There is nothing more cruel or bleak than January on the northern plains. Christmas was over and spring was so distant that it couldn't yet be considered a possibility. Plunged into darkness for nearly twice as many hours as daylight each day the inhabitants pass the time occupied with work and errands and incessant discussion of the weather. How many inches up at your place? You know that this is the forty-fifth consecutive day of below freezing temperatures. Do you think that cold front has a storm in it? Why do we live here, they implore of one another, what advantages does this spot on the otherwise green earth hold for us, knowing full well as they ask that this is simply where they are. Descended from the northern Europeans who homesteaded the land they just stuck around because this was where their family was. Three and four generations of Norwegians and Swedes and Dutch and Germans were buried in family plots and the church cemeteries. Somehow the prairie sunk its long fingers into you and even though so many of the young people left there were those who stayed and some who returned for the sense of tranquillity and contentment that reigned in this flat sea of land.
Modern conveniences certainly made the harshness of winter more bearable. Central heat and television and the telephone and electric lights that glowed in warm invitation helped to keep old man winter at bay though he lurked everpresent on the other side of the door. The Canadian express winds can blow ice and snow down from the northern reaches of the earth and remind you very quickly of how vulnerable and frail you are if you're not prepared for its onslaught. Sometimes even if you are prepared things can go wrong, just one moment of poor judgement is all the merciless cold requires to gain advantage.
When the winds died down the blowing snow settled in the ensuing stillness forming a final fluffy layer on top of the hard-packed drifts. There were iron-solid finger drifts only three inches high that snaked across the roads in twisted arterial fashion. Wind sculpted ripples of unmeasurable depth stretched without break to the horizon while monolithic waves of fifteen feet or more engulfed and overtook homes and swallowed automobiles whole. For three days the temperature had hovered below zero while accumulations of up to twenty-eight inches of snow fell on the huddled houses in town and obliterated the roads out in the country. The wind descended on the land like an angry beast, lowering the temperature to hypothermic extremes while casually snapping off tree limbs and downing the life preserving power lines in a four county area.
The snow plows went forth to reclaim the streets and highways, their operators grim with the knowledge that they would likely uncover a car or two with frozen passengers, stiff and frosty and blue they waited patiently to be uncovered and identified. But this Sunday afternoon they were keeping their eyes open for a school bus, a bus containing the forty-two members of the Walsh River High School Concert Choir, the choir director, two chaperones, and the bus driver. It had left the Choir Festival Friday afternoon with seventy-five miles to go under darkening skies and a threatening weather report on the radio. They could have played it safe and checked into a hotel but the weather just didn't look that bad, they were confident that they could beat the storm to Walsh River and ride out the brunt of it in the comfort of their own homes. The bus driver had called in to the school just as they were leaving and had not been heard from since. Thirty-seven sets of frantic parents waited through Friday night and Saturday, then Saturday night to the cold, gray dawn of Sunday morning with varying degrees of hope and despair.
You could say that they had been lucky, that there had been only two fatalities, one teacher and one student, but the families of those two people wouldn't concur. It's only a statistic unless it's your child or your husband. When the bus was found four miles south of town on a gravel road there were just a few square feet of bright yellow paint showing through the snow. It was almost completely drifted over and listing badly, the front wheels had gone down into the ditch. Volunteers were enlisted via CB radio and given the location of the stranded bus. They were only a quarter of a mile from Art Peterson's farm house, a mile and a half south of the Low Creek bridge.
Bing Thompson had driven a snow-plow and other road maintainance equipment for the county for nearly thirty years but he had never come across anything like this. After he radioed for help he put up his hood and snapped down the cuffs on his insulated coveralls before climbing down from the cab of the snow plow. He trudged through the knee deep and then waistdeep snow heading for that patch of yellow. His niece, Jeannie and nephew, Tommy were on that bus. The children's mothers, his two sisters, were out of their minds wondering the fate of their children and here he was just a few more feet from the side of the bus. Bing pounded on the exposed metal side where the letters "lsh R" showed through. Nothing. He pounded again, this time harder, three times, and waited. There was a return of three knocks from inside. Bing shouted in relief and pounded again. Again there was a return of three muffled knocks. Bing slowly made his way to his best guess of where the door would be and began to dig, first with his hands and then with a scoop shovel from the cab of the plow. Soon nearly twenty volunteers and the ambulance showed up but it took nearly an hour from the time Bing had arrived at the site until the door of the bus was cleared and pried open. The rescue team was horrified to see the front of the bus nearly solid packed with snow and began the task of clearing it away. Two rows back from the front they began to find the kids, miraculously alive and packed together for warmth like sardines in a can. Forty-one kids and three adults emerged from the bus chilled, dehydrated, hungry and jubilant. They had kept warm by running the bus for fifteen minutes every hour until it wouldn't start again, they just couldn't see anymore to go out and clear the snow away from the exhaust pipe. For the last six hours they had huddled together near the back and had not been aware in the darkness that the front of the bus had drifted in.
