The screen door slapped shut behind Alli, placing an exclamation point at the end of her work day. She hastened down the Bistro’s rough steps as an autumn wind whisked up from Saratoga Passage, cooling her face. After six hours of hustling in and out of the steamy kitchen, filling orders, she’d have welcomed a few minutes to savor the breeze. But the jangling of a distant bell told her she couldn’t afford even a moment’s respite.
She hurried on foot from the parking lot. Shoot, shoot, shoot. She’d been doing so well too—keeping a close eye on the clock, closing her stations well before quitting time. It was her last customer that sabotaged her best efforts. She might have stood a chance had it been anyone but Wanda Pettigrew. But Wanda loved to chat, and now Alli was late. Her tote thumped against her hip as she broke into a jog.\
She turned off Front Street away from the bay, where sailboats were scattered like dice across the water. A few blocks later she stepped aside to let two bicyclists pass through the narrow schoolyard gate before taking her turn. Once inside, boisterous kids surged past her like a river around a rock. Alli followed the gravel pathway around the brick building to thekindergarten classroom, passing the blue-and-yellow Big Toy, where two girls swung from the monkey bars.
Alli felt a lift of relief when she saw another mom in pink sweats and a baseball cap hurrying from the opposite direction toward the kindergarten wing. At least I’m not the only one. But then a qualm tightened her stomach as she rounded the corner. Even from here, Alli could see that her son was crying while his teacher, Mrs. Nichols, held his hand. Another little boy wearing a Seahawks windbreaker waited with them, but as soon as he caught sight of his mom in the pink sweats, he grinned and ran to join her.
As Alli drew near, Jack wiped his eyes with the back of a grimy hand. “Sorry I’m late, bubba.” She dropped to her knees and folded him in her arms, feeling a throb in her chest as if someone had bumped a bruise. “Were you worried?”
When he didn’t respond, Mrs. Nichols touched his shoulder. “Know what, Jack? I never got around to erasing the whiteboard this afternoon. Would you do that for me?” Mrs. Nichols gave her a look over Jack’s head.
Jack turned his face up to Alli.I'll be right here,” she promised, and he headed back into the classroom, shoulders slumped beneath the straps of his Spiderman backpack. Alli turned to his teacher. “I’m so sorry, I got held up at work.”
The teacher offered a thin smile. “Jack had a rough day today.”
Alli frowned. “In what way?”
“He took a swipe at another little boy on the playground during afternoon recess.”
“He—he hit someone?” The news caused an uneasy jump somewhere between Alli’s heart and her stomach.
“Well, he tried to, and that’s not like him. Forgive me for asking, but is everything all right at home? No significant changes?”
“I—no, none.” What exactly was she suggesting? “Other than his starting kindergarten, of course.”
“No new boyfriend, or a grandparent dying…?”
“Nothing like that.” Alli crossed her arms, ignoring the apprehension that tightened her insides. “Would you mind telling me exactly what happened? Did someone provoke him?”
“A first grader was teasing Jack at recess, but instead of telling a teacher, Jack tried to hit him. The other boy swiped back, and then a teacher stepped in.”
So he was provoked. “Why wasn’t I called?”
“Since it was a first offense, we thought we could wait to tell you. We’ve spoken to both boys and trust the issue’s resolved.”
“What was the boy teasing Jack about?”
“Neither of them would say.”
Jack emerged from the classroom. “All done, Mrs. Nichols. Got everything erased.”
“Good boy,” Mrs. Nichols’ smile etched grooves around her pale blue eyes. Then she crouched so she was eye-to-eye with Jack. “What happened today on the playground isn’t going to happen again, is it, Jack?”
He shook his head, and Alli, looking down at her small son, ached to pull him close, to press her lips into the soft, sweaty skin of his neck.
“Didn’t think so.” Mrs. Nichols straightened with a smile. “We’ll see you tomorrow for a better day, all right?”
Alli thanked the teacher and reached for Jack’s hand as she led him from the school. Not until they’d turned onto Front Street, far away from Mrs. Nichols’ keen eye, did she allow her pent-up doubts to tumble free. Her son, picking fights in kindergarten? Even if he had been provoked—how could this be? A part of her wanted to disbelieve Mrs. Nichols. But Jack’s teacher, with her long cotton skirts and sensible clogs, had always struck Alli as eminently trustworthy. If she said it was true, it must be.
