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Books by Kevin Alan Milne
The Paper Bag Christmas
The Nine Lessons
Available from Center Street wherever books are sold.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Kevin Alan Milne
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First Edition: June 2010
For my better half, Rebecca
The Beginning of the End
Have patience: rainy days will soon return.
September 21, 2009
SOPHIE JONES KNEW EXACTLY WHAT THE SQUATTY LITTLE bus driver was going to say, long before the Gig Harbor Express to Tacoma lurched to a halt in front of her stop on Harborview Drive. She anticipated the woman’s words, the disappointment-laden inflections, and even the accusatory facial expressions. Every nuance of what was about to transpire was, for all intents and purposes, a foregone conclusion. As the bus’s door swung open with a hydraulic wheeze, Sophie entertained herself by rehearsing the pending exchange in her head. Again? Oh snap, girl! What’s wrong with you? Leave that thing at home!
Sophie stepped slowly from the curb and up onto the bus, while simultaneously closing the extra-large black umbrella that rested on her shoulder. She half-smiled at the woman behind the wheel but felt instantly silly for trying to be nice. What was the point, since there would not be so much as a courtesy smirk in return?
Knowing not only what was about to happen, but also when, she began counting down.
The bus driver scrunched up her face, lowered her chin and opened her mouth just enough to expose a mouthful of shiny amalgam fillings, and then drilled into Sophie and the unwieldy umbrella with her eyes.
She let go of the steering wheel with both hands and folded her arms across her torso, letting them hang just below her name tag and across the Puget Sound Public Transportation insignia on her stiff cotton shirt.
A nasal sigh, a disappointed shake of her head, and then…
“Again? Oh snap, girl! What’s wrong with you? Leave that thing at home! It’s a beautiful Monday morning.”
Sophie chuckled softly as she leaned the umbrella nose-down against a safety bar and paid the fare. She found nothing particularly humorous about the woman or her comments, but she did find it mildly amusing that the driver was so predictable.
“And if it rains?” Sophie replied, completely unaffected.
“You see any clouds today? We ain’t had a dang sprinkle in a week, thank Jesus Almighty and knock on wood.” She thumped the thick metal steering column with her knuckles.
Sophie shook her head in dismay. Though she didn’t like the woman’s attitude, she couldn’t deny that the driver was right about the weather. The air outside was brisk, but the early-morning sky was an unblemished sheet of powder blue from one edge of the horizon to the other, and the local forecast called only for sun. None of that mattered to Sophie. “Expect the worst,” she quipped, trying once again to force a smile.
“I know you do, girl,” the driver balked. “And that’s your problem.”
The woman said something else under her breath while Sophie found a seat, but the words were drowned out by the revving engine as the bus started to roll. Sophie would have ignored her, anyway. Even on the best of days, it was way too early in the morning to get riled over the offhanded remarks of bus drivers.
But this was not the best of days.
For Sophie, this day was the single worst day of the year, like an annually recurring nightmare that she couldn’t escape. If it weren’t for the fact that she had a business to run, she’d have gladly turned down the blinds, turned off her cell phone, gone back to bed, and slumbered the day away in peaceful oblivion.
If only, Sophie thought, as she shuffled along the aisle to her favorite seat at the rear of the bus. Few other Gig Harbor commuters ventured that far back, so she usually had the elevated rear bench all to herself. Sophie preferred silent contemplation during her morning travels, and her perch at the back kept her safe from the idle chit-chat and coffee talk that others seemed to thrive on. While the bus rumbled along she stared out at the lush green landscape whistling by, watched as several eager boats left the harbor for a day in the Sound. She studied the tall cable supports of the Narrows Bridge, which connected the town of Gig Harbor and the Olympic Peninsula to Washington’s mainland. On most days, those sights would be enough to distract her from the bitter realities of life.
But this was not most days.
