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Amelia Declose settled into her rocking chair on the front porch of the farmhouse she shared with Hannah Parrish and Grace Singleton. Gathering her shawl about her, she knotted the ends across her chest. It was early morning. A glorious sunrise wove its magic across the mountains, slashing the sky with flaming orange. The celery green of new leaves on shrubs and trees and the chirp of a baby bird in a nest artfully camouflaged in a shrub near the porch filled her heart with pure joy. There are days when one feels glad to be alive, and today is one of those days.
Amelia's mind drifted back years ago to when she, Hannah, and Grace had met in a dreary boardinghouse in Pennsylvania where the owner, the dour Olive Pruitt, restricted the use of the kitchen and refused to allow a wonderful cook like Grace to bake a cake or make a pot of soup.
They had taken a risk, trusted one another, pooled their emotional and financial resources, and moved to a run-down farmhouse in rural North Carolina that Amelia had unexpectedly inherited, and in so doing had revitalized their lives. Here, Amelia had discovered a talent for photography. Hannah's skills and love for gardening had resurfaced, and Grace's kindness and wisdom found their outlet in volunteer work with children and in creating a community of friends and family.
Amelia's finger traced the rim of the delicate china teacup. The human spirit takes comfort and solace from quite ordinary things: cows milling about in a pasture, a comfortable chair like this, the tinkle of wind chimes.
A cup of tea with her friends on this porch and Sunday dinners with their ever-increasing surrogate family were now among the happy routines in her life. Even winter, her least favorite season, had become more bearable, with its hot cocoa topped with tiny marshmallows, long hot baths, and snuggling beneath her down comforter. And best of all, Miriam and Sadie were a part of her life her unexpected family.
Her attention was drawn to a taxi that entered Cove Road, slowed, turned into Max's driveway across the street, and pulled up to his farmhouse. The short, heavy woman and bearded man who disembarked and plodded up onto the front porch reminded Amelia of Russian immigrants in a movie she had seen recently on late-night television. Several large suitcases were deposited on Max's front porch, then the taxi rolled away.
The man helped the woman to a porch chair, then walked briskly to the front door. Something about him seemed vaguely familiar. She watched as the man carried the luggage into Max and Hannah's house, then assisted the woman from the chair, and Amelia realized that the woman was very pregnant, not fat. The front door closed behind them and light flooded the downstairs windows.
Max's son and his wife?
Could it be Max's son and his wife? No, they live in India. Hannah would have said something, would have been there to greet them. After all, she is Max's wife, even if she lives with Grace and me most of the time.
Shadows moved across Max's downstairs windows. Who were they? It was Saturday, Hannah and Max's private day. Max would never invite anyone to visit on Saturday.
Hannah usually stayed at Max's on Friday nights, but she had been here last night. Grace's companion, Bob, and Max had come for dinner, and they had all played Trivial Pursuit and talked about getting a dog. Grace had wandered into a shop in Asheville and seen a puppy she'd fallen in love with and been sorely tempted to bring home.
"Why would you want the mess of raising a puppy? Get an older, house-trained dog from a shelter," Hannah had said.
"Oh, don't do that. Get a dog from the Compassionate Animal Network. Their members raise the dogs from puppies," Bob said. "I think you'd find they're well socialized, too. When you get a dog from a shelter you have no idea what you're bringing home."
There had been much talk, but nothing had been decided.
Now Amelia's mind returned to Max's guests. Max and Hannah's Saturdays were sacrosanct. Either they drove into Asheville for brunch and to the farmers' market for fresh fruit and vegetables for both their households, or they sequestered themselves at Max's house.
"What do you do all day?" Grace had once asked Hannah.
"We turn off the phones and just hang out." Hannah had given Grace a shy smile. "We eat leftovers and ice cream, read, watch old movies, things like that. Once, we sat all day and sorted through old photos that we'd been meaning to put into an album. One thing we do not do is discuss our work at Bella's Park."
Across the road, the lights in Max's downstairs rooms switched off. Amelia went inside, placed her teacup in the kitchen sink, then climbed the stairs and knocked on Hannah's bedroom door. "You awake, Hannah?"
"Come in, Amelia."
