Summary: Tragedy offers a middle-aged actor a second chance at the role of a lifetime. (A Jack Richards story, Non-Bonanza)
Rating: T 11,709 words
Other Jack Richards stories:
Authors Note: I began writing Jack Richards about fifteen years ago. The series was intended to be not only a treat for Pernell Roberts fans who couldn’t seem to get enough of him but also tribute to the man himself. Even though Jack is a work of fiction, he embodies many of the qualities and what I believe is the true character of his real life counterpart. Someone who knew Pernell told me she thought he would be pleased with the result. I hope so. This month, January 2020, marks the tenth anniversary of his passing, and it is in loving memory that this story is posted.
Life is a patchwork of mundane and extraordinary events. A man doesn’t always see how they fit together until the end, or at least some point far down the road, and when the unthinkable occurs, tilting the world as he knows it off center, only one word comes to mind:
Jack Richards had been asking himself that question ever since he got the call from his ex-wife. Was it just last night? It seemed like an eternity ago.
He had planned to join some fellow cast members for a late supper after the Saturday evening performance of The King and I but begged off at the last minute. He couldn’t pinpoint his malaise; he wasn’t sick, and the Kansas City run had netted rave reviews and a full house every night. Still, even after a standing ovation and two curtain calls, he hadn’t felt like celebrating, and he really couldn’t say why. If he was a man who believed in premonitions he might have recognized the feeling. But he wasn’t, so he didn’t, and even if he had he couldn’t have known how his life’s path had already been altered that day.
There was a message waiting for him when he arrived back at the hotel. It was from Liz. Their teen-aged daughter had been in a car accident. Sara was all right, just a broken wrist and a few bumps and bruises, but something told him there was more to it than just that.
It was 10:00 in Los Angeles. He called the house again and again but got no answer. He grabbed the phone on the first ring an hour later. The tremor in Liz’s voice frightened him when she said his name.
“How is she?”
“But you said…”
“I know what I said…and she’s okay physically, but…” her voice broke. “Nicki’s dead.”
“Oh no…” Jack groaned the words as he sank down onto the bed. Nicki Hollingsworth was Sara’s best friend. The two had been practically joined at the hip since the fourth grade, when Nicki’s family had moved in down the street. She was one of the reasons Liz decided to keep the house in Sherman Oaks after the divorce. Nicki had recently gotten her driver’s license, a brand new car, and already had a minor accident on her record. Jack had voiced his concerns to Liz about whether or not Sara should be allowed to ride with her, but she held a more lenient view. There wasn’t much he could say since he no longer lived with them.
“How did it happen?”
“A witness told the police she ran a stop sign.”
Jack broke out in a cold sweat as Liz told him about the call from the police, how she drove to the hospital unsure of their daughter’s condition, and how she found her in the emergency room, dazed and covered in her best friend’s blood. Neither Liz nor Sara knew until later that Nicki had died on the way to the hospital.
By the mercy of painkillers Sara was sleeping so Jack couldn’t talk to her. He lay awake most of the night and somehow managed to make it through the Sunday matinee performance before taking the first available flight back to LAX. It was around dusk when he arrived home, to what used to be home, anyway.
Liz greeted him at the door. She looked the way he felt, as though she hadn’t slept in two days, which she probably hadn’t. He set his suitcase down and took her in his arms without a word.
“Oh Jack, we almost lost her.”
He held her, unable to speak. After a few moments she pulled away from him and wiped her eyes.
“Where is she?”
“Lying down in her room. I don’t know if it’s the medication, but something isn’t right. She has hardly said a word since yesterday.”
“Well, I really don’t think that’s unusual, considering what she’s been through. She just lost her best friend.”
“But Jack, that’s just it. She hasn’t cried. She hasn’t shed a tear, not one.”
In the lamplight Jack could see the bruise on Sara’s forehead; otherwise the cast on her arm was the only visible sign of the previous day’s tragedy. He knelt by her bed and pressed her hand to his lips. A tear slipped down his cheek as he thought of the family down the street, and how perhaps a few seconds and a few inches were all that had spared his own child.
