Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine (although two of them may bear uncanny physical resemblances to two others you might recognize).
Violence/Sex: Some (brief) violence. There is, ultimately, after YEARS of dedicated reading, consensual sex between two people who may bear uncanny resemblances to two… well… you get the point.
Warning: This story does involve a consensual loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. If this offends you, is illegal where you live, or if you are underage—please consider another story selection.
Dedication : To all of you who are brave enough (and persistent enough) to read this, my first work of fiction. Bear with me and forgive me for any significant grammatical or literary transgressions— Jericho and I are both works in progress.
Special Thanks : To my best pal, writing dominatrix (she looks really cute in that meter maid costume, but can never make change), and Beta-reader—the FAMOUS JLynn (who told me it didn't suck). So if you think it does , please tell her instead of me. You will find her works of fiction posted at this site, too.
If you decide that you like it, however, write me— I'd like to know what you think. I can be reached at email@example.com .
Copyright Ann McMan, November 2010. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment, provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
Jericho is complete, but will be posted in ten parts.
Jericho Part X (conclusion)
Maddie had finished her shift and was in the hospital parking lot, climbing into her Jeep when her cell phone rang. She fished it out of her bag and looked at the readout, but did not recognize the phone number.
“This is Stevenson.”
“Dr. Stevenson?” It was a woman's voice.
“My name is Elise Manning—I'm a friend of Ada Lawrence's…in Kannapolis.”
Ada Lawrence. Henry's grandmother . “Of course. Mrs. Manning. Hello.”
The woman sounded nervous. “I'm sorry to have to bother you.”
“No, please. It's not a bother.” She paused. “Is Henry all right?”
“Henry is fine. It's Ada—she's in the hospital.”
Maddie was alarmed. “What happened?”
“They aren't really sure. She collapsed at work last night. They think it might have been a stroke.”
“Is she conscious?”
“Yes. But she's in intensive care at the hospital in Concord. I've been keeping Henry.”
“How is he?”
“Well—that's really why I'm calling.” She paused. “He's very upset. Scared. He keeps asking for you. He gave me your card—I think he's been sleeping with it. I asked Ada about it today—she said it was okay to call you.”
“Of course it's okay to call me. Is he there? Can I talk with him?”
“Yes—he's right here. Hang on.” Maddie could hear the phone being passed to someone.
“Maddie?” Henry's small voice filled her ear. “Gramma's sick. I told them to call you. I told them you could fix her.”
“Hey, buddy. It's okay—calm down, now.”
“Will you come and fix her? I know you can.”
“Your gramma already has doctors there, buddy—I'm sure they're taking very good care of her.”
“But she needs you. I know you can fix her.” He hesitated. “She told me it was okay to call you.”
Maddie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Listen, buddy—I'll come down and see you tomorrow, okay? And if your gramma's doctors say it's okay, I'll visit her, too. How does that sound? Can you be a good boy for Mrs. Manning tonight? Be strong and help her?”
She could tell that Henry was nodding. “Yes. I'm scared, Maddie. I don't wanna be alone.”
She felt her throat constrict. “I know you're scared, Henry—but you don't have to worry. Mrs. Manning is there to help you—and I'll come see you tomorrow. I'm proud of you, Henry. I know you want to help your gramma. The best way for you to do that right now is to be good for Mrs. Manning. I promise I'll be there tomorrow, okay?”
“Can I talk with Mrs. Manning again?”
“Okay. Bye, Maddie.”
She heard him pass the phone over.
“Hello?” Mrs. Manning sounded calmer.
“Mrs. Manning—I told Henry that I would come down tomorrow to see him. Could you get me the name of Ada's attending physician in Concord? Obviously, I can't see her as her doctor—but I can inquire about her condition and stop in to see her while I'm there.”
Elise sounded relieved. “That would be wonderful, Dr. Stevenson. I can't thank you enough.”
“Don't thank me—I told them both to call me if they ever needed anything. I'm happy to help out—even in this small way.”
“I'll call you back this evening with the information—and with directions to my house.”
“That would be perfect. Mrs. Manning?”
“Thank you for taking care of Henry. I know he's in great hands.”
“He's a sweet boy. He's been through a lot. I'm glad he met you.”
Maddie smiled. “I am, too. Talk to you later on?”
“Sure thing. Thank you, doctor.” She hung up.
Maddie sat quietly in the driver's seat, with one foot inside her Jeep, and one foot resting on the running board. She sighed and held the cell phone against her forehead. Then she sat back and dialed another number. A man picked up on the fourth ring.
“Hey, Tommy. It's Maddie Stevenson.”
“Howdy, doc. You wanting to take advantage of this great weather and go out for a spin?”
She smiled. “Something like that. I need to hop down to Concord tomorrow—just for the day. Can you pull her up for me and have her gassed and ready to go by 10:00?”
“Thanks, Tommy. I hate to bug you with this on a Sunday.”
“No sweat, doc. I gotta be out here anyway. See you tomorrow.”
“Right.” Maddie hung up.
She sat for another moment before climbing fully into the Jeep and closing the door. They had dinner with Syd's parents at the farm tonight. She had no idea what they had planned for tomorrow—but she'd do her best to be back in Jericho by dinnertime. She sighed and started the Jeep. I sure hope she doesn't kill me.
Syd was incredulous when Maddie told her about the phone call from Elise Manning. She was in the kitchen, washing vegetables for a salad when Maddie got home. Her parents were due in another hour.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked, drying her hands on a cotton towel.
Maddie nodded. “I know it sounds insane—but I promised him, Syd. I promised him that I would come if he ever needed me.”
Syd looked at Maddie with a curious expression. “That's not what I'm talking about—of course you have to go. What I meant was are you sure you want to wait until tomorrow? ”
Maddie started at her stupidly for a moment, before stepping forward and pulling her into her arms. “How did I get so damn lucky?”
Syd hugged her back. “Beats me.” She lifted her head and kissed Maddie on her collarbone. “You're such an old softie—I love that about you.”
Maddie smiled. “I love everything about you.”
“Oh, really? Do you love me enough to take me with you tomorrow?”
Maddie held her at arm's length. “Are you serious? What about your parents?”
Syd shrugged. “What about them? Dad's dying to hit the river and go angling for his elusive bass—and mom's going to spend the better part of the day helping Michael cook.” She paused. “I think those two have formed some kind of Vulcan mind meld. It's actually pretty creepy.”
Maddie laughed. “It's a date then. I'd love to have you with me. You need to meet Henry, in any case—but just remember that I found him first. ”
“I never thought my biggest rival for your affections would end up being a five year-old boy.”
Maddie smiled sheepishly. Syd tugged her closer and kissed her on the chin. “Good thing you're such a tall drink of water, and that I've got a generous nature.”
Maddie ran her hands up and down Syd's back. “Generous? Now there's a hypothesis I'd like to test.” She began to kiss along the side of Syd's neck.
Syd stood there for a moment, enjoying the attention, before she reluctantly pushed herself away. “I said ‘generous,' not crazy . My mother will be here in less than an hour.” At her mention of an hour, Maddie took another step toward her. She quickly laid a palm against her blue-clad chest. “You need to go and get changed. We'll have lots of time later on to explore my generosity.”
Maddie sighed. “Promise?”
Syd chewed the inside of her cheek as she slowly looked up and down Maddie's long body. “Oh, yeah.”
George and Janet were completely captivated by Maddie's farm. George insisted that Maddie walk him around outside for a tour. He was especially enamored of the pond and the small creek that fed it, and expressed chagrin that he didn't have enough daylight left to explore more of it. Maddie was quick to suggest that he should come back out tomorrow and spend as much time as he wanted tromping around. They walked the perimeter behind the barn and outbuildings until they reached the point where the creek veered off and cut down through a pasture on its inevitable path toward the New River. Pete happily followed along behind them, as they made slow progress back toward the house.
“How many acres do you have here?” George asked, standing up and brushing off his hands. He had been sifting through some crushed rock near a fence post. He looked around in admiration—plainly in his element.
