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Authors: Holly Chamberlin

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BOOK: Seashell Season
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Chapter 26
G
emma wasn't gone. She was on the deck out back, and the awning was completely retracted.
“Did you put on sunblock?” I asked before even saying hello. It was midday, and the sun was strong.
Gemma didn't bother to turn around. “Dad doesn't make me wear sunblock,” she said. “I never burn. “
Remembering her annoyance with me that morning, I said nothing else and went back into the house. And I thought about how protective Alan had been of me and of our unborn child throughout my pregnancy. Protective and obsessed. He orchestrated every day of those nine months, and I let him.
He came with me to every doctor appointment. “You might not understand something the doctor or nurse tells you,” he'd say, as if I were simpleminded. “Or you might forget to tell me what was said when you get home. It's better I be there.”
I remember how the nurses and other staff would tell me how lucky I was to have such an interested and concerned partner. “He'll make such a doting daddy,” they would say, to which I would smile and nod.
He monitored my diet. He decided what I could have and how much of it and when I should have it. He kept a log of how many hours I slept each day and made a mark on his checklist when I took my prenatal vitamins. For those nine months we were rarely apart for more than an hour. By then we were working for the same company, so it was easy for him to keep an eye on me. “You have an enormous responsibility, Verity,” he would tell me day after day after day, as if I could ever forget. “You're carrying our child. It's vital that you not do anything stupid or careless. Everything I'm doing I'm doing for the good of our child.”
How could I argue and not sound ungrateful or callous?
And how to reconcile the man who let his daughter go without protection from the sun with that overly protective father-to-be?
Gemma came inside then and made for the fridge.
“I'd like you to meet my friend Annie,” I said. “And her husband, Marc, and their daughter, Cathy. Cathy's a little younger than you are.”
“Whatever.”
“Annie teaches math at YCC, and Marc's an accountant.”
No response. Gemma went on staring into the open fridge for a moment and then let the door slam shut.
I began to feel a bit desperate. I pointed to her left ankle; her skintight jeans were short enough for the tattoo of a heart with what looked like an arrow through it to be seen, if only partly. “I see you have a tattoo.”
“Yeah.”
“When did you get it?” I asked.
“A few years ago. Why?”
“Just curious. I've never had the nerve to get a tattoo.”
“It's no big deal. It hurts while it's being done, but you get over it.”
“It's the risk of infection that always stopped me.”
“I've got another one. Here.” Gemma twisted around and lifted her T-shirt to show me the image of a heart with wings.
Oh God,
I thought. Not a tramp stamp. If that's antifeminist, and it probably is, then go ahead and point the finger at me. Not all artists are wild spirits free from archaic prejudices.
“Dad knew someone who knew someone who does inking,” she said. “We got a deal.”
Still, I thought, it must have cost money that might have been better spent on some decent clothing for my daughter, or more nourishing food than McDonald's French fries. Or a tube of sunblock! But I said nothing.
“Are you also afraid of piercings?” she asked in a slightly taunting tone.
“Not afraid, no,” I said honestly. “Just not a fan, except for the standard ear piercing.”
“Everyone I know back home has tattoos or piercings. Except Dad.”
That statement startled me. Not the first part, the second. The thing is, Alan does have a tattoo, but in a place where a daughter wouldn't know about it. He got it before we met. It's the image of an anchor, and until this moment I'd forgotten about it totally. I remembered now asking him why he'd chosen an anchor, and all he'd done was shrug. I wondered why Alan had lied to Gemma about it. Or maybe she had just assumed. The topic wasn't worth pursuing.
I decided to take a chance and ask a question that might produce a volatile answer. “The people back home,” I said, wincing a bit as I spoke that last word. “Do you miss them? Do you miss your friends?” The reason I asked is that as far as I could tell, Gemma wasn't in communication with anyone from her life in Arizona, except Alan, that is. I hadn't once seen her texting, but of course that didn't mean she wasn't spending hours each night in touch with her girlfriends. And had there been a boyfriend?
“No,” Gemma said, and there was an unmistakable note of finality in that word.
I chose to believe her. At least, I chose not to pry. To admit she did indeed miss someone might, in her eyes, make her seem vulnerable to me, even weak.
“I thought we'd have pork chops for dinner,” I said. “Okay?”