The bus driver, Lowell Carrington, hopefully asked about Walt Henderson and Billy Felberg. About an hour after they had run off the road they had set out for Art Peterson's yard light, they didn't think it was very far but they had miscalculated the distance in the storm. At first Mr
Henderson, the business teacher who had been along as a chaperone was going to go by himself. When he couldn't be convinced to stay in the relatively safe confines of the bus Billy had gone with him figuring he shouldn't be alone. Poor, sweet Billy, he was a big, red-haired tenor who also played football in the defensive line of the high school team. He would have graduated in May and probably taken over the family farm. But his good nature wouldn't let Mr. Henderson venture out into the blizzard on his own.
Later that day Billy and Mr. Henderson were found not fifty yards away from the bus. About ten feet apart from each other they lay hunched forward in the same awkward position as if they had first fallen down on their knees and then tried to reach out for something, perhaps a landmark like a fencepost or some hallucination of warmth or salvation. The cold had converted them into human icicles, their frosty eyes stared blankly out from their rigid, blue faces. Because they were frozen into such odd, spread-eagled positions they could not be transported into town in the ambulance, no matter how they were turned and tilted they just couldn't be fit inside. It was finally decided that they should be wrapped in blankets and hauled into town in Art Peterson's grain truck. They would have fit into the back of a pickup truck but the grain truck was favored because of its high wooden sides. The final indignity of the inevitable gawkers along the route into town would be circumvented by the truck's height. For those who would clamor to a disaster there would be great disappointment. No blood, no broken glass, no dismembered bodies.
For those who survived there would be counseling sessions and memorial services and the quiet discomfort at the funerals. Billy Felberg had been the middle child in a family with five children. Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church was full to the rafters with family and friends. Many bore their grief in the staid tradition of their forbears, hands folded in their laps looking straight forward. Mrs. Felberg sat quietly disconnected with her eyes streaming behind her black net veil. Mr. Felberg intermittently cried openly while holding his two youngest children close. For the most part the older people sat stoically in the rainbow ribbons of light that cascaded in through the stained glass windows. The younger people, particularly Billy's friends from school, cried out loud until the tears would no longer come and held hands tightly as if to keep anyone else from slipping away.
Wyn had known Billy most of her life and before Miriam had begun her search for a higher spiritual meaning and stopped attending mass the Paxtons had been a fixture at Our Lady of Grace. Convincing Nina to attend Billy's funeral with her had been difficult and at the last minute Hope had decided to accompany them as well. Nina wasn't comfortable with all of the mumbo-jumbo latin and the ceremony involved at the funeral. The Felbergs were traditional Catholics who had requested the latin service over the newer, English version. Hope and Wyn knew precisely when to stand, sit, and kneel and mumbled the rote prayers they retrieved from somewhere deep within their psyches. Nina sat and wondered why she was there. Not only was the service unbearable but she wouldn't have come at all if she had known Hope would be there. It was three weeks since New Year's Eve and she still trembled internally over any thought involving Ethan. They had agreed to keep what had happened to themselves and continue to see their respective others, Hope and Tommy. On the surface Nina was grateful for the secrecy, explaining to Josie how she was boffing her big brother was a scene she wanted wholeheartedly
to avoid. And Tommy had nearly been frozen to death on the choir trip. Using him for cover didn't sit well with Nina's pragmatic nature but she was already lying her ass off with her best girlfriends every time they held a Virgins Club meeting. She wondered when she would get to see Ethan again and was considering sleeping with Tommy just for the release it would offer. He'd see it as some sort of award for surviving the blizzard and she could describe the event in great detail to Wyn and Josie but then what would she do with him? She wanted Ethan, now, today, soon. She sighed audibly and pressed the small of her back into the hard wooden back of the pew and wondered also if she would be struck dead by lightening for thinking about sex in church. Nina opened her eyes and observed Hope scrutinizing her from Wyn's other side. Hope looked quickly away and read over the service program. Wyn sat quietly between them unaware of what was shooting back and forth across her. Nina was sure that Hope knew something, what and how much she wasn't sure, but something.
Josie cried when she heard the news. Tears of fear and release and vindictiveness. She cried for most of Sunday night after she heard that he was dead and slept restlessly when she slept at all. On Monday morning she vowed that he would take nothing else from her as she stood shivering in the cold water of the shower. She shut off the water and twisted her hair up in a towel and slipped her pink terry cloth robe around her goose-bumpy body. The cool end to the shower had improved the look of her swollen face and she thought the remaining blotchiness could be remedied with the careful application of make-up. School would be possible today, she would be fine. She bent over to towel dry her hair and just as she shook out the curls and was ready to stand up she saw the red trickle tracing its way down her leg. At least I'm not pregnant, thought Josie. At least I'm not pregnant.
He should get to sit here and wait for test results. I guess I'd rather sweat this out than waiting for my period last month. We only did it that one time without a condom. Why isn't there a birth control pill for men? At least the exam part is over. This waiting room smells like a hospital. My appointment with the counselor was supposed to be ten minutes ago. I just want my prescription so I can go. Nina ruffled through the magazines on the worn and scuffed coffee table in front of her. At least, she thought with relief, I haven't seen anyone I know.
