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Authors: T. Davis Bunn

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BOOK: Tidings of Comfort and Joy
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Two days later, I was awakened from a light doze by the sound of footsteps stopping by my bed. "Miss Robbins?"

I opened my eyes to inspect a very tired young man in a dark suit and a clerical collar. He tried for a smile, but only managed to stretch the pallid skin of his face. "My name is Colin Albright. I'm sorry to wake you, but I only have a moment. Do you mind if I sit down?"

"I guess not." But I was not altogether sure I wanted to be visited by someone who had so little time for me that he had to wake me up.

"Thank you. I'm the assistant vicar at the local parish church. The police stopped by yesterday, and explained that you were here and refused to tell them, that is, you didn't seem to have any contact within the village."

"That's right." Rising irritation gave strength to my voice. "I don't."

"I, ah, that is, the police asked me to stop by the address found in your purse. I spoke with the landlady." He pulled an envelope from his pocket. By now the people surrounding the beds to either side were listening openly. "The house was indeed rented to a Mr. Grant Rockwell, the name I believe you had on your card. But he has gone away."

Whatever shred of hope I had was being torn into tatters by this tired young man. "Gone away?"

"Departed from England. For Berlin, according to the landlady, who lives next door, by the way. But the rent has been paid up through the end of next month, and the landlady was told to expect you." His hand dived back into the pocket and extracted a slip of paper. "Here, I've written down her name. And mine, and the church telephone number, in case you would like to have a chat."

As I looked unseeing at the paper in my hand, the young vicar gave his watch a swift glance and stifled a sigh of impatience.

I was flooded with a bitterness so acrid I felt my throat burning. "Thank you, but I wouldn't want to take any more of your precious time. You're so busy already."

He rose from the chair as though it had been springloaded. "Right. I'll be off then." He was either too tired or too preoccupied to have room for any irritation of his own. He realized he was still holding the envelope. "Oh, and Mr. Rockwell left this for you. Good day, Miss Robbins."

Ignoring the stares from all about me, I opened the envelope and read the letter. Or tried to. The words swam on the page. But I knew what it said. Grant had avoided this little problem as he did all others, by flying away.

His words were exasperated and sorrowful in turn. I let my hand and the letter fall to my lap. There was no escaping the truth now. I was in a foreign country, in a strange village, abandoned by the man I had traveled four thousand miles to marry, and utterly alone.

The orderly happened to walk by and notice my state. He unbuttoned the curtain and whipped it around my bed. But nothing could be done to muffle the sound of my sobs.

SEVEN

When Marissa awoke, she glanced at the bedside clock and saw that it was just before midnight. She had a dim recollection of growing very tired over dinner, trying to hide it because she did not want her grandmother to stop talking. But suddenly the fork in her hand had become hard to lift, and her eyelids had felt as though they weighed a ton each. Her grandmother had helped her upstairs and into bed, promising to continue the story when she awoke.

Marissa lay and listened to the house creaking and pinging about her. She loved the way the old place spoke at night, as though reliving the years of footsteps and laughter that had filled the big rooms. Her mother had been born and raised in this house. It gave Marissa a sense of permanence and safety, even in such a troubling time, to know that she slept in a house that had been theirs for so long.

A fool in love. It had been so strange to hear Gran describe herself in that way. And yet the confession had formed an instant bonding between them, one that had grown increasingly strong as the story continued. Even now, lying here in the dark, Marissa could feel the invisible threads of honesty and remembrance drawing their hearts together.

Marissa vividly recalled how Gran's face had changed with the telling. Her features had taken on different lines, as though the act of remembering transported her. Marissa felt as though she had watched her grandmother return to another time, and another place as well. Another time, another place, and in some strange way, another person.

Despite the unsettling tale, Marissa felt the sharing was both good and important. Strange that she would think of something good coming out of this difficult time. But that was exactly how it felt. Without understanding how she knew, Marissa was certain that she was hearing not just a story, but a vital message as well.

