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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: Disguised Blessing
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24

C
ATHERINE STOOD AT THE BACK DOOR AND
watched Brian and Lynda as they walked across the lawn hand in hand. They’d said they were going outside to work off dinner and make room for cake and ice cream, but it was plain their real interest was in being alone.

“He’s such a nice boy,” Phyllis said, coming up beside her.

“Remember how wild his father was at his age?”

“Wasn’t he the Winslow brother who wound up in jail?”

“Yes, but that came a little later. I was thinking about the summer he and his brothers stole that big plastic chicken from the restaurant in Tahoe City and glued it on top of the sheriff’s car.”

Phyllis laughed. “I’d forgotten about that.”

“Now he’s doing the most remarkable thing. Brian and Lynda have decided Ray should stay in Sacramento. They think he’ll do better here with them than somewhere where he doesn’t know any
one. Brian asked his parents if Ray could stay with them—and they said yes. Can you imagine?”

“Ray wants to stay here? Considering he lost everyone in his immediate family I would have thought being with his aunt would be more important than being with friends.”

“They haven’t said anything to him yet, but they know he doesn’t want to live with his aunt. Brian’s father talked them into waiting until his lawyer could investigate the legal end of having Ray live with them. He didn’t want Ray to get his hopes up and then find out it couldn’t be done.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Ray is going to need ongoing medical care for a long time. He’ll still be going to Shriner’s, so there’s no financial problem, but since he’s still a minor, the Winslows would have to be his legal guardians to get him the care he needs until he’s of age.”

“It would be like adopting him.”

“Almost.”

“They’re willing to do this just because Brian asked them?”

“Pretty amazing, huh?”

Phyllis looked at Catherine. “And these are the people Tom wanted to sue.”

Lynda saw them standing at the door and waved. “Time to open presents?”

Catherine couldn’t remember Lynda ever being as excited about a gift she’d bought. She’d been bubbling with enthusiasm for days, demanding Catherine try to guess what was inside the large box she’d put in the middle of the dining room table and then
laughing with pleasure when she guessed wrong.

Catherine opened Gene’s first. It was a full-length black evening coat made out of raw silk. Elegant in its simplicity and cut, it all but shouted money. Catherine did some quick mental calculations and figured she could cover the gas and electric bill for three months on what she estimated the coat had cost.

“Obviously Uncle Gene didn’t have to follow the new rules on presents,” Lynda said. “Or was that rule just for me?”

“I forgot to tell him,” Catherine admitted.

“What new rule?” Phyllis asked.

Catherine looked at Lynda. “Okay, this time it was just for you, but from now on, it’s for everyone.”

“I don’t care,” Lynda said. “Open mine next.”

She’d wrapped the box in the comics section of the Sunday paper, topping it with a bow made out of a roll of hospital gauze. “Very creative,” Catherine said.

“And cheap,” Brian added with a grin.

“I didn’t know whether the wrapping counted and I didn’t want to take any chances.” Lynda leaned forward in anticipation.

“Go on, open it.”

When Catherine saw the illustration on the box, she didn’t make the connection that it was a picture of what was inside. After all, she’d never expressed any interest in birds or in feeding them. But then she saw that it was indeed as advertised—a hummingbird feeder.

“I know you’re not into the nature thing,” Lynda said. “But just wait. You’re going to love it, Mom. The hummingbirds are so cool the way they hover and dive around the feeders. I figured we could put it on the deck outside the family room window. That way you can see it from the kitchen.”

“It’s the most incredible feeling when they buzz by your head,” Brian said. “They sound like some giant bumblebee that’s about to have a piece of you for lunch.”

“We asked Sandra about the best kind to buy and she said it had to be one that could be taken apart to be cleaned. I was going to get you one of those long skinny brushes, but then I remembered we already had one.”

Catherine examined the feeder, doing her best to look interested. “When did you talk to Sandra?”

“The other day when we went to Rick’s house.”

“You saw Rick? At his house? Why didn’t you tell me?” She could feel Phyllis looking at her. So much for ending the discussion about Rick.

