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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Second Piece

**This is a Missing Pieces story featuring characters and story-lines from my upcoming novel, Pieces.**

The air was still under the tall pines.  The evening sun was flooding the sky with streaks of orange and gold.  Silence ruled over the grounds, and Ella did her best not to disturb it.  She walked quietly down the well worn path, her eyes reading the familiar names as she passed.  From the bouquet in her arms the thick scent of roses and lilies wafted around her.  It was a smell that always reminded her of this place.
    At the end of the pathway Ella turned left and wove her way among the aging tombstones.  Her gaze swept over the long wispy tendrils of the weeping willow that marked the Mackenzie family plot.  A lone figure sat on the marble bench, nothing more than a shadow against other shadows.  Ella knew who it was.  She could see her long black hair lying across the thin shoulders.  It was a sight she knew well.
    “Victoria?” Ella said as she approached the figure.  The woman jumped a little, startled by the sudden voice.
    “Oh, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to startle you.”
    “Ella,” the woman looked at her with wide eyes, “you did give me a fright!”
    “Sorry,” Ella said again as she lay her hand on the woman’s shoulder.  She stood there for a moment, studying the black marble tombstone in front of her.  She took a few steps and then bent down to arrange her flowers next to the ones already there.  Roses and lilies, her mother’s favorites.
    “How long have you been here?”  Ella asked as she joined Victoria on the bench.
    “Oh, I don’t know.  I always seem to lose track of time here.”
    Ella nodded.  She understood what Victoria was saying.  She had often sat there on the small bench for hours, listening to the wind, hoping to hear her mother’s whispers among the rustling leaves.
    “How has your birthday been?”  Victoria asked.
    “Fine, I guess.  Nothing special.  Jason is taking me out to dinner later.”
    “Yes, he had mentioned that earlier.”
    They sat for a while, saying nothing.  Ella knew that this was always a difficult time for Victoria.  This year seemed particularly hard.
    “So hard to believe,” Victoria mumbled absently.
    “What is?”  Ella asked.
    “That it’s been so long.  Twenty-two years.”
    Ella nodded.  She didn’t pretend to understand the torrent of emotions that must surge through Victoria every year on this day.  The day her son was born.  The day her best friend died.
    “I still remember every detail of it.” Victoria paused, “I thought that over the years, it would fade.  That the flood would simply turn to mist.  But it never has.  I still see each raindrop.  I hear every word.  I feel…” her voice trailed off.
    “Victoria,” Ella’s voice trembled a little, “do you blame me for what happened?”  It was a question that had weighed on her heart her entire life.  She had simply never had the nerve to ask before.
    “What?” Victoria asked, startled.
    “Do you blame me for Mom dying?”
    “Ella!  How could you… No, not at all.  Never.”
    Ella let out a sigh of relief she’d been holding for years.
    “I’m glad.  I’ve always been afraid that you and Dad blamed me for it.  I could never ask Daddy.  It would only make him feel bad.”
    “Ella, no one blamed you for what happened.  Your mother, stubborn as she was, knew the risk she was taking.”
    Victoria took a deep breath and stared for a long moment at the name carved deep in to the marble.
    “I knew,” she started quietly, “that there would be a day when I would need to tell you what happened.  I know your father can’t do it, and I don’t blame him for that.  You shouldn’t either.  You’ve heard parts of the story before, but never the whole thing.  But you’re old enough now.  You should know it all.”
    Ella stared blankly at the flowers on the cold ground.  A lifetime of questions were about to be answered for her.  But now that the time was at hand, she wasn’t sure she was ready to listen to it.
    “Your mom was my best friend,” Victoria began.  “We grew up next door to each other.  My earliest memory of  Elizabeth was seeing her planting lilies in the garden with her mother.  I was watching them from the porch.  Elizabeth spotted me and waved me over.  I had just moved in and was feeling a bit shy.  But your mom was such a wonderfully warm person, even as a child.  Within just a few minutes we were the best of friends.”
