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Authors: Holly Chamberlin

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BOOK: Seashell Season
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Chapter 2
W
e have our history, Marion Burns and I.
Marion is Alan's mother.
Marion is Gemma's grandmother.
After Alan disappeared with my daughter, and during the first nightmarish round of questioning by the police, it came out that Alan had what you might euphemistically call “a history.” No fewer than three women in a town about two hours north of Yorktide had taken out restraining orders on Alan Burns, stalking being the reason for such measures, and about nine months before he met me, Alan was arrested for badly beating a man he suspected of being interested in his latest ex-girlfriend. The attack was unprovoked. Alan pled guilty, paid a hefty fine (funded by his mother), and the sentence was suspended.
The fact of Alan's disturbing behavior was bad enough, but what was worse—or so it seemed to me—was the fact that Marion, a woman who had almost become a surrogate mother figure to me, especially since my own mother had died when I was in my teens, had known all about her son's problems and yet had never told me. Needless to say, I was hurt and angry, and for several years I wanted nothing to do with Marion and her excuses for keeping me in ignorance.
Thinking back on those first years after Alan made off with Gemma makes me unhappy for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which was my inability, or refusal, to allow Marion to mourn along with me. She, too, had lost loved ones, and she wanted to help me understand why she hadn't told me about her son's past. It hadn't been to hurt me. She had honestly thought I was a good influence on Alan, and that with me in his life, he would be able to turn things around. I knew she badly wanted my forgiveness. I knew because she told me so the few times I agreed to meet with her, but granting her forgiveness was impossible for me. I felt so very badly betrayed.
But things changed. I changed. It's not easy to live with anger. It wears you down. And the truth was that eventually I became aware that I missed Marion. I missed the times we used to spend together before Alan destroyed our family, the afternoons we would visit the mall or go to the movies or even just sit in her kitchen and drink tea with cream and sugar. And the bottom line was that Marion was a mother without her child. I was a mother without my child. Together, I thought, we might be stronger. Together we might better survive the grief.
This proved to be true.
I knew when Marion would be home. She's retired from her clerical job at the office of a local family physician and lives a very ordered life, with Bingo on Wednesdays at one thirty, church at ten o'clock Sundays, a trip to the grocery store just after breakfast on Mondays, and otherwise, mostly at home, tending her garden and reading historical romance novels. I was a little nervous about telling her the news—both the good and the bad of it. It would be a shock, and Marion isn't the strongest person. Briefly I considered driving over to her place to break the news in person, but at that moment, about an hour after the call from Arizona, I still felt too shaken to trust myself behind the wheel of a car.
Marion was home, as predicted. After she had told me all about the new bird food she was trying out and how the squirrels seemed not to like it and how happy she was that the finches and the sparrows and the chickadees were no longer bothered by the pesky rodents, she asked what was going on with me.
“Marion,” I said. “I have something very important to tell you.”
There followed a long moment of silence, and when I opened my mouth to continue, she spoke first.
“Is he dead?” she asked, her voice barely audible.
“No. He's in police custody.”
“And the baby? Gemma?”
“Fine.” My voice broke, and I fought down a fresh flood of tears. Tears of relief and of joy. “She's healthy. At least, that's what the woman from the child protection agency I spoke with told me. She's with a foster family at the moment.”
“Thank God. But she'll come home, won't she? She has to come home!”
“Yes. She'll be coming home. But, Marion? It's going to be very, very difficult for her.”
I knew Marion understood me. I didn't want her to meet Gemma right away, not until I had spent time alone with my daughter, not before I could assess the damage that had been done to her. As if I'm the expert!
“Yes,” she said.
“We'll have to be very, very careful not to overwhelm her.”
“You know best, Verity,” Marion said, and now in her voice I heard once again the note of apology and submission that appeared every so often since our reconciliation.
You know best, Verity.
Do I? I guess I'll have to know best, now that I'm finally getting the chance to be the mother I was meant to be.
“Is he well?” she asked then. “Was he hurt when they arrested him?”
I honestly don't know the answer to that question, but what I said was, “He's fine.” Alan is, after all, Marion's son. I know she still loves him, in spite of everything. I know that for seventeen years she, like me, has been mired in worry about the fate of our children. I know that for seventeen years we've both been hoping beyond hope for Alan to decide he'd punished me long enough and that it was time to bring my daughter, Marion's granddaughter, back home.