“About 80, I think. To tell the truth, I'm not really sure. I think dad bought a few more acres along the county road several years back, when the neighboring farm sold at auction.”
“That's just incredible. This is an amazing piece of property, Maddie. Who maintains all of these pastures?”
She smiled. “Well, that's the best part. I let my neighbors use the land for grazing—and they get the hay in exchange for keeping up the fences. It's a great deal for me—I get all the benefits of living on a functional farm with almost none of the work.”
He nodded. “It sounds like a great deal for them, too.”
She shrugged. “Dad always managed it this way—it was easy for me just to continue his arrangements. I do have responsibility for upkeep on the ten acres right around the house. But that's about it.”
“I love it here.”
Maddie smiled at him. “I'm glad. You need to spend more time here with us—with me ,” she corrected herself.
He looked over at her with a raised eyebrow. “Are you suggesting that my daughter hasn't quite taken up residence with you here yet?”
She sighed. “I guess I'm pretty transparent. Sorry. The truth is, Syd still needs a bit more time before she makes a formal transition like that—and I support her.”
He gave her a measured look. “You do?”
He regarded her silently for a moment. “With all due respect, doctor—you're more full of shit than this pasture.”
Maddie looked at him in surprise, before she lowered her head and chuckled. “I guess I am.”
George laughed at her. “Don't despair. She isn't going anyplace. She's enough like her mother that it's just going to have to be her idea. And trust me—she'll make you wait for it.” He laughed. “But in the end, you'll get what you want.”
Maddie looked at him with amusement. “That's pretty much what she said.”
“See? The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.”
“Lucky for me.”
“I dunno about that. Those two can jerk a knot in your tail faster than you can shake a stick. I don't walk with a limp for nothing.”
She smiled at him. “I feel your pain, George.”
“Not as much as you will —trust me.”
They continued meandering along the split rail fence that bordered the pasture. “I can't thank you enough for your understanding, George.”
He looked up at her. “About what?”
“Syd. Me.” She waved her hand. “Us. It's a lot to take in, I know.”
“It's not as hard as you might think. What father doesn't want his daughter to find happiness? And I've never seen her as happy as she is when she's with you. That goes a long way toward overcoming any concerns we might have had. We love her, Maddie. And we know that you do, too. That's all that matters to us.”
Maddie was humbled by his comments. “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me.” They walked on in silence for a moment. He looked over at her again. “There is one thing that does concern me, however—and I guess this is as good a time as any to bring it up.”
She felt a small surge of panic. “What is it?”
He sighed. “My son is simply too unfocused and too unreliable.” He met her level gaze. “That means it's going to be up to you to provide us with grandchildren.” He narrowed his eyes. “At the risk of offending you—neither of you is getting any younger. Syd says you're very creative. So…what ideas do you have about this proposition?”
Maddie was stunned. Then she shook her head and laughed. “Funny you should mention kids….”
They walked on toward the house in earnest conversation.
In the big farmhouse kitchen, Janet helped her daughter with final preparations for their meal. Syd was roasting an Italian flank steak that was stuffed with prosciutto and roasted red peppers. Her mother was helping her by spooning a big bowl of cheddar-mashed potatoes into a baking dish, and sliding them into the second oven on the massive range.
“This is some kind of kitchen,” her mother said with obvious admiration. “Did you say that Maddie doesn't cook much?”
Syd laughed. “Maddie doesn't cook at all . She insists that her father was the gourmet in the family—all of this was his.”
“It's certainly amazing.” She looked over at her daughter. “This whole place is amazing. You must love being here.” She paused. “You certainly seem to know your way around.”
Syd was tossing the salad. “I won't deny that being here has its perks—and yes, it is amazing.” She met her mother's eyes. “But you know that my reasons for wanting to be here have little to do with the accommodations.”
Her mother nodded. “I know. She's— unique , Margaret.” She shook her head. “Exceptional. She loves you.”
Syd couldn't suppress a smile. “I love her, too.”
“I believe you do.”
“Are you—are you okay with that? I mean, really okay?”
Janet nodded. “It surprises just me how okay with it I am. But seeing you as happy as you are, especially after all you've been through with Jeff—I couldn't be otherwise.”
“Well, in fact, you could be—but I'm beyond grateful and relieved that you aren't.”
Her mother smiled. “I am, too. And your father is pretty much beside himself—but I think you knew that already.”
“Yeah.” Syd shook her head in amazement. “At first, it was hard to tell which one of us had the bigger crush on her.”
“No kidding. And then your brother met her after Christmas, and it got even more complicated.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “I know. I thought I was going to have to turn a hose on him because his behavior was so obnoxious. What is it with the men in this family?”
“I wish I knew.” Her mother carried a stack of plates and silverware over to the big kitchen table. “Have you talked with Tom?”
“About you—and Maddie.”
Syd was startled. “No. I mean—I just thought that you….”
“Margaret, we aren't going to tell Tom—or anyone—about this. Who gets told—and on what timetable—needs to be your decision.”
“Oh, great . So that means we all get to endure his testosterone-induced, prancing around after Maddie yet again tomorrow?”
“I think you possess a means for short-circuiting that behavior—if you choose to exercise it.”
She sighed. “You're right. I'll talk with him.”
Syd walked over to join her mother at the table and placed the salad bowl on a ceramic trivet. “About tomorrow—are you really okay with me going along to Concord with Maddie?”
“Of course. It sounds important. And I know you're dying to meet the young man who's made such a strong impression on her.”
Syd smiled. “I am. She tries to deny that she likes kids—but she has such a sweet way with them. I've seen her with her younger patients, and it's pretty amazing. They just seem to glom onto her.” She laughed. “Kind of like everyone else.”
“Children are pretty shrewd judges of character.”
“They are, aren't they?” She snorted. “And goes a long way toward explaining Tom's fascination with her, too.”
“Okay, okay.” The oven timer dinged. “Looks like we're ready to eat. Let's round up the other suspects.”
Her mother walked back over toward the stove. “Good luck convincing your father that he needs to eat his meal inside , and not out on the back forty.”
“I think I can manage.” Syd walked toward the back door just as Maddie and her father appeared outside on the porch. She pulled the door open and addressed them both.
“Great timing. Dinner's ready. Let's see those hands.”
Her father gamely displayed his soiled hands, palms up—before kissing her on the forehead and pushing past her to head for the prep sink. Maddie followed close behind. Syd held up a hand to stop her.
“Okay, you—get ‘em up.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “You think I got dirty?”
“Were you out there with my father? Of course you got dirty.”
Maddie sighed. She held up her hands. The ends of her fingers were gray with dust.
“Uh huh. Thought so.” Syd grabbed her by the lapels and tugged her further into the room. “Hose ‘em off, Stretch.”
“Oh, you're so tough .” Maddie leaned forward and kissed her softly. Then, realizing what she had done, she looked quickly over Syd's shoulder with wide eyes. Syd turned around and followed her gaze—seeing her parents staring back at them with amused expressions. She turned back to face Maddie, who now was a bright shade of red. “Well, that's one less thing we have to worry about. Think you can slip up again tomorrow night in front of Tom?”
Behind her, George's laughter mingled with the sound of running water.
Maddie and Syd landed at the Concord Regional Airport a little after 11:00 a.m. Maddie had arranged for the use of an airport courtesy car, and they drove the short distance to NorthEast Medical Center, where Ada Lawrence was a patient in the coronary care unit. Elise Manning was meeting them there with Henry at 11:30.
Maddie heard Henry before she saw him, when they stepped off the elevator on the second floor. He was sitting on a sofa near the nurse's station, watching the elevator doors, waiting for their arrival. He jumped up when he saw her.
“Maddie!” He called out as he ran toward her. “You came!”
She dropped down on one knee and reached out to hug him as he hurled himself at her. “Hello, buddy. Of course I came—I said I would.” She held him for a minute, noticing how small and warm his body was before releasing him. He wore the same denim jacket. She tousled his dark hair as he stepped back and looked up at Syd with a curious expression.
“Is this your girlfriend?” he asked Maddie.