"Nina Bradbury?" queried the slacks and sweater attired woman who had just entered from the hallway. She was wearing a smock with a name tag that was obscured by a leaflet that was sticking out of her pocket. She was pretty and businesslike in manner and she smiled broadly at Nina when she stood. "Please come with me." Nina followed her down the narrow hall to a small office that was cluttered with books and plants and photographs of three children at various stages of life. "I'm Elinor Mahaffey. Please, sit down. Any questions? Anything you want to talk about?"
"No, I don't think so."
"I have an information packet for you take with you. Pretty basic stuff about birth control, STD's, things that you should feel comfortable discussing with your partner if you're considering sexual intimacy. Your pregnancy test came back negative and your physical exam showed everything to be normal. The prescription for your oral contraceptive is good for one year, at that time you'll need to schedule a doctor's appointment should you choose to continue on the pill. Sure you don't have any questions?"
Nina shrugged. She wasn't comfortable. And this counselor, did she have to look so perky and cheerful? "You just make it sound so cold, so matter of fact. How do you do that?"
Elinor leaned forward over her desk. Again that broad smile. "Nina, this is an adult decision you have made, choosing to be sexually active and choosing to be responsible about it. Let me give it to you straight. I don't know what sort of relationship you are in nor is it any of my business to ask. Every week I see girls your age and younger, feeling pressured to have sex, sometimes pregnant, often making poor decisions when it comes to sex and protecting themselves against disease and unwanted pregnancies. My point is, if you feel uncomfortable discussing birth control or prevention of STD's with a potential partner then you have no
business having sex with him."
"But, I'm in love, that's why I'm here, I mean, my boyfriend and I talked about this and I volunteered to go on the pill, it just seemed like the easiest thing to do. We're going to want kids someday, but not for a few years. I just don't want to have to worry about this every month, if I might be pregnant or not."
"I understand. And again, I'm pleased that you and your boyfriend are being responsible. Preventing pregnancy is a whole lot easier than having to deal with an unwanted one. I have three of my own and they are the world to me. Three times I got that phone call from my doctor saying I was pregnant and I was happier than you can imagine. I can honestly tell you that I was happy because it was my choice, it was a conscious decision each time that my husband and I wanted more than anything to have a child. Every child should be able to come into the world that way, wanted, more than anything. Any questions?"
"No. And thank you, I thought this was going to be a lecture. I really appreciate you talking to me like, well, not treating me like a child."
"Good luck, Nina. Call me anytime, my card is in the packet." Elinor smiled once more. "Goodbye."
"Goodbye. Thanks." Nina turned down the hall and was soon back in the waiting room. She buttoned her coat against the February cold that was waiting on the other side of the glass door and gathered her purse and information packet. Just as she was turning to leave she bumped into another girl as she was getting a hanger for her own coat.
"Sorry, excuse me, oh, hi, Collette." Just as she was feeling better and was so close to a clean getaway, wouldn't you know something like this would happen.
"Hi, Nina." said Collette. "You here for.."
"Yeah. Just finished up."
"Which counselor did you talk to?"
"Elinor Mac somebody I think."
"Mrs. Mahaffey? Isn't she great? She has helped me so much through everything, well, you know. Everyone knows." Collette looked down at her shoes and toed a small chunk of slush that had fallen off onto the gray carpeting.
Nina suddenly felt a rush of compassion for her, understanding more than Collette could be aware of. She reached out and squeezed Collette's arm. "Listen, I don't think anything bad about you, a lot of us were worried about you while you were gone. It must be hard to come back and just try to pick up where you left off."
"Well, we're going to be much more careful now, Jason and me. He was with me during the birth, they weren't going to let him in the delivery room but I went a little crazy and told the doctor they had to let him in or I wasn't going to have the baby. Told them I was going to clamp down and the baby wasn't coming out till they let him in to be with me." Collette laughed and Nina couldn't help but join her.
"I have to go. Guess I'll see you in school. You know, there are people who care about you. All you have to do is give them a chance to show it."
"Thanks. See you."
Nina walked two blocks down Main Street to Service Pharmacy to have her prescription filled. Ethan had given her twenty dollars the night before, saying that he needed to at least contribute that much to the effort. She had another five dollars and that would cover three months of pills. She wandered around the gift and card aisle while she waited. There were little plush animals and fancy photo albums and greeting cards for every occasion. Would there possibly be a card for this one? Congratulations! You're not a father! And due to modern medicine you won't be one soon! Or maybe one for animal lovers. Thanks to the pill fewer rabbits will die! Then she saw it. In a display case at the end of the card aisle was a tiny crystal penguin. It was only an inch or so high and when she picked it up and turned it over in her hand she knew she had to have it. The tag on the bottom said two dollars and seventy-five cents. She had at least that much in change.
