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What's Left Behind
By LORRIE THOMSON
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Lorrie Thomson
All rights reserved.
Abby Stone refused to look at her son's photos.
If Abby strained her imagination, she could almost convince herself today was like any other Valentine's Day at Briar Rose B&B, a Saturday celebration replete with lovers feeding each other chocolate-dipped strawberries and toasting their unions with her best champagne. That nearly five hours ago, half the town hadn't followed her home through high winds that rattled her truck, buffeted snowdrifts, and narrowed Hidden Harbor, Maine's shoreline roads. That Monday morning, she hadn't wrapped a blanket around herself to bandage the shaking, while she typed apology e-mails and issued rain checks for her six guest rooms. That Sunday afternoon, her only child hadn't died.
One misstep and her son's daredevil climb between dorm-room windows had ended in a three-story, neck-breaking, heart-stopping plunge to the unforgiving ground.
Abby's heartbeat fluttered and flared in her throat, and her fingers trembled.
She imagined Luke's friends trampling down three flights of stairs. She imagined their footfalls and panicked voices echoing in the stairwells. She imagined them finding Luke splayed in the courtyard and knowing he was already gone.
The Hidden Harbor Gazette had called Luke, "Spiderman."
Luke would've loved that.
The small-town reporter couldn't have known a younger Luke had worn his paper-thin Walmart Spiderman getup three Halloweens in a row, in lieu of Abby's offer to sew him a handmade costume. Each year, the hemline inched up his pale legs, and the top rose to reveal a longer swatch of belly. The better for tickling, she'd tell him. Before she was ready, Luke had grown from a round-cheeked toddler clutching Abby with a sweaty grip, to a little boy eager to slip away from her.
I want my son back.
She'd never spanked Luke, but right now she wanted to take all five foot eleven inches of her full-grown son over her knee and give him what for. Don't you ever scare me like that again! Even under normal circumstances, the idea would've been preposterous.
Abby's oldest and dearest friend, Celeste, stood with her back to Abby, her shoulder muscles working, hands buried in the double sink. Water sprayed the white-tiled backsplash. Steam rose, and Celeste slipped a white serving platter between the slats of the wooden drainer.
Abby's chest rose in a pressurized wave, as though a hand were trying to shove her heart from her body. She sipped the seltzer Celeste had forced on her. Her throat clenched around the bubbles, and she coughed into her elbow.
Celeste shut off the faucet and leaned a hip against the counter. The uncharacteristic gray half-moons beneath Celeste's auburn lashes made her eyes appear greener than usual. In the last week, Abby and Celeste had held each other and cried more than they had in their entire lives. Celeste had insisted on staying at Abby's to boil water for herbal teas, which Abby could not taste, and pop romantic comedies that Abby could not follow into the DVD player. Sleep had been sporadic. Celeste couldn't afford to continue the Abby-watch, with two energetic children to chase, a bakery to run, and a husband in need of occasional attention. Besides, nothing had made Abby feel better. Nothing.
"Ten minutes?" Abby said, trying to blanket her exhaustion with a thread of optimism.
"Ten minutes, buddy, and I kick them to the curb. Hand to heart." Celeste's gaze held tight, but her voice wavered.
Earlier, Abby had taken Celeste aside and made her promise to gently enforce the reception's visiting hours, a task Abby knew she could never do herself. In the fifteen years since she'd owned the B&B, she'd never rushed a single guest out the door. Didn't matter whether she'd known them all thirty-seven years of her life, or they were newly acquainted. Abby lived by the motto gracing her front door: Enter as strangers, leave as friends.
"Hand to heart," Abby said, "and that includes you. Go home and take care of that husband of yours." Abby tugged at one of Celeste's shiny braids.
"Oh, yeah?" Celeste's weak smile twined two parts curiosity with one part genuine concern. "Want me to kick Charlie out, too?"
Abby sputtered on her second sip of seltzer. Her eyes watered, and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. As Luke's parents, Abby and Charlie had sat together in the front pew of the Congregational Church; their hands clenched white in solemn solidarity. As kids, they'd been best friends before they were sweethearts. After Abby had gotten over hating Charlie, mostly, they'd renewed their friendship and indulged in what she liked to call leap-year sex, although not necessarily on the leap year. And Charlie always turned to Abby when life got rough.
"He's not moving back in." Directed at Celeste, Abby immediately regretted the defensive edge to her voice.
"Not judging, just worrying."
"Our timing has never been right," Abby said, offering up the same simple answer she'd given Luke whenever he'd asked why his parents weren't together.
"Present situation included."
"Agreed." Abby stared at Celeste, questioning the wisdom of having shared her every Charlie slipup, but Celeste's brows remained knit. "I thought you loved the guy."
"Of course I love Charlie. Everybody loves Charlie."
Celeste yanked off the dish gloves. She plucked one of her prize-winning mini blueberry muffins from the center island, sighed, peeled the liner.