She opened her eyes, “Hi, Dad.”
He smiled. “Hello angel. How are you feeling?”
“I’m all right. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m just so glad to see you.”
“Did Mom tell you what happened?” She spoke as though they were merely discussing the weather.
“Yes, sweetheart, that’s why I’m here.”
“I know, honey. I’m so sorry.”
“Are you going to stay for the funeral?”
“Yes, of course.”
Sara got up and went through the motions of dinner as if on auto-pilot, answering their questions in a voice that seemed to belong to someone else, devoid of any emotion or color. By the end of the evening Jack understood Liz’s concern.
The next day, Monday, passed uneventfully. Sara spent much of the day in her room with the door closed. Jack could hear the television but doubted she was watching it. She joined her parents at meal times, politely tolerating their attempts at conversation. Several of her friends phoned during the day to speak with her but she either made excuses or simply declined, pretending once to be asleep. She went to bed early, around 8:00.
Liz had suggested he stay at the house this time instead of his apartment; he was asleep in the guest bedroom when Sara’s screams woke him. He didn’t even bother to put on his robe before running to her room. Liz was already there, trying to calm her.
Sara was soaked in sweat, shivering, clinging to her mother and whimpering. Liz rocked her on the bed as Jack looked on in anguish. After a few minutes she quieted, her breathing finally settling into a steady rhythm of sleep. Liz laid her gently against the pillows and Jack covered her with the quilt.
They stayed with her for a few minutes longer before going out into the hallway. “I don’t think I can sleep right now,” Liz sighed, running her fingers through her blonde locks. I’m going to make some tea. Would you like some?”
“Yes, I think I would. Thanks.” He smiled down at her. Even in the middle of the night with her hair mussed and no makeup, she was still beautiful.
Her lips curved into a smirk. “All right then, I’ll put the kettle on if you’ll put a robe on.”
He grinned behind her back as she headed toward the kitchen. Cheeky woman.
The next morning, Tuesday, Sara acted just as she had the day before, with no memory of her nightmare. Nicki’s funeral was scheduled for 2:00.
Though she was sixteen, the Nicki that Jack remembered most was only ten. That’s how old she was when she first came into their lives and now would forever be, in his mind, and forever linked with Sara. The two of them made quite a pair, a brunette pixie and a tall towhead, so inseparable that friends sometimes jokingly referred to them as one person. His tears weren’t only for the Hollingworths but for Sara as well.
But Sara didn’t cry during the funeral, even surrounded by friends from school who wept openly, nor at the cemetery with the family, where Liz was particularly affected. Sara stood aloof and silent most of the time, though she did hug Nicki’s parents as they were leaving.
She went straight to her room when they got home and didn’t come out for dinner. When Jack knocked on her door around 7:00, she didn’t answer; he peeked inside the darkened room and she appeared to be sleeping.
Jack and Liz had a quiet dinner alone ; he helped her with the dishes and afterwards they had coffee in the living room.
“I wonder if she’ll sleep tonight,” said Liz.
“I hope so, for her sake and yours.”
“Well, you were up last night, too.” She picked up their cups.
He followed her into the kitchen. “I wish I didn’t have to leave tomorrow.” The tour was moving to Baltimore, opening on Thursday. He knew better than to chance flying back the day of the show.
“It’s all right, Jack. I know you can’t stay.” She finished rinsing the sink then turned around to face him. “You came. That’s what matters,” she said gently. “That’s what she’ll remember.”
He moved closer to her. “What about you? What will you remember?” He cupped her face in his hands.
“Jack, about last night…”
He stopped her with a kiss, softly at first, then deeply, with a longing that consumed him as she melted into him.
The screams began again.
They both ran. Sara was sitting up in bed, flailing about wildly, heaving sobs. “Get it off! Get it off!”
