MY FATHER IS WAITING RIGHT OUTSIDE THE TERMINAL door in his classic 1971 Citroen. The white, zeppelin-shaped car was included with everything else when my parents inherited the vineyard and estate from a long-lost relative.
Read "long-lost" as "imaginary." Avery, again. But it gave my parents and niece a refuge, kept them safe from any fallout that might be directed their way because of my vampire existence. That it turned out so well is a constant source of relief to me.
But now, seeing him standing by the car, face gaunt with worry, I feel none of that relief. We've had to travel so far to get here. If they were still in San Diego . . .
Dad approaches. He's trying to smile. I think for the benefit of the little boy at my side.
John-John is looking at the car. "That's a funny-looking car," he says with the perspicuity of youth.
Dad kneels to eye level and holds out a hand. "It is. That's true. It's called a Citroen. Funny name, too, right? It means 'lemon.'"
John-John takes his hand. "It does look like a lemon! I'm John-John. Are you Anna's daddy?"
"I am. My name is James and I'm very pleased to meet you."
Dad straightens and turns to greet Frey. They exchange handshakes. Dad knows who Frey is-they met at faculty functions when Mom was principal at his school-and though we've made no announcement, he seems to understand that his presence here means something important.
Then we're loading luggage and ourselves into the car. Frey secures John-John into his car seat and climbs into the backseat beside him. I take the front with my dad. He steers the car out of the parking lot and we pull into palm tree-lined roads that lead away from the coastline and toward the highway that will take us to Lorgues.
We are all quiet for a time. I'm trying to find a way to phrase the question that I'm afraid to have answered. Finally, after we've traveled about ten minutes, my dad clears his throat.
"Your mother will be so happy to see you."
I turn in the seat. "How is she?"
"She's doing pretty well right now." A smile. "And that will get better when she sees you."
"Is she at home?"
"Yes. She wouldn't spend a moment longer in the hospital than she needed to."
"Pancreatic cancer," I whisper. "She's never been a smoker. She's not diabetic. How does this happen?"
He glances at me. "You've been doing your homework."
"Before we left yesterday. I didn't have time to do much research. But I did read that in most cases if the tumor can be removed . . ."
"It can't." Dad's voice is gentle. "It was found too late. There were no symptoms and by the time we realized something was wrong . . . Well, the cancer had metastasized."
"I just saw her in December." I hear the plaintive wail in my voice and snap my mouth shut.
"I know." Dad's voice is calm, quiet. "We found out not long after."
My shoulders hunch. I close my eyes. "How long?"
He's quiet and when I straighten to look at him, I see the muscle at the base of his jaw quiver. I touch his shoulder. "It doesn't matter. We'll stay as long as we need to."
He places his right hand over mine and squeezes it.
"How is Trish?" I ask then.
"She's such a wonderful girl," he replies, a small smile touching the corners of his mouth. "She wanted to leave school and stay home to care for your mother. But of course, that would never do! Anita insists she maintain a normal schedule. So she goes to class and keeps up with her homework, but she's curtailed all extracurricular activities. She spends her free time with her grandmother. She won't hear of anything else. She's strong-willed. A fighter. Like you."
I nod approvingly. "Good." It's not surprising. Trish needed to be strong to survive her upbringing.
We lapse into silence again. Our drive through Provence meanders along beautiful country roads-now hugging the edges of steep hillsides, now dipping into picturesque valleys. Everything is spring green and alive. When I glance into the backseat, Frey meets my eyes and smiles. His smile warms my heart and I feel a little of my tension melt away.
I shift my gaze to John-John and discreetly probe his thoughts. This landscape, lush, green, rolling, is so different from his home in Monument Valley where the desert is stark and flat and stretches as far as the eye can see, broken only by monoliths of red rock. I wonder what he thinks of this? I pick up only youthful curiosity and wonder.
Then, Anna, what is that? His voice in my head.
Maybe I'm not probing as discreetly as I imagine. I smile and look out my window. A purple meadow rolls by on the right side. Lavender fields, I tell him. Do you know what lavender is?
