Buttercup, who was busily chasing butterflies behind her, barked when Troy Davis’s patrol car turned into the driveway. Grace stood, removing her garden gloves before she walked over to the gate to greet him.
“Hello, Troy,” she called.
“Grace.” He touched the rim of his patrol cap. “You got a moment?”
“Of course. Come inside.” Her stomach churned with anticipation. She wanted to ask if this visit had anything to do with Dan, but she’d already been through that earlier in the year. “Do you have another body you want me to look at?” she said, trying to make light of the incident.
“Not this time.”
“Coffee?” she asked.
Troy shook his head and took a seat in the living room. “Sit down, Grace.”
The seriousness of his tone told her something was terribly wrong. She sat nervously on the edge of the sofa cushion. “Is it Dan?”
Troy nodded. “We got a report from a couple of hikers about a trailer up high in the woods.
“Dan’s trailer? Is he there?”
“Dan’s body is. He committed suicide.”
Grace gasped and her breath froze in her lungs. For a long moment she couldn’t breathe. She should’ve been prepared for news such as this, but nothing could have diminished the shock of learning that her husband was dead.
“He left a letter addressed to you.” Troy reached inside his shirt pocket and brought out an envelope, which he handed to her.
“Best we can figure, he’s been dead more than a year. He shot himself last April.”
“But that’s not possible!” she argued. “John Malcom spotted him in May, don’t you remember? So it can’t be Dan’s body. I’m sure of it.” She was desperate to prove the body was that of someone else. This had to be an elaborate hoax. It simply wasn’t possible that the dead man could be her husband.
“Grace, the letter is dated….”
“It couldn’t be April,” she continued to argue. “He was back in the house last spring—I knew it the moment I came home from work. I sensed it. Don’t you remember me telling you how the house smelled of evergreen? When Dan worked in the woods, he always smelled like a Christmas tree…I recognized the scent. He was in this house.”
“He probably was back. Before April thirtieth…I’m sorry. But I’m afraid there’s no doubt. It’s him.”
She was shaking now, so badly that she didn’t trust herself to stand.
“Is there someone you want me to call?”
Grace stared up at him, unable to respond.
Grace nodded, then covered her face with her hands as she struggled to hold back the tears. All these months she’d assumed Dan had run off with another woman. How could John Malcom have been mistaken? He worked with Dan; surely he’d recognize him.
Troy went into the kitchen and used the phone there. He was gone several minutes and when he returned he pushed the ottoman over and sat down in front of her. “I’m sorry, Grace. Real sorry.”
She had withdrawn and barely heard him. She saw his lips move but no words registered.
“Olivia’s on her way.”
She nodded, although she didn’t understand what he’d said.
“Do you want me to call the girls?”
She just stared at him.
Troy patted her hand. “Don’t worry about any of that yet. I’ll talk to Olivia and see what she thinks is best, all right?”
Again she nodded, without knowing what she’d agreed to.
Buttercup wanted inside the house, and Troy stood and opened the door for the golden retriever. The dog ran immediately to Grace and nudged her hands. Grace wrapped her arms around Buttercup’s neck.
While Troy went outside to meet Olivia, Grace picked up the letter. Where she found the courage to open it, she didn’t know.
My dearest Grace,
I’m sorry. Sorrier than you’ll ever know. If there’d been a way to spare you the horror of this, I would have done it. I swear I would’ve done anything. I did try, but there’s no escape from the hell my life has become. I can’t carry the burden of my guilt another day. I tried to forget, tried to put the war behind me, but the memories have pressed in on all sides and there’s no longer any hope of escape.
Years ago while I was on patrol in Nam, we took enemy fire. In the aftermath, a few of us got separated from the unit. Desperate to find our way back to base, we stumbled into a small village. What happened afterward has haunted me all these years. A young woman and her baby stepped out of the shadows. Her infant daughter was clutched in her arms but I thought she was hiding a grenade. Only there wasn’t a weapon. All she had was her child. Instinct took over and I fired. I murdered a mother and her baby in my desperation to survive the war—my desperation to get home alive. I watched her fall, watched the horror come over her face and heard the screams of her family. Then there was more gunfire and more mothers and children and the shooting just never seemed to stop. Almost forty years now, and it’s never gone away. I hear their screams in the night. I hear those screams in my sleep, cursing me, hating me. The irony is that they could never hate me more than I hate myself
There’s no forgiveness for me, Grace. Nothing can absolve me from my sins. Not you, not our daughters and sure as hell not God.
I’m sorry, but it’s better for everyone involved if it ends here and now. I didn’t write Maryellen and Kelly. I couldn’t. I was never the husband you deserved and I wasn’t any kind of father. I love you. I always have.