Penguin and prescription in her possession Nina walked the five slushy, wintry blocks home. Her mother would be home soon, this errand had taken longer than she had anticipated. She had just enough time to find the right place in her room to display Charlie, she had named the crystal penguin after her father, using the familiar form of his middle name. She set him on the nightstand next to the little tray she usually put her watch and rings into. And her earrings, if she had gone to bed forgetting to take off the ones that were uncomfortable to sleep on.
She needed to hide her pills. Somewhere her mother would never look but someplace with easy daily access so she wouldn't forget to take them. Maybe in the bathroom. But where? And should she take them at night or in the morning? At last she decided to hide them in her room, in the bottom drawer of her jewelry box. Her purse would be just a little too obvious, but then she would have them with her all the time. This was too difficult to decide. Nina went back into the bathroom to see if there was a better place in there. In the linen closet she rejected this place or that because of one reason or another. She felt around on the top shelf thinking that she was taller than her mother and maybe that would be the place. Her hand brushed across something and Nina blinked as a compact-sized article fell and bounced off her shoulder and landed on the floor. She leaned over to pick it up and recognized the package as a pill-pack of birth control pills. Turning it over she saw that it was missing five tablets and that the label had her mother's name on it. Well, well, Mom, you continue to surprise me. We have more in common than I ever would have thought.
* * * * * * *
Wyn looked up from the notebook she was scribbling in and saw that her grandmother was resting comfortably. The last couple of weeks she had done her homework and other reading in here, in Grandma Winnie's wing chair with her papers and textbooks scattered over the hassock in front of her. Wyn's sweetest childhood memories were set in this room, sitting with her grandmother in front of the fireplace having tea, reading stories, sharing wonderful secrets. Today there was no roaring fire, for the last month Grandma Winnie had been on oxygen twenty- four hours a day so a fire was prohibited. She was still breathing on her own but Wyn knew that the next step was to put her on a ventilator. How much longer could she last when the only nourishment coming into her body was through an IV line mixed with drugs to thin her blood and ease her pain. She slept most of the time now and when she was awake she recognized people intermittently and spoke out loud to long dead members of her family. Wyn she always knew, always asked for if she wasn't there. Wyn sensed that the end was near and so nearly every moment she was at home she spent in grandma's room. She closed the notebook and stood up and stretched. She went over to the chair at Grandma Winnie's bedside and sat quietly watching her rest.
The sun turned the western sky pink and orange through the March-bare tree branches that silently awaited the arrival of spring. Wyn was surprised to find that she had dozed off when she looked up and saw the darkening sky. She gasped and fumbled for the switch on the lamp on the nightstand. Grandma Winnie's face was turned toward the window and there was the faintest of smiles tugging upward the corners of her mouth. Wyn touched her forehead and it felt cold. She took her nearly weightless hand in hers and felt for a pulse at her transparently skinned wrist. She was gone, this tiny, soulful, strong woman who had taught her so much was gone.
When Maxie came to tell her dinner was ready Wyn was still there, holding Grandma Winnie's hand. Maxie quietly backed out and went to get Miss Miriam and to call the doctor.
To understand how many lives Winifred Paxton had touched with her open heart you only had to try to find a place to sit at her funeral. The pews were crowded full and folding chairs were hurriedly set up for more people and finally they came in and stood in the rear and along the side aisles because so many had come to say farewell. Each of the four Paxton granddaughters had their turn to speak to the throng, the older three related stories of a special memory they had of Grandma Winnie. When it was Wyn's turn, she read this poem.
AUNT SARAH DIED ONE SUMMER NIGHT
by Lisa Hirschboeck
Aunt Sarah died on a wicker chair on the porch one
summer night with a cold lemonade and a Japanese
fan and a dozen night bugs dancing around the 60
While the crickets chattered in the lawn,
and the dog scratched and bit at his fur
and the big black horsefly buzzed around the
ceiling in our hot sticky kitchen.
While Matt and I kicked off our sneakers
and ran over the wet grass, grabbing at the night
While Ma and Pa were driving to town
in the green vegetable truck that smelt like
While Mary and her beau sat under the silver
maple with leaves as big as hands, just watching the
sky and saying nothing.
While the bullfrogs hidden in the cattails
belched with swelling up with too much
Aunt Sarah died and the wind stroked her white curls,
and a thrush perched on the highest branch sang
her very favorite song, and the moon shone bright
so she wouldn't stumble going up the golden
stairs to heaven.
* * * * * * *
April Fool's Day was Oliver Conner's favorite day of the year. It gave him license to engage in practical jokes that he sometimes spent weeks setting up. He was disappointed if April first should happen to fall on Saturday or Sunday, a school day held so many more ripe opportunities to tell bad jokes and to place props in unexpected places. Oliver was a goofball of the highest order and over the years had collected every sort of plastic excrement possible, as well as other interesting items such as various fake severed body parts and props that looked alarmingly like spilled ketchup and syrup. It was fortunate that he was liked by nearly everyone, he glided among the various cliques and clubs that divide up high school kids easily, he seemed to have something in common with everyone. As a track star he had an in with the jocks, he was an honor student who was thinking of going into medicine so he got along with the nerds and chess club types. His constant on-stage manner that said he was always ready to perform had made him president of the drama club and the fact that he had in the last year blossomed from a geeky, gangly boy into a nice-looking young man made him every girl's best friend. Unfortunately, most girls don't want to go to their senior prom with their best friend, they want to go with
someone they feel romantic over, and Oliver was having a tough time coming up with a date. He was determined to succeed, though, as he spotted Nina Bradbury at her locker at the end of the school day. With this girl he decided the direct approach was the best.