For Sophie, this was a day for regrets, and nothing could quell the renewed sense of heartache and disappointment that this particular date evoked each year. No amount of pine trees, sails, or suspension cables passing through the glare of a dirty bus window could help her forget her past. A day for self-loathing, she told herself, as she wedged the enormous umbrella into a space between her seat and the floor heater. My own personal pity party. I can be as miserable as I want on my—
“Happy birthday, Sophie!”
Jumping at the loud and unexpected verbal intrusion, Sophie blurted out, “What the—?” She gasped audibly before the familiar female voice registered in her mind. “Holy crow, Evi! Are you trying to give me an aneurism? What are you doing here?” Sophie consciously ignored the blatant stares of the handful of commuters who’d craned their necks to see what was going on.
“I thought I’d surprise you! Looks like it worked.” Evi smiled as wide as she could and added a wink for good measure while sprawling out on the vacant seat one row up.
Sophie glared back at her with mock contempt. “Brilliant,” she deadpanned. “I have one friend in the whole world, and how does she show me that she cares? By sneaking up on me, making a public scene, and reminding me what day it is.”
Evi was still beaming. “Like you need any reminders,” she teased. “And for the record, I didn’t sneak up on you. I got on the bus two stops before you did, but you were so self-absorbed when you got on that you walked right past me. I was even waving!” She stopped to wink. “But forget it. It’s your birthday, so I forgive you.”
“Yes, my birthday—the worst day imaginable.”
“Oh, shut it,” Evi countered cheerfully. “We both know that the worst day was forever ago, which makes today just another start of something good.”
Evi was a short brunette with an infectious smile, an easy laugh, and beautiful bronze skin that never faded in the winter. Her hair and smile were from her mother, her skin color came from her Latino father, whom she’d never met, and her laugh was simply how she’d learned to deal with life’s complexities. She was also one of the few people in the world whom Sophie trusted implicitly. Much to Sophie’s chagrin, her friend’s full name, Evalynn Marion Mason, had recently been appended to become Evalynn Marion Mason-Mack, the hyphenation having been added six months earlier as a result of marrying Justin Mack, a friend of theirs since freshman year at college. Sophie didn’t have anything against Justin—in fact, she was glad for her friends—but their union made her worry that life was quickly passing her by, a feeling that was amplified tenfold when Evalynn announced two months later that she was pregnant.
Outwardly, Evi and Sophie were as different as night and day. Evi was short, and Sophie was tall. Evi’s hair was straight, brown, and bobbed, while Sophie had golden locks that flowed gracefully past her shoulders. And whereas Evi was gregarious, Sophie was more reserved. Everyone who knew them assumed that their friendship was built solely on the principle that opposites attract, but Sophie knew that it was much more than that. They were more like sisters than anything else, and they depended on one another in ways that people who grew up under more normal circumstances didn’t understand. For as different as they might have appeared to outside observers, the pair had at least two things in common that stitched them together like a patchwork quilt: tragedy, and their African-American foster mom.
Sophie exhaled slowly. “You know I hate my birthday.”
“You should have just stayed in bed with your hubby this morning and left me alone to sulk.”
Sophie yawned, and then grimaced. “Then why are you here? And don’t say, ‘Because misery loves company.’ I’m proof that that isn’t true.”
Evalynn tried mimicking the bus driver’s sassy derisiveness to lighten things up. “Girl, what’s wrong with you? You know I ain’t leaving you ’lone on the day you turn twenty-nine! Snap! Next year you’ll be a dang old maid. You best enjoy your twenties while they’re still here, girl!”
“Stop! You’re embarrassing yourself.”
A single giggle escaped Evi’s enormous grin. “No, I’m embarrassing you. It’s what I do best.” She poked her friend gently in the ribs. “Oh, c’mon. Smile, Soph! I don’t want to spend the whole day with you if you’re going to be a grouch.”
Sophie raised her eyebrows questioningly but refused to smile. “The whole day?”
“Well, I certainly didn’t get on the bus just to wish you a happy birthday. My boss assured me that she can survive with one less legal assistant today, so I took the entire day off, and I’m coming with you to help make the chocolates and stuff. I don’t want you to have to be alone today.”