Jack reached her first. He held her arms in an attempt to still her movements. “Sara! Sweetheart, it’s all right. You’re all right. We’re here.”
“It won’t come off! I can’t get it off!” she cried.
“Honey, it’s not supposed to come off. Your wrist is broken, remember?”
“Jack, she’s not talking about the cast, don’t you see?” said Liz. She sat down on the bed next to them, her eyes brimming. “Oh, my poor baby….”
Of course…she could pretend during the day, but in her dreams she was still covered with blood. Jack shut his eyes at the thought as he bundled her into his arms. “Shh. It’s all right, angel.”
When their eyes met he saw the pain in hers, then recognition and more tears, “Oh, Daddy.” She hadn’t called him that since she was eight years old. She buried her face in his chest. “Please don’t leave me.”
Her words pierced his heart like a dagger. Liz lowered her head and looked away; he knew she was crying too.
Jack stayed with Sara all that night. He couldn’t have slept anyway. Around six o’clock he showered and changed and repacked his bag. Liz had breakfast waiting for him, which he ate even though he wasn’t hungry.
“You look beat. What time is your flight?”
“Ten. The only one I could get today was a connection through Chicago; otherwise I wouldn’t have to leave so early.”
Liz reached over and patted his hand. “Jack, it’s okay, really.”
He nodded, though nothing about the situation seemed okay to him. In fact, everything felt wrong.
Liz was refilling his coffee when Sara padded into the kitchen wearing the Ram’s jersey and knee socks she had slept in. “Hi, Sweetie. Want some breakfast?”
Sara shook her head as she opened the fridge, “Just orange juice.”
“You really should try to eat something this morning,” said her mother. “You’ve hardly had anything at all the past few days.”
“Maybe later,” Sara stared at Jack, who winked at her over his cup. “You were in my room last night, weren’t you?”
Jack nodded. “You remember?”
“Vaguely; I think I had a bad dream.”
Jack and Liz exchanged glances. “Do you remember your dream?” he asked.
“No.” She took a sip of juice and changed the subject. “When are you leaving?”
“My cab is supposed to be here at 8:00.”
He searched her face for a clue to her feelings but it offered none. Her voice was just as empty.
“I’m going to take a bath and get ready for school. Will you drive me?” she asked her mother.
“Are you sure you feel up to going?”
“I feel fine.”
“Sara, your father is leaving in forty minutes, why don’t you wait? Sit down with us.”
“I’d rather do it now,” she said. She met her mother’s frown with a blank expression, ignoring Jack altogether.
“Let her go,” he said, staring at the table.
“All right,” said Liz. “But hurry up.” She sat down across from Jack. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, me too; she’s hurting and I’m not helping. You heard what she said last night.”
“She just needs time. She’ll be okay.”
Sara was dressed and ready when his cab arrived, and she followed him onto the porch with Liz to say goodbye.
It was a gray and soggy day, rare in southern California. Jack turned his collar up against the drizzle. “You can always call me if you need me. You do know that?”
“Sure,” said Sara. “Long distance is the next best thing to being there, right?”
Ouch. She had skewered him with one of his own commercials, and he was pretty sure it was intentional.
“Honey, I am so sorry I can’t stay. Believe me, I would if I could.”
“It’s all right, Dad. I understand.” Her countenance softened and she almost smiled. “Thanks for coming.”
He pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “I love you, Sara Kate,” he whispered. “You know you’ll always be my girl.”
Liz walked him to the cab and he kissed her in the rain. As he waved goodbye and rode away from the only place on earth he wanted to be, he wondered if his crazy life would ever make sense.
The show closed in Tampa in the middle of the month and Jack was back in LA in time for the holidays. He hadn’t seen Sara since Nicki’s funeral, and though he had called her several times she never had much to say. Liz said she was staying busy with school; she was on the yearbook staff and student council and spent her evenings studying. Liz’s photography business was beginning to take off so she was preoccupied as well. Of course she saw Sara everyday, and maybe that’s why the changes Jack found so alarming in their daughter hadn’t made the same impression on her mother.