"Nina," said Oliver as he approached, "I have a matter of great importance to discuss with you." He bowed deeply and when he came up he was wearing a Groucho Marx pair of plastic glasses complete with the large nose and attached eyebrows and moustache. Nina looked at him quizzically and burst into giggles. "Nina, I have been attracted to you for some time and it occurs to me that we should, as intellectual equals, attend prom together."
Nina continued to laugh and attempted several times to compose herself so she could answer. She finally had to ask him to take off the Groucho face, that she couldn't talk to him like that. When he complied she felt suddenly serious. She looked at his earnest Coke-bottle green eyes and the fringe of dark blonde hair just above them. He had really gotten cute lately and she really liked him, this was going to be hard. "Oh, Oliver, I'm sorry, I can't go with you, I'm going with Tommy. He just asked me this weekend. I'm very flattered, though, thanks for thinking of me."
Oliver put the Groucho glasses back on. "You've wounded me deeply, but I'll get over it." He pulled the glasses off once again and leaned in close to Nina. "So tell me, was this too direct, too weird? Should I change my approach?"
Nina giggled. "Oliver, if a girl says yes to you while you're wearing that, you can be sure of one thing. You've probably met your match. For life."
"I appreciate your honesty, fair maiden, I must continue my quest." Oliver bowed once more and was off.
Nina turned back to her locker and tried to remember if there had been an assignment in Government class. Maybe just some reading, but she didn't have government again until Thursday so she wouldn't have to take it home tonight. Oliver, he was one funny guy. She actually would have had fun going to prom with him. Too bad she had already said yes to Tommy, especially after the big fight she'd had with Ethan over it.
This was just too complicated, all this sneaking around to see him and both of them trying to cover it by seeing other people. Ethan had been spending a little too much time with Hope Paxton as far as she was concerned. Granted, they frequently were together doing something pretty innocent, like playing pool or backgammon at Winbrook. And frequently Nina had managed to find an excuse to be there, too, under the guise of doing homework or just visiting with Wyn. They did go out on a real date once in a while, though, to the movies or out to eat. Nina didn't like it but they had agreed to keep their relationship under wraps, at least for now.
Why he had gotten so worked up over her wanting to go to her prom she just didn't get. It wasn't like he could go with her. And she didn't want to miss it. Tommy had asked her for the first time over a week before and she had put him off, saying that was a weekend she might be busy with her mother. But then Wyn and Josie were both going with their boyfriends and she was feeling left out. When she told Ethan she had said yes to Tommy's prom invitation she'd been surprised that he had made such a big deal out of it. She countered with that it didn't mean anything, she wasn't in love with Tommy, she just wanted to go to prom, mostly because Wyn and Josie were going and she wanted to go, too. Then she'd made the mistake of suggesting that maybe he and Hope should go out that night, so he wouldn't be torturing himself with the thought of her with another guy if he had something to do. Maybe they could come and watch the grand march together so he could keep an eye on her for a while. They'd have a valid reason for coming to watch because they wanted to see their respective sisters all dressed up for the occasion. It had been their first real argument, and later Nina had thought that it was such a trivial thing for them to have had such a big fight over. There was just so much pressure trying to keep their secret that there was bound to be a blow up sometime. She'd go to prom with Tommy and then by the time graduation rolled around she would have let him down slow and easy. Somehow she'd manage to do that without hurting him too much. She wasn't sure but she had the feeling that she meant a whole lot more to Tommy than he meant to her. That was why it worked, she thought, her stringing him along the way she was. He really thought he had a chance with her and she knew that he didn't. She felt crappy about it but what could she do. She wanted to go to her senior prom and Tommy had asked her. She wished she could be going with Ethan but that was impossible. She was stuck in the middle. The worst part about it was how easily the deception and lying came to her, she didn't want to examine that too closely for fear of what she might see.
Winbrook was a big house. When old Fred Paxton had built the house in 1903 it was the talk of the town. Horse-drawn carriages and automobiles would drive slowly by and sometimes on a Sunday afternoon people would spill out of them to have a picnic to view the progress of the construction of the stone mansion. Fred was enamoured of castles and the fine old estate homes that dotted his native England's countryside. When he had come to America in search of his fortune he knew that once he made his mark he would build a home in that grand tradition. He came to see himself as the local lord of the manor once he had married and set up housekeeping and was aggravated by the amusement his attitude stirred among the citizens of Walsh River. He put up a horse barn and planted fruit trees and bought up every parcel of land adjacent to his when it came up for sale. When he feared that the town itself would grow in the direction of Winbrook he built the stone wall that encompassed the entire property and made it accessible only through those stone pillared gates.