Maddie bit the inside of her cheek as her gaze shifted back and forth between Syd, the interested technician watching them from behind the nurse's station, and the advancing, heavy-set woman who obviously was Elise Manning. “Yes, Henry. This is Syd.” She stood up. “Syd, this is my friend, Henry Lawrence.”
Smiling, Syd bent over and extended her hand. “Hello, Henry. I'm so happy to meet you. Maddie has told me a lot about you.”
He stared up at her as he shook her hand. “Hi. You're pretty, too. But you're not as tall as Maddie.”
Syd laughed. “No, I'm not. But not many people are.” She bent over toward him and whispered, “I kinda like being shorter—it's easier to play with Pete.”
His eyes grew round. “Did you bring him?”
“No—we couldn't bring him on this trip. We came on Maddie's airplane.”
He looked up at Maddie with wide eyes. “You have an airplane? Is it like the one we rode on from California?”
“No, buddy. It's a very small airplane. Maybe I can show it to you later on, if it's okay with Mrs. Manning.”
Elise had joined them, and stood quietly watching their interaction. Maddie faced her. “Mrs. Manning? I'm Maddie Stevenson.” She smiled wryly. “And this is my very good friend, Syd Murphy.”
They shook hands. Elise was a short woman with curly brown hair. She appeared to be in her late-thirties. She wore round, metal-framed glasses, and carried a large quilted bag that appeared to contain nightgowns, a bathrobe, and magazines. “Hello Dr. Stevenson. It's so kind of you to come down today.” She nodded to Syd. “I'm Elise—it's good to meet you, too.”
Syd smiled at her. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“I do, too.” She looked back at Maddie. “I haven't seen Ada yet today—I was hoping we'd hear from her doctor while we're here. No one has updated me on her condition yet.”
Maddie nodded. “I spoke with the head of the unit last night—he told me that Dr. Patel would be making rounds midday today, so hopefully, we can speak with him. We're in luck. I actually have a slight connection to him—he studied at UVA with a good friend of my father's.”
“Really?” Elise was amazed. “That's a small world.”
Maddie smiled. “Medicine is really like a big game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon . If you look hard enough, we're all connected in one way or another.”
Henry tugged on Maddie's sleeve. “What's kevin bacon?”
Maddie looked over at Syd. “Do you wanna take that one, shortie? I'm gonna go talk with the charge nurse.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Come on, Henry. I brought some photos of Pete to show you. We can sit down over here while Maddie checks on your grandma.”
“Okay.” He reached up and took hold of Syd's hand without hesitation. They walked over toward the waiting room, while Elise excused herself to call her husband. Maddie approached the nurse's station.
A harried looking nurse carrying an armload of patient folders appeared from behind a large center kiosk. She noticed Maddie standing there and looked up at her over the rim of her glasses.
“May I help you?”
Maddie gave her one of her biggest and warmest smiles. “I hope so. I'm Dr. Stevenson, and I spoke last night with Dr. Grainger about your patient, Ada Lawrence. I'm here to visit with her, and, hopefully, to get a few minutes to confer with her attending, Rashid Patel. Can you tell me if Dr. Patel is making his rounds yet?”
The nurse nodded as she dropped her stack of folders on top of a desk and turned to address a tall, white-haired man in bright green scrubs. “Larry, have you seen Dr. Patel yet this morning?” Larry shook his head. “No—but I've been down at the pharmacy all morning, so I might have missed him. I'd ask Lisa—he usually checks in with her.”
“I'm sorry Dr. Stevenson. Let me try to locate Dr. Patel for you. In the meantime, I'll get Lisa Atkins—she's been taking care of Mrs. Lawrence this morning and she can update you on her condition.”
Maddie nodded gratefully, and glanced down at the nurse's nametag. “Thank you, Wendy. I really appreciate your help.”
Wendy smiled. “It's no problem.” She pressed an intercom button. “Lisa, can you come by the front desk when you get a second?” A crackly voice responded. “Sure. Be right there.”
“Are you a doctor like Maddie?” Henry asked Syd, once they were seated side by side on a mauve- and teal-colored sofa in the waiting room. It was covered with a vivid and random pattern of indiscernible shapes. Syd wondered absently why the upholstery on hospital furniture always looked like it was about ready to leap from its frame and suffocate you.
She shifted her full attention to Henry. “No, sweetheart. I work in a library. Have you ever been to a library?”
He nodded, and reached into a small Transformers backpack to pull out two, shopworn hardback books. “Mrs. Manning took me to the library with Jason, and I got these books about Harry.” Syd took the copies of the Gene Zion classics from him and smiled when she noticed the Cabarrus County Public Library stamp on the covers.
“I read these books when I was little, too.”
“You did? ” Henry was incredulous. “Harry must be really old.”
Syd laughed. “Well, he's a very special dog.” She held up one of the books. “I especially liked this story about the awful sweater.”
“Me, too.” He looked at her. “Does Pete have a sweater?”
“No. Pete has very thick, yellow hair—so he doesn't need a sweater.”
“Does he get hot in the summertime?”
“Sometimes. But he has a big pond to swim in, and that keeps him cooled off when the days are too hot.”
“I like to swim. My daddy taught me how in the big Army swimming pool.”
“I know you miss your daddy. I bet he's really proud of how well you're trying to help your grandma.”
Henry nodded. “I talked to him last night. He told me to be good and to do whatever gramma says. I told him about Maddie. He said that gramma told him she was coming to visit and to see me. He sounded happy about that.”
“I'm glad. Maddie likes you a lot, Henry.”
Syd smiled at the simple truth of his acknowledgement. “Do you want to see my pictures of Pete?”
He nodded vigorously and scooted closer to her on the sofa. Syd reached into her bag and withdrew an envelope full of pictures she had collected that morning. There were snapshots of Pete, lounging on the front porch of the farmhouse, swimming in the pond, and catching tennis balls. She also had a photo of Maddie, posing with Pete, next to her blue and yellow airplane. Henry was fascinated with the photo, and looked at it over and over.
“Would you like to keep that picture, Henry?” she asked him.
His blue eyes grew round. “Can I?”
“I'm sure it would be fine. I think Maddie would like for you to have it.”
“Thanks.” He tucked the photo inside his backpack. “Do you live on the farm with Maddie?”
Syd was uncertain about how to answer him. “Sort of. I'm staying there with her for a while.”
“Do you like it?”
She smiled. “Very much. It's a wonderful place to live.”
“Maddie said I could come and visit if it was okay with gramma.”
“I'm sure she'd like that. We both would.”
“You're really nice. I'm glad you're Maddie's girlfriend.”
Syd wanted to hug him. “I am, too. She's very special.”
“Well, sort of. But unlike Harry, Maddie doesn't like to dig in the dirt.”
He giggled. “I do.”
“That's because you're a little boy—and that's what little boys do.”
“I could dig in the dirt with Pete.”
“You could—Pete likes to hide his tennis balls.”
Henry looked confused. “Why?”
“I'm not sure.” She leaned closer and whispered. “Maybe you can ask him.”
“Okay,” he said.
Maddie was still in conversation with Lisa Atkins when the elevator doors opened, and a man wearing blue scrubs and a short white jacket stepped off and approached her. He walked over to where they stood.
“Are you Dr. Stevenson?” When she nodded, he extended his hand. “I'm Rashid Patel—Mrs. Lawrence's doctor.” They shook hands. “I understand you know Arthur Leavitt? He was my adviser at UVA.” He smiled. “How is he? I haven't seen him in years.”
Maddie smiled back at him. “He was well enough when I saw him at the end of March. Feisty as ever.”
“That sounds like him. Is he still running the ER there?”
“Yep. As tight a ship as ever.”
Patel shook his head. “Some things never change. Has Lisa been bringing you up to speed on Mrs. Lawrence?”
“She has.” Maddie turned to face the duty nurse. “And I thank you for you time, Lisa. You've been very helpful.”
“No problem, doctor. Now that Dr. Patel is here, I'll let him finish briefing you.” She handed Ada's chart to Patel, before nodding to them both and turning to head back toward the acute care wing.