Liz had invited him for Christmas Eve dinner and afterwards they had planned to attend a candlelight service at a neighborhood church. It was a tradition they began when Sara was a little girl and maintained even after the divorce. Sara had always loved it and looked forward to it every year.
When he arrived at the house that night he was surprised to learn they weren’t going. Sara wasn’t feeling well, Liz said, nothing serious, she assured him as she hung his coat in the hall closet. When she closed the door, there was Sara, and when Jack saw her, he almost gasped. She was thinner than he had ever seen her before, and her eyes seemed sunken into her gaunt face, punctuated by dark circles underneath. He caught himself and affected a hearty tone as he hugged her. “Hey, how’s my girl? Not feeling well?” She stiffened somewhat under his embrace, and he could feel her sharp shoulder blades through her sweatshirt.
“I’m okay, just a little tired.” She smiled at him but quickly averted her gaze. “Do I have time for a shower?” she asked her mother.
“Dinner will be on the table in twenty minutes.”
Jack watched her walk away and turned to Liz. “What on earth has happened to her? She looks like she’s lost fifteen pounds since I last saw her!”
“Oh, Jack, you’re exaggerating,” said Liz, pulling glasses out of the cupboard and wiping them with a dish towel.
“I don’t think so. She’s nothing but skin and bones.”
“Well, she has lost some weight, but I don’t find it shocking. She’s been through a terrible ordeal and it’s bound to affect her some way. It’s just going to take her some time to work through this. I think she’s doing okay under the circumstances. She’s doing well in school, staying busy.”
“You’re staying pretty busy yourself, aren’t you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Forget it”
Liz put down the towel. “No. You’ve got something to say, so speak up.”
“All right,” he frowned. “Maybe you’re too busy to really know where she is or what she’s doing or with whom. Half the time you don’t even know when she comes home because you’re not here. She could be doing drugs for all you know.”
Her dark eyes burned with anger. “In the first place, that’s absurd. Sara would never take drugs. And in the second place, how dare you come into this house and tell me how to raise my daughter!”
“She’s my daughter, too, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Well, Jack, let’s see, how often have you been around here the past couple of months…or the past three years? Or the past ten, for that matter? The truth hurts, doesn’t it?”
“You’re not being fair.”
Liz glared at him. “That door swings both ways.”
When they heard the shower go off, their eyes declared an unspoken truce. Liz went back to setting the table; Jack walked into the living room and sat down on the sofa with his head in his hands. If it hadn’t been Christmas Eve he would have left. He should have just kept his mouth shut.
Conversation was sparse at dinner. Jack couldn’t help but notice the way Sara pushed her food around on her plate but ate very little. Liz was cordial but decidedly cool, so different from the last time he was there. The phone rang before they were finished; it was Liz’s sister, Cheryl. Jack caught Sara’s eye across the table.
“Are you going to your Aunt Cheryl’s tomorrow?”
Sara shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess so, if mom wants to.”
“You don’t seem very excited. Don’t you want to go?”
“I don’t care; whatever she wants.”
Liz hung up the phone and sat down. “Cheryl said to tell you you’re welcome to join us tomorrow.” She didn’t look at him as she spoke.
Jack understood it was merely a polite invitation, as he and Liz both knew he was not Cheryl’s favorite person. “Tell her I said thank you,” he replied tactfully, “maybe another time.”
The rest of the evening was bland compared to Christmases past. They exchanged gifts more as a ritual than a festivity. Jack gave Liz a sculpture by one of her favorite local artists; she presented him with a mint first edition copy of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. At her mother’s suggestion, Jack gave Sara a camera similar to the one she used. Sara thanked him, but later commented on the “gross materialism” of the holiday, how it almost seemed sacrilegious to be spending money frivolously on one another when there were children starving in the world. In fact, she herself had abandoned tradition that year, opting instead to plant trees in her parents’ names. While he couldn’t fault that kind of idealism, Jack suspected a more personal reason for her dissent. Sara was clearly unhappy.