    “What was she like as a kid?”  Ella asked.
    “Oh, a lot like you were!”  Victoria laughed a little.  “She was so kind, always smiling and polite.  But she had a rebellious streak in her too, just like you did.  I couldn’t count how many times she got me in trouble for missing dinner.  We’d be out trekking through the woods behind our houses.  We even got lost once.  Nearly gave our poor mothers a heart attack.”
    Ella couldn’t help but smile.  She remembered back to a time when she and Jason had got lost in those same woods.  They had ended up huddled together under a rock outcropping, waiting on the rain to stop.  Their dads had found them hours later, propped against each other in the darkness.
    “You know, it was Elizabeth that introduced me to Keith.”
    “I didn’t know that.”
    “Yep.  Well, actually, we met him at roughly the same time.  You see, I had spotted him down at the diner one weekend.  The next time we were there, I pointed him out to Elizabeth.  She kept trying to get me to go over and talk to him and his friend.  But there was no way I was going to do that!” Victoria laughed.  “So finally she just got frustrated, hopped up, and went right over to their table.  She sat down and started talking like she’d known them forever.  I was so embarrassed.  But a few moments later she returned to our table with them and introduced us.  Changed my life forever.”
    “Was the friend my dad?”
    “Why yes, he was,” Victoria smiled at Ella, “He and Keith were best friends too.  Keith’s father worked for Jeff’s dad.  They’d grown up together, just like Elizabeth and I had.  It all just seemed to work out that way.  Three years later we had a beautiful double wedding ceremony.  Your grandfather paid for all of us to honeymoon in the Bahamas together.  It was a magical time for us.”
    Victoria’s voice drifted off, lost in the memory of laughter and sunlight.  Her heart ached for those happy moments.
    “Her whole life, all your mother ever wanted was a baby.”  Victoria’s voice was quiet.  “That was it.  Even though she was wonderfully talented at her job, it meant very little to her.  What she wanted was a daughter.  But in the first two years she and your father were married, she miscarried three times.  The doctor’s weren’t sure what was wrong, but they could see the toll it was taking on her body.
    “The day I found out I was pregnant with Jason, I cried for three hours.  I was happy to be pregnant.  But I couldn’t bear the thought of telling your mom.  Having a child was an afterthought to me.  To her, it was everything.  I didn’t want to see her smile and congratulate me with sorrow in her eyes.  But I couldn’t very well keep it from her either.  I did though, for nearly four months I hid it.
    “When I was finally forced to buy maternity clothes, I knew I had to tell her.  So, I called her and asked her out to lunch.  We went back to that same little diner where it had all begun years before.  I was so nervous.  I didn’t want her to hate me.”
    Victoria’s hands were trembling.  Ella gently placed her hand on top of them and squeezed gently.
    “She was positively glowing when she came in that afternoon.  I swear to you, the woman was radiant.  It was like she was wearing a cape of light that shimmered around her.  For a moment, I was completely speechless.  She sat down across from me, beaming from ear to ear.  I could tell she was excited about something.  And honestly, that made me feel even worse.
    “’What good timing you have!’ she had said as she sat down.  ‘I’ve got something amazing to tell you!’
    “I just looked at her blankly, wondering how I would ever tell her.  She didn’t seem to notice that I was dumbfounded.
    “’Victoria,’ she had said, taking my hands in hers, ‘I’m pregnant.’
    “I tell you Ella, at first I couldn’t speak.  So many things were running through my mind, I can’t even remember them all.  I just remember being shocked and confused.  You see, after the third miscarriage, your mother had promised your dad that she’d give up.  But there she was in front of me, grinning and beaming with happiness.
    “’I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner Victoria.  I just wanted to be sure this time.  I haven’t even told Jeff!  Can you believe I’ve been able to keep quiet for four months!’
    “I couldn’t believe it.  I even asked her to repeat it.  When I was certain I’d heard her correctly, I just burst out crying.  I think I scared her pretty bad.  She jumped up and slid in the booth next to me.  She was asking me what was wrong.  And then suddenly the tears gave way to laughter.  She must have thought I was crazy.
