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O n e
Even without a calendar, I can feel Monday settling into my bones.
I miss the postman because he comes early; Martha, my cleaning woman, arrives thirty minutes late; and the newspaper doesn’t show up at all. I trudge up the driveway and sort through the mail in my hand—mortgage statement, car loan reminder, bills from Sallie Mae and Stetson University. Four credit card offers. An envelope plastered with the image of that smirking insurance lizard. Michael’s copy of Civil War Times.
I walk into the house, step over the cat sprawled on the rug, and drop the historical magazine onto the foyer table. I toss the bills onto the desk in the study, then pause to open the envelope from the mortgage company. Our loan has an adjustable rate, and I need to keep an eye on it.
I turn toward the kitchen, but Martha blocks the doorway, a mop in her hand. “Don’t even think about it.” She glares at me from beneath steel gray brows. “My floor needs at least ten minutes to dry.”
I glance past her, wondering if she managed to get up the spilled candle wax near the dining room table. Probably not, because she hasn’t had time to mop the floor and do spot scrubbing. But Martha, who passed her sixty-fifth birthday ages ago, has been with me fifteen years. This won’t be the first time I’ve discreetly cleaned up areas she missed.
I give her a submissive smile. “I can wait.”
I return to the study and look up when Michael steps out of our bedroom, already in his favorite tweed sport coat. He nods in my direction and gestures toward the mail. “Anything for me?”
“Your magazine is on the table.” I smile and tilt my cheek for a good-morning kiss that doesn’t come. My timing is off, as usual. My husband is doubtless in a rush to get to the coffee shop and his first class. My coffee, he insists, barely merits a passing grade.
Michael moves into the foyer, picks up the magazine, and pauses to skim the headlines on the cover. In the slanting light of early morning, he looks like a GQ cover model or a smoldering ad for Ralph Lauren. My own absentminded professor. My handsome husband who around unfamiliar people is still as shy as a boy on his first date.
I smother a sigh as he drops the magazine into his backpack and glances at me. “Gotta run.”
I wait, anticipating some word about whether he’ll call later, but he’s already reaching for the doorknob. “By the way”—he looks directly at me for the first time—“did I mention that we’re having after-hours department meetings this month? I probably won’t make it home for dinner all week.”
“Meetings every night of the week?” I make a face. “What could possibly be so pressing—”
“Writing up a grant.” He opens the door. “See ya, sweetie.”
And then he is gone, leaving nothing but dancing dust motes and a trace of his cologne in the sun-streaked hallway. I stare at the empty space and speak to the sunbeams angling through the sidelights. “Have a wonderful day, darling.” I smile. “Me? Oh, nothing, just the usual. Picking up the house, doing a load of laundry, and working with my children’s choirs all afternoon.”
I take a deep breath and remind myself that Michael’s silence shouldn’t upset me. My husband is a brilliant man, but he’s not terribly attuned to other people’s feelings. When I need something from him—even something as simple as a hug—I usually have to pin him against the wall and spell out the specifics.
Martha appears in the kitchen doorway. “You talking to me?”
I shake my head. “Sorry. Michael left before I could finish.”
“He’s a man. Off to do important things.”
“Right.” I sigh and move toward the sidelight as I watch my husband pull out of the drive. He used to linger in the foyer, used to kiss me good-bye and invite me to meet him for lunch. I know he’s facing pressure at the university and I know he’s heard rumors of cutbacks. We are only one week into the fall term, and the registrar’s office recently announced that the usual wave of last-minute applicants didn’t materialize this year. The uncertain atmosphere has taken its toll on Michael, leaving him preoccupied and more distant than usual.
But though he’s facing difficulties at work, Michael doesn’t referee the bouts between a thin checkbook and a thick stack of bills. Every weekend I sit at my desk and struggle to balance our expenses, our investments, and the cost of two sons away at college. To my husband, financial pressure is a vague, shapeless concern; to me it’s the ever-expanding and increasingly conspicuous gap between money coming in and money going out.