Liz and Sara spent the next few days with Cheryl and her family in Bakersfield, returning home in time to celebrate Sara’s sixteenth birthday on the 30th. Jack had made reservations for the three of them at Valentino in Santa Monica, but when he arrived to pick them up he knew by the look on Liz’s face something was terribly wrong.
“What is it?”
“I can’t find Sara.”
“What do you mean, you can’t find her?”
She threw up her hands. “Exactly what I said, Jack – I don’t know where she is.”
“Weren’t you with her today?” He realized as soon as the words were out of his mouth they probably sounded accusing, and that wasn’t how he meant them. “I’m sorry. Tell me what happened.”
Liz took a deep breath. “We got back late last night. I had some errands to run this morning so I let her sleep in, but I left her a note saying I’d be back in time for lunch; I thought I’d take her to that little bistro she likes. Anyway, when I got home, I found this note saying she was going out for while and would be back later. Jack, it’s been six hours!”
“Have you called any of her friends?”
“Of course, I’ve tried everyone I can think of. No one has heard from her.”
“Then I think we should call the police.”
“I’ve already done that.” She stared out the window, chewing on her thumbnail. “It’s getting dark,” she murmured. “Something must have happened to her or she would have been home by now. It’s her birthday, for goodness sake!”
Jack rubbed his jaw, remembering her demeanor on Christmas Eve. “Liz, I don’t think her birthday is high on her priority list this year.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I just don’t think it’s important to her. How did she seem at Cheryl’s?”
“Well, she was a little quiet, but other than that, fine. She seemed to enjoy playing with Monique’s baby.”
Monique was Sara’s cousin, a free spirit a few years older. Jack had no idea who the baby’s father was.
The phone rang a few minutes later, allaying their worst fears. The police had picked Sara up in Encino. She was fine; they were bringing her home.
Jack and Liz met her at the door. Liz was all over her, relief and anger in her voice. “Where have you been? We have been frantic!”
“Sorry.” Sara shrugged, offering no explanation for her lengthy absence. Jack stared hard at her; she met his eyes briefly and then looked away. He walked outside with the officer, who had introduced himself as Jackson.
“Where did you say you found her?”
“We picked her up over on White Oak Avenue near 101,” he said. “She didn’t give us any trouble, in fact she asked if she had broken the law, and I told her no, but that you two were worried about her and asked us to help you find her. She was very respectful, thanked us for bringing her home. She seems like a good kid.”
“She is. She’s just having a hard time with life right now.”
Officer Jackson nodded his sympathy, “Well, I hope she’s all right.”
“Yeah. Thanks again,” said Jack, shaking his hand. “Good night.”
When he walked back inside, Liz was in the middle of a tirade. “Where on earth have you been? Your dad and I have been worried sick! Do you realize what you’ve put us through this evening?”
“I said I was sorry.”
She didn’t sound sorry to Jack. Her tone was neither apologetic nor belligerent, more non-committal, indifferent, like she didn’t care.
Liz continued, “Sorry isn’t good enough! You knew we had reservations tonight for your birthday!”
“I don’t feel like going out,” she replied in that same neutral vein. “I’m going to my room.”
“No, you’re not,” said Jack, with more calmness than he felt. “You didn’t answer your mother’s question about where you’ve been this afternoon. We’re not through talking.”
“Well, I am.” Sara turned to go.
Liz grabbed her arm. “What is the matter with you? Are you on drugs or something?”
Sara glared at her mother, and this time, her tone was razor sharp. “How can you ask me that? Of course I’m not on drugs. Not that it wouldn’t have been easy.”
“What do you mean?” asked Liz, still holding her arm.
Sara pulled away. “Just leave me alone.” She headed once more in the direction of her room.
