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Authors: Holly Chamberlin

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BOOK: Seashell Season
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Chapter 4
A
nd now about David of the strawberry-scented conditioner.
David, who's forty-six, is chair of the English department at Yorktide Community College. Before he came here to Maine, he was a big shot at the Michigan university where he'd earned tenure when he was just in his twenties. With two well-received books under his belt and a slew of articles in respected academic journals, it might seem an odd choice for him to walk away from what had become a bit of a cushy job to take on what is less of a purely academic and more of an administrative position at our little community college. But it was important for David to put a good deal of distance between him and his exwife, who had left him in a spectacular way for a colleague at the university. And David has no career-based ego issues. He strongly believes everyone deserves a good education and that it can be gotten just about anywhere, if both teacher and student are dedicated. YCC is lucky to have David Wildacre, and I don't say that just because he's my friend and lover.
David owns and lives in a beautifully restored carriage house on the property of a large Victorian house that's now the home of the local historical society. The carriage house is a post-and-beam structure with a picturesque cupola on the roof. The interior—one story with a loft sporting two large round windows—is open plan with the exception of the master bedroom and the bathroom, each tucked away behind closed doors. The only downside of living in the carriage house is that visitors to the historical society often assume it's part of the package, and more than once David has been surprised to find a camera-wielding tourist in his kitchen. He's learned to lock his doors.
I went over to David's last night, the night after the call from Arizona that has changed my life in ways I can't even begin to imagine.
“You won't be able to stay over at my place for a while,” I said, stroking his hair. David has lovely hair, thick and curly, and though he says he always hated having to deal with curly hair, and for years wore it closely shorn, I'm glad he's now decided to simply let it be. The fact that he's nicely built and has the brightest blue eyes I've ever seen also doesn't hurt. Anyway, we were sitting side by side on the couch in the living area. David had built a fire against the chilly evening and had bought a bottle of my favorite red wine. He's a considerate man. “And I won't be able to stay here. I'm sorry. It's just—”
David took my other hand and kissed it. “I know. It's no problem. We'll find time to be alone. And we'll be talking. You'll let me help you, won't you?”
I nodded but I didn't say yes. Frankly, I'm not sure what kind of help anyone can give me at this point. I'm not sure of what kind of help I'll need. I'm not sure of what kind of help Gemma—Marni—will need. I began to feel panicked again, and I guess it showed on my face.
“What?” David said. “What are you thinking?”
“Right now? I'm thinking I'm clueless about the future. About my future with my daughter.”
David nodded, and I began to ramble on.
“Did I tell you there was a time when I was convinced Alan had managed to spirit Gemma out of the country, that they were living in some remote coastal town in, I don't know, Portugal or New Zealand?”
“Yes,” he said. “But you can always tell me again.”
“And there were other times when I was certain he'd abandoned her shortly after the abduction, just left her all on her own somewhere, Moses in the rushes, though unlike Moses's mother, I doubted that Alan cared if she was found by someone kind who would raise her as her own. There were times when I wondered if he'd killed Gemma and then himself, a murder suicide. The imagination runs wild when it has little fact, little real knowledge to go on.”
“Now the fact of Gemma,” David said, “can take the place of imagination. That should be a relief, even if things are tough for a while. When does she get here?”
“They've booked a flight into Portland, the day after tomorrow.”
“That was a nice bit of luck, someone in child protection needing to fly east, being able to accompany Gemma.”
“Yes,” I said. “Though I wish I could magically swoop down on her right this minute and transport her home in the blink of an eye.”
“Patience, Verity,” David said. “Patience.”
Oh, I know all about patience. Trust me.
Chapter 5
L
ast night—the night before Gemma was due to arrive, the last night of my seventeen-year-long vigil—was one of the most fraught of my life. My mind was and still is a jumble of questions and apprehensions, of expectations and fears, of hopes and, yes, of fantasies.
Once school starts in late August—or is it early September? I'll have to find out, now that I'm going to have a high-school student living with me. Anyway, once school starts, Gemma's days will be filled with classes and after-school activities and homework. She might want to go to the winter ball and the prom. I wondered how I would afford a formal dress for her. Then I remembered that the wife of the printmaking instructor at the college is a professional seamstress. Maybe I could work out a payment schedule with her, or we might exchange a dress for a piece of sculpture or a painting.
Point being that in a few months Gemma will be properly occupied, but the question of what to do with her until then—while we're getting to know each other—needs to be solved . . . and quickly. So, naturally, I began to panic. She's sixteen—well, technically she had turned seventeen in March; Soledad Valdes told me that Alan had given Gemma a phony birthday in August—way too old for childcare or a day camp. She isn't too young for a full-time job, but the thought of sending my daughter to work after the trauma of the past weeks prevented me from even glancing through the local papers for job ads.
This girl needs rest,
I thought. Rest and care and coddling. Of course, she could stay at home when I'm teaching at the college or when I'm at my studio there, working on pieces for my big gallery show in July. But what would she do here? Sleep. Read. Watch movies. Play video games. Sunbathe, providing she used sunblock. (Alan burns easily. Does Gemma?) She would be lonely, sad, angry, and, quite possibly, bored. It doesn't escape me that I'm going to have to—let's put it bluntly—sell myself to her as a person she wants to live with, not just until she turns eighteen, but for some years after that. I want her to like living with me and sharing my world. I want her to find her own new world to share with me. I want her to love me, a total stranger.
