He watched as she lifted her hand to check her watch. The diamond solitaire on her finger sparkled. It wasn’t very large, David noticed, but big enough to catch his eye.
“I’d better get going. See you around.”
“Right. See you,” he said, though he knew there was little chance of them running into each other in town, even though Cape Light was certainly small enough. He only left the house these days to go down to the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, with his father driving him both ways.
She stepped out the door and he closed it behind her. He heaved a great sigh of relief. And regret.
At least that was over with. He didn’t have to think about it anymore, dreading the first time he would see her again, imagining what it would be like. It had happened, and he had been totally unprepared, looking like a wreck with his hair barely combed and his face unshaven.
What the heck. If she’d had any ideas at all about him, any feelings starting up again while he was away, this get-together should have changed her mind pretty quickly. Like waking someone up with a dash of cold water to the face.
He’d had some ideas, too, some hopeful daydreams about her.
He had pictured himself coming home fit and full of energy. Full of confidence. The way he had been when he last saw her, feeling very proud of himself in his uniform. He had imagined finding work in law enforcement, or maybe with the fire department. He would have good prospects, something to offer her. He would slowly but surely win her over again. Show her he could be trusted this time. Show her that he had changed from the screwed-up guy she knew in high school.
But nothing had turned out the way he’d planned. The way he’d imagined it.
David pushed himself along on the walker, back into the kitchen. He poured himself a cold drink of water and gulped it down quickly.
He felt like he wanted to scream. Or cry. Or do both at the same time. If his legs were working like a normal person’s, he would have done something physical. Run a few miles out in the cold or chop a pile of wood, swinging the ax until he felt ready to collapse.
Instead, he was stuck here with all these feelings in his head, whipping around like a tornado. He felt like just letting loose and busting something up.
Christine . . . She would never know what she meant to him. He would never be able to find the words. Or the guts.
It was just as well. She wouldn’t want him the way he was now. He wouldn’t want to ruin things for her. She had everything worked out just right, didn’t she? No, he wasn’t for her. He was the messed-up type and always would be. The army hadn’t changed that about him. He had thought so once. But now it seemed his days as a soldier had only made it worse.
At least he had thanked her for the letters. At least he’d said that much. David took a deep breath and then another, the way the nurse at the hospital in Bonn had taught him, to help control the pain and his roller-coaster emotions.
It was funny how Christine had been his link to home twice now, he suddenly realized. While he was fighting in Iraq and even before that, after he ran away from Cape Light.
Christine was the only person he called or sometimes wrote. She was the only person who ever knew where he was. He had made her promise not to tell his father. She kept her word, too.
Even then, their phone calls had been sporadic, mostly whenever he felt lonely. He had tried to persuade her to join him, to leave home and bang around the country with him. Once or twice, he thought maybe he had talked her into it. Then one day he realized she was never going to leave this town. Not for him. She had plans to start college, and she wasn’t going to let him talk her out of it.
He had been so angry at her. He’d felt betrayed and abandoned. But eventually he realized that she had been strong and smart to refuse him. It had been wrong of him to try to drag her into his self-imposed exile and family drama. He was glad now she hadn’t come to meet him. He would have messed up everything for her.
Now, here she was, with everything in order. She was graduating college, about to be a teacher. About to get married to some smart, on-the-right-track guy. Everything on schedule. Everything the way it should be for a girl like her.
It was no coincidence, David thought, that Christine’s life was picture-book perfect now, and he was no part of it. He would be doing her a big favor by keeping it that way. By staying away from her, no matter how nice she was to him. Or how sad she felt for him. That wasn’t the way he wanted things between them anyway.
BY THE TIME HIS FAMILY RETURNED FROM CHURCH, DAVID HAD SHOW ered, shaved, and dressed in jeans and a sweater.
While Julie and Kate ran upstairs to change out of their church clothes, his father stayed in the living room, picking up some stray pieces from one of Katie’s games.
“Hey, Dave. How are you feeling today?” He kept his voice casual, but David could see that he was pleased to see him up and around. “Guess you didn’t sleep in too late.”
“Some eager customers couldn’t stop ringing that stupid bell. You’d think they’d realize no one was home.”
“Oh, right. I should have put up the sign about opening at noon today. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. I survived.” David shrugged. He wanted to tell Jack that Christine had visited, but the words wouldn’t come out. He knew his father would be interested to hear that she had dropped by. Maybe too interested.
Julie came downstairs dressed in her work clothes, a heavy fleece pull-over, jeans, and hiking boots. It was time to get out to the tree stand. Past time, David thought, judging from the cars that were starting to pull up.
Julie pulled a Red Sox cap over her long hair, and slipped on heavy gloves. “Why don’t you stay inside awhile and keep David company? I can take care of things out there for now.”
“Oh, okay.” David could see his father was surprised by the suggestion. “I’ll be out in a little while then.”
“Take your time. Kate wants to watch her video. She’s going to stay inside with you for now.” Julie gave Jack a quick kiss on his cheek then left through the front door.
While David welcomed the company after being alone for most of the morning, he felt guilty keeping his father indoors. Especially today, a prime day for tree shopping.
Jack stood in the middle of the living room, his hands stuck in his front pockets as he gazed out the window. Counting the cars in the parking lot, David knew.
“You can go outside, Dad. It’s okay. You don’t need to babysit me. I’ll watch Kate for you.”
