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Rachel and I tumbled into the tall grass at the bottom of the hill, having survived yet another Daddy-just-one-more sled ride from the edge of our front porch. I collapsed on my back, trying to find oxygen between gasps of laughter, and looked up at the summer sky. My daughter, with limbs sprawled in a wide X and her head against my foot, shouted her delight toward the house. "We did it! We made it!"
Seconds before, airborne and soaring toward record distance, Rachel reached for an octave above the normal human voice range, squealing a note that rang on in my head, and I suspected invited half the neighborhood's canine population to play. I laughed and put my fingers in my ears, rolling them in an exaggerated twist as if she'd deafened me.
She moved to lay her head upon my chest and quieted herself there, listening to my racing heart.
I stroked her hair, inhaled the scent of mown grass, and nestled my head back into the tickle of green.
"Is it okay?" she asked.
"It's too fast," she said, raising herself up and pushing a bony elbow into my gut.
"Oh, so now you're the doctor."
She smiled. "Someday," she said. "For now, you're the doctor."
"Don't worry. I'm okay." I scowled at my seven-year-old. "Really."
We rested together, staring at the sky full of clouds of hippopotami, horses, rockets -- whatever Rachel imagined. Mostly I gasped and oohed. In a moment I found myself blinking away tears, overwhelmed with the enormity of it all.
It was so ordinary. A summer Saturday morning without an agenda. It's hard for me to describe beyond the sense I had of emerging, as if I'd been submerged for so long, and now, just to play and laugh and roll in the grass seemed a joy that would burst my heart. I smiled, taking it in, gulping in ordinary life as if I'd never have a chance again.
As Rachel chatted on with her running commentary of sky castles, fiery dragons, and fairies, other images drifted through my mind, pictures of painful chapters that set my current joy into sharp contrast. Traveling with Joanne through the dark tunnel of postpartum depression. My mother's battle with cancer. Memories of an intensive care unit visit while I was the too-young patient, watching my own heart monitor and wondering if life would be cut short.
Joanne's voice swept me into the here and now. "What's going on?"
I looked up to see her standing on the covered porch, eyeing a bottle of vegetable oil that was set on the white railing.
Rachel lifted her head, her blond hair dotted with grass seed. "We're sledding, Mommy."
Joanne's hands rested firmly on her hips. "It's July, David." She picked up the bottle. "And I've been looking for this." She was serious, but her eyes betrayed her attempt at scolding me. Her happiness at my delight in our little Rachel couldn't be spoiled by my summer antics.
I exchanged a mischievous glance with Rachel. She betrayed me in a heartbeat. "It was Daddy's idea."
"Women!" I said, grabbing my daughter by the waist and swinging her around in a circle. "You always stick together!"
As I trudged up the hill with Rachel folded around my back, I grunted exaggerated puffs. "You're getting so big."
I set her on the top step and kissed her forehead. She started pulling away. "Wait." I picked at the seeds in her hair. "You'll need to brush this out."
She opted for the shake-it-out method. "I'm a rock star."
I smiled. My star. For Joanne and me, Rachel had been the glue that helped us stick together through a valley of misery.
Joanne reappeared, carrying lemonade in tall, sweaty glasses. She handed me one and kissed me. She had thin lips to go with sharp, elegant features, dark eyes alight with mystery, and hair the color of caramel. She could have been a model before big lips became the rage.
I'd been to hell and back with Joanne, but the last six months, I'd sensed a real change in her. She seemed settled, somehow. Content. More romantic toward me -- the way she had been back in my medical school days. Our relationship, once teetering on the precipice of divorce, was now solidly a safe distance from the edge. I'd seen significant pieces of my life's puzzle fall together in the last few years. When the marriage one finally clicked into place, everything else brightened with it. It was as if I'd been living my life in black-and-white and someone just invented color.
I kissed her back, trying to discern her mood. There seemed a surface calm, but I sensed a deeper stirring. I'd become a champion at reading her. I knew the quiet of her bitterness, the bubbly way she prattled on when she felt guilty, and the aloofness that dared me to pursue her into bed. For a moment our eyes met. It was only a flash, but in that instant, I felt the foreboding that threatened my wonderful ordinary-life euphoria.
