Twenty years later Cambrai, Louisiana
"I just wanted to call and say 'Happy birthday,'" her sister said, leaving a message on the answering machine.
Abby stood in the middle of her small kitchen. Listening, she debated about picking up the phone, but decided against it. She just wasn't in the mood. She had spent most of the day at her studio in New Orleans, dealing with kids who had their own ideas about what a Christmas portrait should be. What she needed was a glass of wine. Maybe two. Not her sister's long-winded birthday message.
"So ... give me a call back when you get in. It's still early here on the West Coast, you know. I, uh, I'd like to talk to you, Abby. Thirty-five years is a major milestone."
In more ways than one, Abby thought as she reached into her refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Chardonnay she'd bought nearly a month earlier when she'd thought her friend Alicia was coming to Louisiana for a visit.
"Okay ... so ... when you get this, I mean, assuming you're not listening to it right now and still refusing to talk to me, give me a call, okay?" Zoey waited a beat. "It's been a long time, Abby. It's time to bury the hatchet."
Abby wasn't so sure. She turned on the faucet and heard the old pipes groan as she rinsed a wineglass that had been gathering dust in her cupboard for the past two years.
"You know, Abby, this isn't just about you," Zoey reminded her through the answering machine's tiny speaker.
Of course not. It's about you.
"It's a tough day for me, as well. She was my mother, too."
Abby set her jaw, reconsidered picking up the receiver, and once again determined not to. Talking to Zoey today would be a mistake. She could feel it in her bones. Digging in a drawer, she found a corkscrew she'd owned since college and began opening the bottle.
"Look, Abs, I really, really hope you're not home alone and listening to this ... You should go out and celebrate."
I intend to.
The phone clicked as Zoey hung up. Abby let out a long breath and leaned against the counter. She probably should have answered, put up with all the falderal of birthday greetings, the fake cheer, the gee-aren't-we-just-one-big-happyfamily, but she couldn't. Not today. Because Zoey wouldn't have let it go at that. There would have been the inevitable discussion of their mother, and what had happened twenty years ago, and then there would have been the awkward and uncomfortable questions about Luke.
She popped the cork.
It was just so damned hard to forgive her sister for sleeping with her husband. Yeah, it had been a long time ago, and before the marriage but there it was, the wedge that had been between them for five years, ever since Abby had learned of the affair.
But Zoey had dated him first, hadn't she?
So what? Abby poured the wine, watched the chilled, cool liquid splash into the glass. Her conscience twinged a little at that, even though she knew that Luke Gierman had proved to be no prize as a boyfriend and worse as a husband. No damned prize at all.
And though Abby had divorced him, Zoey was still her sister. There was no changing that. Maybe she should let bygones be bygones, Abby thought, staring out the partially opened window where a slight breeze, heavy with the scents of earth and water, wafted inside.
Twilight was just settling in this stretch of Louisiana, the crickets and cicadas were chirping, stars beginning to wink in a dusky, lavender sky. It was pretty here, if a little isolated, a place she and Luke had planned to add on to, to become an all-American family with 2.3 children, a white picket fence, and a minivan parked in the drive.
So much for dreams.
She pushed the window open a little farther, hoping for relief from the heat.
Happy birthday to you ...
The wind seemed to sigh that damned funeral dirge of a song through the branches of the live oaks, causing the Spanish moss to shift as dusk settled deeper into the woods. Off in the distance she heard the rumble of a train. Closer in, at a neighbor's place down this winding country road, she heard a dog barking and through the trees she watched the ghostly image of a rising moon.
Her 35-millimeter camera was sitting on the counter near the back door and the dusk was so still and peaceful, so intriguing, she thought she might click off a few shots and kill the roll. The film inside the camera had been there for a long time as she used her digital more often than not. Leaving the wine on the counter, she turned on the camera and flash, then walked to the French doors off her dining room. Stepping outside, she positioned herself on the edge of the flagstones. Ansel, her cat, followed Abby outside and hopped onto a bench located under a magnolia tree. Abby focused then clicked off the last few shots of the tabby with the darkening woods as a backdrop. The cat faced away from the house, ears pricked forward, his eyes trained on the trees, his fur gilded by a few rays of a dying sun. "Hey, buddy," she said, and the cat looked over his shoulder as she took the last couple of shots with the flash flaring in Ansel's gold eyes. Why not have a few pictures of this, her thirty-fifth birthday? she thought as she turned to go inside.
A twig cracked in the woods nearby.
Her heart jumped to her throat.
She spun around, half expecting to spy someone lurking in the deepening umbra. Eyes searching the coming darkness, she strained to see through the vines and brush and canopy of leafy trees. Her skin crawled, her pulse jack-hammering in her ears.