Of course, I turned to thoughts of Cathy Strawbridge and what she would be up to this summer. Annie had told me that Cathy had taken on another babysitting gig, which means that three days a week she'll be occupied from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. There's also soccer. Cathy loves to play soccer, and there's always some sort of summer program that keeps her busy in the hours she isn't working or attending violin lessons. And Cathy has friends. I've met a few of them over the years, and I know that at this point in her life there are three girls in particular with whom she spends as much time as she can. They're nice girls, all from stable homes; all do well in school, and one of them, Becca, is said to be a math prodigy. Hildy is even more devoted to soccer than Cathy, and Melissa is the group's leading mall rat, though the girls, all fifteen, are too young to get themselves to the mall in South Portland or the ones in Kittery or Newington without an adult driver. Still, all this means that Cathy and her friends probably won't have any real time to devote to getting to know Gemma—or Marni, we'd still have to see about that—and even if they did, I can't count on their being interested in spending time with my daughter, a person I know very little about. What I do know—that Gemma and her father had lived a peripatetic lifestyle, moving from place to place every year or so, and often on the spur of the moment, and that my daughter had spent her formative years in the care of a criminal and troubled man—well, none of that bodes well for a smooth fit. I have no exact idea what experiences my daughter has accumulated in her years with Alan, but I feel pretty certain that those experiences will isolate her from Cathy and her posse, girls who have always lived safe, ordered, innocent, normal lives.
In the end, I had to content myself with putting together a list of activities that might interest Gemma—would she laugh at the idea of miniature golf?—and places she might like to visit with me when I had time off. We might go to the Ogunquit Museum of American Art (kind of a high entrance fee, but I might be able to wrangle some free tickets from someone at the college), to Portland for the shopping (assuming she likes to shop . . . and about that, as about so much else, I have no idea), to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells for long walks through the woods (does she have proper shoes for hiking? Is she allergic to pine trees?). Has she ever been to the top of a lighthouse? Has she ever been, however briefly, back to the East Coast after being spirited away by her father? I'm fairly certain Alan had never brought her anywhere near New England, but maybe he'd taken her on vacation to Disney World in Florida. Did he have that sort of money?
Here's another question: Has Gemma ever been to church? Would she want me to take her on Sundays? I could do that easily enough; though I haven't been to a church service in years, going to one each week would be a small sacrifice to make. Has she ever been to a zoo, or gone on a ski trip, or ridden on a roller coaster?
Oh Lord,
I thought
, does she have a pet, a dog or a cat or a bird, that she's being forced to leave behind?
Soledad Valdes hadn't mentioned a pet, but maybe she and her coworkers had simply overlooked this detail. And what about Gemma's medical records, and her school records? Where are they? I need them.
Sleep, when it came, was fitful, and when I woke this morning at five, an hour before the alarm was due to go off, I felt an immediate and almost overwhelming sense of fear that warred viciously with an immediate and almost overwhelming sense of excitement.
This,
I thought,
even more so than the day of my daughter's birth, is the most important day of my life.
Chapter 6
W
e were to meet in a private room at an airport hotel. This had been orchestrated by the child protection people, who had been looking after Gemma since her father's arrest.
While I waited alone in the nondescript room for her arrival, I found myself thinking about a man named Harold Mair.
Let me explain.
I'd been renting the house on Birch Lane, in which I currently live, from the owner, Mr. Mair, for almost a year at a very reasonable price when he died quite suddenly, and I thought, now the house will be sold, or his surviving relatives, whoever they may be, will raise the rent to a prohibitive amount and I'll be forced to move. I'd always known I'd have to leave the house at some point in time; I'd just hoped it would be at some point far in the future.
Imagine my surprise then when Harold Mair's will was read, and I learned he'd left the house to me. The mortgage had been paid off long ago, so getting the news of my unexpected windfall totally floored me. “But why?” I asked his lawyer. “I'm not family. He hardly knew me, not personally.” The lawyer had simply shrugged. “I have no idea why,” he said, and I swear I got the feeling he was lying, that Harold Mair had confided in him. “But I'd not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Well, I certainly didn't, and I came to suspect that Harold Mair, a man who had lived his entire eighty years in Yorktide, had of course known of my daughter's kidnapping, and though he'd had the delicacy never to mention it to me, this childless, widowed man must have decided that to leave me his home was his way of offering comfort. I have no proof of his intentions, but that's what I believe. I would never have been able to afford to buy a lovely little house like this on my own. Mr. Mair was my very good guardian angel. Now I had a permanent home to give to my daughter, if someday she were to come home.
That someday is now.
I looked at my watch. Gemma and her guardian for the journey were due in minutes.
I wondered what I would see when my child walked into the room.
Gemma's hair would have changed color over the years, something the sketch artists I'd hired for my website devoted to the case had tried to take into consideration. At two months, Gemma's hair had been scanty and pale brown. Now it might be as dark as my own. Or maybe she was coloring her hair blue and purple and green. Women of all ages are doing that now.
How tall was Gemma? Did she have her father's aquiline nose? Did she have my habit of cocking my head to the left when thinking hard about a problem? Was my own mother, long gone, traceable in my daughter's smile or the shape of her hands? Gemma's eyes, too, would have changed color. They might be dark brown, like mine, or maybe they were blue-green, like Alan's. I never fully grasped the eye color dominance thing they teach you in high school biology.
I'd been wondering about all this for years, always supposing that my daughter was alive and growing into womanhood. But along with these speculations were also those horrifying, sick-making moments when I'd become convinced she was dead, at that very moment the victim of a gruesome murder. The lack of real, solid knowledge was torture. Whoever said ignorance is bliss is, well, ignorant.
I heard a voice in the hall. A woman's. A feeling akin to terror overcame me. I realized I was about to get what I had been wishing for so fervently for over seventeen years. And I wondered if I was ready for it.
BOOK: Seashell Season
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