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By JUDY DUARTE
Copyright © 2008 Judy Duarte
All right reserved.
Analisa Dawson stood in the center of Mulberry Park and stared at the biggest tree in the whole world, with branches that reached all the way to Heaven.
She fingered the gnarly trunk, then looked way up to the top, where the dancing leaves poked through the cotton clouds and waved to the sun and beyond.
It was perfect. If she put her letter high enough in the branches, God could reach it. But there was one little problem. She was going to need some help.
She glanced across the lawn where Mrs. Richards was sitting on a green park bench under the shade of another tree-one a whole lot smaller. The nanny's eyes were closed, her head was drooped, and her hands rested in her lap.
Sometimes, when Mrs. Richards brought Analisa to the park and she didn't have another lady to visit with, she dozed off while Analisa played, which is what she was doing now. But even if Analisa wanted to wake her up-and she didn't-poor Mrs. Richards couldn't walk very good because she had arthritis in her knees. So no way could she climb up a tree, especially that one, which meant Analisa would have to find someone else to help.
As she searched the park, she spotted the man who always sat at the same picnic table by the winding walkway that led to the restrooms. Today he was wearing a yellow baseball cap and a green shirt with brown suspenders, and as usual, he was playing a game all by himself.
Mrs. Richards called it chest. It didn't seem like a fun game, though, because the man hardly ever smiled.
He did smile and say hello once, but when she started toward him, Mrs. Richards pulled her aside and said, "Analisa, we don't talk to strangers."
So she wouldn't ask him for help.
Trevor was here again today, sitting by the monkey bars and digging a hole in the sand. He didn't usually talk to her. At first Analisa thought that was because she was a girl, but then she realized he didn't play with boys very often, either.
Mrs. Rodriguez would help, if she was here. But she only brought her children to the park in the afternoons or on Sunday mornings, after they went to Mass, which was the same as church but with a lot more candles.
Analisa missed going to church, like she used to when she lived in Rio del Oro with her mother and father. At least people talked about God there and could answer her questions.
It was different in California. So far, she hadn't been able to find anyone who knew anything about Heaven. So she'd written a letter to God, which was why she had to find someone to put it in the tree. And the only someone she could see was Trevor.
He wasn't a whole lot bigger than her, but he was older and might be a good tree-climber. Besides, asking him to do a favor wasn't the same as playing, so she walked back to the playground toward the boy.
He wore a red shirt and jeans, and when the summer breeze blew a piece of his hair away from his forehead, she spotted a scar over his eye. She wondered what had happened to him, but knew better than to ask. Mommy had taught her not to stare at people who had something wrong with them.
As her shadow covered him and his hole, he looked up but didn't talk or smile.
Analisa nibbled at her bottom lip, kicked at the sand, then cleared her throat. "Excuse me, but when you get done with your hole, can you help me do something?" He shrugged. "Depends. What kind of help do you want?"
She turned and pointed toward the branches that reached clear to Heaven. "I need someone to climb that tree."
His gaze followed the direction of her finger, then he scrunched his face. "How come?"
She reached under her shirt and pulled out the envelope she'd tucked into the waistband of her shorts. "I need to put this way up high."
Trevor glanced at the bright pink letter she'd worked hard on last night, then looked back at her. "How come you want to put it in a tree?"
"Because I wrote it to God. And this morning at breakfast I asked Mrs. Richards if the mailman took letters to Heaven, and she said no."
Trevor rubbed the knuckle of his pointer finger under his nose, leaving a dirty smudge on his upper lip. She opened her mouth to tell him, so he could wipe it with his shirt, but decided not to.
"You know," Trevor said, "you're wasting your time. God isn't going to answer you."
"Yes, He will. If I get it high enough." Analisa crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one foot.
That tree was going to take her letter all the way to Heaven.
As the sun cast a fading glow over the San Diego suburb of Fairbrook, Claire Harper ran as if the devil were closing in on her, and sometimes she swore he was.
Her feet pounded a lonely cadence on the path along First Street, as her breath came out in sharp huffs and her heart pulsated in time.
Left, right. Left, right. In and out. In and out.
Supposedly endorphins gave a runner a natural high, but Claire ran only in an effort to relieve stress-and Lord knew she had plenty of it.
So each day after work, she drove to Mulberry Park, where she slipped out of her power suit and into a pair of shorts and an old T-shirt that had once been Ron's, kicked off her sensible heels and put on a pair of sneakers. Then after a bit of stretching, she took off down the jogging path, hoping to escape the depression that had dogged her for the past three years, the broken heart that kept her from getting a full night's sleep.
She had medication to help with that, pills prescribed by the shrink Ron had insisted she see, but she quit taking them because the side effects made it difficult for her to function at work, especially in the mornings.