If only two people, say a married couple, lived there, they could wander around for days without bumping into each other. So much the better if they happened to be on the outs. Small children could easily disappear if close tabs weren't kept, Wyn and her sisters all had their own stories of their favorite places to hide and play in the castle their grandfather had built and named for Winifred his bride. The solaruim held abundant potential as a playroom with its jumbo potted plants and otherworldly atmosphere. The black, wrought iron furniture was exotic in its own way and in a child's mind the place could easily be transformed into some faraway city or a jungle setting. Nina strolled through the solarium and absently fingered the thick, waxy lobes of a jade plant. She remembered how Wyn had closed the room off when Peri and Maddy were toddlers. She had been horrified and disgusted when she had found them playing with a garter snake they had found slithering across the Italian marble floor. The girls had sobbed when their mean mom had taken away their favorite new toy but the snake must have been grateful for having been set free from their gleeful grasp. They had managed to get past the baby safety gates one time and had ended up in the emergency room when they had each consumed a fair number of lobes from a jade plant, perhaps this very one that Nina was admiring. After that incident a locksmith had been summoned and the doors to the solarium had been fitted with appropriate locks that were beyond the comprehension and reach of Wyn's wily two-year-olds.
The solarium's glass doors opened out onto the patio. As Nina passed through into the cool evening air she was relieved to be alone for a change. Eight weeks and counting. Nina couldn't remember when she had last had a quiet moment to herself. It may have been that ages ago morning when she had risen fully rested anticipating Evan's return from his book tour. Then, as now, she savored the sights and smells unique to the location. She could smell the rich dampness of the river even though it was out of sight, it flowed along the edge of the Winbrook estate just down the grassy hill at the bottom of the rear garden. When she and Josie and Wyn had spent long, lazy summer days at its banks there had been a narrow patch of trees to pass through as well but they had been cleared a couple of years before. For three years the waters of the Walsh River had run high and overflowed its banks. No serious flooding had taken place but numerous trees had fallen victim to the water. When the water receded the trees had been removed. Old growth oaks and ash trees that had been there longer than the house were felled and hauled away. Nina had never quite gotten used to the empty space where sky showed through, it was too abrupt, it didn't look right, it was like a missing tooth to her.
For some reason she thought about smoking. She never had smoked, in fact she had always been disgusted by the smell and mess associated with the habit. But Nina had to admit that there was a ritual involved and a certain visual image associated with smoking that held a sort of glamorous allure, if only on the surface. Right now, if she were in a movie, she would take this quiet, solitary moment to get out a cigarette and the handsome leading man would materialize out of nowhere to light it for her. Leave it to Hollywood to transform a stinky, health compromising addiction into a romantic device.
Nina was tired, it had been a long day. Lately there had been nothing but long days. Juggling kids and work and summer activities and family obligations with spending time at Josie's bedside was taking its toll on everyone involved. At this point she would rather be home in bed but Wyn and Marc were at a business dinner and Miriam, who had been a tireless godsend through this whole ordeal, also had a commitment that evening. Nina had consented to babysit with the twins and had shared an enjoyable supper of McDonald's Happy Meals with them.
Her day had begun with rising at six-thirty with Isabella, she was teething and her sleep pattern had been disrupted. She had woken up crying and refused a bottle so Nina had given her some Tylenol and walked in circles with her until she fell asleep once more. After tucking Isabella into her crib she had gone back to bed hoping to catch another hour of sleep, but being up with the baby had wakened her sufficiently and she had been unable to fall back into slumber's warm embrace. So she got up.
In the basement laundry room she moved a clean load of towels into the dryer and then sat on the floor next to a basket full of unpaired socks. She absently folded the socks into pairs. If she kept up with this task as the socks came out of the dryer it didn't take long. But if you let them fall into the basket as you fold and hang the other clean items it becomes a matter of monumental proportions to deal with. As she paired the socks and placed the odd ones in a pile to be dealt with later her mind wandered back and forth between her attachment to the man who slept upstairs and wore the socks that she folded and the man she clearly shouldn't invite back into her life. In the bottom of the basket only three socks remained. She picked up the two that appeared to belong together only to notice that one was hers and one was Evan's. The lone sock in the basket didn't go with either of the socks in her hand, all three belonged in the odd pile. How was she supposed to sort out her life if she couldn't sort out her laundry.