Patel touched Maddie on the elbow. “Let's get out of this hallway so we can talk more privately.” They walked a few feet and entered a small staff break room, where they sat down at a table topped with chipped Formica. “Would you like some coffee?” He gestured toward a pot that looked like it had seen better days.
“No, thank you for offering.” Maddie sat back and folded her arms. “I appreciate your willingness to discuss Mrs. Lawrence's condition with me—I am certain this probably seems a tad irregular.”
“Not at all. I'm actually relieved to know that she has someone knowledgeable interested in her recovery. She told me about your friendship with her grandson—I know she's very worried about how to manage his care during her convalescence.”
“Lisa indicated that she might be facing some inpatient rehab. Can you elaborate on that?”
“Of course.” He opened her folder. “As near as we can tell, she suffered an ischemic stroke from thrombosis related to atherosclerosis.”
Maddie nodded. “Any hemiparesis or aphasia?”
“Mild hemiparesis on the right side with compromised balance and loss of some motor control. Slight aphasia. She tires easily. She'll need a better dietary regimen to keep her diabetes in check and to lower her cholesterol. She won't be returning to work any time soon—if at all. I am recommending inpatient rehab—probably three to six weeks—followed by in-home care.”
“Do you know if she has adequate insurance?”
He nodded. “Fortunately, she worked for one of the few textile mills in the county that actually provided health care coverage to its full-time employees. And she has some supplemental income from her late husband's social security pension.”
“Have you talked with her son?”
“Yes. The Military One Source field officer was very helpful getting us in touch with Corporal Lawrence. He understands the situation and realizes that we may have to look into a foster care arrangement for Henry. There are no other living relatives, and the neighbor, Mrs. Manning, is unable to care for him full time. His tour of duty in Afghanistan is likely to last another 12–14 months. The Army has a Child Development Center office in Salisbury, and they're sending a case worker over to assess the situation and make a recommendation for Henry's care.”
Maddie sighed. “Does Henry know any of this?”
“No. Mrs. Lawrence wanted to talk with you before telling him anything.”
“Me?” Maddie was surprised. “Why?”
Patel shrugged. “I honestly can't say. Would you like to go and see her now? I was just about to start my rounds.”
“Yes, that would be great. I can't thank you enough, Dr. Patel, for your consideration—and for the interest you've obviously taken in the Lawrence family.”
“No need to thank me. I was an Army brat myself, and I know what it's like to get shuffled around in the system. I always do whatever I can to help out another service family.” He stood up. “Come on—let's go and talk with her. I know she'll be glad to see you.”
Maddie stopped and stole an anxious glance down the hallway toward the waiting room before they made their way back toward the acute care area. She could see Henry huddled close to Syd on the end of a couch. It looked like they were reading a book. Elise Manning was nowhere in sight, but Maddie could see her large quilted bag on the floor at Henry's feet. Syd looked up as Maddie stood watching them, and their eyes met. Maddie raised an eyebrow in question, and Syd smiled at her, before returning her attention to Henry and the book.
Ada Lawrence recognized Maddie at once. She was wan and tired, and her speech was slightly impaired, but there was no mistaking her surge of adrenalin when she saw the tall doctor enter her room.
“Thank you for coming. I hope it was okay to ask Elise to call you—I didn't know what else to do. She can't keep him. She has four kids of her own.” The words were tumbling out of her.
Maddie walked over to the side of the bed and rested her hand atop Ada's forearm. “I'm glad you thought to have her call me. I want to help out in any way I can.”
Dr. Patel checked the stats from the chart at the end of her bed. “How was your night, Ada? Did you rest any better?”
Ada shook her head. “Not really. It's so noisy here. I wanted to get up, but they told me I wasn't ready for that yet.”
He made a notation on her chart before hanging it back on the hook at the end of her bed. “Well, they're right. We want to get you a little bit stronger before you go trying to stand up.” He walked forward and picked up her right hand. “Can you squeeze my fingers, Ada?”
Maddie saw the effort it took for Ada to move her fingers ever so slightly.
“That's just fine.” He walked back to the end of her bed, and lifted up the blanket covering her legs. “How about your foot. Can you push your foot against my hand?”
Her foot barely moved.
“One more time, Ada. Push your foot against my hand.”
There was a very slight movement. Patel replaced the blanket and patted her leg. “Good job. I'm going to go and see a couple of other patients now, Ada—but I'll be back in to talk with you before I leave today. You have a nice visit with Dr. Stevenson, now.”
He smiled at them both and left the room. Maddie pulled a chair over and sat down next to the side of the bed.
“Dr. Patel tells me that you might be looking at some inpatient rehabilitation services. That's a good thing—it will expedite your recovery.”
She met Maddie's open gaze with anxious eyes. “I know—but I don't have anyone to take care of Henry. The Army will put him in foster care—and I just can't do that to him. He's already been through so much. I think I just need to try and manage at home—see if they can't get us some in-home childcare help. He's such a good boy—he isn't any trouble.”
“Ada, you need to listen to Dr. Patel. He's got your best interests at heart—yours and Henry's. It's going to be better for both of you if you can recover quickly. And your best shot at doing that is going to be achieved by getting yourself into a concentrated, inpatient rehab program.”
“But what about Henry? Where will he go?”
“What did your son say?”
She waved her left hand in frustration. “He said he would go along with whatever I decided. He said I'd just have to figure it out—the Army won't let him come home. He said that's why I'm Henry's legal guardian.”
Maddie felt her heart sink. “I'm sorry. I know this is very difficult for you. And you need to be putting all of your energy into getting stronger. Being anxious about Henry isn't going to help your recovery.”
“So what do I do?”
Maddie shook her head. “I wish I knew, Mrs. Lawrence. I guess you need to give the Army a chance to figure something out—see what they recommend.”
They were both silent for a moment. “You could take him.” Ada's voice was so low that Maddie was sure she had misunderstood her.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said that you could take him. He knows you. He's done nothing but talk nonstop about you ever since he got here from California.”
Maddie felt a sense of panic wash over her. “Mrs. Lawrence—you can't be serious.”
“Why not? You like him, don't you?”
“Of course I do—but….”
“And you have a big house, and someone who could help you?”
“Well, that's true, but I'm hardly—I don't—I've never ….” Maddie was completely flustered. The truth was, she had no good arguments for not considering it—not really. But how on earth could she even think about such a step without consulting Syd? She shook her head. I must be crazy. She met Ada's desperate gaze. Syd's gonna think I've completely lost it. She shook her head again. I am crazy .
“Mrs. Lawrence—you don't even know me. Not really. How can you suggest this? What makes you think Henry's father would go along with it? I— we —are complete strangers to him.”
“I know enough. I know that you love Henry—I could see that when I met you at the airport. I know that you're smart and successful—that you have a great job and a wonderful home. I know that you could afford to take good care of him, and that you'd want to—and wanting to matters more to me than any of the rest.”
“Mrs. Lawrence—I don't live alone. I have a—I'm in a committed relationship with— someone .”
“I know—it's with another woman. Henry told me. I don't care about that, Doctor. I do care about my grandson. Please,” she plainly was getting tired. Her speech was getting thicker and harder to decipher. “Please say you'll think about it. The Army said it was up to me to decide what to do. It's only for a month or so. I'd like to have him with someone who cares about him. I'd like to have him with you.”
Maddie was stunned. She felt like something was spiraling out of control, and she didn't know how to rein it in. She needed to talk with Syd. She needed to have her head examined.
“All right. I'll think about it. Let me talk with—let me talk with—my partner, and I'll let you know something tomorrow. Okay?” She reached out a hand and patted her on the arm. “You get some rest now. I'll go and check on Henry.”
Ada nodded and closed her eyes. “Thank you.”
Maddie stood up and left the room, stopping to stand for a moment with her head pressed against the wall outside her door. Her pulse was racing. God. I need a drink. Too bad I gotta fly us home . Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and headed for the waiting room.
