The movie ended and the lights came up. Scotty yawned and, sitting up, rubbed his eyes.
“How you doing, big boy?” Andrew asked.
Scotty blinked several times, as if he’d forgotten where he was and who he was with. A look of panic came into his eyes as he glanced around the theater, and then to Leah.
“Remember, Mommy and Daddy went to dinner,” Leah reminded him.
He nodded, but he didn’t seem overly happy about it.
“I bet you’re hungry,” Andrew said, lifting him onto his shoulders. Andrew waited until the aisle was clear and then led the way out of the theater. It was dark by the time they reached the parking lot and the stars glittered like a splattering of diamond dust tossed across a bed of shiny black satin.
“Want to make a wish?” Leah asked.
Scotty looked to the heavens and nodded. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, releasing it all at once. His eyes flew open and he grinned broadly.
“I bet he misses Diane and Jason,” Andrew said, unlocking the car door.
“Nope,” Scotty said. “I like you better.”
“Don’t get a big head,” Leah warned her husband, under her breath. “He’d say the same thing to anyone who gave him horsy rides and took him to the movies.”
“Maybe so,” Andrew agreed, “but it’s me he loves.”
“Auntie Leah too.”
Leah planted a kiss on his chubby cheek. “That’s telling him, kiddo.”
It wasn’t until much later, hours after they’d finished the dinner dishes, long after they’d read Scotty a story and tucked him into the guest bed, that the emptiness surrounded her.
The night was dark and moonless as Leah slipped out of her bedroom and wandered into the room where Scotty slept. Standing over his sleeping figure, she gazed down on this perfect child who belonged to her friend, and held the pain of her loss tight within her soul.
She finally moved and walked over to the closet. Standing on her tiptoes, she brought down the baby book she’d hidden there.
Sitting in the silence and the dark, she held the book in her lap and turned each empty page until she’d made her way through the entire satin-covered book. From newborn to the space for the high school graduation photo. When she’d finished, she pressed the book against her heart and rocked back and forth as if she were holding the long-awaited child in her arms.
Instead she clung to a hollow dream.
Jeff alive! It wasn’t possible. She could hear her mother-in-law continue speaking but the words were unintelligible and seemed to come from a far-off distance. It was then that Jody realized she’d dropped the phone and had backed away.
“Jody.” Glen was there and she turned and buried her face in his chest. “What is it?” he asked, his words as gentle as the arms that comforted her.
“Mom?” Timmy asked, picking up the receiver. Gloria continued talking, apparently not realizing anything was amiss. “Grandma says she needs to talk to you,” her son said.
Jody shook her head. “No. No, I can’t, not now.”
“Tell your grandmother your mother will call her back later,” Glen instructed. He encircled her shoulders and led her back to the living room. Gently he lowered her onto the sofa cushions. “What happened?”
Speaking was beyond her. Tears filled her eyes and spilled like burning acid against her cheeks, scalding her skin.
“Are you all right, Mom?” Timmy asked, racing to her side. “Grandma said she didn’t mean to upset you. She told me to tell you to call her the minute you’re feeling better.”
“Did she say anything to you?” Jody demanded, gripping her son by the shoulders and making a careful study of his features. It was important that Gloria not say anything to Timmy. If her mother-in-law had made the outlandish claim to her son, Jody didn’t know if she’d find it in her heart to forgive her.
“Say what?” Timmy wanted to know.
“I think your mother could do with a cold glass of water,” Glen interrupted. “Would you get it for her?”
“Sure.” Eager to help, Timmy hurried into the kitchen.
Glen’s hands clasped Jody’s. “What did Jeff’s mother say to you?”
Speaking the words aloud was difficult. “She . . . claims Jeff’s alive.”
Glen released a troubled sigh. “Is there any chance it’s true?”
Jody shook her head. “None. His body was positively identified by dental records. The same thing happened the first Christmas after we buried him. Gloria insisted Jeff wasn’t dead. We argued and our relationship has been strained ever since. She’s never understood that I had to divorce Jeff in order to sell the property, especially when she insisted she would continue to support Timmy and me, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t financially drain her or my own parents.”
Glen sat next to her and gently patted her hand. “She sounds like a lonely old woman.”
“I know. It shouldn’t upset me when she does these things, but it does. I thought . . . I hoped she was making progress. I know she’s trying, but it’s hard for her. Jeff was her only child and she loved him very much.”
“Here, Mom.” Timmy vaulted into the room with a glass of water. The liquid sloshed over the rim as he presented it to her. “Is she all right?” Timmy asked Glen.
He nodded. “I think so.”
“Grandma Potter’s real nice,” Timmy explained, “but she’s a little weird sometimes. She visits old ladies who talk to the dead people and it doesn’t have to be Halloween.”