Gemma half laughed. “Whatever,” she said, and left the kitchen.
Chapter 27
L
ast night we went to Verity's friends' house after dinner. Annie and Marc Strawbridge. (I know I'm going to call them The Strawberries. I can feel it.) And their daughter, Cathy. I wasn't looking forward to it at all—why should I have been? I don't
want
to get to know a whole bunch of people here. I want to just . . . get through. And leave as soon as I can.
Anyway, it was okay. The Strawberries (see?) have a nice house, a lot bigger than Verity's (wait, I wonder if she's going to make a will and leave the house to me; parents do that, don't they, leave stuff to their kids?), even though there are only three of them. We hung out in the basement. It's partially finished. There's a carpet on the floor and what Annie called a bar-sized pool table (the felt's not in great shape; I used to go to this bar with Dad for a while, and they had really good pool tables; Dad still lost every game he ever played, though), and an old arcade-style game machine, the kind Dad told me he used to like to play. This one was Space Invaders. We'd already had dinner, like I said, but Annie (I guess it was her; maybe Cathy helped her) had put out cheese and crackers and a big bunch of green grapes and a bottle of wine and some sodas. Verity has a freak-out about soda, like it's a dangerous drug or something. I mean, Dad drinks soda all day long, and he's fine, and not even diet soda. Huh. I wonder if he gets soda in jail. I'll ask him next time we talk, but if the answer is no, I'll feel bad about it. I mean, the guy didn't kill anyone. If he wants soda, he should get it.
Anyway, it was just us girls, as Annie said. Marc was fixing something in the second-floor bathroom. Annie poured Verity a glass of wine, but she hardly touched it. I took a Pepsi. Cathy had a Diet Coke.
At first I felt like I was on an interview or something, that these friends of Verity were going to ask me a bunch of questions and then, depending on how I answered, judge me. Okay, Verity, she can stay, or nope, send her back. She failed the test. She's not one of us. We don't like her.
Like I really care what anyone thinks of me! Still, it took about half an hour for me to relax enough to realize that Annie and Cathy weren't coming across as judgmental and that they were actually okay.
I have to say that Annie's kind of strange looking. I don't know how to describe it. At first you think, wow, she's actually kind of ugly. I mean, her features are kind of all over the place, if you know what I mean: her nose too big, her mouth too small, her eyes too far apart. But the oddest thing is that after a minute, after you say to yourself, whoa, she's kind of ugly, you find yourself saying, wow, she's actually kind of beautiful. I admit that I like Annie, and not only because she said hello without trying to touch me—unlike Cathy, who almost smothered me with a hug and who smells way too flowery. What
is
that perfume she douses herself with? I'll tell you one thing. There's no way Cathy Strawberry has a tattoo!
Anyway, Annie also called me Marni and didn't slip once. Well, neither did Cathy. I guess it's easier for them to remember who I am—who I was for all that time with Dad—than it is for Verity.
Physically, Cathy takes after her father, and I know this because he came down to the basement at one point. He didn't stop, just waved his hand, said, “Hey, welcome,” and went to the dark, unfinished part of the basement where Cathy said he keeps his tools. Anyway, they're both tall and broad shouldered. Cathy went on about how she loves playing soccer. I wonder if being tall and broad helps. I have no idea. When she asked me if I liked to play soccer, I laughed. “God, no,” I said.
“Have you ever tried?” she asked. “Because if you haven't, I bet you'd love it.”
“No,” I said. “I haven't tried and I wouldn't love it.”
That was the end of the talk about soccer.
Annie mentioned she'd gone to the most recent town meeting and that some local guy was petitioning the Board of Selectmen for permission to build a second home on his property for his son and the son's new wife. The problem was that the site was officially too small for another house, and there was some issue about the existing septic system not being able to handle the job of two residences. It all sounded pretty stupid to me, but Cathy had a pretty strong opinion about it—she thought the guy should be refused because his elderly neighbors had been harassed by the son when he was younger and they didn't want him living next door any longer—and what was kind of interesting was that her opinion was the opposite of her mother's, who thought the guy should be allowed to build as long as he upgraded the septic system and promised to keep his delinquent son in line. They argued about it for a few minutes, Cathy pointing out that Annie's solution wasn't really a solution because it didn't deal with the fact of the plot being too small, but without getting nasty. I couldn't help but wonder if Annie and Cathy were typical of mothers and teenage daughters. I mean, if I had lived with Verity all my life and not alone with Dad, would she and I be close enough to argue but not be stupid about it?