“You'll let me know what happens?” Marion asked. “When Gemma is coming home? What's going to happen to Alan?”
“Of course,” I promised. “Of course.”
“It's a dream come true,” she said then. “Isn't it?”
For some of us,
I thought.
But not for Alan.
And maybe not for Gemma, either.
Chapter 3
I
mentioned earlier that I'm preparing to teach a class this summer, so, a bit more about who I am.
I'm an artist, a sculptor primarily, and for the past seven years or so I've also been teaching art classes at Yorktide Community College. Things in my career are going well, but getting to this point was tough.
At the time of the kidnapping I had a clerical job at the same company where Alan was employed, Rowland Electronics. When he wasn't on suspension. But when he ran off with our daughter, it was impossible for me to stay on there. I felt as if I were on display and that there was no escaping Alan's brooding presence around every corner, hovering above every cubicle. So I quit the job I'd only taken at Alan's insistence and took a job as a waitress at one of the popular seasonal restaurants that cater mainly to tourists. Fewer people to point at me, to recognize me as the woman whose ex-fiancé had stolen her baby. When that job ended for the winter months, I worked as a dog walker (I'm allergic to dogs, but being in the open air, it was tolerable); a stock girl at Hannaford, the local giant grocery store (easier to avoid conversations with locals; I would have earned more as a cashier, but that would have put me on display); and as an off-season housekeeper at one of the large resort hotels in Ogunquit. It was a hand-to-mouth existence at best, and there were months when I was hard-pressed to pay my rent or put gas in my car.
None of this entirely isolated me from public scrutiny, of course, but it allowed me to keep a relatively low profile for close to ten years. No friends, no social life. Self-willed isolation. Self-determined alienation. At one point, not long after the kidnapping, a friend from college days, someone I'd known at the time I'd first met Alan, contacted me. She'd moved away after graduation but of course knew all about what had happened to me. She wanted, she said, to reconnect. She wanted to know if she could help. But all I could remember were the arguments we used to have about Alan and his control over me.
“You say
controlling,
” I'd argue. “I say
caring
.”
“He's so unbelievably insecure,” Marisa said once. “I don't know how you can stand it, all that whining he does, always following you around like a puppy. If I were you, I'd tell him to grow a pair.”
“You don't know him,” I'd replied defensively. “He's not insecure. He loves me. He doesn't
have
to follow me around, as you put it. He just wants to be with me. You don't know how wonderful it is to have someone always there for you, no questions asked.”
Did I believe my own words? Yes, for a long time I did.
Marisa laughed. “Jared is there for me, thank you very much. But he has his own life too, and he lets me have mine.”
That hit too close to home. “You're just jealous of what Alan and I have together,” I snapped.
I'll never forget the look on Marisa's face then. She pitied me. She was worried about me. Also, she thought I was being a fool. “Jealous?” she said. “Are you kidding? I think it's pathetic the way he smothers you, and you let him do it. No offense, but where are his friends? And that jerk Rob doesn't count. He gives me the creeps. And why does Alan keep changing jobs?”
I broke things off with Marisa after that confrontation. And when she got in touch after the kidnapping, well, I was too embarrassed to allow a new relationship with her. I hadn't listened to Marisa back when it might have made a difference. Instead I'd allowed myself to get pregnant by that controlling, smothering man. And look what had happened.
Anyway, almost ten years after Gemma had disappeared from her crib in broad daylight, things began to change. I realized—and it was quite a shock—that I'd grown
bored
being all alone with my grief, that I'd allowed my world to narrow down to a ridiculously tiny place in which there was increasingly less room for air. Of course, I felt guilty about the boredom. Wasn't I supposed to keep the flame alive, devote every moment to the memory of my daughter and to the hope that one day she would come back to me?
Yes. But what if Gemma
did
come back to me? I'd be in no fit state to be a proper parent, barely making ends meet, without a friend I could turn to for help or even a reassuring smile.
It was tough, coming back to life. I struggled every step of the way to work up the courage to find myself a decent job—no, more than that, a career—that would allow me to provide for my daughter should a miracle happen and that would force me to really live this one life I'd been given, no matter how sad my circumstances.