As she lay there wondering what the lesson might be, she saw an image of her brother's face. Instantly her whole body burned with shame. And guilt. There was no longer the shield of her anger to hide behind. Somehow hearing her grandmother's tale had wiped away the veil of bitterness over her own plight.

Buddy, her Buddy, was the brother who had always been there for her. As far back as she could remember, Buddy had stood by her, explained things to her, played whatever game she had invented. He even sat through tea parties with her dolls because he loved her and that was just Buddy's way. No matter that he would rather have been out playing football or climbing trees. He was always ready to step in and protect and defend and explain. Buddy with a heart as big as all outdoors, and she had wounded him. And not just him. Memories of what she had said to her family clenched her heart.

Marissa looked at the clock once more, then calculated the difference in time between Philadelphia and Hawaii. It would still be afternoon, she decided. She bit her lip at the thought of what was to come, but knew it could not be put off any longer.

She slipped from her bed and pulled on her robe and slippers. She tiptoed across the floor, the night-light giving her just enough illumination to see her grandmother asleep on the folding bed in the corner. Thankfully the door to the hall was open, because it creaked something awful. Steadying herself with one hand on the stair railing, Marissa walked downstairs.

There were a lot of differences between what had happened to her grandmother, and what she was going through. She hadn't missed this trip through any fault of her own.

But hearing of her grandmother's suffering helped put her own troubles into perspective. It propelled her into the kitchen, and gave her the strength to pick up the phone and dial the number on the paper taped to the wall, and ask the hotel operator for her parents' room.

When the familiar voice came on the phone, her first words were, "I'm sorry, Momma." And suddenly she was trying so hard not to give in to the tears. But she could feel the weeping deep inside her, wanting to come out, making her whole body tremble. "I was awful."

"Oh, darling, darling. You were just being human. I'm just sorry as I can be that you aren't here with us."

She could hear the tears in her mother's voice, and her own could not be kept back another instant. "I'm sorry. Really. I wish I could take back everything I said."

"It's all forgotten and forgiven. I miss you so, my little princess."

"I miss you too." They spoke for a few moments more, neither of them paying as much attention to what was said as to the fact that they were speaking. Then she asked, "Is Buddy there?"

"Yes, hold on." Carol sniffed loudly, and set the phone down.

Marissa listened to her mother coax Buddy to talk with her. And that hurt worse than anything. "It's all right, honey," she heard her mother say. "She's fine. Really. And she wants to speak with you."

There was a long pause, and then a very sad voice said softly, "Hello."

Marissa felt as though she was breaking apart inside. She had hurt her Buddy so much he didn't want to speak to her. She sobbed so hard she couldn't say anything at all.

And then she heard that he was crying, too, just bawling away on the other end of the phone. And she managed to whine out around the sobs, "Oh, Buddy, I'm so sorry."

He caught his breath with a hiccup, and whispered, "It's okay."

"No, it's not. I wouldn't hurt you for anything. Not ever."

"Mom told us it was the sickness."

"That's right. Wait a minute, okay?" She put down the phone, went over to the sink, and tore off a paper towel. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose, took a deep breath, another, and forced herself to steady. Then she picked up the phone and said, "I want you to do something for me. I want you to go out and have a great time."

Hearing she was back in control gave him the strength to breathe hard, and say, "Okay."

"I mean it. You have to have a double good time, one for you and one for me. You have to do
everything.
Do you hear me?
The
only way I'll know anything about it is from what you tell me."

"Dad gave me a camera for Christmas. He said I needed to take pictures for you."

"Lots and lots of them." She wiped away the tears that continued to spill over. "And remember everything you see, okay? Because when you come home you have to tell me."

"Okay, Sis. I'll try."

"I love you, Buddy."

"I love you, too. I wish you were here. It's not the same. Nothing is."

"I know. Put Momma back on, okay?"

In just a few seconds Carol was asking, "How are you feeling?"

"Tired. But Gran is taking good care of me."

"I'm sure she is. You're here with us, honey. We hold you close in our hearts."