Alli glanced down at Jack, who kept his gaze fixed on his Spiderman sneakers. “Mrs. Nichols said you got into trouble today on the playground. Want to tell me about it?”
“She said another boy was teasing you. Is that true?”
“What did he say?”
“Jack? You know I won’t tolerate fighting, and I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what’s going on. Can you at least tell me why you were crying when I got there?”
He shrugged and shook his head.
She watched him as she searched for a clue to unlock the riddle. It wasn’t like him to not talk to her. Even though he was provoked, what would make him try to hit another little boy? She’d taught him better than that. Was it pure instinct that made him lash out—the fault of the very blood that ran through his veins?
She shook the thought off. Just because he tussled with another boy didn’t mean he’d turn out like—
No. She couldn’t go there. She wouldn’t.
At the corner post office, they waited to cross the street until a stream of cars passed by, and Alli wished for the umpteenth time they’d lower the speed limit along this stretch of road. On the other side of the street, she pulled him to the inside of the curb.
“So, bubba,” Alli began in a new tone, determined to put this day’s troubles behind them. “I was thinking about what to fix for dinner, and I’ve pretty much settled on asparagus sandwiches. What do you think?”
“Asparagus?” He squinted up at her.
“No? Not even if I told you I had artichoke ice cream for dessert?
“Well, then, liver soup? I know liver soup is one of your favorites.”
A shudder coursed through his slight frame. “Gross, Mom.”
“I’m stumped then, because the only other thing I can think of is mac-n-chee with hotdogs. But I thought for sure you’d prefer asparagus ice cream.”
“You said asparagus sandwiches, Mom.” Jack rolled his eyes. “Not ice cream. But I’ll take mac-n-chee and hot dogs.”
Alli touched his soft, blond hair, so different from her own. “Good choice, little man.”
Seashells crunched beneath their feet as they turned onto their lane, passing the stand of alder trees that shielded Penny Watrous’ property from the road. They walked by their landlady’s clapboard house and empty carport on the left. Their own cedar-shingled cottage, a converted boathouse, nestled at the base of a sloping yard. Below, a rocky beach met the blue-gray waters of Saratoga Passage, which stretched to the snow-capped Cascades.
A short path branching from the drive led to the cottage, and as Alli followed Jack, she eyed the half-acre of lawn, which seemed to have sprouted four inches in the last week—a final hurrah before the first frost. Alli sighed and added “mow the lawn” to her list. If she didn’t get it done this weekend, Penny would certainly have something to say about it.
She dug into her handbag for her keys, finding them buried beneath her soiled work apron. On the front porch, they kicked off their sneakers, letting them fall into the shoe basket. Then Alli turned the key in the lock, and the door swung wide.
Salty air breezed across her face—a draft coming from inside the house. Inside the house?
“Jack, wait!” She grabbed his arm as he started over the threshold.
She kept her grip as her eyes swept their small domain and settled on the space where their television used to be. The truth hit her like a punch to the gut. We’ve been robbed.
Her heart catapulted into her throat. Was the intruder still in the house? She waited, listening, but all she heard was the rhythmic slosh of waves on the shore and the rush of blood behind her ears. From here, she could see only the living room, but the draft told her a window or a door somewhere in the back was open.
Jack seemed rooted to the porch. “Don’t move,” she ordered.
Alli crept inside, her socked feet soundless on the hardwood floor. Careful to keep Jack in sight, she made a wide circle around the living room until she was peering around the divider into the kitchen. There, she saw the source of the breeze. The glass from their back door had been smashed in, and shards lay scattered across the yellow linoleum.
She raised a trembling hand, reminding Jack to stay put as she moved into the short hallway. A glance into Jack’s room and the bath told her no one lurked there. In her bedroom, a ring of dust sat where her jewelry box had been.
Breathing easier, she returned to the living room and scanned the area again for anything out of place. As her gaze passed over the built-in bookcases, something flitted across her brain. But when she looked again, the thought skittered from her grasp.
In the kitchen, she skirted the table with Jack’s box of peanut butter crunch cereal still at his place. She stepped closer for a better look at their door. Penny’s going to freak.
