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Matt Graham had to walk with a slight lean to hold Autumn's small hand as they exited Nelson's Variety Store. He'd hoped that the uniqueness of the old-fashioned five-and-dime with its soda jerk counter, malt machine and 1950s charm would appeal to his six-year-old daughter and maybe even result in a smile. Or, if he could be so lucky, more than a single word.
He glanced down and admired the shiny miniature black and white tiles displaying the store's name on the concrete in front of the building. The letters were block-style and reminded him of Autumn's homework from last night. Her first-grade class had been learning about a different letter of the alphabet each week since school started, and this week's letter was E. For each of the last four weeks, while she studied A, B, C and then D, he tried to bring her homework into their daily conversations, or rather his daily conversations, since most of their discussions were entirely one-sided. It was merely another attempt to converse with his daughter. So far, he hadn't had much success, but maybe this week would be different.
God, let me break through her wall somehow. And please, God, let it be soon.
Matt sighed, wondering why he still found himself praying at all. He supposed it was more habit than anything else. Because he'd prayed continuously two years ago, and it hadn't saved Rebecca.
He looked back at the tiles and hoped God had decided to give him a little help this week with his daughter. Heaven knew he needed all the help he could get.
"Look, Autumn, that says Nelson's. And it has an E right there" he pointed to the letter "just like the ones you were writing on your paper last night."
Her soft brown curls brushed against his arm as her head tilted to look at the tiles.
Matt paused, waited, hoped.
After a couple of beats, he prompted, "Maybe we could buy some tiles or blocks from the toy store and you could make your letters the way that they did to spell the name of their store. We could put them on the coffee table in the playroom or on the kitchen table, if you like." He smiled. "I think it'd be fun to make letters that way, don't you?"
Brown doe eyes, his precious Rebecca's eyes, looked back at him, and the sadness filling their depths pierced his soul.
Matt's heart squeezed tightly in his chest. She looked so much like her mother. He forced what he hoped was an encouraging smile. "What do you think? Does that sound fun?"
She blinked, looked back at the tiles and whispered, "Maybe."
Matt swallowed, nodded and started down the sidewalk toward Tiny Tots Treasure Box, the toy store located on the other side of the town square. He tried to feel positive about the fact that at least she held his hand. There was some form of connection left between them if she'd still do that, or that's what the last psychologist they visited in Atlanta had said. But Matt didn't want a "connection" with the one person he cared for more than any other. He wanted a bond.
Moving to the tiny community of Claremont, Alabama, had been his last-ditch effort at making that happen. Away from Atlanta, away from his research, and away from the home that held way too many sad memories and not nearly enough happy ones.
The quaint country town nestled amid the foothills of Lookout Mountain had "friendly and inviting" written all over it, right down to the town square, where he'd brought Autumn today after school. But they'd been here two months and she was still trapped inside the protective cocoon she'd created when Rebecca died.
A six-year-old shouldn't know what it's like to lose her mommy. He sighed and realized that a thirty-year-old shouldn't know what it's like to lose his wife, especially when the one person who could have potentially saved her was Matt.
They continued down the sidewalk, and Matt took in the town's charm, from the splashing tiered fountain that centered the square to the colorful planters filled with cascading flowers hanging from wrought iron lampposts along the street. Resident geese gathered near the fountain and squawked loudly as they awaited bits of bread from a gray-haired man sitting on a bench nearby.
Matt inhaled, and the air still held the faint scents of summer, but the gentle coolness of fall. Several couples window-shopped hand in hand, and Matt easily recalled when he and Rebecca would have done the same thing on a beautiful day like this, enjoying the comfortable weather of late September by spending the afternoon outside. They'd never lived in a small town since his research kept them in Atlanta, but she would have liked Claremont. She would have taken great pleasure in sharing this picturesque town square with Matt and Autumn. If Rebecca were here, she'd be laughing, no doubt. She had loved to laugh. He imagined her mocking the squawking geese and coaxing Autumn into doing the same.
Matt glanced at the geese, their black mouths stretching wide as they encouraged the old man to toss more bread, then he looked down at Autumn to see what she thought of the noisy birds. Her head was down, her attention focused on the sidewalk beneath her feet. Matt didn't even attempt to mimic the birds. It wouldn't come across the same way it would have if Rebecca did it, and it really wasn't the type of thing he'd ever done with his little girl. He was always the serious one and Mommy the funny one, until Rebecca became so sick that she stopped laughing at all. Matt tried to recall the last time he heard Autumn laugh.