I took her hand. "What's up?"
She lowered her voice, but even at that volume, sharp irritation cut at the edges of her words, clipping them into little fragments. "Your father."
I raised my eyebrows in question.
"His neighbor called."
I waited for more, but it seemed the silence only uncapped her annoyance. In a moment she was on the verge of tears.
"He always does this. Every time we have plans, he has a crisis."
Plans. The practice was dining at the country club tonight.
I started to protest, but she interrupted, pushing her finger against my lips. "You know they're going to announce that you've made partner."
I smiled. Partner. A year early. Just reward for the practice's highest revenue producer nine months in a row. Another puzzle piece in my wonderful life about to connect.
"That Somali family," she said, flipping her hand in the air. "A woman. She has an accent. She said his place is a wreck. He's ill." She seemed to hesitate before adding. "He's asking for you."
It was my father's way. The crab fisherman wouldn't pick up the phone and let me know he needed me. He sent word around the block and expected me to show. "Define 'ill.'"
Joanne imitated the neighbor's accent. "Mister Gus isn't eating. He toilets in the bedroom."
I groaned. Whatever the neighbor meant, I knew it couldn't be good. I walked into the house to my study and picked up the phone. I was listening to the endless ringing on the other end when Joanne entered. "Not a good sign," I said. "He doesn't pick up."
"What are we going to do?"
I looked at my wife. Petite. Strong. And so able to read my thoughts.
She threw up her hands. "We're going to the shore," she said. "Just like that."
I nodded. I was predictable. Family first. We had to go.
She glared at me. I read the silence, loud and clear. That's why I love you...and hate you.
"I'll call Jim. The practice will understand."
Joanne shook her head. "This is your night, David. The moment you've been waiting for. And you throw it away because of family."
I couldn't say anything. She had me pegged.
"I'll see if Kristine will take Rachel for the weekend."
"Let's take her with us."
Joanne's face hardened. "With us? That place is so..." -- she paused, apparently mulling over adjective options -- "crusty."
It was the gentlest description of several other options that came to mind.
"We'll take care of the crisis and stay at that seaside bed and breakfast. It will be fun. A chance for her to see her grandfather." I let a hopeful smile tease at the corners of my lips. "Even if he is crusty, he does adore her."
Joanne sighed in resignation. "Yes, he does." She tipped her glass against mine. "As long as we don't have to sleep there," she said, shivering as if that thought was horrifying. She gave me a don't-even-try-to-cross-me look. "You're driving."
I walked out onto the porch and into the humidity we Virginians call summer. As I called for Rachel, I followed the border of the house, my prize lawn soft beneath my bare feet. From her perch on the back deck, my daughter ambushed me with open arms.
"Can we sled some more?"
I looked at the blue sky and my Southern Living home, and I pushed aside a fleeting presence. A ripple beneath the calm.
I'd been through too many hard times to trust the peace. Nothing this great can last forever.
"We're going to Grandpa Conners'," I said, trying my best to sound excited.
Rachel wrinkled her nose. To her, the shore meant stinky crabs and everything smelling fishy.
I poked her nose with a finger. "You're too much like your mother."
She poked me back. "You're too much like your father."
A sudden breeze lifted Rachel's hair against my face. I stopped, looking east. In the distance, a small thundercloud hung over the horizon. Not today. I don't want to travel the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in the rain.
My daughter squeezed my neck, bringing a smile to my face and pushing my anxieties aside. I nestled my face into her hair, trying to find an earlobe. She giggled, and everything seemed right again. © 2009 by Harry Kraus
Joanne packed in a rush, throwing in enough clothes for one night. I added my medical bag and swimwear for myself and Rachel, slipping in her little fishing rod and reel on the sly, hoping to escape from family obligations with Dad long enough to hear Rachel's delight over reeling in a croaker or if we were lucky, a catfish or two.