Still, Michael knows we’re in financial straits and he’s taken some of the burden from my shoulders by agreeing to serve on a grant-writing committee for the university. I know he wants to provide for his family. He can be old-fashioned in that way. Though he appreciates my income, he has always wanted to be responsible and set an example for our sons.
I drop the mortgage statement into the folder for unpaid bills and leave the study, closing the door behind me.
We’ll survive because we’ve faced tough times before. A couple can’t remain happily married without learning how to cope in lean seasons, and in the past twenty-seven years we’ve weathered feast, famine, and every stage in between. We can survive an uncertain economy too.
Will this be the last time I ever open a mailbox?
After sliding several bills into the battered aluminum box, I lift the flag and begin the long walk back to the house. Beyond the rail fence, five retired quarter horses quietly browse the tall grass, the sun dappling their coats. One of them sees me and begins a slow and stately approach, finally dropping his head over the side of the fence.
“Hey there, Magic.” I stroke the gelding’s nose, then scratch the bristly area between his ears. His lovely almond-shaped eyes blink as he whickers in contentment. “You’re a pretty boy, you know that? Then again, why wouldn’t you be? I spent an hour brushing you this morning.”
The horse shakes his head as my favorite orange hen comes strutting down the drive, a train of chicks behind her. Betsy the Easter Egger is one of the reasons our booth at the farmer’s market stays busy on Saturday mornings. The kids adore her pink eggs.
I wait until Betsy and her chicks cross the road, then I give Magic a final pat and continue my walk to the house, inhaling the mingled scents of manure and freshly cut hay. So many farewells to say, so little time. . . .
Two years of waiting have come and gone. For 730 days I’ve pretended to be content. I’ve behaved as if our loss didn’t matter and the doll-like infant we buried wasn’t real.
But she was. And we lost her because of me, so she’s another black mark
on my record. God must be tired of debiting my account.
In four days, though, I’ll be settling my debts forever. I’ll leave my husband to carry on my work, my sisters to celebrate what they knew of my life, and my sweet animals to remind others that every living thing deserves a second chance.
Unlike me, who ruined someone’s life with every chance I got.
I climb the porch steps and tug on the sagging screen door, then turn to survey the place I’ll be leaving behind. Through the screen I see green pastures, a splintering fence, a weathered garage. A colossal live oak shivering in the fall breeze. This peeling house on stilts. Inside, a few pieces of faded furniture and a collection of brightly glazed pottery. All the things I’m willing to surrender as an act of restitution.
Even added together, it’s not so much when you’re the reason three people are dead.
Even from a distance, the man’s height and good looks are enough to make my mouth go as dry as chalk dust. So when he sits at the next table on the outdoor patio, my first instinct is to grab my lemonade and guzzle like a woman with a hollow leg.
Somehow I manage to restrain myself. I nibble at my veggie plate and try hard not to look at the man next door. I succeed, mostly, while he waits, while he orders, and while he waits some more, but when a waiter brings the guy a hamburger, I can’t resist sneaking another peek.
I stifle a squeak when I find him looking at me.
“Excuse me—would you mind if I borrowed your salt?”
The handsome and dark-haired man leans toward me, his left arm extended. The ring finger is stark naked, not even a pale strip where a wedding band should be. I drop my left hand to my lap, hiding the narrow band on my fourth finger, then I surrender the saltshaker and toss him a quick grin to show that I am not ending this conversation. “No extra charge for the pepper, if you want it too.”
He sprinkles salt over his French fries, then hands the shaker back to me. “You can hold the pepper.”
“Already too much spice in your life?”
“Apparently not enough.” His gaze skims over my body—good, he’s not gay—then he turns and rests his hand on the corner of his chair. “Have I seen you here before?”
I tilt my head, grateful that he’s willing to join the game. “Is that an honest question or some kind of line?”
He grins, displaying a row of perfect teeth. “The reason I ask is because I eat at this place all the time. The food’s great and the company’s usually interesting, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here.”
