The kid was amazing. "And when did Paula give you the recipe?”
"You’ve been talking long distance again.”
"Mom, we haven’t seen each other in…forever. We’re friends. You can’t separate us like this and not expect us to talk. But don’t worry, we’ve been taking turns calling each other, and we only discuss the things that are most important.”
"Like sharing recipes?”
"Right,” Karen answered.
"You don’t happen to have Paula’s number on speed dial, do you?”
So that explained how she happened to reach Thom when she’d dialed her mother. "Never mind.”
The draperies flew back into place. "Dad’s here,” Karen said, grabbed her overnight bag, and flew toward the door. Her hand was on the knob when Maureen stopped her.
"I’ll go out with you. I want to talk to him,” she said, and reached for her sweater.
Karen cast her mother a wide-eyed appeal. She bit into her lower lip, then said, "Mom, please don’t do this.”
"All I want to do is talk,” Maureen assured her.
Maureen ignored her and stepped outside. Brian had parked at the curb and was standing next to his car.
He eyed her wearily. "Maureen.”
"Brian.” She buried her hands deep inside the sweater pockets.
"I suppose you’re wondering what time I’ll have Karen back to you in the morning?”
"Yeah.” That was as good a place to start their conversation as any.
"Is ten too late?” he wanted to know.
"That’ll be fine.”
"Can we go now?” Karen asked, apparently eager to be on her way. Maureen couldn’t blame her, given the situation.
"In a minute,” she said.
"You can get in the car if you want.” Brian looked at Maureen as if he half expected her to challenge him.
"I won’t keep you, but—”
"I appreciate it.” His hand was on the car, and he was ready to turn away.
"Brian,” she said quickly. The rest of the words were so thick in her throat, she didn’t know if she could ever get them out.
"What now?” he demanded impatiently. "Isn’t it bad enough that you pester me at all hours of the night?”
"I have something to tell you,” she said. "Something important.”
"What? That you’ve hired a new attorney? I suppose you’re going to ask for a raise in your child support payments?”
"Then just say it, will you? I haven’t got all night.”
"All right.” She gathered her composure. "Basically, I want you to know that I’m sorry.”
Even in what little light the moon afforded, Maureen could read her ex-husband’s confusion. "Sorry? What the hell for?”
Actually, she wasn’t sure where to start. "Everything, I guess. I made the divorce more difficult and painful than it needed to be. And since then I’ve done whatever I could to make you miserable.”
"Yeah,” he agreed, leaning his weight onto one leg, "you might say that.”
"The problem was, in the process I made everyone else miserable, too, including Karen and myself. I got so bogged down in hating you that I forgot about living my own life. I want you to know I regret that.”
"You don’t hate me anymore?” he asked as though he weren’t sure he should believe her.
"No. I can’t afford the luxury.”
He laughed as though amazed. "You know, Maureen, you were always a beautiful woman.”
"Thank you. I fell in love with you once. You’re Karen’s father, and if for nothing else, I’ll always be grateful to you for fathering her.”
"You know, I’m not half bad. Oh, sure, I have a little trouble keeping a job now and again, but there are a hell of a lot worse men in this world.”
"That’s true. Now shall we call a truce?” she asked.
She held out her hand to him. He shook it once, then stepped back almost as though he were afraid it was all a trick and something would soon explode in his face.
"Since we can’t be married, let’s make the best of being good parents to Karen,” Maureen suggested. "And maybe someday you and I might even discover we can be civil to each other again.”
"Not a bad idea. Can I go now?”
He placed his hand on the car door, then paused. "Did your attorney put you up to this?”
"Yeah. Did she tell you to bury the hatchet and let bygones be bygones?”
Karen rolled down the car window and folded her arms in the opening. "No, her new boyfriend did,” she explained, leaning the upper half of her body out the window.
"Boyfriend? You mean to tell me you’ve got yourself a boyfriend? I’d say it’s about time, Maureen. You should have let me know you were ready to date. I could have set you up with one of my friends.”
Maureen smiled. "Thanks, Brian, I’ll keep that in mind.”
He opened the door, and Karen scrambled out of the way. "Bye, Mom!” she yelled, stretching over the backseat in order to wave.
Maureen returned the gesture. It hadn’t been easy. She’d nearly choked on the apology. It wasn’t forgiveness. Not even close to that. Forgiving Brian would take time and effort, but she’d taken the first ministep in that direction.
With a bounce in her gait, she returned to the house. It seemed bright and cheerful, even with a Christmas tree that was only half decorated.
