Authors: Darcie Chan
The Mill River Redemption
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Ballantine Books eBook Edition
Copyright © 2014 by Darcie Chan
Reading group guide copyright © 2014 by Random House LLC
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
& Design is a registered trademark of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-345-54156-7
Cover design: Marietta Anastassatos
Cover image: Richard Tuschman
Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.
ANTI WAS STARTING OVER
In the wide backseat of her station wagon, with her aunt Ivy behind the wheel and her daughters, Rose and Emily, asleep beside her, Josie bit down on her lip to keep awake. It was two in the morning, and although she couldn’t see much out of the window, she peered through the glass anyway. To maintain her grip on reality, she needed to remember everything about this day.
The past week had been a terrifying blur, and she was fighting to emerge from the fog of grief that enveloped her. Her husband, Tony, was dead. All of their possessions were gone, but she and her girls were
together and alive
. Right now, that was all that mattered.
Every so often, in the illumination of a passing car’s headlights, Josie met Ivy’s gaze in the rearview mirror, but she didn’t know her aunt well enough to be able to guess her thoughts. Ivy’s presence in Josie’s life had been erratic, a sequence of brief appearances years apart. The last memory Josie had of her aunt was Ivy pressing a slip of paper into her hand as her mother’s casket was being lowered into the earth. “I’m all you’ve got left,” she’d whispered. “So, if you ever need me, call.”
Now, she and her girls were going to live with this aunt Ivy.
Tony didn’t have any immediate family, and it wasn’t safe for them to stay in New York. Their home was gone. Josie didn’t know whom else she could trust. They had no other place to go.
They’d been driving north for several hours. Josie didn’t know how much longer they’d be in the car, but she hoped they didn’t have too much farther to go before they reached Mill River.
Josie looked down at Rose, her four-year-old, and smoothed a strand of blonde hair from her cheek. She shifted slightly under the weight of Emily, her two-year-old, whose little head of red curls rested against her side. They were just babies. She wondered how much of the whole horrible mess they would remember.
It had been just a week since the fire. Each day, Emily wandered over to her several times with wide, blue eyes, saying, “Where Da-dee?” Each time, Josie felt a renewed crush of panic and despair. Her heart racing as she struggled to control her emotions, she would take her toddler in her arms and whisper, “Daddy is gone now, but Mommy is here and loves you very much.” Emily usually just scampered off to play afterward.
Helping Rose understand what had happened was more difficult. “Daddy died,” Josie had explained to her. “There was no air to breathe in the kitchen, only smoke, so his body stopped working.” There was no way she would explain to her older daughter how Tony had truly died. Hearing that the fire had claimed her father’s life was difficult enough for Rose.
A week ago, the four-year-old’s knowledge of death extended only to the occasional bug that found its way inside the house, and she had been a happy and carefree child. Now, Rose was unusually quiet and withdrawn. She refused to let Josie out of her sight. Despite Josie’s explanation, she continued to ask, “When is Daddy coming home?” Josie kept repeating, as gently as she could, “Daddy’s not going to come home, because he died. But he loved you and Emily and Mommy very much, and we will always love and remember Daddy.”
After hearing this several times, little Rose grew angry and her eyes filled with tears. “I want Daddy!” she’d screamed. “Why did you leave him in the fire, Mommy? Why didn’t you get him out, too? I hate you!” Josie was at a loss for words. She could only hug her older daughter tightly, restraining Rose’s flailing arms until her little girl gave up and slumped against her.
Josie knew when the questions and outbursts were coming simply by the expressions on her daughters’ faces, and the pain she felt when she stared into those innocent eyes was unlike anything she had ever experienced. Somehow she reassured her girls, keeping her voice steady and the chaos held inside.
While Rose and Emily were awake, Josie pushed the memories of her husband into the dark recesses of her brain. She refused to even
his name. It was only after both girls were sleeping soundly that she allowed herself to cry.
Late at night, she would remember Tony’s face and how his incredible blue eyes rendered her speechless the first time she saw him. “Love you, always,” she could almost hear him whisper in her ear. If she stood motionless, she could still feel his arms around her, the warmth of his hands on her skin.