No misunderstanding the invitation in that smile. Or the suggestion in his comment.
“So . . . this place is a favorite of yours?”
“It’s convenient. I work at the medical center across the street.”
I nod at the chair to my right. “If you’re not expecting anyone else, there’s an empty place at my table.”
“So there is . . . and I’m sure these folks need every free table they can get during rush hour.”
I clear the napkin and silverware from the empty place as he stands and transfers his glass of iced tea. While he moves his plate, I slip my wedding band from my hand and drop it into my pocket.
He glances around as he settles at my table. “I suppose the waiter will figure out where I went.”
I deepen my smile. “I’m sure he will.”
Mr. Attractive extends his right hand. “Miller Conrad.”
I take his hand with what I hope is a warm, friendly grip. “Penny Jensen.”
Still grinning, he douses his burger with ketchup. “Where’d you get that adorable dimple, Penny Jensen?”
“From the dollar store. Where’d you find that overused compliment?”
He laughs. “It’s been a while since I’ve worked up the nerve to barge in on a lady’s lunch. I’m not sure what’s gotten into me.”
I bite my lower lip, unable to deny the tingling in the pit of my stomach. “Whatever it is, I like it.”
“You work around here too?”
“At the mall—I’m an associate at Macy’s.”
The title sounds silly when I say it, but the attractive man next to me nods and picks up his burger. I lift my lemonade and sip it as I study him. I know practically nothing about this guy, but already I’d swear he is the complete opposite of my husband. He’s older, which is definitely a good thing, since Bob has worn me out with his wheedling about a baby. And if Miller Conrad’s job involves medicine, he’s not likely to be unemployed anytime soon. Financial security . . . would be nice. Being appreciated would be nicer still.
“You work at the medical center?” I lower my glass and smile into his eyes. “You’re not wearing a lab coat.”
“If a white coat would impress you, I could step into the kitchen and see if the chef has anything available.”
My cheeks grow warm. “Some of the doctors who come here wear their lab coats. So I wondered—”
“If I’m also a pretentious twit? I could be, but I spend most of my day peering through a microscope. I’m in research. Most people find my work boring.”
I laugh. “I’ve met boring, and you’re definitely not him.”
His blue eyes spark as he lowers his hamburger. “Since moving here from Delaware, I’ve met a lot of Southern women, but you’re the first who actually lives up to the reputation.”
“Is that so?” I pick up my fork and spear a piece of broccoli. “Funny, but I don’t remember calling you sugar or honey pie.”
“It’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it. In that accent and sort of . . . oozing with charm.”
“Well . . . I’m not sure oozing is a good thing, but my grandma always said you should accept a compliment whenever it’s offered. So thank you, sir.”
Miller is still smiling when the waiter approaches. “I’ll take my check whenever you’re ready,” he tells the young man. “And hers too.”
My pulse skitters when he takes my bill. I lower my gaze and dip a carrot stick into a pool of dressing, silencing my conscience with a sharp rebuke: I’m having lunch with a new friend, that’s all. Can I help it if he’s attractive, attentive, and delighted by my dimple?
Where’s Martha Stewart when I need her?
Like a mindless zombie I stand at the open freezer and stare at bags of frozen vegetables, an ancient box of Popsicles, and a stack of microwavable diet dinners. Why should I bother to cook something when Michael’s not likely to be home until after dinner?
I finally grab a single-portion box of spaghetti and pop it into the microwave. While the oven hums, I fill a glass with ice and reach for the pitcher of sweetened tea. When the spaghetti is done, I pull the dish from the microwave and sit at the kitchen counter, my thoughts drifting toward my husband as I murmur a quick word of thanks.
I don’t know how the university administration can guarantee job security for its entire faculty, but even though Michael has tenure I’ve never seen him look so worn-out. Lately I’ve noticed new worry lines in his forehead and darker circles beneath his eyes. He may be worried about other teachers in the history department, several of whom are his close friends.