“He called and said he had a present for you and wanted to know when would be a good time to drop it off. We were on our way to see Ray, so Brian offered to stop by and pick it up. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to go to his house.”

“It’s my fault,” Brian said. “I’m the one who—”

Catherine stopped him. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I was just surprised that you and Lynda went to see Rick and didn’t mention it.”

“Well?” Lynda prompted. “Do you like it?”

“Yes—I do.” She smiled. “This very well may be the best present you’ve ever given me.”

“Now you have to open Brian’s.” She was grinning again.

“You really shouldn’t have gotten me anything, Brian. I told Lynda not to let you.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not anything—”

Lynda put her hand over his mouth. “You’ll give it away.”

Catherine could hardly lift the package to put it on her lap. She tore through the wrapping, popped the tape on the box with her fingernail, and looked inside. When she saw the thirty pounds of sugar, she laughed out loud. “I assume this is for the hummingbirds and not a hint that you’d like another batch of brownies.”

“Brownies? It didn’t even cross my mind,” Brian said innocently. “But now that you mention it, I suppose there’s enough sugar to take care of me and the birds.”

“And the whole thing came to less than forty-nine dollars,” Lynda chimed in. “I saved the receipts. Want to see them?”

“I believe you.” She shifted the sugar off her lap.

“Now Rick’s,” Lynda said, and handed her mother a beautifully wrapped package a little longer than a shoebox but not as wide.

“Do you know what it is?” Catherine asked her.

“He wouldn’t tell me.”

She glanced at her mother and saw that Phyllis was still watching, this time with one of her cat-in-the-cream smiles. “I wonder how he knew it was my birthday?”

“Maybe it was in the papers you filled out at the hospital,” Brian suggested.

She fingered the bow and looked at Lynda. “This makes me very uncomfortable. I really wish he hadn’t bought me a present.”

“I’ll bet now you’re sorry you wouldn’t let me invite him,” Lynda said.

Catherine started to put the box aside. “Maybe I should wait until—”

“Oh, just open the damn thing,” Phyllis interjected. “I’m ready for cake and ice cream.”

Catherine removed the iridescent bow and set it aside. It seemed a shame to destroy the matching paper, but it was taped so securely, there was no other way to get to the box.

Feigning a casualness she didn’t feel, she looked inside and found a bottle of Randle’s Roost Reserve merlot nestled in a bed of pink tissue paper. “Oh…” She sighed. “How perfect.”

“What is it?” Lynda asked.

“A bottle of wine,” Phyllis answered, plainly confused at Catherine’s misty reaction.

“Wine?” Lynda said. “You got all sloppy on us over a bottle of wine?”

“It happens to be a very good wine,” Catherine protested.

“Yeah, maybe,” Lynda said. “But it’s not nearly as impressive as the flowers Dad sent.”

Phyllis whipped around to face Catherine. “Jack sent you flowers?”

“Thirty-nine roses.” Any hope for a personal touch was lost, however, when the flowers came
with Jack’s business card. She’d spotted handwriting on the back and turned it over to find instructions to Jack’s assistant on which florist to use and the price range to stay within.

“White ones,” Lynda said. “They’re my favorite, not Mom’s. Dad must have gotten us mixed up.”

Catherine surreptitiously dug through the tissue looking for a note from Rick and was disappointed when she didn’t find one. She glanced up at her mother and smiled nonchalantly. “Cake, anyone?”

Brian stood and offered his hand to Lynda. Catherine put the wine on the coffee table and moved to follow.

Phyllis caught up with her, leaned in close, and said softly, “Just friends, my ass.”

25

C
ATHERINE LOOKED UP FROM THE
S
UNDAY NEWS
-paper when she heard Lynda coming down the stairs. “Ready?”

“I couldn’t find my Tweety Bird beach towel.” She brought her canvas sports bag into the kitchen and dropped it by the back door. Dressed in navy blue shorts, a long-sleeved white blouse, red cap, and tennis shoes, she looked crisp and nautical and, until you looked closer, perfectly normal. Only the pressure garment peeking out at the top of her blouse gave her away.