Grace read the letter a second time, letting her eyes rest on each word, one by one, as she tried to assimilate what he was saying. By the time she’d finished, the knot in her throat made it impossible to speak and tears slid down her face.
“It’s Dan,” she told Olivia who knelt in front of her. Then, her cries surging from deep inside her, she started to wail. Huge sobs racked her shoulders, sobs that shook the very core of her being.
She’d wanted answers, sought resolution, but not this. Never this. Dan’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound wasn’t even close to what she’d expected. He’d been alone, trapped in a private hell. He’d been caught in a time warp, tangled in guilt and shame created by a war he’d never wanted to fight.
The tears flowed until there were none left inside her. “The girls…”
“Troy’s gone to get them for you,” Olivia told her. “They’ll be here any minute.”
“I thought he was with another woman.”
“I know.” Olivia stroked her hair as Grace leaned into her friend’s comforting arms.
“All this time he’s been dead.”
“Almost from the first.”
“So it seems.”
“He left that one night and then he came back, remember?”
“Apparently he changed his mind.”
Grace sobbed. “He came back because he couldn’t make himself do it.” She recalled how angry he’d been, how Dan had lashed out at her and claimed he’d been in hell for the last thirty-five years. She’d assumed he was talking about their marriage when all along it had been the war.
So many things began to fall into place.
“Troy found his wallet and his wedding ring in the trailer.”
Grace lifted her head. “He left his wedding band at home.” She’d found it the night she’d thrown all his clothes out of the house. Finding the ring was what had triggered her tantrum. She’d believed at the time that he’d wanted her to discover it. She’d believed Dan had wanted to flaunt his new love. How wrong she’d been.
“That was the ring he charged on the VISA card,” Grace whispered.
When Dan disappeared a second time, Grace had returned home and found the bedroom a shambles. He was gone and he hadn’t taken anything with him, but he’d emptied the drawers, torn the room apart. What she didn’t understand then was that he’d been on a search. What he sought, she realized now, had been his wedding band. When he couldn’t find it, he’d gone into Berghoff’s and purchased another. For some confused reason—loyalty? guilt? both?—he’d wanted his wedding ring on his finger when he blew out his brains.
“Mom!” Kelly rushed into the room with Paul and the baby. Her daughter’s sobs tore at her heart, and Grace held out her arms. Maryellen was only a few moments behind. Together they formed a circle, arms around one another, weeping, sobbing, hugging. Then Grace kissed each one in turn and whispered, “We need to make burial arrangements. It’s time we laid your father to rest.”
Daniel Sherman was buried three days later in a private service with only family and a few friends in attendance. Bob Beldon, a childhood friend of Dan’s, gave the eulogy. The two men had been on the high school football team together and then following graduation they’d enlisted in the Army on the buddy program. Maryellen hadn’t realized how close Dan and Bob had once been. After Vietnam her father had let that friendship and all the others slide as he became immersed in his own hell.
Maryellen returned from the memorial, physically and emotionally exhausted. Needing time to think through the events of the past year, she parked near the gallery, then walked down to the waterfront.
The gazebo area, where the Concerts on the Cove were held each Thursday night during summer, was deserted. Sitting halfway up in the stands, Maryellen stared straight ahead as she considered the complex relationship she’d had with her father. He’d loved her, she knew now, as much as he was capable of loving anyone. Kelly, too—perhaps more. And he’d loved their mother.
Grace had taken his death hard. Maryellen attributed her mother’s intense grief to the fact that she hadn’t been prepared for the shock of it. For her, it’d been easier to believe that Dan was with another woman—easier to accept, in some ways, than the knowledge that he’d taken his own life.
As to her own feelings, Maryellen was confused. This was her father, and she loved him, but she’d learned early in life to avoid Dan whenever the darkness came over him. As a five-year-old, she’d come up with that term. “The darkness.” It all made sense now. Her father had been haunted by guilt since the war, guilt he couldn’t drive off and couldn’t share.
Maryellen understood that, since she, too, lived with regret and pain. She, too, struggled with the past. All this time, she’d believed she had nothing in common with her father and without knowing it, they’d been more alike than she could possibly have guessed.
A tear fell onto her cheek, and then another, catching her unawares. Maryellen wasn’t emotional; she refused to be. Couldn’t afford to be. She’d locked away her emotions when she walked away from her marriage. Emotions were too costly.
The sound of someone approaching made her straighten and wipe the tears from her face. Somehow, she wasn’t surprised to see that the intruder was Jon.