After getting up earlier than normal she ran on automatic for the rest of the day. She had spent three hours at the nursing home with Josie but that time had gone quickly. She had read to her and then watched a movie and then Miriam had been there for the last hour. That was when the childcare dilemma had surfaced and Nina had volunteered to stay with Peri and Maddy that night. Nina told herself that she was helping her best friend out of a jam, that they all had been overscheduled these last weeks and she really did enjoy the girls' company. Evan and Isabella had come over with her and had left just a little while ago when she had gotten fussy around her usual bedtime. But now was the moment she had waited for and she was feeling more than a little guilty. Deep down she had hoped that spending the evening here would provide an opportunity for her to see Ethan alone. They must be visible to others, she thought, the tiny angel version of herself perched on one shoulder telling her the right thing to do and the similar sized demon on the other advising her to follow her own selfish agenda. She ought to go in. The darkening sky looked like rain and she should make a tour of the house to check for open windows. She paused on her way back into the house when she heard a car in the driveway. It's Marc and Wyn, whispered the angel. It's Ethan, parried the demon. I've got to get more sleep, thought Nina. It was Ethan in his rental car. Nina's insides fluttered breifly and she tried to remember if the saying went no rest for the weary or was it no rest for the wicked. It didn't matter. This was her chance and she wasn't going to let it pass.
As Ethan approached Nina was surprised to note that she felt calm, the sweaty palms and cranked up adrenaline that normally accompanied Ethan's proximity to her were absent. In their stead was a calm assurance that made her feel like she was in control. It was an odd feeling, but she liked it.
"Hello." she said.
"Hi. Didn't expect to see you here. Where is everybody?"
"Wyn and Marc are having dinner with a client and Miriam had a Society meeting. Ethan, we may not have much time here and there's something I need to talk to you about, I think it's time to clear the air."
"For once we agree on something." He smiled and put his arm around her shoulder and they walked together. "Let's go inside, there's something I need to show you."
Nina waited in the kitchen while Ethan went upstairs to his room. When he returned he was holding a brown envelope of what appeared to be photographs. They sat down at the table and he handed the envelope to her, telling her to look inside.
"What is this?" she asked as she looked over the black and white photos of a stone sculpture.
"The pictures aren't the best but I had to take them in black and white so I could develop them myself. This is the piece I'm being labeled a hack for because I've worked on it so long and
haven't shown it to anyone. I wanted you to see it first. It's called Water of Life."
"It's really beautiful. It almost looks like it's flowing. It's remarkable." Nina studied the photographs intently.
"What?" Nina was puzzled. Maybe she didn't understand art but this looked nothing like her. It wasn't even remotely a human form.
"It's you, how I feel about you, what you are to me. It makes sense when you see it in person. And I want you to. Come back to New Mexico with me. I've wrestled with this on some level for twenty years and I just didn't get it until I started working on this piece. In the two years it's taken to finish it I've worked through it all and I finally made sense of what you are to me. I love you. I need for us to be together, please marry me."
Nina couldn't move. Her voice wouldn't come out. She wanted to kiss him. She also wanted to throw something large and heavy at him.
"I know the timing is bad and I hate to think that if Josie wasn't here I may not have had the courage to come to you with this. I've wasted half my life trying to care about someone the way that I care about you. I know I've run away before but I'm through running. Come with me and make me complete again."
"I have a life here, Ethan. I love Evan and we have a child. I can't just abandon what I have and run off with you. Why couldn't you have figured this out twelve years ago or twenty years ago when things weren't so complicated? What took you so long?" Nina got up and went out on the patio. She swore she would never cry over this man again and here she was. The calm assurance of ten minutes earlier had fled and she was no longer in control. Tears of regret and anger and indecision poured forth. And then he was there and his arms were around her and they were kissing and she couldn't remember who she was any longer. She was just flesh and emotion and of the moment. Then the rain started. Not a gentle first wave of sprinkling drops but a torrent that matched what was storming inside of them both. At first they didn't notice or care that their clothes were soaking wet, only the sound of a car coming up the drive brought them around to reality and forced them into the house.
They could see an umbrella bobbing up and down through the downpour but in the near dark they couldn't tell if it was one or two people under it. The half-folded umbrella poked its way through the door and when it was lowered Miriam appeared from behind it. She removed her rain bonnet and coat and shook the excess water from them before sitting down on the oak bench near the door to remove her wet shoes. Nina and Ethan, having entered just minutes before her, stood shivering and dripping at the other end of the rug. Miriam looked at them with a troubled expression clouding her dignified, still beautiful face. They looked sheepishly back as if they had just been caught with their hands in the cookie jar right before supper.
"We were just ..." began Nina.
Miriam held her hand up and shook her head. "No, no explanation, please. I'll get you two some towels before you soak my kitchen floor." In her stocking feet she moved silently toward the the bathroom in the hall off the kitchen.
"She saw us, didn't she." said Nina.
"I don't know, I was a little preoccupied."
"Ethan, be serious."
"I don't know, maybe she did, there's nothing we can do about it now."
Miriam returned with the towels and asked them if they would like some tea to warm up.
"No, no thanks." answered Nina. "I need to be getting home. The girls were wonderful, they've been asleep for over an hour. We drew pictures, they're hanging on the refrigerator.
"Miriam, I think I'll run upstairs and check for open windows, I'll be right back." said Ethan.
Oh, sure, thought Nina, run off and leave me here like always. She sat down at the table and picked up Ethan's photos and placed them back in the envelope.