Jody, drinking the water, almost choked at Timmy’s comment about Halloween. Leave it to a kid to put everything into the proper perspective.
“Your grandmother badly misses your father,” Glen explained, kneeling down so his eyes were level with the nine-year-old. “And when you love someone so very much it eases the pain to pretend they’re still with you.”
“Grandma’s been missing him a long time,” Timmy said solemnly, then looked to Jody. “My mom has too. Until you came along all she ever thought about was my dad and her garden.”
“How do you feel about that?” Glen asked.
“It bothered me a little because I’d like to have a dad who’s alive and who can teach me the things a kid needs to know. I was kind of hoping you’d like me and my mom enough to stick around a while.”
“I like you both a whole lot,” Glen assured him.
“Enough to last through baseball season?”
Glen laughed and hugged the boy. “I’m sure I’ll be around at least that long. Of course it’s up to your mother if she wants to continue dating me.”
“She does,” Timmy said enthusiastically, “don’t you, Mom?”
Jody knew she shouldn’t allow her conversation with Jeff’s mother to upset her, but it had. There’d been similar discussions over the years.
Jody remembered vividly every detail of every long-ago conversation. One had ruined her Christmas, but she refused to allow it to happen a second time. She’d met a good, kind man and she wasn’t going to allow her ex-mother-in-law’s grief to interfere in celebration of the holidays.
If that was the case, Jody reasoned, why couldn’t she sleep? The house was dark and quiet, and she wandered from room to room, unable to quiet that deep inner part of herself.
The pain, she realized, was as fresh now as it had been when she’d been forced to accept that Jeff was dead.
Her father had phoned from Germany with the news. He explained that he’d be bringing Jeff’s body home for burial. She had written down the flight details on a slip of paper and calmly thanked him for dealing with these agonizing details. It wasn’t until after she’d hung up the phone that the full impact of what her father had said settled over her.
Jeff was dead. The years of not knowing had come to an end.
The intolerable waiting was over. The haunting questions had been answered, but the sharp edges of her grief were only beginning. The agony of the unknown felt almost comfortable compared to the brutal loss of hope she’d suffered in exchange.
Until Jeff’s remains could be positively identified—until she could place her husband’s body in the ground and stand at his tombstone, there had always been hope, however slim, that he was alive. Now that had been stripped away from her and she was left to bleed.
Jody remembered how she ripped the flight information from the pad and folded it over and over again until it was a tight square, clenching it in her fist. She needed something to hold on to. All there was for her was a folded slip of paper that listed the information on the flight that was bringing her husband’s body home.
For a long time she’d done nothing but sit and stare into the silence. Her heart had felt as if it had stopped beating.
It was then, Jody realized, that a part of herself had died. No one could endure this kind of emotional torture and possibly survive.
She was dead to all the happy dreams they’d shared. Dead to whatever the future would hold, because she couldn’t share her tomorrows with the man she’d loved so fiercely.
Helen Chandler had arrived shortly after the call came from Jody’s father. She walked into the house and softly called Jody’s name. Jody had stared up at her mother, her eyes dry, her heart shattered. At first she didn’t acknowledge her presence. No one could comfort her. Not even her own mother.
“He’s gone,” Helen had whispered.
Jody nodded. She couldn’t deny it any longer. The hope had been forever destroyed.
Her mother had attempted to console her, wrapping her arms around Jody’s shoulders. But Jody held herself stiff and unyielding.
“Let him go,” her mother pleaded. “Let him rest in peace.”
“Peace?” Jody whispered. How could she possibly have peace now? She shook her head, refusing to release any part of her life with Jeff.
“He’s been found, Jody. Jeff’s coming home.”
Perhaps Jeff’s body had been located, Jody reasoned, but she was more lost now than ever. And she doubted that she would ever find her way again.
How much time had passed since that disastrous day, Jody wondered. Four years? Or was it five? Like so much else in her life, she’d lost track. She moved, one day into the next, dragging her pain with her, the weight almost more than she could bear.
It wasn’t until Timmy had written the letter to God that she realized what she was doing to herself and to her boy. It had shocked her into taking action.
For the first time since Jeff’s death, she was making a new life for herself and for her son, and she couldn’t, wouldn’t, let that be ruined. It had taken her this long to find her footing and she wasn’t going to allow anyone to topple her again.
Angels rarely wept. It happened so seldom, and only while they were on earth duty. Mercy had heard tales of angel tears, but never experienced the phenomenon herself. It was an unpleasant experience. Now they came as a surprise, misting her gaze. She brushed them aside, feeling Leah’s pain as deeply as if it were her own as the young nurse clenched the empty baby book against her bosom.