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Jessica's cell phone rang as she sat at her desk grading a math quiz. She jumped in her seat and swallowed a lump of panic as she dug the device from the jacket hanging over the back of her chair. You'd think after all this time a ringing phone wouldn't cause this fearful knee-jerk reaction, but it did and it probably always would. Until they found his body, anyway. Or until she knew the truth.
She clicked it on and said, "Yes?" in a breathless voice because she didn't recognize the number on the screen and that was always nerve-racking. How many times had she imagined learning news of Alex's fate from a stranger? Almost as many times as she'd imagined him calling her himself from some secret spot in Middle America where he'd gone to start a life without her. That was the trouble when a husband simply vanished. You never knew if he was dead or alive; you lived in limbo. Any closure would be better than none.
The caller was a salesman wanting to know if she needed new drainpipes and she got rid of him right away. The truth was, her house was in limbo, too. If it wasn't for Billy Summers and his sweet-natured persistence in helping her with chores, she imagined she would just let the place crumble around her.
And that had to end. She had to get a grip. Maybe it was time to think about selling the house, getting something smaller. Could she do that? Not yet. But the question nagged her: What would she do if Alex walked through the door?
The sun beating through the high windows made the room too warm. She folded her arms on her desk and rested her forehead against her hands, closing her eyes. Restless nights usually caught up with her in the late afternoon, and apparently today was no exception. The school was mostly empty now, but occasional footsteps moving in the halls gave her a reassuring feeling of not being alone as did the faint whirring and beeping of distant machines set to automatic timers.
Thank goodness the school term was almost finished and she'd been allowed to back out of teaching summer school this year. She loved the kids in her remedial classes at Blunt Falls High, but she needed time away from them and everyone else. Who would have guessed constant pity could be so exhausting? She closed her eyes and let her mind drift for a while.
A nearby noise jerked her out of her stupor and she looked up to find a stranger standing in her open doorway. As the school was very strict about allowing unauthorized people on the campus, this man had to be someone's father, but he didn't look like any other parent she'd met at this school. He was tall and dark, thin, with uncut hair and a full beard. Dark glasses covered his eyes. His jeans and corduroy shirt appeared too big for his frame, while his face and hands were weathered looking. There was a healed abrasion across one cheekbone and another slashing across what she could see of his forehead. As he moved into the class, she detected a definite hitch in his left leg.
She found herself on her feet without consciously deciding to rise. "May I help you?"
He took off the dark glasses, folding them away as he continued moving between the desks. The look in his hazel eyes pinned her to the floor and she all but stopped breathing as her throat closed.
And then he was right beside her, taking her hands, looking at her as though he'd never seen her before. He brought her right hand up to his face and laid her palm against his hairy cheek. His eyes sparkled with tears.
"Alex?" she murmured, searching his face with a disbelieving intensity. "Oh, my God. Alex?"
His nod was almost imperceptible. His tears moistened her fingertips. "Are you real or am I dreaming?" she mumbled.
"If you're dreaming, then so am I," he said, his voice choked with emotion.
She forgot to wonder how she would feel or react and just flung herself against him. Tears of relief filled her eyes as he held her. She finally pushed herself away. "How is this possible?" she asked. "Where have you been?"
He pulled her back against him, burying his face against her neck, holding her tight as if he'd never let her go. "I crashed in the Bitterroots," he said. "I've just been trying to stay alive until the snow melted so I could get back."
"I thought you were dead," she said. "Or maybe even worse, that you " She stopped short.
"I can't believe I'm holding you," he whispered. She leaned back to gaze up at him, smoothing his hair away from his brow with trembling fingers, trying to find the man she married under the scars and hair. "Are you all right? You're limping. And your poor face." She searched his eyes for answers.
Instead of providing them, he tugged her back to his chest, and this time his lips landed on hers. Even when times were tough between them, the physical connection had been quicksilver and so it still was, all the sweeter for the fact that until a few minutes before, she'd thought she'd never see him again.
A woman's voice cut in from the open doorway and they both turned to find the school's principal, Silvia Greenspan. "I'm sorry to interrupt you guys," she said. It appeared she knew Alex was at the school, had probably spoken to him when he came onto the campus. She smiled at them both fondly as she added, "There are tons of reporters outside. Alex, I think someone in the office got excited and alerted the local television channel that you'd reappeared here at the school. I don't know how long we can hold them back." She turned and left, her footsteps clicking in retreat as she hurried back down the hall.
"How did you get to Blunt Falls?" Jessica asked.
"Doris and Duke Booker brought me. They're the people who more or less rescued me."
"Rescued you! Alex, what happened?"
"Later, okay?" He looked at her longingly. "There's so much I need to tell you."
"I know," she said, her mind still grappling with his offhand comment about being rescued. "Me, too."
"I'm sorry about the fight we had before I left. It was my fault."
"Not now," she said, straightening his collar. "You have to go talk to the press." He shook his head. "No."
"What do you mean, no? Everyone is going to be so relieved to hear you're home safe and sound."
"They can wait," he said. He gestured at her cluttered desk. "Anything here need to go home with you?"
"These tests," she said, picking up the math papers she'd been grading. He retrieved her briefcase from the closet and held it open for her as she deposited the papers. "Why are we running away?"
"Because," he said, sounding like one of her students. "There's a back way out of here through the gym, isn't there?"
"But nothing," he interrupted as he took her jacket from her chair and draped it over her shoulders. "Where's your purse?"
"I'll get it," she said as she unlocked the desk drawer where she kept it during classes. "Why don't you want to talk to the newspeople? What's wrong?"