“Did you look in the linen closet down here?” Lynda had waited until the last minute to finish her packing for camp despite Catherine’s two days of prodding. The only thing that had stopped Catherine from stepping in and taking over was the knowledge that it was more important for Lynda to be responsible for her decision to go to camp than it was for her to show up with every item on her list.

“I took the Superman one instead.” She poured herself a glass of orange juice and sat next to Catherine at the kitchen table. Glancing at the newspaper that lay open in front of her mother, she looked closer and frowned. “You’re reading the want ads? How come?”

“I’ve been thinking about going back to work when you start school again.”

“Why?”

“Something to do.”

“What about the club? I thought you’d want to get back to work on the projects you had going there.”

Catherine got up to pour herself a fresh cup of coffee and glanced at the clock. She didn’t want to start something she couldn’t finish and send Lynda off for a week worried that there was a problem at home. They had an hour and a half before they were to meet the van in Rancho Cordova.

“That’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about,” Catherine said. “The club doesn’t seem all that important anymore. To either of us. Do you realize we haven’t used it once this summer?”

“I never did like going there. It’s just a bunch of women with nothing better to do than sit around and talk about whoever isn’t there. And don’t even get me started on the dirty old men who think they could have been golf pros if they’d just had a little more time to practice.”

Catherine looked at Lynda over the rim of her cup. “Dirty old men? Is there something you haven’t told me?”

“Didn’t you ever notice how they look at girls my age when we walk by? It’s disgusting.”

“Then you wouldn’t care if I sold our membership back to the club?” She tried to make it sound as if it were an option instead of a necessity.

“Like you said, we never use it anymore.” She finished her orange juice, filled the glass again, and grabbed a bagel to go with it. “So, what kind of job are you going to get?”

“Something in human resources probably. It’s the only thing I have any experience doing.”

“Why not go back to Husbey’s? You said you liked it there. And they gave you that big party when you quit, so it’s obvious they liked you, too.”

“They don’t have any openings.”

Lynda eyed her mother. “I thought you said you were just thinking about going back to work. But if you already checked on your old job, you must have already made up your mind. When were you going to tell me?”

How could she not have known Lynda would expect to be included in this kind of decision? They were at a stage in their mother-daughter relationship where Lynda felt entitled to know everything her mother did and felt, but was fiercely protective of her own privacy, impatient and stubborn when she thought she was being asked too many questions. Thankfully, Catherine remembered going through this same stage with her own mother and most of the time managed to handle Lynda’s lopsided demands with a tolerance she didn’t always feel.

“When you got home from camp. I figured we could work out our schedules together. I want to be home when you are so we can keep up with your massages.’”

“Maybe I should just stay home.”

“Getting cold feet?”

“A little,” she admitted unexpectedly. “The camp is only a couple of miles from Rainbow Lake.” She took her cap off and put it on the table, then ran her hand over her head. “I can’t stop thinking about going back there. I’m even dreaming about it. Awful dreams where Brian doesn’t catch me and I just keep running and running until my whole body is on fire. And then I wake up.”

“I didn’t know…” Catherine put her cup aside and leaned forward to touch Lynda’s hand. “Maybe you shouldn’t go. Maybe it’s too soon.”

“I talked to Rick about it and he said he would come and get me if I decided I didn’t want to stay.”

“I thought Rick was going to be there.” She hadn’t asked, she’d just assumed.

“He usually is. But when he thought I wasn’t going, he told a firefighter whose wife has cancer that he would work a couple of shifts for him.”

“When did you talk to Rick?” She tried to make the question seem casual.

“He called the other night when you were in the shower. I think he was hoping you’d answer, but when I asked if he wanted you to call him back, he said no.”

