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Authors: Pamela Browning

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BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
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"Did you remember to pick up the bread?" Adele called out in a querulous tone.

Lisa paused in mid-tiptoe. "I'm sorry, Adele," she said. "I completely forgot, but I'll get it on my way home from work tomorrow."

Adele's reply was lost in a burst of gunfire from the program on TV, and Lisa fled to her room.

Tonight of all nights Lisa was in no mood to deal with Adele. She wanted to mull over in exquisite privacy everything she and Jay had said to each other, to explore every nuance, to hug her happiness close.

Soon she would ask Jay over so he could see how she lived, to show off the house with its bright sun-splashed rooms, its vivid colors, the Spanish-tile floors cool to the feet even on the hottest days of summer. She hoped he would love as she did the incomparable view of the Loxahatchee.

But that would mean that Jay would have to meet Adele, and Adele always made it clear that she considered Lisa's friends a threat.

* * *

Early on Saturday morning, zoo day, when Jay stopped by Lisa's house to pick her up, he was driving a faded red minivan of ancient vintage. It sported a conspicuous patch of rust below the back bumper and a dent in the right front fender.

"Where did you find such a vehicle?" Lisa asked when she saw it.

"It belongs to my law partner's wife," Jay said, opening the minivan's door for her. "We exchanged cars for the day because this one's equipped for hauling kids."

"So he's off with his wife in your Kia?"

"Yes, and he thinks I should have my head examined for trading," Jay said, but he laughed and started the car, which coughed and trembled its way up the driveway. Lisa settled back on the worn upholstery and grinned back at him, and the minivan settled down by the time they were on the highway heading toward Yahola. The sun was bright, the air fairly shone with the blue brilliance of the sky, and the water in the canals on both sides of the highway glistened between tall spears of saw grass. Altogether it was a wonderful day to be feeling expansive and eager and on the brink of a new adventure.

They talked of nothing, they talked of everything, and when their eyes met, they acknowledged their new relationship with a glance. Once Jay reached across the seat and took Lisa's hand. She liked feeling connected to him and was sorry when he had to put both hands on the wheel to steady it at a sinuous curve in the road.

They arrived at Nina's house precisely at ten o'clock, and they waited patiently for fifteen minutes or so after the bleat of the car horn until the four boys erupted from the front door. The boys were slicked up and attired in painstakingly ironed shirts and pants, and Connie wore a red dress and carried her constant companion, a sketchbook.

Jay settled the three older boys in the back seat, and Connie and Alejandro, the youngest, clambered into the middle seat.

"We're going to the zoo, we're going to the zoo," sang Ruy, but his brother shushed him and Alejandro began a warbling rendition of "Binkle, Binkle Little Star," until one of the older boys, Lisa wasn't sure which, leaned over the seat, punched him in the shoulder, and informed him that it wasn't "binkle," it was "twinkle," and anyway, if he didn't stop singing it, he'd feed him a knuckle sandwich.

"If you boys don't behave yourselves, I'll tell Jay to put you out of the car right here," warned Connie in a surprisingly grown-up voice, which must have struck fear into their hearts, because the horseplay stopped immediately.

They had reached "forty-eight bottles of beer on the wall, forty-eight bottles of beer" by the time the car left the expressway in Miami. Lisa and Jay had joined in heartily, with Lisa vainly trying to speed up the song's dragging tempo. Occasionally Jay glanced over at Lisa, surprised that she actually seemed to be enjoying this. When she sang, she threw her head back, exposing the white skin of her throat, and the sight made him catch his breath and stop singing for a verse or two until Connie complained that she couldn't hear him.

Jay wondered how it was that Lisa had never married. Someone like Lisa should have been snapped up long ago While he was having this thought, she smiled at him—not her usual impish smile but one of incomparable sweetness. It left him feeling slightly undone.

Behind the zoo was a park with a picnic area, and when Jay drove through the entrance, the boys began to ply them with questions.

"What are we doing here?"

"Where are the animals?"

"Why are you stopping?"

"We'll eat our lunch before we go into the zoo," Jay said, and two of the boys groaned, until Connie said, "Listen, you guys, we're doing what Jay
says.
" After they got out of the minivan, the boys were oddly quiet and watched goggle-eyed as Lisa produced bowl after bowl of picnic fare and spread it on the table in the sun-stippled shadows under the trees.

"Don't you like picnics?" Jay asked when he saw the dubious expression on Ruy's face as Lisa unwrapped the carrot and celery sticks.

"I never been on one before," Ruy said in a low voice.

It wasn't long before Ruy and Mike were flipping chick-peas from the cold chick-pea salad across the table at each other. Alejandro loved the celery sticks but managed to nearly choke on one, and Felipe refused to eat any grapes but wolfed huge mouthfuls of the potato salad. Ruy ate grapes, but only if someone else, usually Lisa, peeled them first. Connie sat through their antics with an expression of forbearance on her face, daintily eating in her most ladylike way and ignoring the boys as much as possible.

The boys were especially impatient to get to the zoo, and when they finally stood in line at the entrance, waiting for Jay to pay the admission price, Lisa hung back to observe Jay with the children. He was so tender with them, so caring, wiping their faces with his handkerchief, resting his hand on the sun-warmed top of one small head as they walked through the gate. Jay was the kind of guy who had every right to swagger but was instead content to saunter, matching his gait to the kids'.