She jumped. “Ow!” White-hot pain ripped through her foot and raced to her spine. “Jack! I told you to stay put.”
“But I wanted to see—” His gaze traveled to her foot. “Mom, you’re bleeding.”
A crimson splotch was spreading across her white sock, and alarm leapt to Jack’s eyes. She yanked out a chair and sat down. But as she reached to pull off her sock, a new, sickening thought occurred to her. My viola.
“Jack, quick, go make sure Lola’s still here.”
He didn’t move, his gaze fastened on her foot.
He scampered off. As soon as he was out of sight, Alli bent over the wound. The glass remained embedded in the ball of her foot, and blood dripped from the edge of her sock to the floor. She fought back a wave of nausea. What if she’d severed a tendon or something?
Then Jack was back, clasping to his chest a black hourglass case. “She was there,” he said, panting. “Under the bed.” A dust bunny clung to his hair.
“Put her on the table. Now bubs, I need you to bring me my bag from the porch.” When he returned, he thrust it at her, and she rooted through it for her cell phone. But even after emptying the contents onto the table, there was no phone. Where was it? Then it hit her—Brittany had it! She’d loaned it to her and forgotten to get it back.
“Jack, listen carefully,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady as the puddle of blood spread. “I don’t have my phone so you’re going to have to run to Miss Penny’s.” Pain engulfed her entire foot now, a steady throb. “Go straight there, then back. Understand?”
“Now, Jack,” she gasped as the pain reached a crescendo. “Run!”
The cramping began as Darcie drove east on Saratoga Road toward home. The cramps started subtly, more an ache than a pinch, so that at first she didn’t recognize what she was feeling. But by the time she pulled off of Saratoga onto their gravel driveway, the pain had morphed into a tight fist clenched low in her belly.
She eased beneath the carport, angling her Camry beside Hal’s green Dodge pickup before stilling the engine and resting her forehead on the steering wheel. Please, Lord, don’t let this be what I think it is. Let it be something else—the shrimp I ate for lunch, a kink in my system, anything. Anything but this.
But who was she kidding? She was a nurse, after all, trained to interpret the body’s signals. And she knew these cramps for what they were.
The beginning of her period.
Funny, she thought as she moved from the car. This past week, she’d actually allowed herself to believe this month was the one. At four days late—two days later than she had ever been—she’d even dared to calculate a due date. May 15. A spring baby. God was choosing to smile on them at last.
Letting herself in by the front door, she headed straight to the master bedroom with its adjoining bathroom. Please, please, God, no, she begged as she shut the bathroom door. Not this time. Not again… Her hands shook.
But on her panties, blood.
Searing pain hit her at the sight of it. She felt as if a clawed beast had reached its talons inside her and ripped a section of her gut right through her skin, leaving a jagged, seeping wound. It always surprised her, the strength of the pain. She’d have thought that over time the pain would get better, become more manageable. That she’d improve with practice, if nothing else. But it didn’t work that way.
How can I miss someone I’ve never met? Each month, Darcie asked herself the same question—and had yet to find an answer. But that’s exactly how she felt—as though someone vital to her very existence was being withheld from her. Leaving her alone to find a way, somehow, to carry on.
A part of Darcie, the intellectual part, wondered whether a woman wasn’t designed this way. Whether the grief wasn’t intended to create a sense of urgency to propel her forward into the next month, to try again. But another part—the feeling, womanly part—wished the grief would just go away. Wished she could forget this dream and move on to a more fruitful one.
Moving slowly, Darcie reached beneath the sink for a pad and cleaned herself up, using the rote activity as a dam against the surging tide of disappointment. Even when she was finished, she lingered in the stillness of the bathroom, hoping to hear from the Voice a word of comfort to loosen the cords of desolation that choked her. I’m not getting any younger, Lord. Neither is my husband. Make us wait much longer and Hal will be doddering around with a cane at our child’s graduation. Is that Your best for us? Remember, a hope deferred makes the heart sick. But a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.
Life is what she longed for. Life, in every sense of the word.
But not this month. She looked once more at the evidence of this month’s failure and flushed it down the toilet.
She swallowed two Advil with a swig of water and briefly considered changing out of her scrubs, but then decided she didn’t have the energy. Taking a deep breath, she stuffed the unwieldy bulk of her disappointment back into the dark hole where it lived, and emerged from the bedroom.