Jack tried to stop her. “Sara…”
“Don’t touch me!” she hissed. “I wish I was…” She stormed down the hall and slammed the door to her room.
Jack followed her, not about to give up. She was lying across the bed with her face in the pillow. “You wish you were what?”
“Never mind,” she said, not looking up. “Just go away. Please.”
Jack sat down on the bed next to her, staring at the floor, saying nothing for several seconds. “You were at the cemetery, weren’t you?” Her body tensed at his words. “You wish you were dead – is that what you were going to say?”
She turned over, and the look on her face confirmed his guess, though he wished he had been wrong. The next thing he knew she was sobbing in his arms, and he didn’t know whether it was from fear or relief; perhaps it was both. All he knew was that he was scared. “It’s all right, angel. We’re going to get you some help.”
Later while Sara was in the shower, he expressed his fears to Liz. She seemed ready to dismiss the idea, “Sara would never hurt herself.”
“Wake up, Liz! How can you say that? Before this afternoon you would have said she’d never run off somewhere without telling you where she was going. You told me she would never do drugs, and yet you stood here tonight practically accusing her of that very thing!”
“I guess I know you’re right,” she said. “It’s just so hard to believe she would want to do something like that. Haven’t we loved her enough?” Her voice was thick with tears.
Jack sighed. “It has nothing to do with how much we love her. Her best friend is dead, and she’s lost herself, too, for the moment anyway.” He rubbed the back of his head, an old habit that sometimes surfaced when he was nervous or worried about something. “We’ve got to do whatever it takes to get her back before we lose her forever.”
Jack called Doug Felts within the hour. He had seen him professionally several years ago and they had since become friends. Even though his office was closed that week, Doug offered to go in and meet them there the next morning, New Year’s Eve, to talk with Sara and give them a referral if necessary.
He met with the three of them first, then with Sara, and privately with Jack afterward. He handed Jack a card with the name and phone number of a colleague, Dr. Lewis Alcaide.
“Here’s your man. If I had a daughter in Sara’s situation, he’d be my number one go-to guy. You call him first thing Monday. I’ll give him a heads up before then so maybe you can get in quicker.”
Jack shook his hand. “Doug, I can’t thank you enough for coming in on a holiday like this. I’m counting on you to send me a big bill.”
“Aw, forget it. You actually did me a favor by getting me out of the house today. My brother-in-law is visiting, and he’s just about to drive me crazy,” he laughed, and then he turned serious again. “I know this is tough, but you’re doing the right thing, Jack. Just keep a good thought.”
The man who greeted them in his office Monday afternoon was a short, round man with a bushy white mustache and wire-rimmed glasses. “A right jolly old elf,” Liz dubbed him, for even minus the beard he reminded them all of St. Nick in street clothes, right down to his middle which shook when he laughed. Jack marveled later at the significance of that first impression. He didn’t know it then, but by the end of the year Lew Alcaide would truly become their Santa Claus.
A plain speaking Texan, one of the first things he did after the introductions was to dismiss Jack and Liz. “I’ve pretty much got the third person view from Dr. Felts, so I understand your perspective, but this is Sara’s story and I want her to be able to tell it to me in her own words without worryin’ about who she might be hurtin’.” He spent nearly an hour with her that day, and from that beginning laid a foundation of respect and trust with Sara that inspired all their confidence in his professional and personal integrity.
Sara’s initial psychological profile indicated depression and anxiety, and though she had not overtly attempted to take her life, her fragile state of mind since the accident put her at risk. Dr. Alcaide explained it this way. “For most people, suicide so strongly contradicts their beliefs they refuse to even entertain the thought. For some the idea is dismissed entirely; for others, it’s repressed into the subconscious mind and can sometimes surface without warning.”
