Sipping my coffee, I head out of the kitchen.
Bobby runs up to me, as if he’s been waiting. “Teach me more reading.”
He leads me to the sofa. For hours, we sit there, sounding out sentences. I praise and encourage him, but all the while I’m also listening for footsteps on the deck. I keep remembering my dance with Daniel. Make a wish. Starting over would be . . .
“Joy,” Bobby says. “JOY.”
I blink, come into the now. “Sorry, Bobby.” I’m like a teenager, mooning over a boy. The thought makes me smile. Who would have thought?
“What’s this word?”
I turn my attention back to the book that’s open in my lap. It’s the Disney version of Pinocchio, and Bobby has an endless appetite for the story of the wooden boy who wants to be real. This is the second read of the day. “R . . . E . . . A . . . L. Real.”
He looks up at me. “I wish the Blue Fairy would make Freddy real.”
If the Blue Fairy existed, Freddy would be knee-deep in clover. Heaven knows the stuffed lamb with the straggly fur and loose button eye has been loved.
Behind us, the door bangs open.
Bobby slams the book shut. He wants to surprise Daniel with his reading.
Daniel walks in to the lobby, his flannel shirt and down vest peppered with sawdust and rain. His face is gray with wet dirt. When he smiles, his teeth are brilliant white. “Hey, there.” He takes off his jacket, lays it on the chair back, then turns on the television. “It’s no use workin’ any more. A storm is coming.”
“A storm?” Bobby sounds scared.
“Don’t worry, boyo. I’m here to protect you.”
Bobby tucks in closer to me, whining. “I hate storms.”
For the first time, I notice how dark it is in the lobby. Outside, charcoal clouds obliterate the sky overhead. Shadows crawl across the lake and grass.
“Turn on the news, will you, Bobby?” Daniel says, bending over to unbutton his work boots. “I’ll be back down in a sec.” With that, he goes upstairs.
Bobby reaches for the remote and hits the power button. There is a thump of sound, then a picture.
“I hate the news,” he mutters, eying the darkening day outside.
On screen, a pretty blond woman is talking about a three-alarm fire in downtown Seattle. After that, she relays the rest of the local news: a few burglaries, a car stolen in Hoquiam, and a goat mascot stolen from a nearby high school.
They show a series of local homes, decked out for the holidays, even giving out the addresses so people can drive by to see the displays.
We have different drive-bys in Southern California.
Outside, thunder rolls. Lightning flares.
Bobby screams. I reach for him, saying, “Don’t worry, I’m . . .”
Then I hear: plane crash. I want to say, “Turn off the set! Change the channel!” But I can’t speak. Instead, I get to my feet, take a step forward.
“. . . nearly eighty miles north of here. As reported earlier, the eleven named passengers on the charter flight were rescued by firefighters on Friday evening and taken to local hospitals.”
The picture from my driver’s license fills the screen.
“Joy Faith Candellaro,” the anchorwoman says pleasantly, as if she’s relaying a tuna casserole recipe and not news of a missing person, “from Bakersfield, California. When the director of the charter flight, Riegert Milosovich, regained consciousness following surgery, he told authorities that this woman had purchased a ticket at the last moment and had been onboard the plane when . . .”
“Is the thunder done?” Bobby asks nervously.
“Just a minute, Bobby.” White noise roars in my head, blocking out the broadcast. I’m trying to hear the words when the picture onscreen changes and I gasp.
It’s Stacey; she is standing in front of her three-car garage, crying. In a pale yellow sweatshirt and matching pants (which I gave her for her birthday last year), she looks washed out and colorless. “We’re praying she comes back to us.” She glances at Thom, who looks surprisingly shaken. Is he crying? “It’s the season of miracles, right?” Stacey says to the reporter.
“That lady looks like you,” Bobby says, pointing at my sister.
“Really?” I answer dully. I’ve heard it all my life. Irish twins. Two sisters, only a year apart in age, who were always there for each other.
“She sure is sad.”
Who would have thought she’d miss me so much?
But that is a lie. I see the truth I’ve hidden from myself all these days and nights. I knew Stacey would miss me, weep for me. I wanted that, wanted her to regret what she’d done to me.
I wanted to break her heart, like she’d broken mine.
But it is one thing to want Stacey to feel bad for me, it’s something else to let her believe I’m dead.
My vacation is over.
“What’s the matter, Joy?”
Thunder rolls outside, shaking the lodge. The windows rattle at the storm.
Bobby screams: “Daddy!” and leaps off the couch.
Daniel is down the stairs in an instant, scooping Bobby into his arms. “It’s just a storm, boyo,” he says soothingly, “nothing to be afraid of.”
“He’s right, Bobby. There’s nothing to be scared of,” I say dully, but even as I say the words, I know they are a lie. There is something to be scared of now for Bobby and for me. I have to go home.
Lightning flashes into the room, turning everything blue-white for an instant. I look at Daniel, who is holding his son tightly, and Bobby, whose small, pale face is ruined by tears.
“It’s like when Mommy . . .”
“Shhh,” Daniel says. “Shhh.” He turns, carrying Bobby upstairs. I can hear their voices. Soft. Uncertain.