"Nothing is wrong, not like that. I just think we have the right to reconnect before the blitz. Don't you?"
"Yes," she said, nodding, suddenly realizing he was right. There were so many things she had to tell him about the past three months, things he needed to understand, things that would redefine what he thought he knew about the world, things she didn't want him hearing from someone holding a camera on his face. And, she realized with a jolt of panic, there were things she needed to take care of, too. Things she didn't want him to see.
She followed him toward the door, his limp a visual reminder of the struggle he must have endured. "Hurry," she added as they raced down the hall and out the back of the gym toward the baseball field, which they could circle to access the parking lot.
It was a tremendous relief to slide behind the wheel of her car. "Duck your head," she muttered, driving out of the lot. Their path led them past two or three television vans with satellite dishes on their roofs and a growing crowd of people milling about. Alex didn't sit up again until they were half a mile away and she gave him the all clear. Their gazes met and he smiled but she knew it wouldn't be long before reporters figured out they'd slipped away.
And it wasn't as though they'd be hard to find.
"Nothing much has changed," Alex said in wonder as he followed Jessica into the house and closed the front door behind them. It seemed surreal that for the past one hundred and three days he'd been living in the most primitive of conditions while his wife, his house, his jobhis worldexisted right here as it always had. At the time, emerged as he was in basic survival, all this had seemed like a distant fantasy he'd never live to revisit, but here it had been all along, chugging away without him, apparently none the worse for his absence.
The same thing had happened when he'd been deployed in the army, only then he'd been shot at, as well. On the other hand, he hadn't been alone and there was a lot to be said for companionship.
The house was a newer one, built in a cluster of similar houses located in a small wooded area a few miles outside of Blunt Falls. They'd bought it with plans to fill the rooms upstairs with their children and had pictured them running through the trees and splashing in the shallow stream at the bottom of the gulch with the neighborhood kids as playmates. But that had never happened. Oh, the neighbors' families grew all right, but theirs didn't and now, in some ways, the houses all around them, strewn with tricycles and sandboxes, formed a painful reminder that things didn't always work out the way you thought they would.
Now the house welcomed him back with years of memories, and he stood by the big rock fireplace just trying to center himself. Meanwhile, Jessica closed the drapes and turned to face him. She'd deposited her purse and briefcase on the chair nearest the door, much as she always had and now stood looking up the stairs as though she wanted to dash up to their room.
He reached for her hand. "We won't have long before they track us down," he said.
She looked at him and nodded. "Good point."
"I'm a little beat," he said with a smile. "Let's go sit at the table like we used to. Let's talk."
"Yes," she said, nodding. "Okay."
He claimed the chair facing the living-room door and patted the one beside it. She entered the dining room behind him, her brown eyes velvety, enhanced by the oversize cream tunic she wore over slim black jeans.
She looked good, her auburn hair longer than it had been in a while, combed straight back from her oval-shaped face which was devoid of makeup as it almost always was. He'd been afraid he'd find her worn-out and grief stricken, but instead she seemed almost luminescent. His disappearance didn't seem to have hurt her.
Well, why should it have? They'd been whisper close to a separation for most of the past year, so caught up in their different lives that they'd become like that old saying, "Ships passing in the night." In fact, for the past three months his greatest fear had been that she would be relieved he'd vanished. No more fights, no more disappointments, no stress. Just over. And who was to say that that isn't what happened? Maybe she'd moved on, maybe she'd even found someone else.
Maybe he should stop borrowing trouble .
"Are you hungry?" she asked, standing behind the chair he'd patted. It provided a good view of the garden and he'd already noticed the plethora of bushes and flowers that bloomed with an intensity he didn't remember ever seeing before. Some plants were absolutely covered with buds, promising radiant blossoms in the weeks to come. She must have spent hours out there tending that garden, loving it.
"The Bookers stuffed me," he said, a bit distracted by the beauty sweeping across the yard toward the doors. He pulled his attention back to her. "They grow or hunt just about everything they eat. My poor digestive tract is probably struggling to cope after existing on three-plus months of pretty much nothing but fish."
She slid a basket of clothes across the table and started folding them. He got the distinct impression she was keeping her hands busy. Either that, or she was creating a barrier by positioning the basket between them. "Where did you meet these people?" she asked.
"I literally stumbled into their garden and collapsed in their asparagus patch."
She stopped folding a lacy bra and stared at him. He tore his gaze away from the undergarment and all the memories it provoked as she said, "You're not making any sense. Where have you been for three months? What exactly happened to you?"
He told her about the storm and the dead engine, ending with the crash far off his reported route and the immediate sinking of the plane. He touched on his nightmare crawl across the lake to the relative safety of the shore and how he'd managed to live through the first night by digging out a trench around the base of a tree and covering it over with evergreen boughs.
"I can't believe you survived," she said when he paused. "Did you ever see a search plane?"
"Once," he said, all but wincing at the memory. "I woke up to the sound of an engine and scrambled out of my hole like a crippled badger."
"When was this?"
"Two days after the crash. I had to grab the makeshift crutches to get out into the clear where they could see me. The emergency beacon I carried went down with the Cessna."
She almost rolled her eyes and he smiled. "I know, I know. You asked me to update my equipment a hundred times."
"Two hundred," she said.
"Well, you were obviously right. Anyway, by the time I got out from under the trees, they were gone and they didn't come back."
"That must have been horrible," she said, visibly shuddering. "How is your leg now?"
"Pretty good. I'll probably limp for the rest of my life, but considering everything, that's not so bad."
She nodded. "Okay, now tell me how you ended up in an asparagus patch."