Claire turned down the path that lined Applewood Drive and headed back to the park.
There was a light wind today, a heavenly breeze her grandmother used to call it. The kind that carried God's whispers to those who took time to sit and listen.
As a child, on days like this, Claire would close her eyes and try to hear the voice Nana had talked about. But that was eons ago, back in a time when she'd actually believed dreams could come true.
People told her time would heal, but it hadn't. Grim memories still followed her, haunting her.
The lifeless body of her son. The stuffed bunny held in cold hands. The shovelful of dirt landing upon the small white casket that had been lowered into the ground.
"Focus on the sweeter images," the shrink had said. And she'd tried.
Erik's first smile. His first tooth. His first step.
It felt like a lifetime ago that she'd ruffled his hair, brushed a kiss across his brow. And no matter how far she ran, how hard, she couldn't escape the fact that he was gone.
Yet each day after work, she continued to follow the same path, sticking to the same routine and returning home with the same results-a body that was toned, a soul that was battered, a heart that wouldn't mend.
As Mulberry Park came back into view, she slowed to a stop, exhausted. Trying to catch her breath and cool down, she trudged toward the massive mulberry that grew in the middle of the lush green lawn.
Near the tree a concrete bench had been erected, a memorial to Carl Witherspoon, dear departed husband, father, and friend. Claire had never heard of the man, but each day, at dusk, she claimed the quiet spot as her own.
Leaves littered the concrete slab, and she brushed them away before sitting on the cold stone seat.
The heavenly breeze continued to blow, to rustle through the branches.
"Close your eyes," Nana used to say. "Listen to the wind and you can hear God's voice."
A couple of times, Claire could have sworn she'd heard it, too. But she no longer spoke to God, no longer listened for His voice. No longer expected anything from Him.
And why should she? He'd quit listening to her three years ago.
From the corner of her eye she spotted a flicker of pink overhead. She glanced up to see an envelope flutter down, just missing her lap as it landed on the ground. It was the color of a flamingo, with glitter stuck to uneven globs of glue, and a child's handwriting on the front.
Unable to quell her curiosity, she bent and reached for what looked like a greeting card.
To God From Analisa was etched on the front.
As Claire lifted the envelope from the ground, a sprinkle of shiny gold and silver rained onto the grass. Then she glanced up at the mulberry, at the expanse of branches and leaves.
She perused the envelope, then turned it over, where the flap had been licked to the point it was barely secure. Inside, she felt a small tube-sized lump.
The strangest compulsion to open it settled over her. The urge to see the little girl's picture, to read the painstaking scrawl of her words.
It had been three years since Claire had seen anything this precious.
Erik's efforts to draw and write never failed to touch her, which is why she wouldn't remove his last pieces of art from the refrigerator.
Ron used to complain about that.
"For cripe's sake, Claire. I loved him, too, but he's gone. Dwelling in the past is making me crazy, not to mention what it's doing to you. Can't you take those drawings down? Put them in storage someplace?"
That had been the beginning of the end of their marriage.
Well ... No, that wasn't exactly true. But it had been the beginning of the realization that without Erik to bind them together she and Ron no longer had anything worth holding onto.
"It isn't healthy," Ron used to tell her. "Sitting in Erik's room for hours on end."
Maybe it hadn't been.
But for some reason, Ron had been able to forget their bright-eyed son and she hadn't.
"You need to move on, Claire."
Like he had?
Ron's half of the wrongful death settlement had already been spent or invested.
But Claire hadn't touched hers.
How could she, when she considered it blood money?
She fingered the pink paper and the flap on the back began to lift. To open.
It wasn't a conscious decision. Not really. But she found herself reaching into the envelope, pulling out the folded letter and a blue marker. Reading the words.
Tell Mommy and Daddy I am being good. And that I love them. And you. Will you rite back and tell me what Mommy and Daddy are doing in hevin? I asked Unkel Sam and he doznt no. I will put a marker in the invalop for you in case they dont have pens in hevin.
Tears blurred Claire's eyes, and a knot tightened in her chest. Her heart, which she thought had become permanently numb and lifeless, quivered.
She scanned the park, her gaze settling on the swing set in the playground, where a dark-haired boy sat alone, his hands on the chains, his toes dragging in the sand. If there'd been a little girl in the area, Claire might have reached out, might have considered embracing her. Might have succumbed to the compulsion to offer sympathy.
But Analisa, whoever she was, had left her letter and gone.
Claire tried to imagine what it would have been like for Erik had Claire been the one to die in the accident, leaving her son to grieve for her.
She would have hoped that someone would have reached out to him, told him that she hadn't wanted to die, hadn't wanted to leave him. Insisted that she would love him forever and do her best to look out for him always, to be his guardian angel-if there were such things.