Additionally, he suspected Sara had an eating disorder. “Sara’s a pleaser, and I’m sure you’ve seen that all her life. She doesn’t like to disappoint people, especially you two. It wouldn’t surprise me if that is the only thing that has kept her from an attempt thus far. In her mind that would be the ultimate let-down of the two people she loves the most. She’s trying to hold on to some kind of normal while her whole world is spinning out of control, like trying to conduct business as usual in the middle of an earthquake. Imagine that.” He paused for a moment, stroking his mustache. “Now, with everything else helter-skelter, the only thing she feels she can control is her body. Choosing not to eat is one way of exhibiting control; it proves she’s in charge. But it also has other implications. If she starves herself long enough…well, you can see where that could end up.”
The grim diagnosis hurt. Sara was their baby, their laughing brown-eyed girl who had filled their lives with so much sunshine it was hard for Jack to believe they were talking about the same person.
The doctor leaned forward. “Now, you two listen to me. I can see you both there ready to beat yourselves up, but I’m telling you, don’t do it. You’re not responsible for this. You’ve done the right thing, bringing her here, and we’re all going to make sure that she gets what she needs. I won’t kid you; it may be rough for a while. She may have to spend some time in the hospital, and she won’t like it, and I know that’ll be hard on Mom and Dad. But you’ll have to tough that out, and you may have to grow a little thick skin to boot. What I need you to understand is that this is a process that will take time – months, maybe even longer. Some days it may be one step forward and two steps back. I can mitigate some things with medication, but in most cases that’s a stop-gap, not the answer. The bottom line is I can’t ‘do’ anything to fix her. I’m gonna give Sara the tools she needs to fix herself. It’ll be up to her.”
And that was Dr. Lew in a nutshell, one of the things that made him unique. He was all about empowerment before it ever became a cultural buzzword. Plus, he made the best five-alarm chili west of the Continental Divide.
Her parents applauded from the audience as Senior Class Vice-President Sara Kathleen Richards announced the winner of the Nicole Hollingsworth Scholarship. Jack brushed away tears as the bespectacled balding man next to him patted his arm.
Thank God for Dr. Lew. Jack wondered if Sara would have made it without him. It was a long haul through months of grueling therapy, and there were times when she was so angry her parents hardly knew her. But Sara gradually regained control of her life. As to the question, “Why am I still here?” Dr. Lew told her she was the only person who could answer it. “It’s up to you to decide,” he said.
So Sara decided, and once she made up her mind there was no stopping her. Nicki’s parents responded enthusiastically when she approached them about establishing a college scholarship in their daughter’s memory, and as student chairman she spent countless hours promoting the fund and soliciting donations and pledges. Through it all, Jack marveled; Sara came back to life as if reborn. Self-condemnation and self-pity gave way to a new determination and purpose; her self-confidence blossomed. It seemed impossible to believe that the poised young woman who had just spoken so eloquently in front of hundreds of people was the desperate girl crippled by nightmares and guilt two years before, and yet, here she was. It was a breathtaking revelation, and he would remember this moment for as long as he lived. Liz slipped her arm through his and leaned her head against his shoulder; he knew she was thinking the same thing. They had their beautiful daughter back, but she wasn’t their little girl anymore.
Families and friends gathered on the quad after the graduation ceremony for pictures. Jack and Liz spotted Sara posing and laughing with a lean, chiseled young man.
Jack squinted. “Who’s that?”
“I’m not sure. It might be Todd. I’ve never met him. She said he was tall.”
“Well, he is that. He’s got his arm around her.”
“Jack, they’re having their picture taken.”
Liz poked him. “Be nice.”
He smirked, “What’s in it for me?”
She arched her brow and smiled over her shoulder as she walked on ahead of him. “I’ll have to think about it.”
He fell in step beside her. “You do that,” he grinned. “If you need any help I’m sure I can come up with some ideas.”
Sara dimpled when she saw them. Jack put his arms around her. “We are so proud of you. You were absolutely wonderful up there today.”
“Oh, you would say that no matter what.”
“It’s true, Sara,” said the young man. “You were great.”
She blushed, “Mom, Dad, this is Todd Berquist.”
Liz smiled. “Hello, Todd. It’s nice meet you.”