She couldn’t question Lynda without giving the call too much importance, so she let it drop. “Did
you leave your dress out?” The flower girl at Jack and Adriana’s wedding had knocked over the punch bowl when she lunged for the bridal bouquet. Lynda and Brian had gotten the full force of the flow. “I’m going to the cleaners tomorrow.”

“I think it’s a lost cause, Mom.”

“Oh, I don’t know. We managed to get the stains out of your pressure garments.”

“I can’t see myself wearing that dress again anyway. It isn’t very comfortable.”

Catherine had purposely not asked Lynda about the wedding, hoping she would talk about it without prompting. Obviously that wasn’t going to happen. “Okay, so how was it?”

Lynda grinned. “I was wondering how long you could hold out.”

“Do you know I changed your diaper twice as often as any other mother I knew just so you’d never get a rash? And this is the thanks I get?”

“Funny, Mom.”

“Well?”

“Let’s see…where to start. I guess Adriana’s as good a place as any. She wore a Vera Wang knockoff, simple lines and no train.” She thought a second. “At least I think it was a knockoff, but maybe not. She’s always flying to New York. She could have picked it up there. Anyway, she didn’t have a veil, just some flowers in her hair that matched her bouquet. Dad got her a gold band. He said she doesn’t like diamonds.”

“Did Jack look happy?” Selfishly, she wanted this marriage to work. She believed that fulfilling his
promise to be a better father to Lynda hinged on whether he and Adriana could build a stable home life with their own child.

“I’d say he looked more accepting than happy. He smiled a lot but he wasn’t bouncing all around the room talking to everybody the way he usually is at parties.”

“He’s trying,” Catherine said. “I think he really wants it to work this time.”

“Does it bother you?”

“What?”

“His getting married again when it didn’t work out between you and Tom?”

“That’s a complicated question,” she answered honestly. “All I know for sure is that I would have answered it differently a couple of months ago. Then I might have cared. I don’t think I do now.”

“You don’t
think
you do, but you’re not sure?”

“No, I’m sure. I just don’t know whether I’m neutral or I sincerely wish him well. I’d like to think it’s the latter.”

“Pretty heavy stuff for nine o’clock in the morning,” Lynda said.

“Is it nine already?” She folded the newspaper and added it to the stack she’d already read. “We should get going.”

A moment of uncertainty flashed through Lynda’s eyes.

“There’s still time to change your mind.” Only at that moment did Catherine realize she wanted Lynda to change her mind. She was as nervous about having her leave as Lynda was about going.

“I told Rick I would give it a couple of days. If I don’t go, he’ll be disappointed in me.”

Catherine came around the table and put her arm across Lynda’s shoulders. “I used to think I knew what bravery was all about, but I was wrong. There are times, like now, when I’m so proud of you I want to shout it from the rooftop.”

Lynda hugged her back. “I love you, too, Mom.”

For an indulgent minute Rick let the hot water run across the shoulder he’d strained in the fire that afternoon, and then squeezed a circle of shampoo in his hand and spread it in his hair. Using his fingers to scrub his scalp hard, he worked the lather until he was sure the soot and ash and smell of smoke were gone. Just as he stuck his head under the shower spray he heard the alarm sound.

“Damn,” he said aloud, although no one was around to hear. His crew took their showers in the dorm while he enjoyed one of the few privileges of rank in the fire department, at least at his firehouse: a private bathroom.

He shut off the water, grabbed a towel, and hurriedly dried off, missing more than he hit. Tossing the towel over the shower door, he grabbed the clean blue T-shirt and Jockey shorts he’d taken from his locker, put them on, and stepped into his still-wet turnout pants and boots. Not only were the pants and boots still wet from the fire, they still smelled. Even with his nostrils coated with smoke he could detect the acrid stench on the heavy, once-yellow canvas.

Glancing at the address as he pulled the report from the computer, he let out a groan. A patient down at the Haversmorning Care Facility. Their shift responded to the care home an average of once a month, and the calls invariably left the entire crew depressed and determined to do anything not to wind up in a care facility at the end of their lives. If he’d heard one firefighter tell another that they’d rather be shot than go to a place like Haversmorning, he’d heard a hundred.