Connie wanted to attend the elephant show, which was about to begin. Afterward, all the children rode on the elephant. Then they visited the zoo's amphitheater to see a wildlife show, where they had to wait in line again, but Lisa didn't mind. Every moment of this day seemed permeated with happiness. She'd never realized before how burdened she'd become with the responsibilities of her house, Adele, and her job.

As she watched the children clinging to Jay's arm, she realized that he was a fill-in father for them. These kids had very little male influence in their lives, and now they were basking in Jay's attention. She realized that none of that attention could be hers at the moment, but she didn't care in the least. What mattered now was that for one day she and Jay had created the semblance of a normal family outing for these kids.

As they made their way through the exhibits, the children were never still. During a quiet moment in the aviary, Lisa made a point of sitting down on a bench beside Connie, who was swiftly finishing one of her sketches.

Connie greeted her with a smile. "That Ruy," she said as her pencil flew across the paper, "you just have to grab him by the shirttail and pull him along with us no matter how much he hollers. And Alejandro, he's not going to stop talking about koalas for another month, so don't let him blackmail us into going back and watching them or we won't get to see anything else. Mike's the easiest one. Felipe, well, you're on your own with him."

Lisa stifled a smile. "You sound like their mother," she said.

Connie looked up briefly to study the movements of a kingfisher through narrowed eyes. "They take a lot of worrying," she said. Jay sat beside Lisa, taking advantage of the lull to crook his arm around her shoulders.

"Are you having a good time?" he asked.

"Very," she said, smiling up at him.

"So am I," he said, but he took his arm away before the children could crowd around.

He was watching tourists taking snapshots, keeping an eye on Felipe so that he didn't fall into the waterfall, and imagining Lisa lying naked on a moonlit beach when Ruy yelled, "Alejandro's gone! I can't find him!"

Chapter 6

If Jay had thought things were lively before, this was sheer panic. After Ruy's shout, Lisa turned pale and Connie shook Ruy by the shoulders until his teeth chattered.

"I told you to watch Alejandro," she said fiercely, whereupon Ruy began to wail, long keening notes that would do justice to a fire engine's siren. A frantic search of the aviary produced no stray boy, so Jay and Lisa hurried the children out to the distracting accompaniment of Ruy's crying.

An older woman in baggy Bermuda shorts stopped and said in a tone of concern, "Is something wrong? Can I help?" while at the same time her husband urged, "Come along, Gladys, it's none of our business."

Felipe said, "Alejandro could have left the bird exhibit as soon as we got there," but Mike said, "He wouldn't do that. I saw him trying to frighten the flamingos." The two boys began to argue loudly in Spanish.

A uniformed security officer driving a golf cart rolled to a stop beside them. "Is there some problem?" he asked.

"Yes, a missing child," Jay said hurriedly as Lisa and Connie began searching the nearby bushes.

"You'll have to come to the administration building and file a missing-child report," the man told Jay.

"We've just discovered he's gone," Jay said. "We're looking for him right now."

"The best thing would be to file the report. What does he look like? What's his name? His age?"

"The boy's name is Alejandro, and he's, uh—Mike, how old is Alejandro?"

"He's five," Mike said. He had sent Ruy and Felipe to help Connie and Lisa search, and he stood quietly beside Jay.

"The boy has short black hair, dark skin and eyes, and he's about this tall," Jay said, measuring out Alejandro's height as well as he could. "He's wearing a red-striped shirt."

"Come with me, sir," the security officer said.

Felipe bounded over and tugged at Jay's hand. "All we have to do is go back to the koalas. Alejandro probably went there," he said.

Lisa appeared at Jay's side. "Felipe's right, Jay. We had to drag him away from them."

"Okay," Jay said. "Lisa, you take Connie and Ruy and Felipe and make sure they stay with you. Look for Alejandro with the koalas and Mike and I will go with the security officer to file the missing-child report. How about meeting me at the zoo office after you check the koala exhibit?"

He and Mike joined the security guard in the golf cart, much to Ruy's disgust.
"He
gets to ride.
We
have to walk," he said indignantly.

"Come on, Ruy, don't waste time," Connie scolded as she tugged him along, but Ruy kept turning and watching the golf cart until it disappeared into the throng of people.

"Don't worry," Lisa said to the children, "we'll find Alejandro," but she was worried. The zoo presented all kinds of dangers for a lost little boy, particularly one who was fearless.

"He's all right—I know he is," Connie said, trying to soothe everyone's spirits.

"Look! Is
that
Alejandro?" Lisa asked, and they all ran ahead, only to startle a child who was clearly with his parents and was definitely not Alejandro.

"We have to go to the
koalas,
" Felipe said patiently.

And indeed they did find Alejandro, his shirt hanging out and one shoe untied, blissfully standing motionless and staring openmouthed at the koala exhibit, where one adorable baby koala stared back.

"Alejandro!" Connie said sharply. Alejandro turned around and blinked at them.

"Alejandro, you shouldn't have left the group. We were so worried," Lisa lectured, kneeling until she was on his eye level.

"I don't like birds. I only like koalas," Alejandro said stubbornly.

"You hold fast to my hand, Alejandro Fernandez, and don't give us any more trouble," Connie said sternly.

"Okay," he said, surrendering his hand to his cousin, and the five of them straggled out of the exhibit and toward the zoo administration building.

Jay had barely finished filling out the missing-child report, when they arrived. He broke into a broad smile when he saw their little group trooping in.

"I don't know about anyone else," he said when they were outside again, "but I'm ready to call it a day."

BOOK: Sunshine and Shadows
4.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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