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A Family of Strangers

A Family of Strangers

Автором Tim Myers

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A Family of Strangers

Автором Tim Myers

Длина:
259 pages
4 hours
Издатель:
Издано:
Mar 20, 2014
ISBN:
9781502263636
Формат:
Книге

Описание

New York Times Bestselling Author and Agatha Award Nominee!

In a few hours, Joshua Vance's life in Oregon is turned upside down. His proposal to his girlfriend is rejected, she asks him to leave their apartment, and he learns that a cousin he hasn't seen in many years is in the hospital, dying. Her last request is to see him one last time. On a whim, Josh moves across the country, leaving everything behind in his old life, and sets out to start a new one. He visits his cousin when he arrives in North Carolina, and then moves into her home, an old fashioned boarding house where a host of quirky characters live, and Josh does his best to fit in with this family of strangers.

Издатель:
Издано:
Mar 20, 2014
ISBN:
9781502263636
Формат:
Книге

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A Family of Strangers - Tim Myers

26

Chapter 1

All it takes is one telephone call to change your life forever.  In a split second, all that you hold dear may be suddenly gone, or everything you ever hoped for could come true.  Oddly enough, both happened to me in the time of a single call, only I wasn’t in any position to realize it at the time.

The next time you answer the shrill summons of your telephone, try not to think about what could be waiting for you on the other end of the line. 

If you do, your hand may never make it to the receiver.

––––––––

My résumé reads like the Yellow Pages.  In the past fifteen years since graduating from college with a degree in Business, appropriately acronymed BS, I’ve done a dozen different things to pay my bills, from working as a corporate salesman to clerking in a small town hardware store to repairing electronic equipment.  I never stayed with any of them over two years, hanging around only long enough to realize I wanted to be doing something else.  Without any conscious effort, I’d been searching my entire life for my very own Holy Grail.  The only problem was that I hadn’t even begun to figure out what it was I was looking for that kept driving me on.  When it finally came, the first step in the right direction hit like a sledgehammer, a double wallop of bad news delivered in a single span of time that lasted no longer than it took to make a decent cup of tea.

––––––––

My personal life was another repetition of my work history, falling in and out of committed relationships with the regularity of the seasons of the year, searching for Love with a capital ‘L.’  The season of my heart was definitely late autumn with Bridget, with winter’s harsh breath not far behind.

We were fighting again, something that had become the norm for us over the past few months.  Bridget and I been living together for two years, a personal record for me.  Though Christmas was only two weeks away, we’d done nothing about decorating for it.  There hadn’t seemed to be much point.  I’d grown weary of searching for something I wasn’t even sure existed, and decided that what I had with Bridget was the best thing I was ever going to find.  Maybe if we got married and started a family, I could find that sense of belonging I’d been searching for.

Bridget made no bones about letting me know she had other ideas.  She was more interested in her career than children, let alone matrimony.  We’d been riding the same carousel for the last few months, spinning the same arguments around and around until we both had our responses memorized.

Finally, I’d had enough.  Bridget, I want to get married and start a family.

Her dark green eyes flared with aggravation as she flipped a wisp of jet black hair out of her porcelain toned face.  Bridget was proud of her Irish heritage, though she and three generations before her had lived in the same Oregon city where we were arguing, a world away from County Cork. 

She said, Josh, I’ve told you a thousand times, I’m not ready to be tied down, not to you, and certainly not to any children.  A sudden look of enlightenment crossed her face.  Her voice was suddenly calmer than I had ever heard it.  I don’t mean to be brutal, but I doubt I ever will be.

It wasn’t anywhere near the response I’d been hoping for.  What are you saying?

Bridget looked startled by her revelation, but there was a new, firm resolve in her words.  I don’t want to marry you, Josh.  Not now, not ever.

The look of shock on my face must have touched something inside her.  There was a soft, gentle pleading in her voice as she added, Somewhere in your heart you know I’m right.  We don’t belong together, not in the long run.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s been fun, but we want too many different things out of life.

But I love you, I said, nearly choking on my words.

She stroked my dark hair gently.  I know you think you do, but if you’re honest with yourself, you know I’m mostly just habit to you now.  Bridget leaned forward and kissed me gently on the cheek.  I’m sorry, Josh.

