Night Road

Page 45

For the next two hours it was just Grace and her grandmother, together in this small house, hardly ever talking.
Then, finally, Daddy was home. Grace heard his car drive up, saw the headlights flash light into the house. She jumped down from the sofa and ran for the front door.
"Daddy!" she yelled when he came into the house. He dropped his big backpack and scooped her into his arms. Just like that, her world righted itself.
He kissed her cheek. "How's my girl?"
"I'm good, Daddy."
He smiled at that, but she could see how tired he was. His eyelids were kind of saggy, and he'd forgotten to comb his hair again today.
"Hey, Mom," he said. "Something smells good."
Nana came into the room. She was wiping her hands on a towel, but that was stupid because she never made a mess or got dirty. "Meatloaf and au gratin potatoes. The salad is in the fridge."
"You didn't have to do that," he said, starting to loosen his hold on Grace.
She clung to him like a cobweb. "I love you, Daddy," she said.
"I love you, too, Princess."
Nana came closer. She peered at Daddy, her pretty face turning into another frown. "You aren't sleeping."
"Finals," he said.
Grace didn't understand. Of course he wasn't sleeping. He just got home. "Are we gonna play rodeo tonight, Daddy?" That was her favorite. She got to ride on his back while he bucked her high into the air.
"Maybe Grace should stay with us tonight," Nana said.
Grace tightened her hold on her daddy. "I won't bother you, Daddy. I promise. I'll let you study."
"Thanks, Mom," Daddy said, "but we're good."
Nana gave him a long steady look, and then shrugged. "Okay. I'll be here before eight to pick her up. Don't stay up too late."
Grace felt a rush of relief when Nana was gone. She didn't quite know why, but her grandmother scared her. It was like playing with someone's extraspecial toy, you were always afraid you were going to accidentally break it.
She looked at her daddy and saw how tired he was. She hated when he got quiet. "They made me the queen of kindergarten," she said, hoping to make him proud.
"Even after you punched Austin?"
"No one likes him, Daddy. They were glad I punched him."
"What is it, the Lord of the Flies day care?"
He carried her over to the sofa and sat down. She snuggled up to him, resting against his chest. This was her favorite place in the whole world. The only time she ever felt safe was when he was holding her.
"Why did they make you queen?"
She scrunched her face in thought. Then she remembered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie got to be the winner cuz he was the nicest boy. "I saved Brittany from drowning. She went in too deep so I saved her."
"Saved Brittany from drowning," he said, staring down at her.
She felt her cheeks grow hot. How come lies just popped out of her mouth like little soap bubbles? She couldn't help it. No wonder no one liked her.
Daddy touched her cheek. "You know, Grace, when I was a kid, I thought I had to do everything right. Go to the right school, get the right grades, follow the rules. I wanted to make my mom … and my sister … proud of me." He looked away. For a long time, he was quiet, and the silence made her heart hurt. Had she said the wrong thing again? Finally he cleared his throat and said, "The point is: I'm proud of you just the way you are. I love you no matter what, Gracie. You can take that to the bank."
She didn't know what he meant. She hated the bank, except for the strawberry candies they gave out, and she knew the rest of it wasn't true. Once, she'd heard Daddy tell Papa that Grace was having trouble in school. Behavioral problems and no friends were the words she'd heard through the door. Her daddy had said a really bad word and asked Papa when they all just got to be happy again.
He wanted her to have friends. It was important to him. "I'm pop'lar, Daddy. I can't hardly finish my lunch cuz everyone is talking to me so much."
He leaned down and kissed her cheek. "Okay, Princess," he said with a sigh. "Okay. Now let's have something to eat before I pass out."
"I made the meatloaf," Grace said, smiling proudly at him. Her dad's smile was sad, and that scared her so much she added, "And the 'tatoes."
He kissed her again and got up. "Come on, Gracie, let's eat."
She hurried along behind him, trying to keep up.
* * *
Once again, Jude had awakened too early. There was no light bleeding through the louvered blinds in her bedroom, but she could feel dawn gathering on the horizon like an army before a charge.
Beside her, she felt Miles move in his sleep; he turned toward her, took her in his arms, his breath a warm caress against the back of her neck.
She rolled over and snuggled close to him, slid her bare leg between his. His eyes opened slowly, lazily, and he smiled.
He leaned closer, kissed her lightly at first, then more passionately. His hands slid down her silky nightgown and found the lacy hem, then bunched it, dragged it up, up, until she was naked. He took off his boxer shorts and threw them aside.
She followed the lead of his desire, touched him the way he liked, arching into his hand until she had to have him inside of her. When she came, it was an explosion of feeling from somewhere deep inside of her. She cried out so loudly it embarrassed her, and when she collapsed beside him, she was trembling.