It doesn't matter. And I seriously doubt there'll ever be a time when Verity and I are close.
Then, somehow, the conversation turned to movies. Annie asked if I'd seen the latest Avengers movie. I said I hadn't.
And then I thought about all the times Dad and I would go to the movies together. We tried to go on discount days and at times when tickets were half price, like ten o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday, but sometimes we so badly wanted to see a particular movie that we'd go on a Saturday afternoon and pay full price. We'd sneak in snacks, too, which you're not supposed to do, but have you seen how ridiculously expensive movie snacks are? We like action movies best, like anything from the old days with Bruce Willis in it and
The Terminator
, but I also got into those Lord of the Rings movies, and The Hunger Games, though Dad got seriously freaked by the whole idea behind The Hunger Games. He said it was because he's a parent, and nothing is worse for a parent than the idea of losing a child.
Thinking about all those movie dates—that's what Dad and I called them—was not a good idea, because suddenly I felt like an alien again, seriously out of place. What was I doing in this basement in Yorktide, Maine, with these people I hadn't asked to know, these people I didn't want to know, thousands of miles away from my father?
I felt a moment of panic, like I was going to explode, and I squeezed the edge of the chair cushion with both hands.
Maybe Verity sensed something was going wrong with me—well, of course she didn't; she doesn't know anything about me! Don't be stupid, Marni. Anyway, for whatever reason, Verity got up from the couch at that moment and said we had to leave.
On the drive home she said, “I hope you enjoyed meeting them. Annie's been a good friend to me through the years.”
“It was okay,” I said.
When we got back to the house, I went straight to my room and closed the door.
It's hard to be tough all the time. It's hard pretending.
Is pretending just lying by another name?
Just before I fell asleep, I thought: How weird. Dad told me nothing is worse for a parent than losing a child. And Verity lost her child because of Dad.
Chapter 28
I
lay awake for a long time last night after we'd come home from the Strawbridges' house, going over the little gathering. On the whole I'd say things went all right. At least, when I asked Gemma on the drive home if she'd enjoyed meeting Annie, Marc, and Cathy, she hadn't given me a flat no for an answer. What she said was: “It was okay.”
She went straight to her room when we got to the house.
I say things went well “on the whole,” because at one point I suddenly thought I could feel something dangerous emanating from Gemma. Fear? Anger? Both? I don't think I imagined it, but maybe I did. Her hands were gripping the seat cushion, but that might have meant nothing. Anyway, I decided it was a good time to go home.
Maybe something one of us said upset her in some way. It's so hard to know. Every new experience is going to bring with it unforeseen consequences, maybe trigger a painful memory, or maybe recall a sweet one that in turn might cause sorrow and a sense of loss.
I don't foresee any great friendship springing up between Gemma and Cathy. Seeing them side by side, I felt that the differences between them appeared extreme. At least, they did to me. I wonder if Annie got the same impression.
Cathy gave me a big hug as we were leaving and whispered, “Keep the faith.” I have to say, though it seems a terrible thing to admit at this point, but there have been times through the years when I've almost regarded Cathy as a daughter. Not Gemma's replacement, but a daughter of sorts nonetheless. And there have been times when I hoped that if Gemma and I were ever reunited, I would find that she was like Cathy in being warm and affectionate and, well, pleasant.
Don't misunderstand me. I can't help but feel I'm betraying Gemma by comparing her to Cathy, and I'm trying very hard
not
to compare her, but it's difficult not to let the differences take center stage. What I've got to do is give Gemma time to show me who she really is, past the anger and resentment. Or, maybe I should say I need to give her time to become the person she will become, living here with me. Something like that.
I finally got to sleep, and when I came down to the kitchen this morning, Gemma was already there. She had started the coffee. After breakfast, she asked if she could use my laptop for a while. I told her she could, and she took it to her room. She's been there ever since.
A little while ago I saw Mrs. Pascoe peering at our house through the curtain in her kitchen window. I suppose I should introduce her to Gemma. After all, we are neighbors, and she is a nice enough woman. But like Annie said, one step at a time.
BOOK: Seashell Season
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