Her own faith had been shattered by his death and her unanswered prayers, so she'd never been able to envision a smiling Erik with wings and a halo. Yet for some reason she wanted little Analisa to have some peace, to embrace her hopes and dreams-at least until adulthood brought along an inevitable wallop of faith-busting reality.
It's what Claire would have wanted for Erik, even if she couldn't have it for herself. So she uncapped the blue marker as if someone else had stepped in to guide her hand and respond to a child's plea for answers when there weren't any to be had.
Someone else who, for the next couple of minutes, scratched out a note on the back of the child's letter and pretended to be God.
The next day, Claire sat at her desk at Fairbrook Savings and Loan, wishing the clock would kick it up a notch.
She hated her job, hated getting up each day and going to work.
But she hated weekends, too. Days when she didn't have to punch a time clock.
Her stomach growled, reminding her that she should have had more than coffee for breakfast.
She glanced at the clock on the wall. It was nearly noon and she was ready to head to the café down the street and pick up a salad, but there was still a call she needed to make and one more customer to see. So she closed the file she'd been working on, put it in the wire basket that held the other loan applications she'd been processing, and picked up the phone. She dialed her supervisor's extension.
He picked up on the first ring. "Joe Montgomery."
"It's Claire. Have you got a minute?"
"Sure." His voice softened immediately, although she wished it hadn't. He'd always been a bit more sympathetic than she was comfortable with. "What's up?"
"I'd like to take an early lunch on Thursday. I need to see an attorney, and eleven-thirty is his only time slot available."
"Is everything okay?" he asked.
"Yes and no. I received a letter from the parole board, and Russell Meredith's hearing is on July twenty-fourth."
"Do you have any say about him being released early or not?"
"According to the notice, I do. And I want him to stay behind bars as long as possible."
"I can understand that."
Could he? Claire wasn't sure anyone who hadn't lost a child could.
Russell Meredith had been responsible for Erik's death. He'd run him down on the side of the street, then kept driving, callously leaving the scene.
A jury had convicted him of vehicular manslaughter, which, as far as Claire was concerned, was just another word for murder.
"Who are you going to see?" Joe asked.
"Samuel Dawson. He represented Ron and me in the civil suit against Meredith."
At first Claire had felt funny going to the attorney who'd worked more closely with her ex-husband than he had with her, but Sam was already familiar with the case.
"Do you need to take a longer lunch?" Joe asked.
"No. His office is in that new six-story brick building next to Mulberry Park, so it's nearby. I shouldn't be long."
"Take all the time you need."
After hanging up the receiver and disconnecting the line, she glanced at her appointment list, rolled back her chair, then stood and walked to the waiting area, where a petite Latina woman with a toddler on her lap sat next to a small, school-age boy.
"Maria Rodriguez?" Claire asked.
"Yes, that's me." The woman stood and shifted the little girl in her arms, revealing a distended womb.
"This way." Claire escorted her back to the office, but couldn't help glancing over her shoulder.
Maria, her big brown eyes luminous, carried her paperwork in one arm and the toddler in the other, while the boy-about seven or eight-followed along. "I'm sorry, but I had to bring the children with me. There wasn't anyone who could watch them for me this morning."
"That's all right." Claire pointed to the chairs that sat before her desk, watching as Maria told her son to take one and chose the other for herself. "What can I help you with?"
"I recently inherited a house on Sugar Plum Lane," Maria said. "It belonged to my tía-my aunt-but several months before she passed away, she quitclaimed it to me. It's an old home, but very clean and comfortable."
Claire nodded, assuming the woman meant to use the house as collateral. It was a simple enough procedure, especially if there wasn't a huge mortgage or if there weren't any liens against it.
This appointment was just the first in a prescreening process the bank had recently instituted, and if the initial paperwork was in order, Ms. Rodriguez would be given a full application packet.
"Did you fill out the form you were given at the front desk?" Claire asked.
"Yes." Maria handed over the paperwork.
Claire looked at the neat, legible writing; it appeared to be complete. "Where do you work, Ms. Rodriguez?"
"I've been cleaning houses, but after my aunt passed away, I no longer had a sitter." She caressed her stomach, then cleared her throat. "I'm a hard worker and plan to get a job as a waitress. Once that happens, I'll make double payments and get it paid off in no time at all."
"How much money are we talking about?"
"I need fifty thousand dollars to see me through the next two years."
"You don't intend to work for two years?" Claire asked, realizing she might have to give the woman bad news before they went any further in the process.
Excerpted from MULBERRY PARK by JUDY DUARTE Copyright © 2008 by Judy Duarte. Excerpted by permission.
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