“Where to?” Paul asked.

“Haversmorning,” Rick answered.

Even Paul knew enough to swear.

“I knew it had to be bad,” Janet said, standing beside the button to close the apparatus room door. “This is number thirteen.”

Rick looked at Steve across the front seat of the fire engine. “Thirteen? We’ve rolled thirteen times today? It’s only four o’clock.”

Three of the calls had been false alarms, some smart-ass kid pulling boxes at the local grammar school. The cops caught him on the last one, which came in just as they sat down to eat lunch. Before they made it back to the house they were dispatched to a fire at Capital Nursery. Now Haversmorning.

Shit.

“Should have grabbed some bananas for the ride home,” Steve said. “I’m starving.”

“We’ll stop for something on the way back,” Rick promised. “There’s that sub shop on the corner we all liked last time. My treat.”

After the call, for the first time since arriving at
their firehouse, Paul was quiet on the ride back. When they were in the kitchen getting drinks and chips to go with their sandwiches, Rick overheard him talking to Janet.

“I hope when I’m that old there’s someone who loves me enough to shoot me before they allow me to be put in a place like that.”

Janet reached for the glasses. “Cats—you just officially joined the ranks of every firefighter in this department. There’s not a one of us who doesn’t think the same thing when we go to a place like Haversmorning.’”

Rick took a bag of Ruffles out of the cupboard, poured them in a bowl, and put the bowl on the table. The dog-tired camaraderie of the earlier fire had disappeared into a depression at the futility of a call they knew would be repeated.

A man put in a wheelchair in the morning and ignored while he quietly died, his lunch untouched, his personal needs neglected, his dignity forgotten, was not something any of them would ever get used to, no matter how many times they went out on the call.

Rick looked across the table at Steve and saw that he, too, was lost somewhere in thought. It wasn’t hard to imagine where. Rick picked up his sandwich and took a bite, chewed and swallowed and did the same thing all over again, forcing the food down, aware that with a full moon that night, he might not get another chance to eat.

The captain’s phone rang. Rick got up to answer, taking a handful of chips with him.

“Captain Sawyer,” he said.

“Rick—it’s Catherine. I hope I’m not calling at a bad time.”

He leaned his shoulder into the doorframe, the dragon of depression chased from the castle by the mere sound of her voice. “No, it’s a good time.”

At least it was now.

“I was wondering if you’d heard from Lynda. She hasn’t phoned in a couple of days and I don’t know if it’s because she’s having such a good time or she’s miserable and doesn’t want to let me know.”

“I called up there yesterday to see how things were going and Carol told me that Lynda’s doing great. Seems she’s really good with the crafts stuff, so they’ve put her to work helping the little kids paint bird feeders.”

“She’s always loved that kind of thing,” she said, relief in her voice. “And speaking of bird feeders, I had my first hummingbird this morning.”

“Lynda was pretty proud of herself for coming up with that idea.”

“I know. She told me.” Catherine paused in such a way that it was plain she had something else she wanted to say. “Did you get my note about the wine?”

“Not yet. But then I haven’t been home for a couple of days. I worked a shift for a friend yesterday.”

“I know,” she said. “Lynda told me about that, too.”

They were like a courting couple with a chaper-one, stilted and awkward, careful with everything they said. Only they weren’t a couple and they
weren’t courting. “I hope it was all right. The wine, I mean.”

“Perfect. All I need is someone to share it with.”

Was that a comment or an invitation? He wasn’t sure how to respond. “It holds pretty well if you’re thinking about having a glass tonight. Up to a couple of days if you get the cork in nice and tight.”

“Oh—I’ll be sure to remember that.”

The disappointment in her voice told him he’d guessed wrong. Damn. Why was he always a step off with her? “Of course, if you’re looking for someone to share—” The alarm sounded. “I’m really sorry, Catherine. I have to go.”

“Thanks for telling me about Lynda.”

“Anytime.” He hung up, his depression gone, frustration slipping into its place.

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