They’d all three stared at Clarissa when she told them about Sheila and the check, about Mel and the ring, about Alden proposing. They all three blurted out at once.
“What did you expect? Outrage?” Glenna asked her.
“You gave Alden the check? You didn’t keep the money?” Rachel was outraged.
“You’re engaged to Alden?” Magda asked.
“Where’s Amy?” Clarissa didn’t have time now. She didn’t know what she was going to say, but she knew she needed to talk to Amy.
“Upstairs,” Glenna told her. “She was tired.”
“I tucked her in,” Rachel said, looking quite pleased with herself.
“You’re engaged to Alden.” Magda said again.
“Isn’t that what you wanted, Mama?” Clarissa said, leaving the room without waiting for an answer. It struck her, walking up the stairs, that Magda hadn’t called for champagne.
Amy was in her room with the door open, lying crosswise on her bed, playing a game on the tablet she’d borrowed from her cousins. She looked like a big kid, propped up on her elbows, tapping on the screen. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hey.” Clarissa sat on the bed, plumping the pillows behind her head. “We need to talk.”
“It’s okay, Mom. Aunt Rachel explained it to me.”
“Yeah, she said one thing she knew for sure was that my dad loves me.”
Clarissa let out the breath she’d been holding, relieved to have been thinking at cross purposes.
“Aunt Rachel says some people are like that, they need to run off. She says you don’t need to be right there with someone to love them. Aunt Rachel says she was always running off, so she knows.”
“Hmmm.” Clarissa stretched out so she was lying across the bed next to Amy, who turned to look at her with a somber expression.
“Aunt Rachel says I’m lucky you’re my mom.”
Clarissa held Amy close, so close she wouldn’t see her crying, saying quick before her voice could break, “I’m the lucky one.”
Amy put the tablet on the floor and rolled over, so she was facing Clarissa. “Billy has stars on the ceiling of his bedroom. At night they shine like he’s sleeping outside, under the sky.”
“Are we going back to Alden’s house?”
“Would you like that?”
“I wish we could be back in our own house.”
“Do you think Alden would let me put stars on the ceiling of my room at his house?”
“Maybe. Come on, how about you help me make dinner?”
“What is for dinner?”
“Sheila boxed up some leftovers for us so it’s a hodge podge dinner.”
“Those are the best.” Amy scampered off her bed and was halfway down the stairs before Clarissa stood up. No way was she going to let her daughter be broken by those that would crush her wings for sport, in the name of decency.
They had a quiet dinner. It was just Magda, Amy, and Clarissa. Magda was surprisingly subdued. She’d been quieter, moody, since the incident with the letters. Jackson had called in a guy from his crew to replace the upstairs windows and Rachel had vacuumed the lawn again, with Billy’s help.
Rachel was at Jackson’s house now. Glenna had gone home. Tim had been called out on a search and rescue. Kayakers from away. Lost at sea. Alden called before they were finished eating, but Clarissa picked up.
“I was hoping you might come over?”
Clarissa smiled at her mother, made a face at Amy, and went outside. It wasn’t dark yet, but the days were getting shorter. She took a throw from the lounge chair and wrapped it around her shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t.”
“I wanted to explain. About the check. I wanted to make you understand.”
“It’s been a long day, Alden. I’m tired.”
“I need to see you, Clarissa. I need to make things right.”
“Amy needs me.”
She heard Alden sigh and then she heard voices.
“Tomorrow?” he asked and added in a lower voice that tomorrow they’d all be out for the day.
“Yeah,” she said. “Tomorrow’s good.
“You’ll come here? After breakfast?”
Clarissa imagined sitting in that dark living room, Emyline’s chair by the hearth, like she was still there. Like at any moment it was going to rock ever so slowly. Like the mute old woman with the sharp-shinned eyes was still there watching. No way. “About ten?”
“I take my- “
“I know. I’ll meet you at the beach.”
“Good night then.” He must have put his hand over the receiver because his voice was muffled, but he was clearly being called on. She wondered if Wilder would brooch the subject of Alden’s engagement, if Alden would bring up the check to his brother or if they both had played this scene before. With other girls in past seasons.
“Yeah. Goodnight.” Clarissa ended the call and went back to the table where Magda and Amy were taking turns making a story.
“Hey, Mom, remember the time you and Dad and me were sailing and the big fish came and jumped on the deck, and I was so scared?”