    “’I’m pregnant too Elizabeth!  Four months!’ was all I could say.  Then we cried together.  Everyone must have thought we were mad.
    “For the next couple of months, everything seemed to go perfectly.  It was an unasked for blessing.  We shopped for maternity clothes together.  We picked out cribs and receiving blankets.  We poured over baby name books.  We made sure everything was perfect for our new little miracles.”
    Victoria stopped again.  Her eyes closed.  Ella knew she was fighting back tears.
    “Three weeks before you were born, your mom got sick.  It started with a high fever.  The doctor said it was probably the flu.  He put your mom on bed rest.  Jeff was half crazy.  He had been so upset with Elizabeth for breaking her promise.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want a baby, he did.  He was just so terrified of losing your mother.  We all were.  He blamed himself for her illness.  He and I sat by her bedside, day after day.  The glow slowly left her.  Her eyes grew dark.  But her smile never faded, and we would sit for hours and talk about the new lives we were about to bring in to the world.
    “It was just after lunch, twenty-two years ago, that my labor pains began.  I was sitting next to your mother when it started.  She was so excited.  She called Keith and Jeff and held my hand through the contractions.  When the boys got there to take me to the hospital, she insisted on coming with us.  Jeff tried to get her to lie back down, but she wouldn’t listen.  And as soon as she stood up, her water broke.  And she collapsed.
    “It was so surreal Ella,” Victoria said shakily.  “I didn’t know what to do.  Jeff scooped her up and practically flew down the stairs with her.  The four of us were at the hospital in less than ten minutes.  The hospital was in chaos.  There had been a water pipe burst in the delivery ward.  There was water everywhere.  They practically threw me and Elizabeth in to a tiny little room.  Your mom was awake by then, but barely.  Her fever was soaring.  I watched them attach probes to her.  I watched them place the mask over her face.  The doctor was screaming at me to push, but all I could do was watch her.  I was so scared.”
    There was a long pause while Victoria tried to calm herself down.  Ella tried in vain to swallow down the sickness that was building inside of her.
    “Jason was born a few hours later.  He was so beautiful.  It was his eyes that I noticed first of course.  Those clear green eyes had startled me.  I had read somewhere that all babies were born with blue eyes.  But not my boy.  His eyes were old, deep as the ocean.  He only cried for a moment, just after he was born.  Then he was quiet, like he is now.  Your mom had watched him be born.  She was smiling at me behind the oxygen mask when I turned my head toward her.  Her hand had fluttered for a moment, and then pulled the mask back.  ‘He’s gorgeous Victoria.  He’ll protect my little angel for me.’
    “I couldn’t answer her.  She smiled at me again, then turned to Jeff.
    “’Jeff?” she whispered.  Her voice was so weak and shaky.  Your dad leaned over her and said ‘Yes Liz, I’m here’.  Everyone in the room could hear the pain in his voice.  It cut me straight to the bone.  Your mother loved him so much.
    “’Promises,’ she said, ‘I need promises from you.’
    “’Anything Liz, absolutely anything,’ he answered.  I could see her bite her lip just a little, the way she did when she was deep in thought.  The same way you do now Ella.  She knew she was out of time.  And that’s when she made your dad promise to name you Isabella.  Your dad tried to joke and asked her how she knew you were a girl.
    “’The angel standing here at the bed is telling me that is her name’ was her answer.  Your dad, God bless him, managed to hold it together.  I didn’t.  I’m ashamed to say I nearly dropped Jason.  The nurse grabbed him away and put him in the crib by the bed.  Then Elizabeth told your dad to tell you everyday how much she loved you.
    “’Don’t let her think this is her fault.  I knew the risk.  I was happy to take it.  And don’t be sad Jeff, don’t be angry.  I’ll watch over the both of you now.  And I will be happy to have had you both.’  I’ll never forget those words.”