But no human shape suddenly appeared, no dark figure stepped into the patches of light cast from the windows.
Stop it, she thought, drawing in a shaky breath. Just ... stop it. She'd been in a bad mood all day. Testy and on edge. Not because it was her birthday, not really. Who cared about the passing of another year? Thirty-five wasn't exactly ancient. But the fact that this was the twentieth anniversary of her mother's death, now that got to her.
Still jittery, she walked into the house and called to the cat through the open doors.
Ansel ignored her. He remained fixed and alert, his gaze trained on the dark shadows, where she expected a creature of the night might be staring back. The same creature who had stepped on and broken a twig. A large creature. "Come on, Ansel. Let's call it a day," she urged.
The cat hissed.
His striped fur suddenly stood straight on end. His ears flattened and his eyes rounded. Like a bolt of lightning, he shot across the verandah and around the corner toward the studio. There wasn't a chance in hell that she could catch him.
"Oh, ya big pussy," she teased, but as she latched the door behind her, she couldn't quite shake her own case of nerves. Though she'd never seen anyone on the grounds behind her place, there was always a first time. Leaving her camera on the dining room table, she made her way back to the kitchen, where the answering machine with its blinking red light caused her to think of Zoey again.
Abby and her sister had never been close, not for as long as she could remember.
Damn you, Zoey, she thought as she picked up her glass and took a long swallow. Why couldn't Abby have had that special bond with her sister, that best-friends kind of thing which everyone who did seemed to gush on and on about? Could it be because Zoey and Abby were so close in age, barely fourteen months apart? Or maybe it was because Zoey was so damned competitive with her uncompromising I'll-do-anything to win streak. Or maybe, just maybe, their antagonism was as much Abby's fault as her sister's.
"Blasphemy," she muttered, feeling the chilled wine slide easily down her throat, though it did little to cool her off.
It was hot. Humid. The fans in the nearly century-old house unable to keep up with the heat that sweltered in this part of the bayou. She dabbed at the sweat on her forehead with the corner of a kitchen towel.
Should she have answered the stupid phone?
Nope. Abby wasn't ready to go there. Not today. Probably not ever.
It was twenty years ago today ...
The lyrics of an old Beatles tune, one of her mother's favorites, spun through Abby's head. "Don't," she told herself. No reason to replay the past as she had for the last two decades. It was time to move on. Tonight, she vowed, she'd start over. This was the beginning of Abby Chastain, Phase II. She'd try to forget that on this very day, twenty years ago, when her mother had turned thirty-five-just as Abby was doing today-Faith Chastain had ended her tormented life. Horribly. Tragically.
"Oh, God, Mom," she said now, closing her eyes. The memory that she'd tried so hard to repress emerged as if in slow motion. She recalled her father's sedan rolling through the open wrought-iron gates. Past manicured lawns toward the tall, red-brick building where the drive curved around a fountain-a fountain where three angels sprayed water upward toward the starlit heavens. Abby, already into boys at the time, and thinking of how she was going to ask Trey Hilliard to Friday night's Sadie Hawkins dance, had climbed out of the car just as her father had cut the engine. Carrying a box with a bright, fuchsia-colored bow, she'd looked up to the third story, to the windows of her mother's room.
But no warm light glowed through the panes.
Instead the room was dark.
And then Abby had felt an odd sensation, a soft breath that touched the back of her neck and nearly stopped her heart. Something was wrong. Very wrong. "Mama?" she whispered, using the name for her mother she hadn't spoken in a decade.
She'd started for the wide steps leading to the hospital's front door when she heard the crash.
Her head jerked up.
Glass sprayed. Tiny pieces catching in the bluish light.
A hideous shriek rose in the night. A dark body fell through the sky. It landed on the concrete with a heavy bone-cracking thud.
Fear tore through her.
Denial rose in her throat. "No! No! Noooo!" Abby dropped the box and flew down the steps to the small broken form lying faceup on the cement. Blood, dark and oozing, began to pool beneath her mother's head. Wide whiskey-colored eyes stared sightlessly upward.
Abby pitched herself toward the still, crumpled form.
As if from the other side of a long tunnel she heard her name being called. Her father's desperate, tense voice. "Abby, don't! Oh, God! Help! Someone get help! Faith!"
She fell to her knees. Tears welled in her eyes and terror chilled her to the bottom of her soul. "Mama! Mama!" she cried, until strong hands and arms pulled her struggling body away.
Now, she blinked and gave herself a quick mental shake. "Jesus," she whispered, dispelling the horrific vision that had haunted her for all of twenty years. She was suddenly cognizant of water dripping from the faucet over the kitchen sink. Rather than shut off the pressure, she turned it on full, until water was rushing from the tap. Quickly, she cupped her hands under the stream, then splashed the water onto her face, cooling her cheeks, pushing back the soul-jarring memory and hoping to wash away the stain of that night forever.