"I love you, too, Mom. And I'm so sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry for. It's all behind us, all right? You just stay busy getting well."

Marissa waited until the tears had stopped before going back upstairs. Gran was in the same position she had been in when Marissa left. But as she climbed back into bed, she heard a quiet voice say, "I'm very proud of you, honey. You did the right thing."

"I was just awful," she said, then bit down hard, because she didn't want the tears to start back.

"Well, it's okay now." Gran rolled over in her little bed. "Are you sleepy?"

"No, not really. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up."

"It doesn't matter. Old folks don't need sleep like young people do. Would you like some hot chocolate?"

Suddenly that sounded like the best thing in the whole world. "Oh yes. And would you tell me what happened next?"

"Of course I will." Gran rose to her feet, turned on the lamp, and smiled at Marissa across the room. "I'll be right back."

GRAN'S STORY

On the last day of the year, they finally let me out of the clinic. I felt much better by then, and had been asking them to release me for several days. But they refused, supposedly because I had nobody to look after me if the fever returned. I think it was also partly because they wanted to punish me for refusing to answer their questions.

I felt eyes follow me out of the ward, down the hall, and into the front lobby. They had called for the village's only taxi to come and take me, because I was still too weak to carry my bags very far, and because I didn't know where Grant's house was. None of the nurses or the doctor had much to say to me while I waited. I signed the papers and sat on the hard wooden bench, my cases at my feet, and knew that they were irritated with how I had refused to feed their curiosity.

The taxi driver finally came in, a gnarled and knobby little man who doffed his cap and proudly displayed his remaining four teeth. "Down to Wharfe Lane, are you, Miss?"

"I think so, yes." Grateful to be leaving the stares and the whispers behind, I followed him outside. After being cooped up inside for so long, the snow-covered lane and the crisp winter air and the billowing storm clouds overhead seemed strangely invigorating. Then I glanced in the direction we were headed, and I stopped to stare at his vehicle.

"Never seen a gas bag, then." He wheezed a chuckle as he heaved the cases into the front compartment. "Ain't too many of them still about, but this one's served me well. My engine's been set to burn a lot of gas and just a little petrol. With that bag there, I can go almost a week on one tank. Petrol is easier to come by these days, but long as the rationing's still on, I'll keep her for safety's sake."

The boxy little car was dwarfed by a great metal cage attached to its roof and sliding over its rear end. In this cage was stuffed a bulging black balloon. The cold wind buffeted the apparatus, causing the entire cab to shake and roll.

He saw me into the backseat, offered me a thick horse blanket, then settled in front. "You'll like it down there, you will. Good sort, those folk. Like to know everybody's business, but that's village life for you."

Just what I needed, I thought to myself, more curiosity hounds. As soon as he started off, I understood what the blanket was for. The car had heat, but it also had holes in the floorboards. My upper body was surrounded by the heater's oily fumes, but my feet and legs were freezing. Swiftly I wrapped the blanket around my legs, and planted one end under my shoes. "Is it very far?"

"A fair piece, much as you can have and stay in the village. Wharfe Lane sits right down by the river's edge." He rattled on down the hill, and gave someone on the sidewalk a cheery wave. "Dropped a customer off this morning, had a chat with your landlady. She's a right one, old Rachel Ballard. Can't wait to be making your acquaintance."

"I'll bet." I could just see her, fat and round as a butter ball, with a huge nose that she loved to stick into other people's business. There was no telling what Grant had told her.

Then a thought struck me with a force that made my cheeks flame. What if I wasn't the first lost and forlorn little thing to show up at Grant's doorstep? What if the whole village was laughing behind their hands? Oh, look, there goes another of Grant's floozies, and this one all the way from America, can you imagine. I flipped the collar up on my coat, and buried my face out of view. Yes, I could just bet the landlady was looking forward to meeting me.

The taxi took a sudden turn, and there at the bottom of the road was water. A large flowing stretch of it. "What is that?"

BOOK: Tidings of Comfort and Joy
12.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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