Daniel is singing to Bobby; the hushed notes of the song underscore the sounds of crying. It’s a song I don’t recognize, and I don’t understand the words, but it moves me nonetheless, makes me think about the times in my life—long ago now—when I felt safe and loved.
I feel my way to the registration desk and find the phone. It’s time to call Stacey. Lightning is a strobe light that turns off and on, blasting me in and out of darkness.
I pick up the phone and call the operator. There are two rings, then, the electricity snaps off, the phone goes dead, and everything goes dark.
In my dreams, the world is full of strange noises and unfamiliar smells.
Light. It is buzzing all around me like bees around the comb. There is a thunk-whoosh sound that repeats itself, over and over.
It’s the surf at the beach they called Kalaloch; I hear the waves whispering to me, calling me to come forward, feel their coolness. I feel as if I’m being held under the water. I can’t breathe. Panicked, I try to fight my way to the surface, but it’s useless.
“Joy, wake up.”
“Wake up. Pleease.”
It’s my sister’s voice.
I’m out of the ocean now. For a blissful moment I’m ten years old again, and we’re at a KOA campground in Needles, California. Stacey wants to break the rules, go swimming at night in the pool by the registration building. She is tugging on my sleeve.
Then I’m back on Madrona Lane, close enough to touch my pregnant sister and yet unable to reach out. The wedding invitation is on the asphalt between us. Thomas James Candellaro and Stacey Elizabeth McAvoy request your presence . . .
“Wake up, Joy.”
Someone touches my arm, pushes me gently.
I open my eyes, disoriented at first by the shadowy darkness around me. I expected to be at home, staring up at my own ceiling, listening to the sound of old Mr. Lundgren’s lawn mower.
Bobby is beside my bed, looking down at me.
I push to my elbows, shove the tangled red hair from my eyes. “Bobby,” I say, trying to get past my dream. Everything is still watery, confusing. I can’t remember a sleep so deep.
“You wouldn’t wake up,” he says, his eyes full of worry.
“I was up late last night,” I say, as if he can understand the kind of sleepless night that comes with regret.
“I dreamed you went away.”
I close my eyes and sigh. How could I have blithely befriended him and not seen how all this would end?
I’ve wrapped myself in them, let pretty images from an impossible future be my safety net, my safe place to land. I’ve thought of my time here as an adventure. In truth, it was an escape. All along, the clock on my discovery has been ticking. I simply didn’t hear it before.
“Are you leaving?”
I want to lie to him; more than that, I want my lie to be the truth.
But I don’t belong in this wild place, no matter how much I want to. This is the truth I stumbled upon in the dark last night as I tried to sleep. Daniel has never even hinted that he feels something for me. All my “what ifs” were really “if onlys.”
I have been like Bobby, a child chasing a ghost on a dock at dawn.
I touch Bobby’s plump cheek. In no time at all, his skin will roughen and grow hair. He will be a young man, and I will be a memory of his childhood.
“I want you to stay,” he says, his voice unsteady.
Later, I will let myself feel the ache of those words. Now, I do not dare. “You have a daddy who loves you. And I have . . . a sister who tried to ask for my forgiveness. I need to go back to her. That’s what I’ve learned here—from you and your daddy.”
“But if you leave, I’ll miss you. Don’t you care about that?”
I can hardly answer; the tears are so full in my throat. “I do care about that, Bobby.”
He stares at me through damp, accusing eyes. “Will you stay for Christmas morning? We can open presents.”
“I don’t . . .”
How can I say no? Especially when I want it so badly? I’ll call Stacey and let her know I’m okay. Then I’ll end my adventure with Christmas morning in this place I’ve come to love. And then I sigh. “I’ll stay for Christmas morning, but then I’ll need to leave. Okay?”
“You promise you’ll stay?”
He barely smiles.
We both know it’s not good enough. It’s not what either of us wants.
But it’s all there is.
By the time I’ve taken my shower and had breakfast, it’s nearly ten.
I leave my room—or mean to—but as I step across the threshold, I stumble and fall into the doorway. Righting myself, I look back at this small, shabby space. Room 1A in a run-down fishing lodge with a ridiculous name.
And I know how much I will miss it. Whenever I close my eyes, I see this room as it could be, as I’ve imagined it: the log walls scrubbed to perfection and oiled to a glossy shine; the green carpet gone, in its stead the wide-plank pine boards that lie beneath; a pretty white wrought-iron bed, covered with handmade quilts and lavender-blue throw pillows—exactly the hue of the night sky just before the sun sets. Fresh flowers on the antique dresser. A bathroom redone in white tile and brass, with a clawfoot tub.
I close the door on the image and walk away. My footsteps are soundless on the olive green carpeting. In the kitchen, I find a tray filled with fruit and cheese slices on the counter, and an otherwise empty room. I don’t need to go upstairs (not that I would) to know that Daniel and Bobby are gone. I’ve come to know the moods of this place, the feel of it when people are here, and when they’re gone. There are no creaking floorboards overhead, no fluttering fall of dust from the ceiling as Bobby rides his skateboard in the halls upstairs. The Christmas tree lights are off and the registration desk is dark.