With our sights set on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we left our suburban home west of Richmond by eleven. By noon we were sitting at a picnic table outside Pierce's Pit Barbeque near Williamsburg.
Joanne wiped Carolina Red sauce from Rachel's chin. "I don't like those clouds."
To the east, fluffy popcorn clouds darkened the sky above the pines. I grunted a response and shoved the last of a shredded pork barbecue sandwich home. The clouds bothered me, too. I'd seen the tenacity of storms coming off the Chesapeake, and I didn't like the idea of being over the water on the lonely twenty-three mile bay bridge-tunnel between Norfolk and the Eastern Shore. But my job, as chauvinistic as it sounded, was to offer a rock solid reassurance to my women. "Not to worry," I said. "They come up fast and burn out fast. We'll be fine."
A distant rumble punctuated the end of my sentence. Joanne raised her eyebrows at me and stayed quiet for Rachel's sake.
"Jim says they'll miss us for dinner," I said.
Joanne smiled. "I'm sure he'll drink enough to make up for all of us."
I chuckled. She was right, though. My senior business associate was a savvy businessman and a competent physician, but I worried that his liver would die before he did. When I told him this, he joked it would likely last forever, as often as he'd drowned the organ in pickling juice.
I remembered the uncomfortable moment like it happened yesterday. I had put my hand on his shoulder. "Are you really okay?"
His face reddened above his silk tie. "Mind your own business," he'd said, ending the conversation.
Joanne gathered our trash and looked at Rachel. "Let's use the ladies' room. Last stop before Grandpa's house."
Rachel closed her lips around a straw and pulled noisily at the last of her soda.
I watched them go and stood to take a better look at the sky. Having grown up in a small fishing town on "the shore," as we called it, I turned my eyes constantly to the horizon. It was second nature, something I still did, in spite of my indoor occupation as a family physician.
Moments later we were on our way again, east on Interstate 64 and moving shoulder to shoulder with a steady flow of Virginians escaping to the beach.
Joanne fretted in heavy traffic and liked it even less when the rain started. Soon the isolated plunk, plunk, plunk, closed together into a steady rhythm. I turned on the wipers and glanced at my wife. She needed something else to think about. "Why don't you call ahead to the Bayside Bed and Breakfast?"
I squinted through the windshield and frowned, noticing a fraction too late that I was about to pass my exit. I changed lanes quickly, a maneuver that rocked my Ford Explorer and prompted an expletive from Joanne. "Look out!" she screamed.
A horn blared. An old red convertible with the top down pulled up beside us, all occupants screaming. Three angry white men, with their hands in the air, lifted a redneck welcome with middle fingers flying. A lone occupant in the backseat, a tattooed man seated beside a surfboard, clasped his hands together as if carrying a handgun and jerked his arms back and forth as if experiencing a handgun's recoil.
"Idiots," I muttered. "Don't look at them." I bolstered my bravado by laughing at their predicament. "Looks like they can't put the top up because of the surfboard."
"You almost hit them."
"I know." I hesitated. "Blind spot." Inside, I cringed. I didn't enjoy being the cause of conflict. I glanced in the rearview mirror and wished for a Rolaids.
We exited toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a manmade wonder crossing above and below miles of open water near the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. Behind us, the red convertible followed. From the front, the bumper and grille heaved forward with menacing shiny braces exposed in a snarl of chrome. I watched as he nestled in behind me, thankful that Joanne was busy with her cell phone. I tapped the steering wheel and shifted my eyes from the road to the mirror, fighting the churning anxiety in my gut.
I glanced at Joanne. At least for the moment, she ignored me. I wished I hadn't eaten that second barbeque.
The red car hugged my bumper. He followed for two blocks, then pulled off, engine revving, likely seeking refuge from the pounding rain.
I took a deep breath and turned to see that Rachel had fallen asleep. Oh, to be that trusting, I thought.
Joanne folded her flip phone. "No service."
"Maybe it's the storm."
I squeezed her hand. I love you.
She didn't squeeze back.