Lunch with Henry was an eye-opening experience for Syd. Maddie and Henry functioned like two halves of a whole, and Syd was amazed at how much alike they were—right down to their quirky eating habits. She quickly found herself playing proctor to both of them—having to take up the unfamiliar mantle of adult supervision. It amazed her that Henry was actually easier to manage than Maddie—he, at least, seemed to respect her authority. Maddie was hopeless. She laughed and giggled and teased and was every bit as intractable as the worst behaved child in a Vacation Bible School class. Syd was amazed. She always knew that Maddie had a playful and irreverent streak—but she'd never seen her quite as relaxed and spontaneous as she was with Henry. Only with David did she ever come close to this level of playfulness. Instead of feeling jealous, Syd was charmed by Henry's effect on the normally reserved doctor. She found their sweetly inspired antics mesmerizing—and it was hard for her to maintain her feigned posture of parental disapproval.
Maddie was not unaware of this, as she periodically caught Syd's eye and winked at her lovingly—saying more with a single glance than she could have said if they had been able to converse freely.
After lunch, they took Henry by the Concord airport to see Maddie's plane. He was completely in awe of it. Syd watched the concentration on his tiny features as Maddie explained its operation to him, and she was reminded of the photos she had seen of Maddie at nearly the same age—equally entranced as her father introduced her to his love of flying.
At 3:00, they dropped Henry off at Elise Manning's house in Kannapolis, promising to call him the next day. He hugged them both warmly before he ran off to meet up with Elise's son Jason, and another boy, who were playing Frisbee in the small front yard of the Manning's mill house. By 3:45, they were back in the air, en route to Jefferson. They were meeting Syd's family for dinner that night at the inn, and Maddie had no idea when or how she was going to broach the subject of possibly fostering Henry for the month Ada would be in rehab.
Fortunately, she didn't have to wait very long to devise a strategy. Syd brought it up when they were less than ten minutes into the flight home.
“You want to keep him, don't you?”
Maddie looked over at her with a stunned expression. “What makes you say that?”
Syd laughed at her. “Oh come on, baby. I'd have to be an idiot not to see how you look at him. I've only ever seen that expression on your face when you look at me —and that's not something I'm very likely to miss.”
Maddie was speechless. “I don't know what to say.”
Syd laid a calming hand on her thigh. “Relax, sweetheart. It's not a contest. I'm not jealous.”
“Good. You shouldn't be.” Maddie covered her hand with hers. “I've never loved anyone as much as I love you.”
“I know that. But I also know how much room you have in that big heart of yours. And I think that young Mr. Lawrence is on his way to staking out a hefty-sized piece of real estate in there.”
Maddie's voice was noncommittal. “Maybe.”
Maddie met her gaze. “So?”
“So—did Ada ask you to keep him while she's in rehab?”
Maddie looked at her in amazement. “Do you have some secret powers of omniscience or prognostication that you've carefully kept hidden from me?”
Syd smiled back at her. “What makes you think I wasn't just lurking outside her hospital room door eavesdropping?”
“That was going to be my next guess.”
Syd squeezed her thigh. “I'm so sure.”
“Come on—how did you know?”
“Well, as much as I'd like to take credit for possessing psychic powers, I guess I have to confess that Elise told me she was going to ask you about it.”
Maddie was incredulous. “She did?”
“You mean, you knew about this all afternoon?”
“And still you acted completely calm and seemed to have a good time with him?”
“It would appear so.”
“I think I'm having an out-of-body experience right now.”
“Well, try and retain the use of your faculties until this thing is safely on the ground, okay? You can take all the time you need to freak out once we're back in Jericho.”
“I love you.”
Syd leaned over and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “It's a good thing you do, Stretch. You'd be S.O.L. otherwise.”
Maddie was thoughtful for a minute. “Not that I'm disagreeing with you or anything—but why, exactly, would I be shit outta luck if I didn't love you? I mean—I'm asking just for discussion purposes.”
Syd sighed. “Because without me on hand to cook for him, Henry would last less than a week on your pathetic diet of Ramen noodles and pimento cheese.”
Maddie thought about that. “So, does that mean we're considering Ada's request?”
“Were you in any doubt that we would consider it?”
“I guess not.”
“I have only one request.”
“Whatever you do, don't ask my father for his opinion.”
Maddie laughed. “Understood.” After a pause she added, “But you do have to admit that this a damn sight easier than in vitro fertilization.”
Syd snorted. “And I thought that getting a spare house key was a big step. She eyed her partner critically. “Is there anything you do with baby steps?”
Maddie looked at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Bad choice of words. Forget I said that.”
Maddie squeezed her hand. “I don't think I'll ever forget this conversation.”
“Me either.” They were quiet for a moment. “We must be nuts.”
“That's exactly what I was thinking.”
They fell quiet again—and then Syd laughed.
“What is it?”
“I was just thinking about poor Tom. Somehow, I think this announcement might trump an accidental kiss.”
“Aw, shucks. You mean I don't get to lay one on you in front of him? I was really looking forward to that.”
“Honey, I think you've laid enough on me for one day—don't you?”
“I suppose so.”
“But you know,” Syd's hand traveled suggestively up and down Maddie's thigh. “Maybe later, I can lay something on you .”
Maddie regarded her with a sober expression. “You do realize that this is an open mike, right?”
Syd colored up to the roots of her hair. “ Please tell me that you're kidding?”
Maddie just chuckled and refused to answer. Syd's entreaties ended only with the flight.
Maddie and Syd arrived at the Inn just after 6:30. Syd noticed Tom's car in the parking lot, and was surprised when she saw Lizzy's Subaru. She hadn't seen Lizzy since the horrible events with Beau earlier in the week. She looked over at Maddie as they pulled into a space next to Tom's SUV.
“Did you know that Lizzy would be here?”
Maddie shook her head as she unclipped her seatbelt. “No. I suppose it could be a coincidence—but, knowing David, I doubt it.”
Syd smiled. “Well, I hope he did invite her—I think she certainly qualifies as extended family, now.”
“I do, too.” They got out and began the short walk to the wide front porch of the Inn. “She hasn't mentioned anything to me about the dynamics she observed between us that night. I respect her reticence—but I'm sure she's beyond curious about everything.”
Syd laughed. “Well, she needs to get in line.” She poked Maddie on the arm. “We should charge admission.”
“Yeah. Normally, I'd be enjoying this 15 minutes of fame.”
“You mean you aren't now?”
“Not so much.”
They started up the steps to the porch. Syd looked up at her in the ambient light. She appeared completely distracted. “Why not?”
Maddie shrugged. “I'm too preoccupied with everything we'll have to do to kid-proof the house.”
Syd laughed and tugged her over to a dark corner, away from the light that was pouring out of the big front doors. “Honey—he's five, not two. He isn't going to be playing with knives, or putting his hands on the top of the stove. He already knows how to swim, and I'm fairly certain that he knows how to navigate a flight of stairs.” She gave her an ironic smile. “And I doubt that he'll have much interest in taking apart your mother's piano.” She pulled her closer. “ Relax. We can figure all of this out.”
Maddie looked dubious. “You sure?”
Maddie sighed, then leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “We have to be crazy. Why aren't we starting smaller —like with another dog, or something?”
Syd leaned into her for a moment. “I don't want to scare you—but I really do believe that things happen for a reason.”
“I know, I know. You're the hardboiled scientist, here. But admit it—cause precedes effect. We each make the choices we make for a reason. ” She smiled up at her. “You chose to let Henry be seated next to you on that long flight—you could just as easily have said no.”
“But I didn't.”
“No. You didn't.”
Maddie sighed. “You could have said no to fostering him, too.”
“I could have.”
“But you didn't.”
“I guess you're right, then.”
Syd smiled at her. “And David says you aren't trainable.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. She took Syd by the arm and steered her back toward the entrance to the Inn. “Let's go, Lucy—you got some ‘splaining to do.”
Inside, they heard voices and laughter emanating from the bar. Tom was the first one to spot them as they entered. He had been standing next to Lizzy near the back of the room, but he excused himself and walked forward as soon as he saw them. He warmly embraced his sister.
“Hey there, shortstop. Clearly, some people will go to any lengths to get a few days off.” He stood back and looked her over. The bruise on her face had completely faded. He kept an arm around her shoulders as he leaned forward and kissed Maddie on the cheek.
