd won her first race at the Ray Ember Memorial Pool.

"Of course," she answered, smiling brightly.

But there was something wrong with that smile, something off. Before Elizabeth could say anything, Anita walked into the room, heels clacking on the floor. She was holding the cordless phone to her ample breast.

"Birdie, honey, it's Jack."

Elizabeth knew instantly: bad news.

Elizabeth hadn't slept well. All night, she'd tossed and turned on her side of the bed. Finally, at about five a.m., she gave up, got dressed, and went downstairs.

Jack hadn't been able to get away yesterday.

Of course he hadn't. Something important had come up. The video, honey, it's first rate, but blah, blah, blah. I'll be there tomorrow night. I promise.

Promises were a lot like impressions. The second one didn't count for much.

Elizabeth made herself a cup of tea and stood at the kitchen window, staring out at the falling snow. Then she wandered into the living room to make a fire.

There, sitting on the coffee table was a red cardboard ornament box.

Her father must have left it out for her last night.

She put down her tea and reached for the ornament that was on top. It was a lovely white angel, no bigger than her palm, made of shiny porcelain with silvery fabric wings. Her mother had given it to her on her fourth birthday; the last such present Elizabeth could recall.

Each year, she'd wrapped and unwrapped it with special care, and taken great pains to choose the perfect place for it on the tree. She hadn't taken it with her when she moved out because the angel belonged here, only here, in this house where her mama had lived.

"Hey, Mama," she said quietly, smiling down at the angel in her palm. Once, it had seemed so big. The most important part of the angel was the memory attached to it.

Can I hang up the angel now, Mommy? Can I?

Why, darlin' Birdie, you can do most anything. Here, let me lift you up . . .

She had so few memories of Mama; each one was valuable.

She hung the ornament from the second-highest branch, then plugged in the lights and stood back. The tree looked beautiful, sparkling with white lights and festooned with decades' worth of decoration. Everything from the pipe-cleaner star Jamie had made in kindergarten to the Lalique medallion Daddy had bought at an auction in Dallas. Golden bows adorned the branches.

Anita walked into the room. She wore a frothy pink negligee and Barbie-doll mules. "I had a heck of a hard time finding that box."

Elizabeth turned around. "You left this box out for me?"

"You picture your daddy rootin' around in the attic for a certain box of Christmas ornaments, do you?"

Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. "I guess not."

Anita sat down on the sofa, curled her feet up underneath her. The puffy pink pom-poms on her slippers disappeared. "I'm sorry Jack couldn't get here yesterday."

Elizabeth turned back to the tree. She didn't want to talk about this. For all her pancake makeup and fiddle-dee-dee-don't-confuse-me airs, Anita sometimes saw things you'd rather she didn't. "He's busy with some big story."

"That's what you said."

There was something in the way she said it, a hesitation maybe, as if she didn't believe the excuse. "Yes, it is," Elizabeth answered curtly.

Anita sighed dramatically.

It was how they'd always communicated, in fits and starts. Ever since Daddy had brought his new wife home.

Elizabeth had been thirteen, a bad age anyway, and worse for her than most.

And Anita Bockner, the beautician from Lick Skillet, Alabama, was the last person she would have chosen to be her stepmother.

This is your new mama, Birdie, he'd announced one day, and that was that.

As if a mother were as replaceable as a battery.

Mama had never been mentioned again in this sprawling white house amid the tobacco and cornfields. No pictures of her graced the mantels or the tables, no stories of her life had ever been spun into a wrap that would warm her lonely daughter.

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