I felt numb.  I’d never had a relationship end before I was ready to leave it.  Bridget was breaking new, unwelcome ground.  So where does that leave me?

She frowned, her earlier tenderness gone.  It was my apartment before you moved in, and I’m not willing to give it up.  It’s home for me.  Bridget took a deep breath, then said bluntly, It’s best if we do this quickly.  I’m going out for a few hours.  When I get back, I want you gone.

Before I could do anything she was out the door, and out of my life.  That’s not exactly true.  I could have tried to stop her a hundred ways, but my subconscious was in control, letting her silently walk out of my life.  A part of me died as she left, but it was much smaller than I’d been willing to acknowledge.  I suddenly realized she was right.  Whatever I was looking for in this life, I knew I wasn’t going to find it with Bridget.

Going through her apartment gathering my things together hurt less than I could have imagined.  I paused to sniff the gentle traces of her Obsession on one of my sweaters, the heavy cotton gray one she liked to wear on chilly autumn evenings, but the scent, as well as the memories left me the second I dropped it onto the pile of my things.  I was startled to find that two small suitcases held everything I owned.  I’d always traveled lightly through the world, fearful of any possession that might tie me down.  I’d wanted roots, but suddenly I realized I’d made no effort developing them with Bridget.

I moved through the door with my meager collection, knowing my time with Bridget was over.

I’d gone three blocks when I realized I still had her apartment key on my ring.  For a second I considered dropping it off in the mail, but something dragged me back to the apartment.  I had to finish it, and I had to do it the right way.

When I walked back in the apartment, there was a flashing ‘1’ on the answering machine.  I hesitated before pushing the ‘play’ button.  I didn’t live there anymore, no matter what little sense that way of thinking made.  I felt like a thief slipping back into a place he’d just robbed.  All I wanted to do was to leave the key and go.  ‘You’re being crazy,’ I told myself.  ‘Nobody knows you’re gone but Bridget.’  Before I could bring myself to replay the message, though, the phone rang shrilly.

I picked it up out of habit more than anything else.  Hello?

Yes, may I speak with Mr. Joshua Vance?

The man’s voice had the steady drone of a telephone solicitor, though there was a distinct southern drawl there, weighing each word carefully before it was spoken.  Wonderful, I’d somehow managed to get myself on a phone list sold to Dixie.  With a lighter heart, I realized that in a few minutes it would be Bridget’s problem.  Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.  I hung up the telephone, still staring at that flashing ‘1.’

The phone rang again, and I was greeted with the same voice I’d just cut off.  Before I could utter another word, I heard him say, Mr. Vance, I’m not selling anything.  I’m afraid this matter is quite urgent.  Please, all I ask is a moment of your time.

––––––––

I kneaded my forehead with my free hand, then ran it through my hair.  Sorry I hung up on you.  I’m having one of those days.  What can I do for you?

My name is Harley Kline.  I’m afraid I’ve got some rather bad news.  Your cousin has been in a serious accident, and she’s requesting you at her bedside.

Buddy, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got the wrong man, I don’t have any family left.  Since my mother had died, I was the last of the Vances, at least from my particular branch of the family tree.

The voice on the other end sounded perplexed.  Oh, dear, I’m quite sorry, but my instructions to contact you were quite specific.  Mrs. Brock was certain you’d come.

I was getting a pounding headache, and his accent wasn’t helping.  I’d like to help you, but I don’t know any Brocks.

Of course, that’s her married name.  Grayson was her maiden name.  I’m sorry, I’m not thinking clearly at the moment.  There’s been too much happening too quickly in the past few hours.

Now why did Grayson ring a bell?  Could it really be that I had family still alive somewhere?  It was hard to believe.  I’m listening, though I still don’t remember her.

I’m afraid that complicates matters.  Helen’s been requesting you as her last blood relative in the world.  She said something about sneaking strawberry wine in the summertime, but I’m afraid she might have been delirious when she spoke.  She’s been coming in and out of consciousness for the last few hours.