“Hi ya, Doc. Thanks for keeping this one off the streets—and for giving me such a convenient excuse to see more of you.”
“It's good to see you again, too, Tom.” Maddie smiled at him. “And don't give me too much credit—I'm getting the better end of this deal.”
Tom looked smugly at Syd, clearly pleased with this response.
Syd decided that there was no need to forestall the inevitable. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news, Tom—but I think you've got your wires crossed on this one.”
He looked back and forth between the two of them. “Why? Am I missing something here?”
Syd reached out and took hold of Maddie's hand. “Don't think of it so much as missing something—think of it more as gaining something. In this case, think of it as gaining a sister-in-law.”
Tom looked at her in confusion. “What is that supposed to mean?”
Syd stepped closer to Maddie and raised their linked hands. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “We're gay, Tom.”
Tom stood there slack-jawed. “You're—you mean…” he waved his hand back and forth between the two of them. “You two? No way . I don't believe it.”
Syd nodded patiently. “Believe it. Mom and dad know—you can ask them.”
Tom stood there staring at her in stunned silence. “You're gay? When the hell did this happen?”
“It would take a philosopher to answer that question—but we're together now, and I've never been happier.”
Syd smiled at him. “My sentiments, exactly.”
He looked at Maddie. “ You're gay?”
Maddie nodded. “It would appear so.”
He shook his head. “I need a drink.”
Maddie placed a calming hand on his shoulder. “Fortunately, we're in the right place for that. Come on—I'll buy.”
He looked at her in amazement. “Thanks… sis .”
She laughed and led him back toward the bar.
Syd stood there watching the two of them depart. Then she made her way over toward the big front window, where Lizzy stood with a glass of wine.
Lizzy and Syd embraced. Syd stood back and held her at arm's length. “I'm glad to see you here.”
Lizzy inclined her head toward David, who was busy behind the bar. “I didn't have much choice—he can be pretty compelling.”
Syd laughed. “Don't I know it? Have you met my parents yet?”
“No.” Lizzy gestured toward Maddie and Tom. “But I have met your brother.”
Syd laid a hand on her forearm. “I apologize in advance for Tom.”
Lizzy looked confused. “Whatever for?”
Syd smiled. “Just consider it a preemptive measure.”
Lizzy looked over toward the bar. Maddie and Tom stood laughing and talking with David. “I can't imagine why you'd feel the need to apologize. He seems perfectly charming.”
Syd looked at her in amazement. “Are you sure you've completely recovered from our recent ordeal? Do you have some lingering fever? Paranoid delusions? Night terrors? Anything that would cloud your normally perfect judgment in this disturbing way?”
Lizzy just laughed at her. “I can see that you and your brother share the same level of devotion and attachment that my sister and I enjoy.”
“Families,” Syd quoted. “Can't live with ‘em—”
“Can't live without ‘em,” Lizzy finished.
They smiled at each other.
“How are you, really?” Syd asked.
Lizzy considered her question. “I'm okay. I went back home the next night. I felt I needed to. I didn't want to give Beau that kind of power over me, you know?”
Syd nodded. “I understand perfectly.”
“How about you? Will the library reopen? Will you be able to return to your apartment any time soon?”
“The state feels confident that we could reopen the library as soon as the restoration work is completed—but that might take as long as a month. The county, however, is less optimistic. A lot of the decision about whether or not to reopen will be driven by how expensive it is to repair the building itself. The state only insured the contents of the facility—not the physical structure. At best, I think we might be looking at some reductions in the level of service.”
“And at worst?”
“It might not reopen at all.”
Lizzy's face fell. “Oh, no. That would be a horrible thing for the county.” She hesitated. “And for you.” Syd noticed her eyes cut quickly over toward Maddie. “What would you do?”
Syd shrugged. “I don't know. I'd have a lot to figure out.”
Lizzy nodded. “You would.”
“Well, let's not embrace doomsday scenarios until we have to. For tonight, we have a lot to celebrate.” She smiled. “Maddie and I have some interesting news to share—and it's guaranteed to set tongues wagging from one end of this county to the other.”
“Really?” Lizzy looked like she was trying hard not to smile.
“Really,” Syd replied. “And it's not what you think.” She paused. “Well…it's not only what you think.” She sighed and shook her head. “Okay…it's exactly what you think—but with a surprising twist.”
“Okaaaayy. So how long do we have to wait to find out?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Syd saw her mother and father enter the room from the hallway. Michael and Phoebe Jenkins were just behind them. “Not long. It looks like the gang's all here.”
Across the room, David sidled up next to Maddie. Tom had drifted off with a freshly filled mug of beer—plainly headed toward Lizzy. Maddie watched him as he walked away.
“I see that you've dashed the hopes of yet another wannabe suitor.” David observed.
Maddie sighed. “Do you ever get tired of spinning all these yarns?”
“Nope. Just call me Clotho. Besides,” he nudged her as they watched Tom join Syd and Lizzy. “I think his broken heart might mend—and soon.”
Maddie looked over at him. “Meaning?”
“Duh. Is there something wrong with your eyesight, Cinderella? Methinks the hot and hunky Mr. Murphy might just want to play a game of tell-me-where-it-hurts with your lovely Miss Clara Barton over there.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Oh, give me a break.”
“Fine. Don't say I didn't call it first.”
Against her will, Maddie looked over at Tom and Lizzy. They were laughing and standing together in postures that suggested openness—and interest. Holy shit, she thought. Could he be right? She thought she saw Lizzy pass something that looked like a business card to Tom. Then she heard David chuckling beside her.
“Oh, shut up,” She said. “Get me a glass of something.”
He raised his hands. “I hear and obey.”
She scoffed. “That would be a first.”
David retreated behind the bar and poured her a generous glass of red wine. “Why do you persist in abusing me?” He shook his head. “I think it must be tied to the appalling dearth of male pheromones in your life.”
Maddie took a healthy sip of her wine. “Oh, really?”
“Yes. I've spent some time exploring this idea. You lash out at men—me, in particular—because you have next to no experience with how to relate to us.”
Maddie's rolled her eyes. “Don't think the fact that I'm not flinging this drink into your face signifies any kind of agreement with your ridiculous hypothesis. I just happen to be very thirsty.”
“On the contrary. I think you know I'm right.”
“ You're right?”
“I suffer because I have no experience in how to deal with men?”
“No…I believe what I said is that I suffer because you have no experience in how to deal with men.”
She set her wine glass down on top of the bar and crossed her arms. “So, illuminate me. Besides knowing that I need to look before I sit down on a toilet seat, what sage and searing insights into the male experience am I missing?”
“I refuse to dignify your lack of sincerity with a thoughtful response.”
“Uh huh. Well. Hold that thought, because the universe may have provided a means to address what, by your account, are my shortcomings.”
David raised an eyebrow. “Does it involve elective surgery?”
Maddie sighed. “No.”
“Flannel shirts or bowling shoes?”
“Not even close.”
“Then color me intrigued. What stunning revelation is about to befall us?”
“What makes you think I'm poised to reveal anything?”
“Why else would we all be gathered together here?”
She waved her hand at the room. “You tell me— you invited half the guests.”
“That wasn't me —your in-laws were the ones who wanted to host a party. I merely facilitated.”
“Right. By setting Lizzy up with Tom?”
“Does it look to you like she's complaining?”
Maddie looked over at the couple in question. They definitely did not look unhappy to be in one another's company. She sighed. “No. I have to bow to your superior judgment on that one.”
“Thank you. I do have my moments.”
“That you do.”
“And, hey? You aren't the only one with interesting news to impart—my mama has an intriguing announcement of her own to make. That's why I asked her to join us.”
Maddie glanced over at Phoebe, who was standing with George and Janet. “Really?”
“Really. And keep your fingers crossed, Cinderella—if everything pans out, it could end up being very good news for you.”
“For me? How?”
“All will be revealed soon enough. For now, let's get this rabble rounded up and into the dining room. That yard bird Janet roasted ain't getting any fresher—if you get my drift.”