I am twirling my fork in the steaming spaghetti when the phone rings. Instantly, a parade of fears marches through my mind—Ross has broken up with his adorable girlfriend, Ryan has been in a car wreck, Michael has had a heart attack—but the voice on the line is bright, female, and dripping with Southern sweetness. It’s Barbara Jones, the Realtor from St. Simons Island, who for nine long months has been trying to sell Grandmother Lillian’s beach house.
“Finally!” she crows after a quick hello. “We have a buyer and he’ll pay cash. He loves the area, he adores the cottage, and he knows a deal when he sees one. His offer is twenty percent below our asking price, but since y’all weren’t able to get up here and clean the place out—”
“We’ll take it.” The words slip out of my mouth before I can form a more thoughtful answer.
Belatedly, my brain reminds me that I ought to consult with my sisters before I accept a deal. Grandmother left the house to the three of us, but since none of us was able to buy out the others, we decided to sell and split the profits. After all, Michael and I live in Savannah, Penny and Bob live in Gainesville, and Rose lives with Wort in Jacksonville. St. Simons properties usually fetch a good price, but the real estate market has been so depressed that any offer would look good to us.
“I thought this contract would please you.” Barbara is almost purring. “There’s only one catch—the buyer wants to use the house as his retirement home, and he’ll be relocating from New York. He’s already sold his property there, so he wants to take possession by the fifteenth.”
“Don’t panic, sugar.” She laughs. “You still have two full weeks to remove any personal property from the house. Can y’all manage it, or should I hire someone to do the cleanout?”
Do the cleanout sounds so final, so . . . funereal. A shiver glissandos up my spine as the phrase conjures up images of faceless strangers hauling away my grandmother’s antique piano, pawing through her drawers and jewelry box, unpacking her cluttered closets . . .
“I’ll handle everything,” I assure the Realtor. “I’ll call my sisters and we’ll clean the place out together.”
“Labor Day is right around the corner,” she reminds me. “And the utilities are still on at the property. Maybe y’all could make it a girls’ weekend and have a cleaning party.”
My stomach tightens at the thought of the job ahead. Only an agent on commission would think of such work as a party, but I shouldn’t be so cynical. After all, this sale means we will finally get our inheritance. Grandmother’s bequest will go a long way toward easing my family’s financial burden.
“Don’t worry,” I tell the Realtor. “I’ll make sure the house is empty and spotless by the fifteenth.”
“All righty, then.” Barbara’s voice brims with satisfaction. “I’ll drop by with copies of the paperwork this weekend. In the meantime, I’ll fax you a copy of the offer. Sign and return it as soon as possible, and we’ll be all set.”
“Happy to do it,” I tell her, meaning every word.
“Dad burn it, woman, I’m not about to go prowlin’ under the house for no cat.”
I bite my lip and stare into Wort’s face, allowing him to see the water welling in my eyes. Tears spring up easily these days, on account of all the farewells. . . .
Wort probably thinks I’m being hormonal, but I can’t leave knowing that my house is functioning as a trap for stray animals. A black cat has wormed his way into the crawl space, entering through a hole in the broken lattice. I need to get the cat out and the hole repaired.
I sit back on my haunches and focus on Wort, determined to make him understand. “Sweetie, I can’t sleep if that cat’s still under there tonight. I just can’t. So unless you want me up pacing at two a.m., you might as well help me get him out.”
“He’ll crawl out when he’s good and ready. He got in, didn’t he? So he
can get out.”
“Just because he can crawl out doesn’t mean he will. Animals don’t
always know what’s good for them.”
Wort snorts. “Listen to you. Good grief, honey, do you know what could be
under that house? Snakes. Spiders, the poisonous kind. Maybe even a raccoon
or a possum.”
“We have spiders and snakes everywhere, yet we manage to survive just fine. Besides, I’m not asking you to live under the house. Just get in there far enough to grab that kitten.”