Suddenly it all came back to me.  When I was seven years old I’d spent the entire summer at my grandmother’s house in Hickory Falls, North Carolina.  My folks had been in the middle of a messy divorce, and they’d parked me there while they’d worked out the details of who got stuck with me; at least that’s how I’d felt at the time.  I guess I’ve been looking for a family of my own ever since. 

I hadn’t been alone at my grandmother’s.  A freckled tomboy I always called Sport had been there with me part of the summer.  The highlight of my visit had been sneaking some of my grandfather’s homemade strawberry wine behind the house.  We’d both gotten sick from the alcohol, and had been forced to endure Gran’s old fashioned ‘cures’ until we both swore we’d never take a drink again.  We’d also sworn an oath, with blood from lanced thumbs no less, that we’d always be there for each other.  I hadn’t thought of her in the thirty years since that summer, and I was surprised how the memory of her smudged face and wiry red hair suddenly flowed into my mind.

Tell me what happened to her.

Good, you remember her, I can hear it in your voice.  I’m afraid there’s been a terrible automobile accident.  It looks as if Helen may be dying.

––––––––

It all happened in the blink of an eye, he said as I caught my breath.  She was on her way to church, of all places, and a teenaged boy who’d been up partying all night crossed the center line and hit her car head on with his pickup truck.  He woke up with a few bruises, but it took them the better part of an hour to cut Helen out of her compact car.  That was this morning.  My God, could it have just been today?  Mr. Vance, is there any way you can get down here?  I know it’s a long way to come, but I swear, I think the chance to see you again is the only thing keeping her alive.

I thought about how insane it was to pack up everything and leave at the spur of the moment, and then stared woodenly at my suitcases on the floor.  If the call had come the day before, I would have offered my sympathies and excuses, but at the moment I had no one in my life, no place to live, and a job fixing cash registers I no longer cared about.

He must have sensed my hesitation.  You should know I’ve taken the liberty to arrange for your plane ticket at the airport.  There’s a flight leaving Portland in an hour for Charlotte, and I’ve got you booked on a commuter into Hickory Falls as soon as you land.  Will you come?

I suddenly realized I had nothing to lose, nothing to leave behind.  I’ll be there.

The relief in his voice was obvious.  I’ll be waiting for you at the airport.  Thank you, Mr. Vance.

After I hung up, I stared at the blinking light on the answering machine a moment without touching the button.  Let Bridget answer it.  I had a plane to catch.  Almost as an afterthought, I left a note to her to arrange a general pickup at the Hickory Falls Post Office for my mail to be forwarded.  I figured Bridget owed me that, at the very least.  As I took my key off the ring and laid it atop my note, I almost wished I could see her expression when she found out I’d gone to North Carolina.  She would probably take all of the credit, in her mind driving me to the other side of the country so I wouldn’t be reminded of her.

Let her think what she would.

Bridget was the least of my worries at the moment. 

I had a plane to catch.

I needed to know what had made Helen call out to me across the miles, and more importantly, across the years.

Chapter 2

It took a lifetime to fly from Oregon to North Carolina; the extra hours added to the clock only encouraged that feeling.  I endured one plane change, two nondescript airline meals and three shifting time zones, wondering the entire time if I’d done the right thing in running to a woman’s side, a lady I’d known thirty years ago, at that. Both of the big planes I flew in were booked to the last seat, but I might as well have been flying alone for all the company and conversation my seatmates got from me.

One underlying thought kept running through my mind, quashing the feelings of unease over my uncharacteristic behavior.  Helen was family, something that had become an elusive memory of smoke for me over the years.  My early life was mostly lost to me, the clouds and shadows of time obscuring an unhappy beginning enduring a series of lifelong fights between my mother and father.  With the final dissolution of my parents’ marriage, I had lost any real sense of belonging to anyone else.  I was holding on to the hope that Helen would offer me some kind of grasp of who I was, where I’d come from. 

I was beginning to fear that that was the only way I’d ever figure out where I was going.

––––––––

Five minutes from the Hickory Falls regional airport, the small commuter plane’s engine caught on fire. 

There were only two of us in the tiny cabin besides the pilot.  I’d studied the other passenger briefly when we’d boarded, an attractive woman around my age with long auburn hair and sad brown eyes.  I’d considered striking up a conversation with her, but left it at an exchange of polite nods and a single brief smile.  She obviously wanted to be left alone with her thoughts, and I respected her unspoken request, as I had much the same feeling myself.