“Janet cooked?” Maddie was intrigued. Normally, Michael was reticent about letting outsiders anywhere near his kitchen, much less consenting to let someone else cook in it. But then, Janet was more than usually persuasive.
“Oh, yeah. I made the mistake of walking through there earlier, and I thought the two of them were going to come to blows. I heard Michael say something about it not being necessary to kill the damn birds twice . Then I beat a hasty retreat.”
Maddie laughed. “At least I now know that Syd comes by it honestly.”
“What? Her ability to murder innocent food?”
“No—her ability to get her way.”
“Oh, puh-lease. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. All she has to do is shake that tight little bootie of hers at you, and she gets whatever she wants.” He stroked his chin. “I just wonder who gets tasked with mopping up the drool.”
“That is a ridiculous suggestion.”
“Are you seriously trying to say that Syd doesn't get her way with you?”
“Of course not. I'm saying that I don't drool.”
“Jesus.” He drained his wine glass with a flourish and set it down on the bar. “Grab your talent and let's go eat.
Michael and Janet had apparently arrived at some acceptable division of labor, because the dinner they prepared was far from dry. The nine of them sat around a makeshift large table near the back of the restaurant and made short work of the roasted orange-herb game hens. Over thick wedges of key lime pie, Phoebe finally prepared to make the announcement David had promised. From her seat next to Syd, Maddie listened to her with open curiosity.
“I want to thank you all for letting me crash this family party,” she said, raising a glass. “And I know that I'm not the first person to say that I look forward to the day—soon—when our little branch library can reopen and continue the fine work Syd has started here.”
Glasses were quickly raised around the table amidst a chorus of well-wishing, and everyone drank a toast to Phoebe's best wishes for Syd and fledgling town library.
But Phoebe wasn't through yet. “My son, David, will tell you all that I'm a great believer in hedging my bets. And I think it's always wise to have a backup plan.” She turned to face Syd. “I turn 65 in three weeks—and I think it's time for me to hang up my baton. I've already told the school board that I intend to retire at the end of this semester—and I've promised to do my best to help them locate a suitable replacement.” She looked at Syd. “Know anyone with the right credentials who might be interested in applying?”
Maddie's eyes grew wide as she looked back and forth between Phoebe and Syd. Phoebe had a sly smile on her face, and Syd looked shell-shocked.
By unspoken consent, Maddie and Syd had avoided talking about the direction their lives might take after Syd's 18-month tenure in Jericho ended. In the aftermath of the fire, questions about Syd's future grew more immediate—and more emotionally charged. It was like Poe's Tell-Tale Heart —banging away beneath their bed like an ominous anthem of uncertainty.
Syd's willingness to help Maddie foster Henry for the six weeks his grandmother would be in rehab offered Maddie some measure of comfort: she knew that Syd would never consent to participate in such an endeavor unless she intended to see it through. Likewise, it seemed to suggest a larger commitment on Syd's part to stay on with Maddie at the farm, even if her apartment in town became habitable once again—an event which appeared increasingly unlikely.
Would Syd consider Phoebe's offer? Maddie's heart raced at the prospect. A nine-month teaching position in the county schools—one that would allow Syd to use her background in music education—would simplify everything.
Well. It would simplify everything for me , she thought, with a tinge of moroseness. But what would Syd think about it? What about her career track in library science? What about her plans for life after Jericho?
And what would become of me if she doesn't want to consider it? Maddie closed her eyes. She was getting way too far ahead of herself. She took a deep breath and looked over at Syd, who now sat absently twisting the gold pendant of her Heifetz necklace between her thumb and forefinger. She still hadn't said anything.
George leaned across the table and prodded his daughter. “Well, sweetie? What do you think?”
Maddie held her breath. Syd looked over at her and their eyes met. Then Syd smiled. She turned back to face Phoebe.
“I think,” she said, “that I need to find out if my North Carolina teaching certificate is valid in Virginia.”
Phoebe clapped her hands together, elated with Syd's response. “No worries on that score—I already checked. If you want it, I can guarantee you that the job is yours.”
Beneath the table, Syd reached over and took hold of Maddie's hand. “Do I want it?” she asked in a near whisper.
Maddie felt like her heart was about to pound out of her chest. She laced their fingers together. “Oh, yeah,” she said, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “You want it.”
At home in bed, Syd shifted closer to Maddie and tightened her arms. It was warm enough that they had left a window open, and Syd had been lying there listening to the ethereal night song of a Whip-poor-will. The first cry was far away, and Syd wasn't certain she had heard it at all. But now, the elusive bird had drifted close enough that she could make out the knocking sound that punctuated its haunting calls.
“He's getting nearer,” she said.
She felt Maddie nod. “They do that. Then they retreat again before daylight.”
“That's kind of sad.”
“I think that's why they're so often linked to loss. Legend has it that they can catch a departing soul.”
“Then I'd better hold on extra tight.”
She could feel Maddie's smile against the top of her head. “I'm not going anyplace.”
“Apparently, I'm not either.”
“Are you okay with that?”
Syd lifted her head and peered at her through the darkness. “Was there some part of what happened here a little while ago that left you unconvinced? Because I thought we covered all of those bases pretty well.”
“Oh, those bases were more than covered—in fact, one or two of them are downright sore.”
Syd kissed her on the chin. “Then why the worries?”
Maddie shrugged. “It's not rational.”
Syd laughed. “When it comes to relationships—any relationships—tell me what is rational.”
“You've got a point there.”
They were both quiet for a moment. Outside, the Whip-poor-will edged closer. Syd thought he might be perched on the porch railing below their open window. “Are you afraid I'll change my mind?” she asked.
“About what?” She thought Maddie sounded wary.
“About whether or not I should dye my hair green.” She slapped her on the arm. “What do you think I mean, goofball? Are you afraid I'll change my mind about you—about us? About Henry?”
She could feel Maddie tensing up. “I guess—maybe.”
Maddie shrugged again. “Yeah. I'm not proud of it. Don't be pissed,” she added, quickly.
Syd sighed and sat up. “Why would I be pissed? Just because it's clear that you still don't trust me to know what I want?”
Maddie reached out to touch her arm. “Honey—”
Syd batted her hand away. “Oh, no. We're clearing this up once and for all. I'm not gonna spend the next 50 years with you having this same conversation every three days.” She crossed her arms. “So what's it going to take to get it through your gorgeous head that I'm not viewing you as some kind of human science project?” She shook her head. “I'm not some wide-eyed coed who's getting off on how fun and illicit it might be to fumble around with my college roommate.”
“I know that.”
“You do? Then what on earth are you worried about?”
Maddie shook her head. “I wish I knew.”
Syd sat staring at her. “Oh my god.”
“What?” Maddie sounded alarmed.
“This is it. This is what you do, isn't it?”
Maddie stared back at her without speaking.
“In relationships. This is what you do —this is how you insulate yourself.”
“What do you mean?” Her voice was barely audible.
“This is how you protect yourself. This is how you push people away so they can't hurt you. You make it about them, and not about you.” She raised a hand to her forehead. “I get it now. It's not about your fear that I'll leave you—it's about your fear of committing to me .”
Maddie looked down at the sheets.
Syd reached out a hand and laid it on her forearm. “Look at me.”
Maddie raised her eyes. Syd wished she could see them more plainly. The darkness in the room continued to hide her expression. “I'm right, aren't I? You're afraid of this. You're afraid that you can't make it work—that you can't completely give yourself to it. And that's what scares you.”
After a long moment, Maddie slowly shook her head. “No. That's not it—at least, not completely.” She slid her hand across the expanse of bed that separated them, and tentatively rested it on Syd's thigh. “I am scared. You're right about that. But what scares me is not the prospect of committing myself to you. What scares me is the realization that I've already done it. I'm all-in on this Syd—all the way. And I've never done that before. Never. And, yes—it scares the shit out of me.”
Syd let out the breath she had been holding and covered Maddie's hand with one of her own. “I can't promise that I'll never hurt you.”
“I know that.”
“But I can promise that I'll never hurt you intentionally.”
After a moment, Maddie turned her hand palm up beneath Syd's and squeezed her fingers. “I believe you.”