The muffins' fruit-and-sugar aroma rumbled Abby's stomach. What had she eaten today? A packet of apples-and-cinnamon oatmeal she'd choked down to keep Celeste from fussing over her? Coffee, gone cold in the mug between her hands? Abby considered the muffins, Luke's all-time favorite pastries from Luke's all-time favorite bakery. Clear as a noon sky, she could see Luke returning home from Celeste's bakery, Sugarcoated, his teeth and tongue suspiciously blue, the waxed bag containing far fewer muffins than she'd requested.
Yet, Luke was gone.
At Tuesday morning's private funeral, she'd watched his casket lower into the ground. She'd tossed dirt onto its lid. She'd stared into the black hole, willing the earth to swallow her, until Abby's mother and Celeste had gripped her by either arm and urged her away from the edge. Nearly nineteen years ago, those same strong hands had held Abby's arms for support while, terrified, she bore down and Luke slid from her body, a screaming, slithering miracle.
Her pulse raced, the room grayed, and she thought she might faint.
I want my baby.
Celeste popped the rest of the muffin into her mouth, covered the chewing with her palm. "I still can't believe ..."
Abby nodded, but she couldn't meet Celeste's sad-eyed gaze. "We'll be okay," Abby said, using the plural pronoun that had eased her through her teenage pregnancy with Luke. This time, girlfriend togetherness couldn't soothe her.
In lieu of a touchstone, Abby rubbed her forefinger against her thumb. Her sight cleared, but her heart refused to settle. She arranged half a dozen rolls along the lid of a Crock-Pot of chicken soup for her mother. Lily Beth hadn't been eating well. Leftovers would provide a week of easy dinners. Abby carried the soup into the dining room. She'd scan the room, see who needed her, and busy herself with whatever they needed. Anything to keep herself from thinking about her son.
"Luke thought the pavilion looked like that Swedish hotel! He said, after graduation, he might open his very own ice hotel right here in Maine." Lily Beth, an honorary local, was regaling two born-and-bred lobstermen with tales of her last Hermit Island nature walk with Luke. Lily Beth's mouth quivered with the memory of her grandson's words. But her eyes shone, as though Luke's memory also gave her solace.
Over the Christmas break, Abby's eighteen-year-old son and fifty-four-years-young mother had strapped on snowshoes for a trek down Island Road. Five hours later, they'd returned red-cheeked, and talking overly loudly in the way of people who'd shared an adventure.
Abby wished she'd joined them, rather than staying behind to do what? Cooking? Laundry? Greeting guests? The minutia that went into running the B&B had taken up the better part of her life since Luke had entered nursery school. The days flew by in a blur. She'd prided herself in showing him how even a single mom could turn a run-down, bank-auction farmhouse into a thriving business. Luke had been both her motivation and her muse. She'd learned bookkeeping, carpentry, and the art of hospitality. For her son, she'd refused to fail.
I want my son back.
Abby's heart tapped an off-tempo beat she chose to ignore, and she forced herself to lift her legs, no longer meant for walking. Her skittish rescue tabby, Sadie, darted across her path, a streak of gray fur. Abby's knee buckled, and she hobbled with the soup the rest of the way to Lily Beth. "Sit down, baby. You've been standing all day." Lily Beth, eyes red-rimmed from crying, should've been sitting herself.
"I'm okay, Mom," Abby said, her standard answer for today, and pulled out a ladder-back chair for Lily Beth. No fair adding her grief to her mother's burden. Luke was Lily Beth's baby, too. She'd supported Abby's decision to keep him, although her pregnancy must've felt like a cruel déjà vu. Abby hugged Lily Beth and marveled at the smile that rarely left her mother's face. Lily Beth's motto practically radiated from her pores: Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. "Sadie startled me," Abby said.
"Blame the cat."
Lily Beth sat with a sigh, and her black cardigan slipped down her arm, as though the weight of the day had rounded her shoulders. Sometimes Abby forgot her force-of-nature mother was human, too. Abby tugged her mother's sweater, bent, and whispered into her blond curls. "I'll be fine. I promise. It's okay to go home."
Lily Beth took Abby's cold hands between her own icy fingers. "Celeste?"
"Staying one more night," Abby said, a lie for Lily Beth's own good — her mother couldn't sleep away from home — but the fib still sat like a stale doughnut in her gut. "I'm going to lie down, and so should you." Abby gave her mother's fingers a final squeeze.
Someone well meaning, probably Celeste, possibly Lily Beth, had transported the photo collage and its stand from the front of the church and erected the blasted thing at the far end of Abby's dining room. Floor-to-ceiling windows faced the ocean, two unblinking eyes perpetually gazing out to the Atlantic. The view opened her lungs. A strawberry-hued sundown reflected off the frozen harbor. Hidden beneath the ice, unseen, the tides still moved.
Luke had adored that fact.
Luke's girlfriend, Tessa, stood to the side of the offending photo display. Her head tilted toward Charlie, her face a study in concentration, as though she were one of the starry-eyed high-school girls who'd voted him Coolest Teacher.
