BLACK MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINA, 2:30 EDT
John Matherson lifted the plastic bag off the counter.
"You sure I have the right ones?" he asked.
Nancy, the owner of the shop, Ivy Corner, smiled. "Don't worry, John; she already had them picked out weeks ago. Give her a big hug and kiss for me. Hard to believe she's twelve today."
John sighed and nodded, looking down at the bag, stuffed with a dozen Beanie Babies, one for each year of Jennifer's life, which started twelve years ago this day.
"Hope she still wants these at thirteen," he said. "God save me when that first boy shows up at the door wanting to take her out."
The two laughed, Nancy nodding in agreement. He was already enduring that with Elizabeth, his sixteen- year- old, and perhaps for that, and so many other reasons as well, he just wished that he could preserve, could drag out, just for a few more days, weeks, or months the precious time all fathers remember fondly, when they still had their "little girl."
It was a beautiful spring day, the cherry trees lining the street in full bloom, a light shower of pink petals drifting on the wind as he walked up the street, past Doc Kellor's office, the antique stores, the new, rather Gothic- looking art gallery that had opened last month, the usual curio shops, and even an old- style ice- cream parlor . . . at a dollar fifty a scoop. Next up the street was Benson's Used and Rare Books. John hesitated, wanted to go in just for a few minutes, then pulled out his cell phone to check the time.
Two thirty. Her bus would be rolling in at three, no time today to go in, have a cup of coffee, and talk about books and history. Walt Benson saw him, held up a cup, gesturing for John to join him. He shook his head, pointed to his wrist even though he never wore a watch, and continued to walk up to the corner to where his Talon SUV was parked in front of Taylor's Hardware and General Store.
John paused and looked back down the street for a moment.
I'm living in a damn Norman Rockwell painting, he thought yet again, for the thousandth time.
Winding up here . . . he never imagined it, never planned for it, or even wanted it. Eight years back he was at the Army War College, Carlisle, PA, teaching military history and lecturing on asymmetrical warfare, and waiting to jump the hoop and finally get his first star.
And then two things happened. His promotion came through, with assignment to Brussels as a liaison to NATO, a rather nice posting to most likely end out his career . . . and then Mary had returned from the doctor's several days after the promotion, her face pale, lips pressed tight, and said four words: "I have breast cancer."
The commandant at Carlisle, Bob Scales, an old friend who had stood as godfather for John's Jennifer, understood the request he then laid before him. John would take the promotion, but could it be to the Pentagon? It'd place them nearby to Johns Hopkins, and not too far from Mary's family.
It didn't work. Cutbacks were hitting as it was, oh, there was great sympathy from upstairs, but he had to take Brussels if he wanted the star and maybe a year later they'd find a slot for him stateside.
After talking to Mary's doctor . . . John resigned. He would take her back home to Black Mountain, North Carolina, which was what she wanted and the cancer treatment center at Chapel Hill would be nearby.
Bob's connections were good, remarkably good, when John first mentioned Black Mountain. A single phone call was made; the old- boy network, though disdained as politically incorrect, did exist and it did help at times when needed. The president of Montreat College, North Carolina, in Mary's hometown, did indeed "suddenly" need an assistant director of development. John hated development and admissions work but survived fit until finally a tenure- track professorship in history opened four years back and he was slotted in.
The fact that the president of the college, Dan Hunt, owed his life to Bob Scales, who had dragged him out of a minefield back in 1970, was a definite mark in John's favor that could not be ignored between friends. Dan had lost his leg, Bob got another of his Bronze Stars for saving him, and the two had been buddies ever since, each looking out, as well, for those whom the other cared for.
So Mary got to go home, after twenty years of following John from Benning, to Germany, to Okinawa, sweating out Desert Storm, from there to the Pentagon, then a year, a wonderful year, at West Point and then three more wonderful years teaching at Carlisle. At heart he was a history teacher, and maybe whichever bastard in the personnel office at the Pentagon had nixed John's request to stay stateside had done him a favor.
So they came home to Black Mountain, North Carolina. He did not hesitate one second in granting her wish, resigning his commission and promotion and moving to this corner of the Carolina mountains.
He looked back down Main Street, frozen for a moment in time and memories. Mary would be gone four years next week, her last time out a slow, exhausting walk down this street, which as a girl she had run along.
It was indeed a Norman Rockwell town. That final walk down this street with her, everyone knew her, everyone knew what was happening, and everyone came out to say hi, to give her a hug, a kiss, all knowing it was farewell but not saying it. It was a gesture of love John would never forget.
He pushed the thought aside. It was still too close and Jennifer's bus would be pulling up in twenty minutes.
He got into his Talon, started it up, turned onto State Street, and headed east. He did love the view as State Street curved through town, past yet more shops, nearly all the buildings redbrick, dating back to the turn of the century.
The village had once been a thriving community, part of the tuberculosis sanitarium business. When the railroad had finally pierced the mountains of western North Carolina in the early 1880s some of the first to flood in were tuberculosis victims. They came by the thousands, to the sanitariums that sprang up on every sunlit mountain slope. By the early twenties there were a dozen such institutions surrounding Asheville, the big city situated a dozen miles to the west of Black Mountain.
And then came the Depression. Black Mountain remained frozen in time, and then came antibiotics right after the war and the sanitariums emptied out. And all those wonderful buildings, which in other towns would have given way to shopping plazas and strip malls, had remained intact, progress passing Black Mountain by.
Now there were conference centers for various churches and summer camps for kids where the sanitariums had been. His own college had been founded at such a site up in what everyone called the Cove. A small college, six hundred kids, most of them from small towns across the Carolinas and a few from Atlanta or Florida. Some of the kids were freaked out by the relative isolation, but most of them grudgingly admitted they loved it, a beautiful campus, a safe place, an old logging trail across the edge of the campus leading straight on up to Mount Mitchell, good white water nearby for kayaking, and plenty of woods to disappear into for partying for some of them, to get around the fairly strict campus rules.
The town itself finally revived, starting in the 1980s, but wonderfully, the charming turn- of- the- century look was maintained, and in the summer and fall the streets would be crammed with tourists and day- trippers coming up from Charlotte or Winston- Salem to escape the boiling heat of the lowlands, joined by hundreds of summer "cottagers" who lived in the Cove, many of the cottages darn near mansions for some of the older wealth of the South.
That had been Mary's family, Old South and wealth. Me-ma Jennie, Ma