“Wait. You’re coming to help make the chocolates, or to eat the chocolates? Last time you ‘helped,’ as I recall, it was tough to tell what your true purpose was.”
Evalynn smacked her on the shoulder. “You know I love those peanut-butter truffles. Just have me work on something else, and I’ll be fine. Anyway, I’ve got other plans, too, that don’t involve filling molds and dipping cherries. I made some special arrangements for this afternoon that I think might help you forget it’s your birthday.”
“Arrangements? I don’t like the sound of that. What sort of arrangements, Ev?”
Evalynn winked. “Sorry, it’s a surprise. My lips are officially sealed. You’ll just have to wait until later.”
The next bus stop was the park-and-ride on Kimball Drive. A few people on Sophie’s bus got off there to transfer to another route, while nearly a dozen new passengers boarded. Among them was a face that Sophie didn’t recognize. The man was wearing a navy blazer and khakis, and he stood at least four inches over six feet, making him tall enough that he had to stoop to keep from hitting his head. His wavy brown hair curled playfully just above the ears, and his bright blue eyes twinkled in the morning light. If she hadn’t already given up on men, Sophie might have been inclined to give this particular specimen more than a casual once-over. She chided herself for even thinking such things.
Most of the new passengers took the first vacant seat they could find, but the unfamiliar man scanned the full length of the bus’s interior for just the right spot, even after the bus had started to roll. He pretended not to notice Sophie looking at him. With a computer satchel in one hand and a map of bus routes in the other, he carefully made his way down the aisle toward the rear, shifting his weight periodically to adjust for the pitch and sway of the moving bus.
Sophie turned her head ninety degrees and looked directly out the window, pretending to be very interested in the passing scenery.
“May I sit here?” he asked courteously a few seconds later, pointing to the empty half of the elevated rear bench.
Sophie continued staring out the window, as though she hadn’t heard him.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me. May I?”
Evalynn let out a nasally laugh as Sophie turned her head back around to face the man.
“It’s a public bus,” she said coolly. “But what’s wrong with the empty seats up there?” She pointed with her eyes to the vacant seats he’d passed by.
The man smiled graciously and sat down, laying his computer bag across his lap and unfolding the map. “The view from up here is infinitely better.” He looked right at Sophie as he spoke.
Sophie straightened slightly in her seat, her mind turning briefly to thoughts of her former fiancé. She paused to mentally compare the two. The guy now sitting beside her was, she conceded, easy to look at. Tall. Good-looking. Confident.
But he was no Garrett.
“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’ve only got one more stop anyway.”
The man continued smiling. “Well, in that case, maybe you can help me out. I’m new here. Just moved up from Oregon over the weekend, and I’m trying to figure out the transit system. How many stops are we away from downtown Seattle?”
“A lot,” she replied, finally allowing herself to smile, if only out of amusement at the man’s predicament. “This bus only does a loop between Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Back where you got on, you should have waited for the next bus.”
“I see.” He nodded quizzically. “So basically, I’m lost.”
He didn’t let it faze him. “In that case, I’m glad I made my way all the way to the backseat. As long as I’m lost, and likely late for my first day on the job, at least I got to meet you.”
Now it was Sophie’s turn for quizzical glances. “Wait a minute. Is this, like, your little shtick? Ride the bus with a map and pretend to be the new guy in town so you can pick up unsuspecting women?”
He grinned. “If it is, is it working?”
“Absolutely not!” retorted Sophie, sounding quite appalled.
“I’m joking,” he said, chuckling. “Actually, I’m really not the pick-up-strange-women type.” He caught himself. “Not that you’re strange, but… you get what I mean.”
Sophie didn’t reply. What’s the use? she wondered. He can flirt all he wants, and it won’t make a bit of difference. I’m through with men. Another image of Garrett popped into her head.
The man kept talking. “My new boss told me that riding the bus would be easier than fighting morning traffic, but now I’m not so sure.”
Pulling her umbrella from its berth beside the seat, Sophie said, “You’re really from Oregon?”