Wort stares at me, frustration and affection warring in his eyes, then he sputters an oath and drops to one knee. With a critical eye he examines the rotting lattice nailed to the side of our rambling frame house.
“Dad blame cat,” he mumbles, ripping off the broken section with his bare hands. “Makin’ more trouble than he’s worth. Now I’ll have to replace this whole panel or we’ll have who knows what living under there.”
Grateful to have won his cooperation, I kneel beside him and search for a few soothing words. “Maybe the cat did us a favor. We needed to fix the lattice anyway, right? After all, if a cat could get through, so could a skunk.”
“That hole was tiny. It might have stayed tiny for a year or two, but now . . .” He tosses the broken lattice aside and bends to peer into the dark spaces between the brick supports. “Are you sure the cat is still in there? Maybe he slipped out the other side.”
“Use this.” I hand him the big flashlight I brought from the utility room. “And there are no holes anywhere else. I checked. He’s got to be under there.”
As if to prove my point, a mournful meow rises from somewhere in the darkness. Wort clicks the flashlight, which doesn’t respond until he slams the barrel against his meaty palm. He shines the golden beam into the crawl space, and after a couple of sweeps we spot a pair of glowing green eyes and an arched mound of black fur.
“There he is,” I say.
Wort grunts. “And that crawl space is narrower than I thought. I’m not goin’ in.”
I stare at him, unable to believe he’d give up so easily. This man has ridden a Harley from Las Vegas to Orlando, he’s drunk Mexican tequila and eaten the worm, and once he dived headfirst into a lake without having the slightest idea if the water was more than a foot deep.
He’s not afraid. He simply doesn’t want to do this . . . for me or for the cat.
I tilt my head and try gentle persuasion. “You could slide in on your belly.”
He straightens and laughs, brushing his hand on his jeans. “Why don’t you go in? You’re a lot smaller than me.”
I catch my breath, but there’s no debating that point. Wort is a big man, with a round belly and a full beard to match. If he got stuck under the house I don’t know what I’d do. Call 911, probably, unless we borrowed a tactic from Winnie the Pooh and waited for Wort to starve to a more manageable size.
Maybe I should crawl under there.
“Okay.” I square my shoulders. “I’ll go. Hand me the flashlight.”
“Rosie.” Wort’s hand falls on my shoulder. “Don’t worry about the dang cat. Leave it alone and it’ll come out when it gets hungry. Or set some food out here—something smelly, like tuna. That cat’ll come out soon enough.”
I crouch on hands and knees, shining the flashlight until it catches the luminous gleam of animal eyes. “What if he’s hurt?”
“It’s not even your cat.” Wort points out. “It may be feral. Wild cats don’t appreciate being dragged out of their hiding places. You need to leave it alone before you get hurt.”
“But it’s been crying all day. If it was gonna come out, surely it would have by now. I’m afraid something’s wrong with it.”
“So? Not your responsibility.”
I toss a reproving look over my shoulder. Wort should know better. If there’s anything Gran taught me, it’s that every animal on this earth is mankind’s responsibility. So any creature, large or small, that wanders onto our property falls under my protection. I’m presently caring for five dogs, three cats, a rabbit, a python, a flock of chickens, and five retired racehorses. Seems like every month I step outside and find some new critter abandoned in our yard . . . which might explain the appearance of this kitten.
I place the flashlight in Wort’s hand. “Aim it at the cat.” I lower myself to my elbows. “I’m going in.”
Wort’s jaw drops for an instant, then he grins. “Better hurry. Sundown’s comin’, and I wouldn’t want to be stuck under there after dark.”
“Don’t remind me.” I lower my head and ease into the dark space, crawling beneath the crossbeams that support the floorboards. The ground beneath my palms feels like pure sand, and my path is littered with bits of broken concrete blocks, wood, and the occasional scrap of paper. Fifteen feet ahead of me, the cat wails again, but I can’t tell whether his cry is a plea or a warning.
I drop my hand to the ground and yelp when something stings me.
“What happened?” Wort’s voice rings with urgency. “You okay?”