Before taking off, the pilot had ordered in a soft drawl, If you folks don’t mind, it’ll help our weight distribution if you sit across the aisle from one another.

I took the seat he requested, and soon we were in the air.  The flight was choppy and full of many bumps and shifts, a much different ride from the jumbo jets I’d ridden earlier.  It was like going from a stretch limousine to a battered old farm truck.  Still, I got used to the noise as well as the unsettling movements of the plane and decided to make the best of it.

I was looking out my tiny Plexiglas window, marveling how the mountains below me looked so different from the Oregon coast I’d just left, when I saw fingery wisps, then clouds of angry black smoke billowing from the front of the plane.  Before the words forming on my lips could escape, the pilot pulled back the faded blue curtain that separated the cockpit from the cabin and said, We’ve got a small situation here, folks, nothing to worry about.

I said loudly, We’re on fire, as I pointed out the window. 

The pilot shot me an exasperated look as he said, If you’ll just sit back and relax, I need some quiet to fly this thing.  He calmly turned his attention back to the controls and left his passengers sitting in stunned silence.  Was I going to die for my irrational behavior, hurrying to a dying cousin across the country, a woman I barely remembered? 

With more than a little hysteria in her voice, my fellow passenger said, I cannot believe this is happening.  I should have listened, I know I should have listened.  Her voice was quaking with fear.

She was in worse shape than I was.  I reached across and patted her hand gently.  Don’t worry, we’re going to be okay.  Her skin was icy to the touch.  She jerked away a moment before laying her hand firmly back on mine.

What makes you so sure?  She grasped my hand and proceeded to squeeze all of the feeling out of it.

I figure he seems pretty calm.  When he goes for his parachute, then it’s probably time to start panicking.

She looked over and caught my smile.  Are you always this calm in an emergency?

I specialize in them.  It’s the regular everyday life that seems to give me trouble.  I added, My name’s Joshua Vance.

Grace Wilson.  It’s nice meeting you.  You’re not from around here, are you?

Though she was attractive in a cerebral sort of way, it was difficult concentrating on her words.  It took every ounce of strength I had not to look out that window for signs of increasing smoke.  Suddenly I had to smile.  Being gallant to an attractive woman as our plane was going down would be a devil of a way to die.

What’s wrong?  Did I say something funny?

Her words brought me back.  No, something just struck me as funny.

As Grace’s hand tightened even more on mine, she said, If you don’t mind, why don’t you keep that to yourself.  I don’t find anything remotely amusing about this.  I’m not nearly as calm as you are.  She paused a second, then asked, Please help me take my mind off what’s happening.  Where are you from, Joshua?

"Originally?  I grew up in West Virginia, but I’ve lived all over the country. 

Then what brings you to North Carolina?

I have family in Hickory Falls.  At least I used to.  Well, maybe I still do.  At least that’s what the lawyer said.

Her rich brown eyes studied me a moment, the panic gone momentarily from her eyes.  I’ve heard simpler answers in my life.

It’s a long story, I said, and I’m not sure we’ve got time to go into it all now.

We both felt the nose of the plane suddenly pitch down toward the ground. 

I called to the pilot, What’s going on?

Don’t panic, it’s almost over.

That’s what I’m afraid of, I said, my voice calmer than my nerves.

We’re landing, the pilot said, never moving the curtain back so we could see.

I glanced out the window and saw that the smoke had increased.  Anyplace in particular, or are you just hunting for a flat piece of land?

I figured your ticket was for the airport, so I thought I’d set us down there.

Two minutes later we were safely on the ground.  I expected to be met by an emergency crew, or at the very least a fire truck or two.  Instead, after coasting to a stop, the pilot hopped out of the plane, retrieving a fire extinguisher from the cockpit along the way, and proceeded to put the fire out himself.

I said, Grace?  I’m losing the feeling in my hand.  Can you ease up a little on it?

I had to repeat my request before she heard it.  Oh, I’m sorry.

As I rubbed the circulation back into my fingers, I said, "Let’s get off this thing

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