He nodded again. “Astoria, on the coast.”
“Well, welcome to Washington,” she continued politely. “Now, my stop is coming up, so if you don’t mind I’d like to get by.” She turned to Evalynn. “Ready?”
Evalynn nodded, and the pair stood up.
The man angled his knees so Sophie could scoot by in front of him. “Listen,” he said. “I really could use some help. Can you at least tell me how to get to Seattle?”
Leaning in close so she wouldn’t have to speak loudly, Sophie said, “There are lots of women on the bus. I’m sure one of them will help.”
He didn’t say another word.
As soon as they were on the sidewalk and clear of the bus, Evalynn poked Sophie in the side again. “Are you crazy? That guy was adorable!”
Sophie shook her head. “The last thing I need right now is a relationship. I’ve told you before, I’m perfectly happy without a guy in my life.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Evalynn mumbled under her breath.
Sophie rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah? And do you think you’re so much better off now that you and Justin have tied the knot?”
“Having Justin around is great,” she said emphatically, then paused and placed her hand on her stomach. “It’s just this ‘gift’ he’s given me that I could do without.”
Sophie chuckled lightly, but couldn’t help wondering if the comment was meant as a joke. Evalynn had made a few similar remarks in recent months, and Sophie was starting to worry that maybe her friend was privately struggling with the idea of stepping into the role of mother. She decided not to pry. If Evi was really having a hard time with it, she would eventually say something.
The pair continued chatting as they walked the remaining four blocks to Sophie’s store, although Evalynn carried most of the conversation. Sophie kept an open ear as she moved along, her umbrella perched on her shoulder, but her mind was elsewhere—lost in memories of birthdays gone by. At the forefront of her thoughts was the most important birthday of all, exactly twenty years earlier, which proved to be a day of new beginnings and tragic ends; a day that changed the course of every single day thereafter.
But in Sophie’s mind, it would forever be remembered as the day her life shattered.
You have a good memory, weighed down by bad memories.
September 21, 1989
JACOB BARNES RUBBED HIS FACE ON THE SLEEVE OF HIS coat, trying in vain to wipe away the dizziness from his eyes. He felt as though he might faint again at any moment. His mind raced to piece together details of the last fifteen minutes, but he was still too foggy to recall exactly how he’d gotten to his current position along the side of the road. After steadying himself against a lamppost, Jacob tugged angrily at his silk tie, which suddenly felt like a noose around his neck. The front of his Italian suit was soaked through, but he figured that was just the result of standing around in a daze in the steady downpour of Seattle’s infamous liquid weather.
“Dear God,” he said aloud, once his mind was clear enough to focus on the world around him. He squinted hard to sharpen his focus as he surveyed the scene. Jacob was never known for having a strong stomach, so what he saw before him, combined with his own fuzzy recollection of how it transpired, made him want to vomit. He fought hard to control the urge.
“It’s all my fault,” whispered a terrified little voice from nearby.
Jacob’s dilated eyes darted around, searching for the voice’s owner. A few paces off, sitting all alone on the curb near a yellow fire hydrant, was a young girl. She, too, wiped her face on her sleeve, but only to hide the evidence that she was crying. But it didn’t matter; it was raining hard enough that she could have wiped all night and her face would still be wet. Her nose and lips were bruised and swollen, and a gash on her cheek sent a small trickle of red cascading down past her jaw and onto her neck. The white blouse she wore also bore random flecks of crimson.
The girl wrapped her shivering arms around her legs to protect them from the rain and the unusually cold September wind. “I… I just wanted a p-piece of chocolate,” she sobbed. “Just o-one piece.”
Jacob felt woozy. He shifted his position against the pole, hoping that would be enough to keep him from passing out again. “You think you caused this?” he asked in a voice more gruff than intended. “What has chocolate got to do with anything?”