Moving down the shadowy hall, she paused at Rees’ door, listening for signs he was there. Perhaps she heard a rustle and a sigh, or maybe it was just the heat kicking on. Either way, she knew better than to knock. Her brother had made it clear he valued his privacy, and when his door was shut, it signaled do-not-disturb.
In the kitchen, smells of cinnamon and vanilla lingered as reminders of breakfast, and on the counter, two jumbo-sized muffins hugged in plastic wrap squatted on a china plate. Hal had made the pastries this morning from scratch, using blueberries picked early last summer from the untended fields above their property. With a lingering pang of loss, Darcie recalled how she’d imagined, as she’d eaten one of those muffins, that if she was pregnant, the product of their land was nourishing the product of their union. The thought—both earthy and primeval—had pleased her.
She reached now for another muffin, peeling the wrap away as she moved toward the sink. I may not have a baby inside me needing nourishment, she thought with some defiance, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a muffin. Outside the window, she caught a flash of white, and her heart sank low in her chest. It was Hal, wearing his favorite bucket hat as he moved with a pair of clippers among his rhododendrons. Moses and Aaron, their black Labs, nosed around the beauty bark, and not until then did Darcie realize she’d been so focused on her own worries that she’d failed to notice the dogs hadn’t been at the door to greet her. Or that Hal’s vehicle had been in the carport before hers.
How long had he been home? This made the third time in a week he’d returned early from the shop. Glancing around the kitchen for clues, she saw in the sink a pound of ground hamburger thawing in an inch of water; and on the counter, Hal’s favorite cookbook open to a baked enchilada recipe. She poked the mound of meat with a finger and left an indentation. The hamburger was completely thawed, which told her that her husband had been home for some time. An hour, at least, and it was now just past four o’clock.
Resentment brought bitterness to her mouth, and she set her half-finished muffin on the counter. She thought about the discovery she’d just made, yet another month’s hopes dashed. She thought about her brother holed up in his room, and she thought about her husband all the while snipping at rhodies without a care in the world. Since Hal was home early, couldn’t he at least accomplish something useful and have Rees out there with him? Hadn’t they agreed allowing Rees too much time alone was doing more harm than good?
The doorbell startled Darcie from her dark thoughts. When it rang again, twice more in quick succession, she hastened to the foyer, where through the stained glass window she recognized their little neighbor boy. What on earth?
Fumbling with the lock, she tried to summon his name. Jake? No, Jack. He and his mother moved into the neighbor’s mother-in-law cottage when the boy was just a baby, but despite the fact that they were neighbors, Darcie hardly knew them. About the only thing she did know was that Alli—the name popped into her head—worked at the Front Street Bistro.
The chain lock tumbled free, and Darcie opened the door. “Jack? What—”
“Miss Penny’s not home!” he gasped, his face bleached with fear.
“And there’s glass!”
“Glass? Glass where?”
“My mom’s hurt.” He was trembling, and Darcie bent to his level, placing her hands on his shoulders.
“Your mom sent you to get me?”
“To get Miss Penny, but she’s not home, and Mom needs help.” He blinked his wide brown eyes to keep tears from falling, and Darcie’s heart flared.
“All right.” She straightened, welcoming the clinical calm that descended like a curtain, separating her, at least for now, from her own reality. “Tell me what happened.”
“A piece of glass. Mom stepped on it, and it’s stuck in her foot.”
“Is she bleeding?”
“There was a lot of blood on her sock.”
Had Alli severed a tendon? How deeply had the glass penetrated? The possibilities spooled through Darcie’s mind even as she asked the next question.
“Is she conscious?” She doubted there had been any serious loss of blood, but the sight of it sometimes made people faint. But Jack only stared at her, and she realized he didn’t know what she meant. “Is she awake?”
“All right—good. Thank you. Now Jack, look at me.” She waited for his gaze to meet hers, and even in this moment was struck by his uncommonly thick, dark lashes. What a beautiful child. Again, her heart squeezed. “Everything’s going to be okay.” His shoulders felt so narrow between her hands, his face so pale beneath the freckles. “My kit’s in the car. I’ll grab it while you run back and tell your mom I’m on my way.”
He ran. “Be careful crossing the street!” she called.He never looked back.