“Piece of glass.” I wince as I pull the offending shard from the curve of my thumb. “I’m okay.”
“Good grief, you’re probably gonna get infected. All for the sake of a stupid cat.”
“Hush up, will you? I’ve nearly got him.”
I block all thoughts of black widows, brown recluses, and anything else that might lie in the surrounding darkness as I creep closer to the kitten, now backed up against a concrete footer. He crouches and arches his spine as he watches me advance, but he doesn’t run.
“Here, kitty kitty,” I call, injecting a playful note into my voice. “Are you hungry? Would you like some sardines?”
The cat releases a plaintive meow in response.
I extend my bleeding hand while keeping up a stream of soothing cat-talk. “Pretty kitty. Pretty, pretty kitty. Come here, and I’ll get you some sardines and tuna.”
My bloody fingers are only inches from the cat’s scruff when the cell phone in my pocket shatters the quiet. The shrill blast sends the cat bolting toward the front of the house. When Wort follows it with the flashlight, gloomy darkness swallows me whole.
Unable to sit upright. I drop flat to the ground and fumble for the cell phone. “Hello? Hello?”
“Rose! I have good news—we finally have a buyer for Grandmother’s house.”
I groan. My oldest sister has a knack for calling at exactly the wrong time. “Great. Can we talk about it later?”
“Well”—Ginger’s offended, I can tell from the huff in her voice—“way to thank me for passing on a little good news.”
“Sorry, but I’m flat on my belly in the dirt. Can I call you later?”
“What are you—never mind. I called to see if you’re available on Labor Day weekend. Now that we have a buyer, we have to clean out Grandmother’s place. If you want anything of hers, this is your chance to claim it.”
I don’t want anything from Grandma’s house—after all, it’s not like I can take anything with me when I go—but money from the sale might come in handy around here. Wort can have my share of Lillian’s estate. I just hope he doesn’t blow it on funeral flowers and a headstone.
“This coming weekend, huh?” I close my eyes. Labor Day weekend is only days away, preceded by the Saturday I was planning to write some kind of explanation for Wort and swallow a couple of bottles of aspirin. His motorcycle club has a charity ride and picnic planned for Sunday, but I figured Wort could use the three-day weekend to grieve. If he wanted to, that is. If I were married to me, I’d probably opt for the picnic.
“Come on,” Ginger begs. “Time is of the essence, kiddo. The buyer is ready to move and the real estate agent is anxious to get things done. Besides, we might actually have fun.”
That doesn’t seem likely, but a weekend away might give me a chance to say good-bye to my sisters. We haven’t seen one another since Grandma Lillian’s funeral, and that encounter was just plain awkward. We ended up talking about how good Gran looked in her casket instead of how much she meant to us. As usual, we focused on unimportant details and locked up our thoughts about things that really mattered.
If I go to the cottage . . . will I be able to open up and tell my sisters what I’m really thinking?
“Okay.” I whisper as the flashlight beam bounces in the darkness to my left. “I’ll drive up to Gran’s house on Saturday morning.”
“Good.” Ginger’s tone reverts to clipped and no-nonsense. “I’ll let you go now because I need to call Penny.”
“Right. See ya later.”
Looks like my plans will have to be put on hold for a day or two.
I disconnect the call and slide the phone into my jeans pocket. My right hand is warm and sticky with blood, and something tells me I should hurry and get a bandage on the wound. “I’m sure about one thing,” I yell to Wort, “that kitty isn’t hurt. He ran like a bank robber when the phone rang.”
“So you come on out,” Wort commands, his voice booming from somewhere behind me. “You’ll never catch that skittish cat tonight.”
“You’re probably right.” I shimmy backward through the dirt, grateful that I’m wearing an old T-shirt and work jeans. When Wort drops an encouraging hand on my ankle, I turn and crawl through the gaping hole. Sitting upright, I lift my head and brush dirt from my uninjured hand, wishing I could smack the I told you so grin off my husband’s face.