    Tears streamed down Victoria’s face, matching the ones on Ella’s cheek.  So many times she had wondered about her mother’s death but had been afraid to ask.  Now she knew.
    “At 10:01 pm, she closed her eyes for the last time.  And all hell broke loose.  You still hadn’t been born.  I think the doctor  panicked for a moment.  Then he ripped the cover off of Elizabeth…” her voice trailed, “and a few moments later, there you were.  Screaming at the top of your lungs, and perfect in every way.  Elizabeth’s angel had been right.  You were the baby girl she’d always dreamed of.
    “The room was in chaos.  The doctors were still trying to bring your mom back.  Once they saw you were fine, they turned to her again.  It was so crazy, the nurse just put you in the crib next to Jason.  All that time, he had been quiet.  You were still crying and wiggling about.  I sat up to check on you, still half dazed at what was going on next to me.  And as I looked down at the two of you, the most amazing thing happened.  My little Jason put his hand on your arm.  Within just a few seconds, you were calm.  The two of you lay there looking at each other, as though you were having a conversation I couldn’t understand.  Elizabeth had been right again.  Jason was your protector from the very beginning.”
    A cool breeze suddenly swept across the darkening grounds, chilling the silence around them.  Ella watched the petals of the roses flutter gently, as though an angel had breathed on them.  Her tears dried against her cheek.
    “Thank you Victoria, for telling me about it.  I know it wasn’t easy.”
    Victoria patted Ella’s hand gently.
    “No, it wasn’t.  But you needed to know.  You should have always known the story of how you came to be.  Never forget that your mother loved you and wanted you, no matter what the cost might have been.  I like to think of it like this Ella -- Elizabeth fulfilled every single dream she ever had.  She met and married a wonderful man.  She ran a successful business.  And she gave birth to a beautiful little girl.  Her life, to her, was complete.  She had no regrets.”

    “There you are,” a quiet voice rippled along the breeze behind them.  They both gasped.
    “Sorry to startle you,” Jason said as he emerged from the growing shadows.  “I didn’t expect to see you here mom,” he said as he kissed her cheek gently.“I ended up being longer than I had expected.”
     Jason eyed her suspiciously for a moment, then turned his clear green eyes to Ella.
    “Is everything ok here?”
    Victoria stood up and embraced him.
    “Yes son, everything is fine now.  It’s time for me to be going.  Jeff and I have plans to sit around and share old stories tonight.”  She released Jason and walked slowly to the black stone.
    “Good night Elizabeth.  And thank you.”  She ran her hand gently over the stone, then to the stone next to it.  “And good night Keith.  May both of you sleep well.”  Ella was certain there were tears in her eyes as she waved good-bye to her and Jason.
    “Are you sure everything is ok?” Jason asked, sitting down next to Ella.
    “Yes, it is.  All the questions I’ve ever had have been answered.  And everything is just fine.”  Ella smiled at him.  All the mixed emotions of sorrow and happiness that had been rolling inside of her just moments before, quieted.  At last she knew that what she had felt had always been true.  He really did have that effect on her.
    “Come on, “ she said standing up and looking down at him.  “Let’s go get some dinner.  I’m starving.”
    “You’re always hungry,” J said as he rose next to her.
    “Yeah I know, come on.”
    “One minute,” J answered as he turned and placed another bouquet of roses and lilies in front of the stone.  He carefully slid one of the roses from the paper and lay it across his dad’s tombstone.  “Ok,” he said turning back to Ella.  “let’s go.”
    As they walked together, side by side, through the slumbering grounds a sound caught Ella’s attention.  It was faint, as though it swirled around her in the breeze.  It was laughter.
    “J,” Ella stopped, listening.  “Do you hear that?”
    “What?” he asked, listening too.
    Ella shook her head a bit.  The sound was gone.
    “Nothing I guess.”
    “Come on,” J motioned for Ella to follow him.  “My mom told me about this diner she used to go to.  Let’s go there.”

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