Trembling, she snapped the dishtowel from the counter and swiped at her face. What was wrong with her? Hadn't she just told herself she wouldn't go down that painful path again? "Idiot," she murmured, folding the towel, noticing her half-full glass of wine on the counter, and feeling something about the memory wasn't quite right.
"Get over yourself," she rebuked as she picked up the glass, looked at the glimmering depths for a second.
"Happy birthday, Mom," she whispered to the empty room, hoisting the stemmed glass as if Faith were in the room. She took a sip of the crisp Chardonnay. "Here's to us." Her mother had always told her she was special, that being born on her mother's birthday created a unique bond between them, that they were "two peas in a pod."
Well ... not quite.
Not by a long shot.
A very long shot.
"Now, please ... go away," she whispered. "Leave me alone."
She drained her glass, corked the bottle, and stuffed it into the refrigerator door. She had no more time for mind-numbing nightmares, for a past that sometimes nearly devoured her. Tonight, all that was over.
Determined to get her life on the right track, she set her glass onto the counter too quickly. It cracked, the stem breaking off, cutting the end of her thumb. "Great," she growled as blood began to surface. Just what she needed, she thought sourly. Opening a cupboard, she found a box of Band-Aids. As blood dripped onto the Formica, she undid the little carton and discovered only one jumbo-sized Band-Aid in the box. It would just have to do. Awkwardly she slipped it from its sterile packaging and wrapped it around her thumb twice.
She managed to swab the counter and toss the broken glass into the trash before walking through a mud room and slapping on the light of the garage. There, propped against a stack of wood, was a sign that said it all: FOR SALE BY OWNER. She picked it up then carried it to the end of her long drive. She hung the blue-and-white placard onto the hooks of the post she'd set into her yard late that afternoon.
"Perfect," she told herself, even though she did have one or two twinges of nostalgia about selling the place. Hadn't the little bungalow been the very spot where she'd tried once before to start over, a haven chosen as the ideal place to patch a broken marriage, a quiet retreat where she'd fostered so many hopes, so many dreams? She'd crossed her fingers when she and Luke had bought this house. She'd prayed that they would be able to find happiness here.
How foolish she'd been. Now, as dusk gathered and purple shadows crawled across the grounds, she glanced at the cottage-a cozy little clapboard and shingle house that had been built nearly a hundred years earlier. It sat well back from this winding country road. The original structure had been renovated, added to, and improved to the point that the main house consisted of two small bedrooms, a single bath, and an attic with a skylight that she'd managed to turn into her in-home office. The attached building had once been a mother-in-law apartment, which Abby had converted into her photography studio, dark room, and second bathroom.
Five years earlier, she and Luke had found this property, declared it "perfect," and had spent several years here before everything had fallen apart. Eventually he'd moved out of the house and onto other women ... no, wait. It was the other way around. The women came first. Starting with Zoey. Before the wedding.
Not that it mattered now.
Luke Gierman, once a respected newscaster and radio disk jockey, had become New Orleans's answer to Howard Stern as well as a chapter in her life that was finally and indelibly over. It had been more than a year since the final papers had been signed and a judge had declared the marriage officially dissolved.
Snagging the hammer from the ground where she'd left it earlier, Abby stepped back to study the sign, to make certain it hung evenly, to read once again the words and phone number indicating that this home was on the market.
She had been determined to set her life straight, had heeded what all the experts had suggested, though, in truth, she'd thought a lot of the advice had been useless. She'd tried to give their marriage a second chance but that hadn't worked. They'd split; she'd stayed with the house. Her friends had all warned her about suffering through the holidays and anniversaries and nostalgia alone, but those milestones had passed and they hadn't been all that bad. She'd survived just fine. Probably because she hadn't really handed her heart to Luke again. And she hadn't been all that surprised when his old tendencies for other women had resurfaced.
Luke would probably always suffer from an ongoing case of infidelity.
A twig in the underbrush broke. Again! Glancing sharply toward the shrubbery, the direction where the sound had occurred, Abby expected to see a possum or raccoon or even a skunk amble into the weak light offered by the single bulb hanging in the garage.
But there was only silence. She realized, then, that the crickets had stopped their songs, the bullfrogs were no longer croaking. Her heart rate increased and involuntarily she strained to listen, to notice any other sounds that were out of the ordinary.
She suddenly felt very vulnerable in this isolated area of the road.
Peering into the darkness, she sensed unseen eyes studying her, watching her. A tiny shudder slid down her spine. She chided herself for her own case of nerves. It was her birthday, she was alone, and just thinking about her mother's death had left her edgy.