Hannah sat on the edge of her bed, one foot shoved into her bedroom slipper, the other foot twisted, wiggling under the bed in search of the other slipper. Amelia bent and retrieved it for her.
"Ever notice how shoes, especially slippers, are never where you put them when you go to bed? I think they walk about while we sleep," Hannah said. "It's odd."
"What's odd is that there's a strange man and a very pregnant woman at Max's. I was on the porch when a cab deposited them at his front steps. The man opened the front door and walked right in."
Hannah hastened to the window, which overlooked Cove Road. "I don't see anything or anyone, and there's no light in Max's bedroom." She reached for the buttons on her pajama top. "I'll go right over."
"I'll go with you," Amelia said. "Meet you downstairs."
At the front door, Amelia handed Hannah a mug of black coffee without sugar, and they started across Cove Road. Hannah unlocked the front door, then flipped on the foyer light. There sat three large suitcases.
Max's heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and seeing Hannah, he smiled. "I was just about to phone you. Guess who's here?"
Hannah shook her head. "Who?"
"My son, Zachary, and his wife, Sarina, have come home from India, and she's about to have a baby."
Hannah was uncertain that she had heard him correctly, but there he stood, beaming and happy. "Zachary, here? But...I thought...?"
"Yes, I know. He said he hated Covington and would never come back, but life is unpredictable." Taking Hannah's arm, Max urged her toward the kitchen, Amelia following. There Max sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair. "Sometimes things don't work out as planned. They've been through hell, from what they've been telling me."
"What kind of hell? What's happened to them?" Hannah slid into the chair across from Max. Amelia leaned against the wall and waited for his reply.
"You know her people are Hindus. Well, it seems there was an issue about a mosque being built on what was considered a Hindu holy site, and this triggered hostilities on both sides. The mayor, a Hindu, was ambushed and killed by God knows who, which led to the looting and burning of a prominent Muslim businessman's home. After that, it degenerated into a free-for-all.
"Sarina's brother-in-law, the accountant, was shot and wounded in the leg on the way to his office. They think it was a random shooting, but it's crazy over there, Zachary says, and everyone suddenly has a gun. Sarina's entire family and all their servants have fled to their home in the south. Just as well, it seems, for after they left, one of their stores was torched. Sarina's baby is due next month, and they felt they'd be safer here until the turmoil gets straightened out if it ever does."
"How frightening to live in a world like that," Amelia said."People shooting other people, burning property."
"After the Twin Towers going down, I wonder if we're much safer, or if safety is just an illusion." Hannah shook her head.
"I think of India as a peaceful country, and Hindus as tolerant of all religions," Amelia said.
"This Muslim/Hindu hatred has taken root in many parts of India," Max said. "No one knows where it will lead. Zachary did the right thing. Sarina will have the baby here." Satisfaction showed in his eyes.
Hannah knew Zachary had been hardheaded in expressing his dislike of Covington. He had been cruel and had rejected his father and his father's business, and had hurt Max deeply. Max had buried the hurt, and despaired of ever seeing any grandchildren. Had Max told Zachary that she and Max were married? If he had, what had been his son's reaction? Hannah did not trust or like Zachary, and she was certain that if his reaction had been positive, it was not sincere.
An uneasy feeling settled over her. Their pleasant lives were about to be cast into confusion.
Hannah looked at Max. "Have you told Zachary that we're married?"
Max shook his head. "There's been no time. Sarina was exhausted, traveling this late in her pregnancy. She collapsed when we got her upstairs. The fright and the stress of it all, leaving her family and home, the trip it was too much for her. We got her into bed, and Zachary took her up some chicken soup. If she relaxes and falls asleep, he'll be down, I imagine."
Max reached across the table and lay his large hands over Hannah's. "You're trembling. Now, don't you worry, sweetheart. We'll tell him about us as soon as he comes down. How can their being here affect us? We'll go on with our lives just as we have been."
"Do you really think so?" Hannah asked.
"I'm sure of it. They'll stay until the baby comes, then in a few months they'll move on to a city."
"Don't be too sure of that. Things change." The knot in Hannah's stomach began to hurt. Copyright © 2009 by Joan Medlicott