John-John looks at his father, who must be explaining what the flower is. As usual, I can only pick up John-John's thoughts. An irritant until it dawns on me that maybe now that we're engaged, it might not be a bad thing that I can't read Frey's thoughts anymore
. Nor he mine. It would take great effort to have to continually sanitize one's thoughts, especially if angry or disappointed. I swivel back around to face the front and leave father and son to their discussion.
I remember from past trips that it takes about an hour to reach the estate. I know we're close when we see the most famous building in Lorgues silhouetted against the cloudless blue sky. La Collegiale Saint-Martin church rises like a great fortress, towering above the countryside. It looks out over green fields broken in color only by the brilliant contrast of those fields of lavender, one of Provence's most famous crops.
Now that we're near, dread makes my heart beat faster. What will Mom look like? Will she be thin and pale? Will she be weak? Or in pain? How will I bear it?
I twist my hands in my lap. I have to be strong.
We pull off the main road and onto the winding drive that leads to the estate. As always, I marvel at how striking it is. The grounds set up like an old bastide, the house on a hilltop surrounded by the vineyards and gardens. The vines are just coming to life, delicate leaves on dark trunks. The gardens are alive with flowers-the pink of wild thyme, yellow of daffodils, vibrantly hued flowers on blooming cherry and almond trees. The house itself, now coming into view, is covered on the south wall by climbing wisteria and its fragile-looking flowers, purple tinged with blue, are in full bloom, pendulous clusters that perfume the air even from this distance.
But in spite of the beauty, there's something else I can't forget-that it was built by Avery centuries before. According to the records, the house was built in three distinct periods, the sixteenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was updated and renovated many times in the course of history. Now, it's thoroughly modern inside, though the outside still retains much of its historic fa&ccedil;ade. Avery, again, and his penchant for good living.
My parents know nothing of its real provenance, of course. Only what was manufactured for them.
I push those thoughts aside. It doesn't matter who owned the property before. All that matters is that my family loves living here.
The house glows under the spring sunshine like a welcoming beacon. The front door opens as soon as we pull into the gravel turnaround. Trish runs out to meet the car. In her jeans and T-shirt, blonde hair pulled back from her face, she looks so young and fragile. But even as we embrace, I look beyond her, anxious to see Mom.
Trish follows my gaze. "She's upstairs. She's having a bad day." She hugs me again. "But when she sees you, she'll be so happy."
Dad shoos me toward the house and takes care of introducing Frey and John-John to Trish. Like my dad, Trish knows Frey. He taught at the school she attended when my family first became aware of her existence. They know him as human, not other-natured.
I faintly catch the exchange of greetings but my concentration is on getting to my mother.
I take the stairs two at a time. My parent's bedroom is at the end of the hall, a large, corner room with windows that overlook the vineyards and gardens. The door stands open and I force myself to slow down, tiptoe toward it, not wanting to risk waking her if she's asleep.
She isn't. She's standing beside the bed, slipping a dressing gown over a silk nightdress. When she sees me, she lets the gown drop to the floor and hurries into my arms.
Her hug is as fierce as ever. But beneath my hands, I feel the ridge of her backbone. In the months since I last saw her, she's lost weight. A lot of weight. And her hair is so thin, I see pink scalp between sparse strands of gold-gray. I have to bite back a sob.
I push myself gently away and lead her back to bed. "Come on. Get back under those covers."
Mom seems reluctant. "I want to go downstairs. See Daniel and meet his son."
"And they want to see you. But there will be plenty of time for that. Right now, it's just you and me. And I want to know how you're doing. How you're really doing. What do the doctors say? And if you want me to call in a specialist for a second opinion or-"
But Mom has my left hand in both of hers, her eyes suddenly as sparkling and bright as the ring she's examining. "Oh. Anna. Does this mean-? You and Daniel?"
I nod. "Did you ever think you'd see the day?"
And then we're both laughing and crying and clinging to each other and for one joyous moment in time, we are just mother and daughter. No intruding thoughts of vampire, no desolate thoughts of illness or death.
Frey was right. Being here, sharing good news, was the best present I could give her.