"Sure you don't want some tea, dear? Nina shook her head. "Well, I'm having some so if you change your mind let me know." Miriam filled the copper tea kettle at the sink and placed it on the stove and then sat down across from Nina.
"Nina, is everything all right?"
"Oh, Miriam, everything's a mess." Nina said matter of factly. "I just need a really big mop and bucket and a good night's sleep. Sometimes, when I watch Isabella when she's sleeping, everything is clear to me. Then all I want to do is crawl in the crib with her and go to sleep and wake up when all of this is over."
Miriam raised her eyebrows and looked at Nina thoughtfully. "That sounds a little like what Josie's doing right now. Sleeping and expecting that when she wakes up everything will be just fine. Josie always was too delicate for all the things life heaped on her so that doesn't surprise me. But I'm surprised at you, and disappointed." She took Nina's hands in hers and went on. "Nina, most of the time if we're honest with ourselves we see that the mess we're in is one of our own making. You don't need a mop and a bucket, you just need to look at that sleeping child of yours to know what's important to you."
Ethan returned to the kitchen and Miriam rose from the table to tend to the whistling kettle.
"Ethan, if it's not too much trouble would you please take Nina home. She looks like she needs a hot bath and a good night's sleep."
"Sure Miriam, no problem. Looks like the rain's let up, I don't think we need to borrow your umbrella."
"Goodnight, Miriam. And thanks." said Nina.
It was quiet in the car. Nina watched the headlights reflect off the damp pavement and pulled at a wet strand of hair that wouldn't stay out of her eyes. She couldn't look at Ethan but she held his hand, his right hand and her left were twined together and rested on the console between the front seats.
"Pull over." she said.
"Pull over. I can't talk to the side of your head. I need to see your eyes." They turned onto a side street and pulled over to the curb. "Did you mean what you said, about wanting to marry me, wanting to be with me?"
He nodded. "Yes. More than anything."
"What about Isabella? I'm sort of a package deal these days."
"Isabella, too. Whatever you need."
Nina sighed deeply. "I need some time. I need a few days to think about this. You've got to know that I've loved you since I first saw you, since I was seventeen. You were my first love and I thought I would die when you left me. How do I know if I can trust you now, that you won't run off at the first sign of trouble or the first time we have a fight?"
"It took me a long time to grow up. Believe me, you wouldn't have wanted me back then, I had to find my own way back to you. And I've always loved you, even when I denied it. I just hope that it's not too late. If you tell me no I'll know I waited too long and I'll have to find a way to live with it. Give me a chance. What we've felt for each other all this time has got to be worth something."
"Take me home. We'll talk in a few days."
* * * * * * *
Nina slipped off her shoes and walked on tip-toes through the darkened house. She set her purse and keys down on the hallway table and traced her finger idly along the scalloped wood that adorned the corner. She had loved the table from the moment she laid eyes on it that day that she and Evan had gone junk shop and second hand store shopping for the apartment they had just moved into together. When they walked into the shop that had it displayed in the window Nina knew that she only had a few dollars left and that the pick-up was already loaded full. They had made this last stop for the ice cream parlor on the corner and Nina had admired the six-legged, two-tiered table with the inlaid top as she licked her butter pecan cone. Let's just see how much it is,she had said, and Evan reminded her that there wasn't enough room in the truck. Please, she had said, if I can talk him down to fifteen dollars I'll carry it home. They went inside. The table was marked thirty-five dollars. Nina talked him down to twenty and they managed to come up with it by scrounging change from their pockets. The table rode home with them in the cab on Nina's lap. Most of the other odds and ends of furniture and decorative items they had procured that day had long since been weeded out of their household or relegated to utilitarian tasks in the basement or garage. But the table had stayed and reminded both of them regularly of why they were together. How her stubborn streak balanced his practicality, how her dark moodiness had been leveled by his sweetness and light, how she had been utterly changed by the stability and constantness he had brought to her life. How their love had never been difficult or agonizing but just there like gravity or breathing. Nina didn't want to live without gravity or breath but here was Ethan making it sound like it was possible.
She climbed the stairs and peeked in on Isabella. How could I ever leave you, she thought. But how could I take you from your daddy that you adore. Nina watched her sleeping angel and willed the answer to come to her. But there would be no clear answer, not tonight, anyway. She entered their bathroom from the hall so she wouldn't disturb Evan as he slept. She ran a hot bath and gratefully slipped into the warm calmness of the water and closed her eyes. She must have dozed off for a little while and was startled awake by her arm splashing down into the water that had cooled to lukewarm. Nina pulled the plug and the shower curtain and started the water to wash her hair. The soothing scent of the mangoe shampoo washed over her and remained even as she rinsed it from her hair and turned off the water. She briskly toweled her hair mostly dry and slipped into the cotton nightie on the back of the door. She turned off the light so her eyes would adjust to the dark of the bedroom before she opened the door. She crept into her side of the bed and gratefully relaxed into the comfort of the pillows and the cool crispness of the sheets. Evan stirred beside her and rolled over to snuggle up next to her. They nestled like spoons and Nina was asleep before any more troubling questions could cross her mind.