This morning, Abby had finally met the mysterious dark-eyed Tessa she'd been hearing about for months. At least Luke had prepared Abby with the promise his latest girlfriend was super nice, and way different from the girls he usually dated. In high school, Luke's girlfriends had no more than two holes in each ear, not half a dozen. Their highlights came from the sun, and not a packet of blue dye. But the look on Luke's face when he spoke about his artist girlfriend had tipped Abby off to the biggest difference of all. When he spoke the girl's name, he'd draw out the vowels, his voice making a smoky sound. His gaze lost focus. And his pupils swallowed the soft blue of his irises. Abby's baby had been falling in love.
Likely, Luke's death had short-circuited first heartbreak. Given time, super nice or not, Abby doubted their relationship would've lasted beyond the heated rush of infatuation between polar opposites.
Charlie's laugh punched the air, an unnatural har-har that fooled Tessa into laughing along with him, but told Abby that Charlie was barely hanging on, too.
He caught her gaze, held it. Even though she'd known Charlie since the day she'd let him win a schoolyard race, even after everything they'd been through together, the sight of him still energized her, like the first summer day at the beach. She made her way across the room, a hand raised to her forehead to ward off the glare.
Long ago, nineteen years, seven months, and twelve days ago, to be exact, Abby had believed she could plan out her entire adult life, down to the smallest detail. Despite her doubts, she'd chosen to believe Charlie when he'd promised you couldn't get pregnant if you did it in the ocean, and they'd forgone their usual precaution.
Before Abby had sent Luke away to college, she'd lectured him about the dangers of unprotected sex, drugs, and alcohol. Even Charlie, Good-Time Charlie, had echoed her concerns.
The coroner had found neither drugs nor alcohol in Luke's system.
Which led Abby to the tried-and-true conclusion that drugged or dry, men were impulsive, irrational, and prone to delusions of invincibility. Eventually, they all broke your heart.
Abby touched Charlie's shoulder and turned her back to the photo display. Charlie swung his hair from his eyes, a gesture meant to appear carefree. His left eyelid twitched, a tell Abby doubted Tessa had noticed. "You doing okay?" Abby asked Tessa, but she kept her hand on Charlie's arm.
Abby attempted to see beyond the girl's heavily made-up face. Black lined her top and bottom lashes. Gold gilded her lids. And highly reflective gloss shellacked the center of her lower lip. Only the very young would intentionally try to look so hard.
"Uh-huh." Tessa tried for a nod, but then her dark eyes filled, and she shook her head. "I didn't want to let him go."
The back of Abby's neck broke into a sweat, like when that first Luke contraction had clenched her body. She hadn't wanted to let Luke go then. She didn't want to let him go now. She never wanted to let him go.
Abby wiped Tessa's tears. Black mascara smudged her thumbs. Up close, only the insides of Tessa's irises were brown. Green and gold constellations brightened the outer halves. "Luke cared a great deal for you." Abby's voice tangled around her son's name, and she took a slow breath. "He would've been thrilled you kids drove up from Amherst. And thank you so much for forwarding me the article about the UMass memorial."
Celeste poked her head out from the kitchen and held a hand in the air, fingers outstretched. Five minutes.
Tears, watercolor black, streaked down the sides of Tessa's face. "I'm wicked sorry!" Three sharp shrugs of her shoulders, and Tessa made a run for the couple she'd come with: a petite girl and her built-like-a-wall boyfriend. The girl embraced Tessa, and then, moments later, grabbed Tessa's coat from the chair back.
Abby jolted forward, and Charlie took her by the arm. "Let her go, Abby."
"So are we," Charlie said, his voice barely a whisper. He looked down and shook his head.
"Charlie." Abby brushed the dark-blond hair out of his eyes, her own self-soothing gesture, and her gaze caught on the photo display: Luke's six-year-old grin pressed between her and Charlie's sun-drenched faces, three look-alike blondes. They'd spent the day at Popham Beach, and a passerby had snapped the photo. Luke had insisted. "Just like a family," he'd said, and Abby's heart had bottomed out. Her little romantic.
"I loved him so much."
Charlie followed her gaze to the photo board.
Their baby in his car seat, his eyes closed, pink lips pursed in his sleep. A blurred image of Luke on the high-school basketball court, nailing a jump shot. Luke on break from college, winter camping in the yard. The tent's canvas framed his beaming face.
She gazed into Luke's eyes. Luke stared back. Background conversations faded to a hum. Perspiration prickled her hairline.
Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
All day she'd cycled between the numb out-of-body experience of observing herself from afar and this strangling intensity of in-your-face grief. When the person you'd built your life around was gone, where did that leave you?
Last night, she'd lain in bed, doing the math. If she lived to eighty-six, she'd have another seventeen thousand six hundred and one days to endure. That was no way to think, certainly no way to live. She ached, as if someone had run her over with an eighteen-wheeler, thrown the rig into reverse, and ground her flattened remains into the asphalt.
If she didn't find something else to build her life around, losing her son was going to kill her.
Excerpted from What's Left Behind by LORRIE THOMSON. Copyright © 2014 Lorrie Thomson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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