The memories came faster at those times. How he used to walk his fingers over her belly when she was hugely pregnant, and sing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” How he held the girls as colicky infants, swaying and bouncing them, until, miraculously, they fell asleep. How he grabbed up the girls in a huge bear hug each night when he came home from work, how he made faces and used silly voices when he read them bedtime stories. And, more recently, how he sat with Josie on the sofa late into the evening, talking, no, dreaming aloud about the day they would finally have enough money saved to move their family from the cramped, rented row house into a home of their own.
Remembering him brought a cruel, faint glow of happiness. When the happy memories stopped, as they inevitably did, the
terrible ones began. Grief again took hold of her, torturing her with images of bloody clothing and flames shooting up into the sky.
Her aunt’s voice, coming from the front seat, jarred Josie. “We’re pretty close now,” Ivy said over her shoulder. “We crossed into Vermont a ways back. We’re only a few miles outside Mill River.”
. It was a relief to focus for a moment on those two words and nothing else. She asked in a whisper, so as not to wake the girls, “What’s it like?”
“It’s a pretty nice town,” Ivy replied. “Small and friendly. Close enough to Rutland and the ski resorts to keep things interesting, but far enough away to give you plenty of peace and quiet, if that’s what you want. You’ll be safe there.”
Lost in her worries, Josie sat quietly. What would the locals think of her, a widow with two young daughters and an accent shaped by a lifetime in the Bronx? Could Rose and Emily be happy growing up in such a place? Would she be able to find a decent job? How long would she have to rely on the kindness of this aunt whom she barely knew?
“We’re coming into town now,” Ivy said as she slowed the station wagon.
Josie squinted out the window and saw the sign,
WELCOME TO MILL RIVER, VERMONT
“We’re on Main Street, where most of the businesses are,” Ivy said. “Too bad it’s dark now, or you could really see what a cozy little place this is. But you’ll see it soon enough.”
Even though it was so late, there were a few Christmas and other lights on. Josie noticed a cute bakery, a hardware store, and a brick post office. Just after the road curved a bit, they passed St. John’s, an old stone church with a small parish house behind it. They stopped at an intersection, where a white town hall building stood across the street on the left side. Beyond that, Josie caught a
glimpse of a well-lit police station before Ivy made a sharp left turn off the main thoroughfare. They made another left turn a few moments later.
“Here we are,” Ivy said. They had pulled into the driveway of an attractive house perhaps two or three blocks off Main Street. In the headlights, Josie could see that it was a two-story 1930s-style bungalow with a big front porch. A walkway cut straight through the yard, past a large sign that read
“I’ve got the attic bedroom all set up for you. Let me come around and take Emily. You can get Rose and some of the other things you need to bring in right away,” Ivy said as she grabbed her coat and opened the driver’s side door. A blast of frigid air burst into the car. Ivy cursed and muttered something that sounded like “balls off a brass monkey” before the door closed again. Josie shivered and pulled a blanket up around Emily, who was still sleeping soundly. Rose stirred on the seat beside her and opened her eyes.
“Mommy,” she said, still half-asleep, “where are we?”
Maybe it was the sudden stillness of the car after hours of driving or a combination of emotional and physical exhaustion. Maybe it was feeling her soul crumble, day by day, beneath the weight of her grief. Whatever the reason, Josie’s emotional fortress disintegrated, and the tears refused to stay in her eyes. She gathered Rose against her left side while holding Emily. If she survived, it would be solely because of her children. Her girls were anchors in her sea of uncertainty.
She would never let them go.
She would give anything, do anything, to make sure that they grew up safe and happy.
“Rosie, baby,” she said, “we’re at Aunt Ivy’s house in Mill River. We’re home.”
ATURDAY AFTERNOON IN EARLY
O’Brien knocked at the front door of the tidy house next to The Bookstop. It opened immediately, and he found himself face-to-face with Ruth Fitzgerald, the longtime owner of the bakery-café in town.
“Hello, Father,” she said, holding open the door. “Please come in.”
The elderly priest walked into the house and surveyed the scene. The place was quiet even though several people were gathered there. At the far end of the living room, Ivy Collard leaned on her cane and adjusted the position of a bronze urn on a small table. Surrounding the urn were several bouquets of flowers and some framed photographs of Josie DiSanti.