“Babysit you? What are you talking about?” His father suddenly looked away from the window. “Julie will have a turn now, then I’ll go out later, when it gets cold.”
“And she comes in to make dinner,” David teased his father.
“Well, she might do that. But I cook. Sometimes. I try at least.”
David knew his father did try. He wasn’t a terrible cook and could make some simple dishes. But he clearly didn’t like cooking. Not like David did. While roaming around the country, he had done a lot of grunt work in restaurant kitchens and had learned a few things, too.
“You want some lunch?” Jack offered. “I can make you a sandwich.”
David laughed. “Sure. I’ll take a sandwich.”
“Coming right up. How about grilled cheese with tomato?”
David had to smile at the suggestion, one of his childhood favorites. “Sounds good.”
“You got it. Katie likes that, too. Why don’t you call her down?”
A short time later, David sat at the kitchen table with his father, both eating their sandwiches. Katie had taken hers into the family room, eager to watch one of her videos, some Christmas story she had already seen a hundred times.
David wasn’t sure why, but he felt down again. As if his father really wanted to be outside working with Julie, the way they had been all weekend long. There had been a lot of early tree shoppers this year, and even Kate had gone outside to help them. David had been left inside to watch from the window or hang out alone in his room, feeling useless and out of the loop.
His father was making an effort to keep David company today, but that didn’t seem to satisfy him either. David wasn’t sure what he wanted from his father. What he wanted from anybody.
“Is your sandwich okay? I didn’t burn the bottom, did I?” Jack asked.
“It’s fine, Dad, thanks,” David said quickly. “You can go outside now. You don’t have to hang around in here with me.”
Jack looked surprised, then annoyed. Then suddenly he laughed. “Whoa, there. . . . Can I finish my lunch at least? I didn’t eat my pickle yet.”
David took a breath. “I can tell you want to get to work, that’s all.”
Jack waved his hand. “Those trees aren’t going anywhere. I’ll be hauling them around for the next month—until I’m sick of looking at them.”
“Maybe. But you’re always excited the first weekend you open up,” David reminded him.
Jack laughed. “Yeah, that’s true. Remember what we used to do out there when you were a kid? The horse-drawn sleigh and the hot cider, the Christmas village. What a show we put on. That was all your mother’s idea.”
“Yeah, I remember,” David said quietly. Those were good memories, but it was hard looking back. When he was old enough, he had worked out there with his parents. They’d had a lot of fun together, and he had liked the feeling of working in the family business, being grown-up enough to contribute to something so important.
“Those are nice memories,” Jack said wistfully. “But you can’t get stuck in the past. You have to look forward, always forward. I figured that out. Finally.”
“Good for you,” David said.
His father looked up, sensitive to David’s sharp tone, but he didn’t say anything. Just looked back at his plate again and kept eating.
David could see his father had found happiness with Julie and Kate and the new life they had built together. David was honestly happy for him. But it was still hard to be around his father at times. Sometimes David wished his Dad was still depressed and distant, like in the good old days. He could deal with that a lot better.
They sat for a few moments without saying anything. Jack looked relaxed, lost in his thoughts. David felt edgy and tense.
“Christine dropped by. While you were all at church.” David hadn’t meant to tell his father; it just popped out.
“She did?” Jack sat up and put down his sandwich. “How did it go?”
David shrugged. “All right, I guess. She didn’t stay long. We just talked for a few minutes. She seems happy. She sounds like she has life all figured out. She’s graduating college in the spring. She’s going to be a teacher.”
“Right. I remember that.”
“And she’s getting married in the summer, she said. To some guy . . . She didn’t say much about him,” David added.
It was funny how she had never said a word about her fiancé. But David realized he hadn’t asked her any questions about him. As long as the guy remained a big blank, he didn’t quite exist.
“She’s a nice girl. I wish her all the luck in the world.” Jack took a final bite and tossed the crust on his plate. “So, how did you leave it with her?”
“What do you mean?”
Jack rose and brought his plate to the sink. “Do you think you’ll see her again?”
“One of these days, I guess. It’s a small town. We’re bound to run into each other.” It was hard to hide the bitter note in his tone.
“I see.” David thought Jack was going to grab his coat and go outside to help Julie, but he poured himself a mug of coffee and sat at the table again. “I’m sorry, Dave. I know you still care for her.”
David didn’t even glance at his father. He knew if he did, he might start crying like a little boy.
“It’s okay, Dad,” he managed. “She’s all on track with her life. I’d just be messing her up. I know that.”
Jack stirred a spoonful of sugar into his coffee. “All right. Whatever you say. But it’s hard to let go of something like that, Dave. You’ve known each other a long time.”
“Since grade school. Maybe that’s why she wrote to me while I was away—because we grew up together.”
Not because she has feelings for me. The kind I have for her.
“At least she kept in touch. I know it meant a lot to you.”
David shot his father a quick look, then glanced away. His father knew how he felt. David didn’t need to say more.
“This is the hardest part of being a parent, David. Maybe you’ll remember I said that when you have your own kids.”
Not much chance of that happening now, David wanted to reply. “What’s the hardest part?” he asked instead.
“Having to stand by and watch you get hurt and disappointed. And not being able to do anything for you. Even your physical pain—if I could take it away from you, and feel it myself, I would. I just don’t know what to do for you,” Jack admitted quietly.
David was surprised by his father’s honesty. They had never talked much when he was a teenager, living at home. Argued a lot? Yes, indeed. But never really talked, not like this.