“And your momma threw that big fish right off the boat back into the water and warned it to watch out.”
“Yeah,” Amy said. “That is how it went, Granmagda.”
And for that one small moment, Clarissa basked in the power of her glory.
“Where’s Dad going?” Amy had changed into her jammies, brushed her teeth, and washed her face without any argument. She was tucked in, but not quite ready for sleep.
“He’s sailing his new boat down to the tip of Florida.”
“It’s a nice boat.” Amy fussed with her covers, getting them just right. “How long till he comes back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Aunt Rachel says you can’t spend your life being mad at people for not being who you want them to be.”
Clarissa kissed Amy’s cheek. “You need to get some sleep.”
“Mom?” Amy looked so small clutching at her teddy bear. “Are you ever scared?”
“Oh, Squirt.” Clarissa smoothed Amy’s hair and sighed. “Yes. Sometimes I get scared. But you know what?”
“Sometimes it’s just like you hear a big noise and the dog starts growling and you know for sure there’s somebody out there. Prowling. But” Clarissa smiled at Amy’s big eyes. “Then it turns out, it’s just a mouse in the dog food.”
“Everything I know about silly, I learned from you.”
“Will you stay? Until I fall asleep.”
“I will.” Clarissa sat at the edge of the bed, rubbing Amy’s back until her breathing had that regular rhythm sleep brings. And still she sat there a little longer, looking down at Amy’s sweet face, wondering at her daughter’s strong heart.
She thought about her mother moving into Grandmother Duncan’s house, into a world where she could never belong. All those long years, Magda knowing she wasn’t welcome, living with a man who couldn’t fight through the fog of his inhibitions, what maybe would be called standards and defended as such, to be able to love her.
And then there was Alden. Almost giddy, Glenna had said. And Rachel had laughed, looking up from painting her toenails a bright orangey-coral and said, “Yeah, but giddy how? With love, or lust, or relief.”
Clouds floated across the face of the moon, easy as you please. The world’s a big and scary place when you’re looking at it like you’re all alone. What must it be like for Alden now? There was such kindness in him, she knew from the way he was with Amy, but she was pretty sure his proposal wasn’t anything more than filling a vacancy. The queen is dead, he might say raising his glass to the world.
It’s all in your timing, Magda would say.
Clarissa kissed Amy once more, wanting to hold onto the feel of her soft warm cheek, the look of her lashes fluttering, chasing butterfly kisses in her dreams, and the sound of her breath puffing through those sweet lips. Clarissa knew there had to be a word for how she was feeling but she was damned if she knew what it was.
The house was dark, except for the moonlight casting bright in the shadows, but Clarissa saw well enough to go around checking all the doors were locked just like it was her own house. Taking her cell, with another message from Alden to please call him, and a glass of wine and a bottle of water, she went upstairs to get ready for bed. She sat up against a bank of pillows, wearing an old tee shirt of Michael’s, took a gulp of wine, and called Alden.
“Hey,” she said when he answered. “Sorry. It’s kind of late.”
“I was hoping you might change your mind.”
“Change my mind?”
“About coming over. Tonight.”
“Oh, Alden. I can’t do that. I’ll see you in the morning. At the beach.”
“Oh, Alden, I am.”
“Goodnight then. Until tomorrow.”
“Goodnight.” Clarissa put her phone face down on the bedside table, relieved she’d insisted on meeting at the beach. And not in the dark living room where Emyline’s chair might start rocking ever so slowly, where she knew she’d feel the mute old woman with the sharp-shinned eyes still there, still watching.
It was one of those nights though when she felt like she’d be up all night. Every hour, she woke up from another crowded dream, her mind racing through fictive endings. At 4:30, she gave up all pretense of sleep, got dressed, and, after stopping in to check on Amy, she went downstairs.
The coffeemaker was set to go so all she had to was push a button. While it brewed, she pulled open curtains and blinds. The sky was getting just light enough, a pale tableau waiting for the rising sun to set some colors. Clarissa poured herself a mug of coffee, went outside, and sat on the stoop looking toward Grandmother Duncan’s, that was now Jackson’s. Etched against the gray sky was the willow tree and its long low branch, a plank she’d walked many times. Arms outstretched, toes pointed, playing with balance, headed for a landing. There’d be no sunrise today. The weather was turning.
- : literary beach read