They never spoke about this new passion of theirs; she knew that he, like she, was afraid that words would jinx it . For so many years after their loss, sex had simply been gone, like smiles and laughter. Its return had surprised both of them. Somehow, they'd learned to connect by touch, to communicate their love almost solely without words. It wasn't the A answer, wasn't enough for Miles, whom she still caught looking at her with infinite sadness most of the time, but it was what they had now, and she knew how lucky they were to have it.
She kissed him lightly and drew back. Reaching down for her nightgown, she slipped it back on and got out of bed. At the windows, she stopped and twisted the shades' rod, letting the light stream in. To her left was the garden she'd given up on. It was a riotous mess of flowers and branches and leaves, without order or care. Ugly.
Miles came up beside her, kissed her shoulder. "We're still watching Grace today?"
Jude nodded. "Zach has a finals study group this morning. He seems stressed out."
"I was stressed out second year and I wasn't a twenty-four-year-old single dad." He squeezed her upper arm. "Why don't we bring Gracie over here? Zach can come over whenever he gets done. We can play a game. We still have that Candy Land around somewhere, don't we?"
Jude saw their reflections in the window: watery, pencil-drawing-like shapes. At the words Candy Land, time fell away; she was a young mother again, hunkered down on the floor with her twins, reaching for a card, laughing …
She slipped out of Miles's arms and went into the bathroom. She was out of her nightgown and into the shower before he could get to her.
"I forgot," he said, standing in the doorway, giving her that disappointed look again. "I shouldn't have said that."
"Don't be silly. It's just a game." Her voice barely cracked, but she knew it betrayed her.
There was a pause before he said, "I'll go for a run and meet you at Zach's."
"You run too much," she said.
He shrugged. It was his way of dealing with the loss. He ran; he worked.
"See you later," she said finally. She stayed in the shower until she heard him leave, and then she got out and began drying her hair. By the time she'd dressed in a pair of pale beige capris and a soft cotton T-shirt, she was in control of her emotions again.
Grief was like that these days: a stealth bomber. She could be going along just fine, moving forward, and then something would blow up unexpectedly. Years ago, when it had all been fresh, she could spend days off the path, in a gray world where nothing was stable. Now, she could right herself most of the time.
That was progress.
She started to leave the bathroom and remembered halfway to the door that she hadn't brushed her teeth or put on makeup.
She went back and brushed her teeth but decided to forgo the makeup. She'd only have to remove it tonight, and nothing left her more wrung out than a day with Grace and Zach. It took so much effort to be present in their lives without really being present that she came home exhausted.
She went to her car, a black hybrid SUV, smaller than the old Escalade, and started the engine. Backing out of the garage, she executed a tight three-point turn and drove up the gravel driveway, noticing the wildness of their land. Everything had grown in the past few years; blackberry bushes climbed like bullies over everything.
She turned onto the main road and drove to Zach's house.
As always, walking into this cabin was a little like going back in time for Jude. The blue sofa was the one she and Miles had gotten for their first apartment; the chairs were from the year they'd had the twins. They'd stored all of their old furniture and outdated trinkets for their kids. They used to say jokingly, with two moving out, we'll need to save it all.
Zach was raising his daughter and going to med school in a house that mirrored the one in which she and Miles had done all the same things.
"Anyone here?" she called out.
Zach came around the corner from the kitchen, holding a cup of coffee and carrying Grace, who clung sleepily to him.
"Don't say it," Zach said, rubbing Grace's back. "I know I look like shit. I was up until four. Can you guys still watch Gracie today? I have study group."
"Of course."
"Thanks. I can be home by seven."
Jude nodded and went into the kitchen, where she started cooking breakfast. Because she kept Zach's house stocked with food, she knew she'd find everything she needed for waffles, scrambled eggs, and a fruit plate.
When Miles got there, hair still wet from his shower and smiling in the way that only he among them still could, Jude felt a weight slide off her shoulders. Miles was the glue that held their lives together. Around him, Jude and Zach breathed easier.
"There's my girl," Miles said, opening his arms wide.
Zach put Grace down and she ran for her grandfather, hurled her little pink polka-dot flanneled body at him.
Miles scooped her up and whispered something in her ear, and she giggled.
Jude felt a spasm in her chest. There were times, like this, when all that she'd lost hit her so hard she had trouble standing.
"Let's eat while it's hot," she said tightly.
"Yummy!" Grace said, scampering out of Miles's arms and running for the table. As always she sat next to a blank spot and an extra place setting. That was the place for her "invisible friend."

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