A string of lights were wound from top to bottom, and Karen had gotten the first couple of boxes of ornaments on the lower branches, but the rest was up to her. She’d never let it go so long before, but it was a perfect task for Christmas Eve.
She had put on some Christmas music and brought out the rest of the decorations when the doorbell chimed. Tinsel was draped around her neck and a box of wrapping paper was tucked under her arm.
"Merry Christmas,” Thom and Paula shouted simultaneously when she opened the door.
"You couldn’t join us for Christmas Eve, so we came to you,” Thom explained. He carried a serving dish, his hands buried deep inside thick pot holders. Paula had a large bowl.
"Chicken cordon bleu,” Paula explained as they stepped into the house. "I gave Karen the recipe. And my special garden salad, minus tomatoes.”
"Here, put it in the kitchen,” Maureen instructed them, clearing a path.
"Oh, great, you haven’t decorated your tree yet,” Paula said after setting the salad on the table. "Can I help? I’m really good at this sort of thing.” She didn’t wait for Maureen to answer but raced back into the living room.
Thom set the hot dish down in the center of the table, and before he had a chance to remove the pot holders, she was in his arms. Standing on the tips of her toes, she kissed him, using her mouth and tongue in ways that made her regret they weren’t alone.
Thom’s arms were tight about her. His words were little more than a breathless murmur. "I’ll cook your dinner every night if you promise to reward me like that.”
Maureen smiled and raised her lips back to his. "You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Paul straightened the trio of angel figurines that adorned his living-room window. Christmas Eve. He looked out into the darkness and felt a renewed sense of happiness. It was the season, yes, but more. He felt as though a heaviness had been lifted from his heart, from his life.
His hand held back the curtain, and a pair of headlights cut through the night in the distance. He suspected it was Bethany and Eric. They’d phoned to say they’d be over for Christmas Eve with some important news. Eric had been waiting better than a year for his promotion, and Paul guessed this was what they were about to celebrate.
He’d set the table himself and brought out Barbara’s finest lace tablecloth and the china dishes. Three years of accumulated dust had made it necessary for him to wash them before he placed the delicate plates at the dinner table. He couldn’t remember if he was supposed to run the fancy tableware through the dishwasher or not, so to be on the safe side he’d washed each one by hand.
The task reminded him of all the nights he’d dried dishes for Barbara. The happy times they’d shared as a couple had been many. Unfortunately he’d allowed his memories of her to be connected with her illness.
All he remembered was her pain.
All he could think about was his ongoing frustration and the intense feeling of helplessness.
All he could think about was his loss.
Like Madge, she was free of cancer now. Healed by the glorious hand of God. Not as he’d expected. Not as he’d wished. But healed.
Sure enough, the headlights slowed as they neared the house. Eric parked the car at the curb, and Paul watched as his son-in-law walked around the car and helped his wife out the passenger door. Eric took her hand, and some unspoken message passed between the two.
Not knowing they were being watched, Eric and Bethany kissed. Paul smiled, knowing well how it was to be deeply in love. His daughter and son-in-law were a good match.
He held open the door and greeted Bethany with a big hug. The two men exchanged hearty handshakes.
"I can’t believe it’s Christmas Eve already,” Bethany said.
"I can,” Eric muttered. "You would too if you’d gone out to do any Christmas shopping this morning.”
"That’s what you get for saving everything for the last moment,” Bethany chastised, but without any real conviction. She sniffed the air. "What smells so good?”
Paul wiggled his eyebrows. "Your favorite fast-food chicken.”
"Daddy, you didn’t.” Just the way she said it indicated that she hoped he had.
"Since the cook refused to name those eleven herbs and spices, I had no choice but to buy us a big bucket of the original recipe. I figured I might as well pick up all the fixings while I was at it.”
"But I was going to cook for us,” she protested, although she didn’t look the least bit disappointed.
"You still can if you want.” But if Paul were a wagering man, he’d have bet his daughter would be content with chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and the other goodies he’d bought.
"Who set the table?” Bethany asked, looking into the dining room.
"Me,” Paul answered. "There isn’t anyone else, is there?”
"No,” Bethany agreed, but she seemed surprised. "The house looks great.”
"We decorated it together, remember?” She really shouldn’t need to be reminded. Paul couldn’t understand why she studied him with such amazement.
"What?” he asked when he could bear her scrutiny no longer.
"Something’s different,” she said. "You’re different. I don’t know. It’s as if you’re really listening now, really seeing.”