“I know what to do.” I hold my injured hand aloft and stand on shaky legs. “I’m going to the kitchen for sardines. I’ll leave them on the lawn tonight, and if the cat comes out, you can repair the hole tomorrow.”
“First you’re going in the bathroom to clean that cut. I’ll set out the sardines and stuff.”
“And if he doesn’t come out by tomorrow?”
Wort rolls his eyes. “I guess I’ll have to install a pet door or something. But if I’d known that stupid cat was gonna cost me a trip to the lumberyard—”
“Don’t worry about the money,” I tell him, holding my hand and turning toward the house. “That was Ginger on the phone. Apparently we Lawrence girls are finally about to divvy up our inheritance.”
Thirty more minutes, I tell myself. I have to keep it together until closing time, then I can go outside and scream.
The question distracts me from the rack of junior separates I’ve been sorting for the past hour. I turn, expecting to find a teenage girl, but I find two—and both are accompanied by an attractive middle-aged man who wears the patient expression of a tired father reluctantly pressed into shopping service.
I paste on the professional smile of a Macy’s employee. “Can I help you young ladies?”
The younger girl holds up a sequined top. “Do y’all have this in an extra small? I couldn’t find one on the rack.”
“Let me check that for you.”
I lead the way to the display of aqua and peach T-shirts, noticing that the girls have avoided the clearance rack and chosen from an overpriced display of separates produced by a young actress-turned-designer. After peering at the tags on a dozen sequined shirts, I sigh and shrug. “I’m sorry, honey, but we seem to be sold out of your size.”
“Can you check the back?” The father gives me an apologetic smile. “She has her heart set on this shirt because her friend has one just like it.”
“I understand, but all those shirts are out on the floor. You might want to check the clearance rack by the dressing room. I don’t think you’ll find the exact shirt over there, but y’all might find a couple of similar styles and colors.”
“What do you say, honey?” The father looks at his daughter, frank pleading in his eyes. “Maybe you and your friend can look similar instead of exactly alike. Won’t that be good enough?”
The girl—who looks to be eleven or twelve at most—pushes her lower lip forward in a pout, but then she looks at her older sister. The older girl glances at her dad, then nods almost imperceptibly. “He’s right,” she says, her voice ringing with authority. “You don’t want to look exactly like Zara, do you?”
The younger girl bobs her head. “Yeah, I do.”
“But with a different shirt, you might actually look better than Zara. Come on, let me help you pick out something nice.”
The older sister leads the younger girl away, but not before giving her dad a glance that clearly says, You owe me one.
The father acknowledges his debt with a nod, then looks at me. “Thanks,” he says, a world of meaning in his weary smile. He swings another shopping bag across his shoulder and trails his daughters across the floor.
And as I watch them go, I wonder why these girls aren’t shopping with their mother. Maybe she’s home, maybe she’s working, maybe she lives in another state. Hard to know; families these days come in all shapes and sizes.
But no matter where Mom is, this dad is certainly attuned to his girls. I watch as he follows them to yet another display of overpriced garments and marvel again that he’s out shopping when he could be snoring in his easy chair at home.
I check my watch—ten minutes until closing. Forgetting about the separates that still need sorting, I tiptoe toward the clearance rack where the girls and their father have finally stopped. Hiding behind a pair of mannequins, I pull sweaters from a shelf and refold them, keeping my hands busy while I spy on the little family.
The younger girl holds up a shirt; the father says it matches her eyes. As the girl jogs into the dressing room, the father asks the older girl how she spent her day at school. The girl shrugs and says, “You know—the usual,” and Dad nods as if she’s just said something terribly profound. When the younger girl comes out of the dressing room in the new shirt, the father whistles appreciatively. A warm glow flows through me when he checks the tag and pretends to be shocked by the price.
My annoyance with my boring job fades as I fold the last sweater and wonder if those girls know how fortunate they are. Not many daughters get that kind of attention from their fathers . . . not many at all.