The girl answered his first question with a nod, then she began rocking slowly back and forth, carefully studying the commotion down the street. Jacob followed her gaze—the steady whirring of sirens and passing cars, lights spinning and blinking, flares glowing with bright red brilliance, police officers darting here and there while trying to guide traffic, firefighters barking out orders, ambulance drivers, broken glass, bent metal, and blood—so much blood. The sights and sounds, and even the smell and taste of the horrific scene, filled his senses to overflowing. The girl turned again to look at him, but still said nothing.
Just then a policewoman and a young-faced EMT came running over. It occurred to Jacob that he and the girl were far enough away from the accident that they might have been mistaken for onlookers by the first wave of emergency personnel who’d arrived earlier.
“Sir,” the EMT said to Jacob, looking very worried, “let me help you sit down.” He quickly placed his tackle box of first-aid equipment on the ground, then wrapped a giant arm around Jacob’s midsection and lowered him to the curb. “Can you do me a favor? Raise your left hand above your head and keep it elevated while I get you some bandages. Can you do that for me?”
Jacob was more confused by the EMT’s odd request than he was by the young girl blaming the accident on chocolate. “Why? I’m fine. Can’t you see that? Help that kid—she looks a little banged up.”
“Sir, have you—”
“Fine. Jacob, you’re in shock. I think you’ve probably lost a lot of blood, and I want to make sure you don’t lose any—”
“Blood? From where? Why am I bleeding?”
“It’s okay. If you follow my directions, you’ll be fine. Just hold your arm up like this.” The EMT lifted Jacob’s left arm for him. Jacob used his other arm to prop it up when the EMT let go.
Another jolt of queasiness coursed through Jacob’s body. “Is the blood from my head? My face?” His voice picked up speed as he started to panic. “How the blazes is holding my arm above my head going to help that? Won’t it just cause more blood to run down to my head and increase the blood loss? Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Are you even old enough to be an—”
“Jacob!” shouted the EMT, his voice like ice. “It’s not your face. Look at your hand!”
Jacob tilted his head absently. Squinting through the pouring rain and the streetlamp’s hazy luminescence, he focused for the first time on the hand he was holding above his head. The sight sent another rush of nausea throughout his abdomen. All four fingers on his left hand were gone, severed completely where they met the palm. Only his thumb remained. He tried instinctively to wiggle his fingers. Oddly, his brain told him that all of them were moving, but only his thumb waved back. “I… I think I need to lie down,” he groaned.
While the EMT attended to Jacob’s hand and a few other less severe injuries, Jacob diverted his attention to the little girl and the policewoman. From his position on his back he could see and hear everything they said. The officer’s name was Ellen, or at least that was how she identified herself to the child. She started by dabbing gently at the girl’s face with a cotton swab while making small talk. Then she sat down next to her on the wet curb. The girl kept stealing glances at Jacob’s mangled hand.
“Everything’s gonna be fine, sweetie. Just fine.” Ellen paused to look at the carnage, as if wondering if anything could ever really be just fine in the wake of something like this. “Now, can you tell me your name?” she asked cautiously.
The child looked up at her with a vacant stare, as though she were trying to process the words. Then she nodded and whispered quietly, “Sophia Maria Jones.”
“Wow, that’s a beautiful name. I’m glad to meet you, Sophia Maria.”
The girl swallowed. “I go by Sophie.”
“Then Sophie it is. How old are you, Sophie?” The officer must have been trained to ask the simple questions first, in order to prime the pump for the more difficult questions that, eventually, always have to be asked.
The girl wiped her nose again on the sleeve of her blouse. “Eight. No—nine.”
“Wow,” replied the officer soothingly, “that’s a great age. I remember when I was nine. When was your birthday?”
A new, giant tear formed at the inside corner of Sophie’s eye and spilled out onto her cheek. “T-t-today,” she said, choking on the word.
“Oh, I see,” Ellen said softly. “Were you out celebrating your birthday tonight?”
“Sophie, were you in one of these cars?”
A lump formed in Jacob’s throat as he continued listening. He hardly noticed the EMT who was working swiftly above him, wrapping his injured limb with a gauze bandage.
- On Sale
- Jun 10, 2010
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Center Street