Obviously he'd have to settle for small steps toward connecting with his daughter. Today she held his hand. He supposed that would have to do.
A few people said hello as he and Autumn met them along the square. Matt made sure to nod, smile and return the greeting. He was the new doctor in town, after all, and even though he was still learning the families that were the backbone of Claremont, he realized that most of the small town knew who he was, which was evident when he and Autumn met an elderly woman standing outside of the square's barbershop.
"Well, hello, Dr. Graham. It's good to see you again," she said, then turned her attention away from Matt and to his daughter. "And how are you today, Autumn?"
Matt racked his brain but couldn't place the lady. She hadn't been in to his office, he was sure of that. He made a point of remembering each patient's name. "Knowing someone's name lets them know you really care, not only about their health, but also about them as a person," Rebecca had often reminded him, and Matt had agreed. But even though this lady wasn't a patient, her face looked vaguely familiar.
"Are you having a good time with your dad?" the woman continued, and Matt realized she was waiting for some type of response from his daughter.
He gently squeezed Autumn's hand and hoped it was enough encouragement that she would say something. Anything.
Autumn nodded, and Matt figured he should be thankful that she responded in some manner. Even though school had only been in session for a month, her teacher had already called him in twice to discuss her lack of communication skills, and Matt had assured the lady that Autumn was still coping with losing her mom and that she'd be better soon.
He'd been telling himself the same thing for two years.
"How did you like the book you checked out this week?" the woman asked. "You got a Curious George one, didn't you?"
Autumn nodded, and Matt's mind clicked into gear with the memory of this womanMrs. Ivey, he now recalledshowing off Claremont Elementary's updated library at the school's orientation night.
"Her grandmother has been reading it to her each night before she goes to bed," Matt said, and smiled, picturing Maura sitting beside Autumn in the bed and telling her all about the adorable monkey and the man with a yellow hat.
Matt's mother-in-law had been grateful to him for asking her to move with them to Claremont. She'd wanted to be a part of her granddaughter's life and was more than happy to take care of Autumn each afternoon until Matt got home from work.
"Well, we have plenty of Curious George books in the library," Mrs. Ivey said, "so if you want, you can check out another one next week when your class has their library day. Okay?"
Another nod from Autumn, and Matt didn't miss the way Mrs. Ivey's mouth flattened at the solemn gesture and then the undeniable look of pity that she reflected toward his precious little girl.
Thankfully Mr. Ivey chose that moment to exit the barbershop and join his wife. Her attention taken off of Autumn, the librarian introduced her husband, told Autumn she would see her at school and then the couple continued down the street.
"She's a nice lady," Matt said. "And she even remembered which book you checked out. That's pretty special, don't you think?"
He took a few steps then heard Autumn whisper,
Yes. One of four words he'd heard out of his daughter's mouth since Rebecca died. Yes. No. Okay. Maybe. Nothing more, nothing less.
Matt didn't know what else to do, didn't know what else to say. The disconnect between himself and his little girl, between everyone and his little girl, was so intense that he was starting to think it'd be easier for him to perform surgery blindfolded than to get her to open up, which was why he thought he was imagining things when she stopped walking, pointed to the toy store and said her first full sentence in two years.
Her words were softly spoken, so quiet that Matt couldn't make them all out at first. So he asked, "What, honey? What did you say?"
Autumn didn't answer, but her brown eyes widened, and she moved closer to the toy shop's window, where Matt now noticed a woman assembling a complex display of several miniature houses.
Apparently realizing that she had visitors, she finished placing a tiny barbershop pole outside one of the buildings then turned, looked at Matt and Autumn, and gave them a full smile.
Beautiful. The first word that came to mind at the image in the window. Her face radiated happiness, confidence, and a mesmerizing beauty that rendered Matt quite speechless. With dark eyes, high cheekbones and full lips, she had an exotic appeal, in spite of her traditional attire. She wore a pink T-shirt, cuffed blue jeans and sparkly silver ballet slippers. Her brown hair was short, with the edge of wispy curls barely touching her collar, and her bangs were pulled to the side and pinned back with a bright pink jeweled barrette. Still smiling, she motioned toward Autumn and crooked her finger, inviting them to come inside.
To Matt's shock, Autumn tugged on his hand, looked up at him and smiled. She really smiled. Then his dear little girl repeated the same words Matt thought she'd said earlier, only he heard them clearly this time.
"She's like Mommy."