So I interviewed for a teaching job at YCC. Now, that was a long shot. I'd never taught before, and though I'd returned to my art—my passion—a few years earlier, I had made no effort to have my drawings and sculptures placed in galleries or stores. In fact, I'd shown my work to no one. Who was there to care? Like I said, my profile was low enough at that point to be almost flat.
But luck was with me—or maybe the college was desperate to hire someone, and given my relative lack of experience, they could get me cheap—and I was given the teaching post and with it, a good studio where I could finally fully embrace my work with wood and clay and stone and show it once more to the world.
The hardest part of making this transition was learning how once again to be part of a working community—to make pleasant chitchat at faculty parties, to attend committee and departmental meetings and do more than just sit there, my mouth closed, and to befriend my colleagues. To care. I grew up a shy kid, and fought my way out of that trap in college, thanks in large part to the fellow art students with whom I came into contact. And then I met Alan, and over time, with his encouragement, I slid right back into my shell of isolation. Now it was time to break that shell again. Break it or go mad.
And I was able to do it with the excellent help of Annie Strawbridge, my dear friend and colleague at YCC, as well as her husband, Marc, and their daughter, Cathy. Both Marc and Cathy have become my friends too.
The main reason I took to Annie is that when we first met, at a faculty drinks party given at the start of my first fall semester, she was so up front and honest about the kidnapping. Most people are too afraid or embarrassed to say anything at all to me. Others can't help but bestow on me looks of great pity. Some can't resist blurting a completely pathetic word of sympathy on the order of
Oh my God, I'm so sorry! You must feel so terrible!
Annie, however, put out her hand, and as we briefly shook, she said, “Look, I know what happened to your daughter. Well, of course I do; I'm a local. And I think it's the most awful thing that could ever happen to a parent. You have my sympathy. And now I'm not going to mention it again.”
“But what if I want to talk about it?” I asked, surprising myself.
“Then talk. I'll listen.”
We were fast friends after that.
Now, a day after the initial call from Soledad Valdes in Arizona, I was at Annie's house, grateful for her common sense, her loyalty, and her cinnamon buns. I can't tell you how many times I've sat at this kitchen table and shared a meal, feelings, troubles, and small joys.
“So the bum is finally behind bars,” Annie said. “Good. There is some justice in this world after all.”
“And he's not eligible for bail,” I told her. “He's considered a flight risk.”
“No wonder.” Annie shook her head. “Not one word from the man in all the years since he fled. You'd think he might have wanted to taunt you, send you false tips as to his whereabouts, gloat.”
“Alan's need for security was greater than any desire to further torment me. Anyway, he must have known he'd already committed the greatest crime he possibly could commit against me. There was no need to poke the wound.”
“I think you're giving the man credit for more intelligence than he possesses.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But the fact is that for seventeen years he managed to avoid being found out. That takes some level of smarts.”
“And a lot of luck. And luck always runs out, both the good and the bad.”
“Alan's good luck certainly has. Unless some hotshot defense attorney manages to get him off with a slap on the wrist, proverbially speaking.”
“Won't happen,” Annie said firmly. “At least, I certainly hope it won't!”
Me too.
“You know, Annie,” I said, reaching for a second cinnamon bun—why not?—“I'm afraid we'll never be done with Alan. Gemma and I. Though in my opinion he forfeited every single one of his rights to have a place in Gemma's life, he is still her father, and as long as he lives and even after he's dead, his story—the craziness and the kidnapping—will outlive him. We'll always be associated with the notorious Alan Burns.”
“I think you're being a bit overdramatic, Verity.”
“Am I?”
Annie shrugged. “Well, what do I know? I guess I'd be overdramatic if I were in your shoes. When is she coming home?”
“I'm not sure yet. Bureaucracy takes time, but I've been promised the wheels are turning. Annie?”
“Yes?”
“I'm scared out of my mind.”
Annie reached across the table and took my hand. “I know you are. And I'm not going to tell you everything's going to be okay because I can't know that, and things might not be okay. But I do know you'll do your best.”
“I will,” I said. “My very best.”
BOOK: Seashell Season
8.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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