The rain picked up again before the first tunnel. The bay churned white beneath us. I suspected the water gushing onto my SUV was at least half bay, half rain, a miserable recipe for corrosion.
In the tunnel there was peace.
A few minutes later we exited the tunnel, and my alarm grew as we began to cross the open water. I squinted ahead, looking for the safety of the next island. Just before the start of the second tunnel, the storm accelerated, and wind gusts forced me to a crawl. Once on the man-made island, with my wipers set to frantic, I pulled into a parking lot with the others seeking safety off the open bridge.
Five minutes later the red convertible reappeared, top up, surfboard jutting from the trunk. The three angry men stopped directly behind me, at a right angle to us, hemming us in. Faces to the windows, they leered at us through the downpour.
My eyes studied the rearview mirror. Joanne turned around and cursed under her breath. I double-checked the locks and waited.
There we sat, each second stretched unmercifully by our circumstance. My chest tightened. I wiped my forehead and forced a smile at Joanne, an implant I was certain she saw through.
Five minutes passed. The rain slackened. I wanted the license plate number but couldn't get it since I had only a view of the side of the car. I studied the vehicle, wishing I knew cars. It was old. Beautiful and restored. High back fins bordered the trunk. I guessed late fifties, a Chevy perhaps, with paint too new for its owner to tolerate a dent.
I started the SUV, flashed my brakes, and put it in reverse to warn the driver I meant business.
The red car sat there. I backed up an inch. Then two.
"What are you doing?" Joanne whispered.
"I want him to move."
I backed a total of two feet, until my bumper must have been nearly kissing his car. He sat there, unmoving, daring me to continue.
Joanne pleaded, "Stop."
I looked ahead, judging the distance between the front of my Ford and the concrete wall -- a secure barrier that separated the parking lot from the boulders that provided the foundation for the man-made island. "Hang on."
I shifted into drive, cut hard to the left, and gunned the accelerator, hopping over a concrete wheel stopper intended to keep me from parking too close to the wall. My front bumper scraped the wall, but my momentum was enough. We completed the turn and fishtailed into the wet parking lot.
My evasive move took my nemesis by surprise. I sped across the parking lot and onto the bridge road, with lightning flashing and the red convertible dead on its wheels. Inside the tunnel I pushed the accelerator, rocketing past the speed limit -- pushing eighty, ninety, and then one hundred miles per hour. Fortunately, traffic in the tunnel was sparse. Changing lanes in the tunnel was illegal, but I was jazzed and afraid. I had no idea what kind of drug or psychosis was driving the man in the red convertible, and I had little interest in finding out.
Weaving around slower traffic in the tunnel, I was soon out in the rain again and tangled in traffic. I made four passes, one around a large delivery truck emblazoned with a large blue crab. In the mirror there was no sign of the red convertible.
I slowed the SUV, dared my heart to do the same, and glanced at Joanne. She was pale, eyes closed and knuckles whitened around the shoulder strap. "It's okay," I said. "He's not following us."
Joanne uncurled her fingers from their death grip on the seatbelt harness.
The storm slackened, with the rain soon a nuisance drizzle. I glanced around at Rachel. She slept with her arms around Bobo, her little stuffed Pound Puppy. I was amazed that she could sleep through such craziness. I stole a second look, savoring the air of peacefulness around her. My eyes landed on Bobo. He struck me as a bit scary. With one missing eye, the remaining one seemed to stare blankly ahead, boring into me, chilling me with unreasonable dread. It's just the storm and those crazy men in the red convertible.
We drove in silence, exhausted from the rain or rednecks or both. I tried to recapture some optimism about my wonderful life, but my earlier mood had been destroyed. The suddenness of our trip, the storm, the inoperable cell phone, and the red convertible all combined forces against us.
It was weird in a heavy sort of way. I'm not suspicious by nature, but I felt weighted by our experience. I couldn't admit it, but I knew Joanne sensed it, too. "I want to go home," she said, gripping my hand.
"We'll be fine," I said, unconvinced. "The storm's over." I pointed up the road. "Look, here we are. Wake up Rachel." © 2009 by Harry Kraus