“I hope you do—because if you don't, you're in for a bumpy ride. A long , bumpy ride.”
Maddie inched closer to her on the bed. “What variety of ‘long' might you be describing?”
“Let's see.” Syd took a moment to consider her response. “Ever read War and Peace? ”
“Of course.” Maddie sounded offended.
“Well…longer than that— and with more battle scenes.”
Maddie laughed. “Oh, great.”
“I thought you'd be pleased.”
“Yeah—a frozen death march across Russia is exactly the metaphor I would have picked to characterize our future together. Thank you for that. I feel so much more encouraged, now.”
“Another crisis averted.” With a sigh, Syd pushed her onto her back and resumed her place, lying half on top of her. “Relax Stretch. As I recall, the book ended with Natasha and Pierre, happy and safe in their bed—surrounded by their two-dozen adorable children.”
“Well. Maybe it wasn't two dozen.” Syd nuzzled the base of her neck. “But it was more than a couple.”
“True.” Maddie wrapped her arms around Syd. “God, I love you.”
“I know.” She could feel Maddie smile. “I love you, too.”
Below their window, the Whip-poor-will hopped down from his perch on the porch railing and began his slow trek away from the house—ahead of the declining night.
This winter was going to be one for the record books. Another gulf storm had rolled through two days ago, then made it's way east to the Atlantic before hooking back around and combining with a massive low pressure system dropping down from the upper Midwest. These double-whammy winter storms were becoming more common, and locals were beginning to chafe under the constant barrage of snow and ice. For the last month, schools in the county had been closed more days than not, and parents were struggling with how to manage their kids and still hang on to their sanity. The Christmas holiday was only a few days away, and more than one family had given up on efforts to try and shop or visit with relatives.
It was clear that Santa was going to be traveling light this year.
Maddie trudged across the narrow walkway she had shoveled from the barn to the porch, carrying a five-gallon container full of gasoline—more than enough to power the big Honda motor through the night. The electricity had gone off two times already, and although county power crews had managed to restore it after just a few hours, the likelihood that it might go off again increased in direct proportion to the amount of snow and ice that continued to pile up on trees and power lines.
After stowing the gasoline near the generator behind the house, she walked back around to the front porch and stood looking out across the eerie expanse of white that stretched down toward the pond. The night sky looked dull—almost opaque. Reflected light cast an orange glow over fields and pastures that were covered in drifting snow. It was still coming down—larger, wetter flakes now. Not a good sign. Already, trees and shrubs were impossibly bent over under the weight of the heavy stuff. The quiet was deafening.
At least, it was.
From inside the house, she heard the arrhythmic sound of six notes being played over and over on the piano. She tilted her head toward the noise. It was familiar— sort of. Then she heard the same notes again—played this time with authority. She smiled into the scarf tucked around her neck. It was Dvo r ák. The New World Symphony .
Celine was giving Henry a piano lesson. And from the way it sounded, he wasn't faring much better than she did all those years ago when she was the one seated next to her mother on the bench.
Celine had flown in for the holidays. Maddie had managed to fight her way out to the interstate, and had driven down to Charlotte to pick her up. That had been nearly a week ago—and in that short time, Henry had bonded with Celine in ways that left Maddie dazed. Syd just laughed at her bewilderment over Celine's uncharacteristically maternal behavior.
“She's acting like a grandmother, Maddie. It happens.”
Maddie shook her head in amazement. “I feel like I fell asleep six months ago, and woke up in some new space/time continuum.”
“Maybe you did.”
Maddie looked her partner up and down. “How come you're handling all of this so seamlessly?”
Syd shrugged. She was peeling potatoes—lots of them. “We can't both be freaking out.”
Maddie watched her for a moment. “What on earth are you making?”
“For what? ”
“ Us? You must have five pounds of potatoes peeled already.”
Syd rested her peeler against the side of the sink. “What's your point?”
“Who on earth do you think is going to eat all of that?”
“Well, for starters—you and me. And I suppose Henry and Celine might join us.”
Maddie gestured toward the mound of peeled potatoes. “Sweetie, it looks like all the kids in your school orchestra could join us, too.”
Syd rolled her eyes and plucked another potato out of the nearly empty bag.
“I wanted to be sure we had leftovers. Henry likes them.”
He had been living with them for nearly six months now. Ada suffered a second stroke during her rehab, and now was consigned to full-time nursing care. They took Henry down to see her twice a month, and were hopeful that she might be able to visit them at the farm in the early spring. Her recovery was slow, but she was making determined progress. Henry's father still had another eight months of deployment to go—but he wrote letters to his son, and he called whenever he could. Maddie had spoken with James Lawrence on several occasions, and found him to be shy, but beyond grateful to her for her willingness to care for the son of a stranger. He was stationed in the southern province of Kandahar now, and Maddie worried about the increasing number of Taliban attacks in an area that was shaping up to be the center of the Afghan and NATO offensive. For Corporal Lawrence—and for the thousands of other soldiers like him—the prospect of spending another eight months in Afghanistan stretched out like several lifetimes.
Behind her, the big front door opened and closed. She turned her head and saw Syd walking toward her. She was carrying two steaming mugs.
“Here,” she held one mug out toward Maddie. “We made hot chocolate.” She smiled. “It was the only way Celine could bribe Henry to sit still for another lesson.”
Maddie took the mug and smiled at her. “Yeah? Well, he'll figure that one out in a hurry. That's the kind of bribe that only works once.” She took a sip. On the other hand, this was pretty intriguing hot chocolate . “What's in this?”
Maddie laughed. “Do you want him to sleep until Tuesday?”
Syd glared at her. “I didn't put cognac in his .”
“Oh. So you just want me to sleep until Tuesday?”
Syd thought about that. “I wouldn't mind having you in bed until Tuesday. But trust me—there wouldn't be much sleeping going on.”
Maddie wrapped and arm around her and pulled her closer. “Did I really say that this bribe would only work once? I don't know what I was thinking.”
Syd reached up and pushed her scarf aside so she could nuzzle her neck. “Listen, Santa—we've gotta figure something out. We're running out of time to shop.”
Maddie looked out at the falling snow. “I know. Mom and I were talking about that earlier.”
“I guess a snow blower really wouldn't be at the top of Henry's list?”
“Not so much.”
“How about that promo copy we got of Bob Dylan's Christmas CD?”
Syd looked at her like she had suddenly sprouted horns.
“Right. I didn't think so.” She sighed. “What do you think he wants?”
“I've only heard him mention two things.” She paused. “Well… three things. But I hardly think we should take the idea of getting him his own airplane seriously.”
Maddie laughed. “What were the other two items?”
“He's persuaded that Pete is lonely.”
“Oh, lord. What's the other thing?” she asked, hopefully.
Syd smiled at her. “A doctor's bag.”
Maddie was speechless. She looked away, trying to hide her emotion.
Syd used her free hand to force her face back around. “I ought to be jealous, you know.”
“I don't see him asking for a violin—or a library card.”
“He already has a library card.”
“And except for Midori, what five year-old would voluntarily ask for a violin?”
“He loves you.”
She smiled. “I know. He loves us both.”
“I wish we could give him the one thing he'd like the most.”
“Seeing his dad?”
Syd sighed and snuggled closer. “Me, too.”
They stood together in silence for a few minutes. The wind started picking up—not a good omen for keeping the power on. Inside, Henry's lesson continued. She could hear the low timbre of Celine's voice—then the sound of the first few measures of the Dvo r ák being played again. Maddie assumed that her mother had unearthed that old copy of Alfred's Introduction to Piano workbook that she had groaned her way through so many years ago. It was incredible. Again and again, against all their best efforts to muck things up—the universe found ways to make things right. Heal wounds. Replace darkness with light. And, somehow, these things happened quietly— seamlessly and without notice.
Off in the pasture, somewhere behind the barn, a loud crack made them both jump. All the lights in the house went out.
“Cool!” Henry's excited voice cut through the darkness.
Maddie and Syd sighed and looked at one another. They turned around and walked hand-in-hand toward the generator behind the house.
Maybe, just once in a while, the universe did need a hand.
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