He smiled and nodded. “Mrs. Richards, Mr. Richards.” He extended his hand to Jack.
“Todd.” The kid had a firm handshake. Jack appraised him with all the objectivity the father of a teenage daughter could muster. Blue eyes, blonde hair, California tan – probably a surfer. “Berquist? Norwegian?”
“Swedish. My father was born in Stockholm.”
“I see.” And just what are your intentions toward my daughter, young man, a hot tub and Swedish massage? Liz had an uncanny way of reading his mind sometimes, and she nudged him. Jack merely smiled.
The conversation faltered until someone called Todd’s name. He waved and turned to Sara. “So, I’ll see you later?”
“I’m having dinner with my parents, but I’ll see you afterwards.”
“Great.” He squeezed her shoulder. “Uh…” he glanced over at Jack and Liz, “Nice to meet you both.”
“Same here,” Jack nodded. He maintained his placed expression as Todd gave Sara a quick peck on the cheek and darted off.
“He seems nice,” said Liz.
“He is.” Sara smirked at Jack. “I think Dad made him nervous.”
“Hey, you can’t say I wasn’t nice.” He appealed to Liz. “I was nice.”
Liz motioned Sara next to her father as she adjusted the settings on her camera.
“You can be intimidating sometimes, Jack, even when you’re nice.” She framed the two of them through the lens. “Okay, smile.”
“Now it’s my turn.” Sara took the camera, and Liz took her place next to Jack.
“If I’m so intimidating, how come it never worked on you?”
Liz looked up at him. Her mouth twitched into a half-smile. “Because I know you,” she murmured.
The world seemed to fall away for a few seconds as he embraced her with his eyes. He didn’t even hear the shutter click.
Liz protested. “Sara, you didn’t give us any warning. We weren’t even looking at the camera.”
“I know.” She handed the camera back to her mother. “By the way, you’re out of film.”
“I can’t believe it…” Liz looked annoyed.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Sara smiled. “I did just what you taught me.” She winked at Jack. “I got the shot.”
Sara bounced into the living room with a gym bag over her shoulder, dressed in blue jean shorts and a yellow tank top that complemented her figure as well as her sun-kissed complexion. “Okay, I think I’ve got everything.” She hugged her mother. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Liz smiled, “Have fun, sweetie.”
“Thanks for dinner, Dad.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek.
Jack put his arm around her. “My pleasure always – need any money?”
She grinned up at him. “No. I’m fine.”
He smiled back at her. “Okay.” He kissed her forehead and regarded her thoughtfully. “Don’t you think you might get a little cold in that outfit?”
“It’s 85 degrees outside.”
“Well, it won’t be after midnight, Cinderella. In fact, it can get rather cool in the wee hours of the morning.” It was Grad night at Disneyland. He pitied the graveyard shift.
“I have a sweater if I need one,” said Sara, heading toward the door.
Jack was remembering Todd and thinking more along the lines of jeans and a sweatshirt, but a look from Liz stopped him from saying it. “Well, if you’re sure.” At least he tried.
The three of them walked outside together. “Have a good time,” said Jack, winking at Sara. “Don’t do anything your mother wouldn’t do.” He ducked as Liz made a playful jab at him.
“Right,” Sara laughed. “Love you guys,” she called over her shoulder.
Jack and Liz watched her drive away. “Well, there she goes,” he murmured.
“You say that as if she’s not coming back.”
“Oh, I don’t really mean it that way.” He followed her back into the house. “It’s just…I mean, eighteen years, Liz….” He shook his head and shrugged. “Where did they go?”
She smiled. “You know, Jack, I think a lot of people would be surprised at just how sentimental you really are.”
“You think so?”
“Mm hm.” She touched his face, her eyes softening. “It’s something you don’t let everyone see, and to me, it’s one of the dearest things about you.”
He pressed her palm to his lips, and then he kissed the inside of her wrist, breathing in her scent. Just then the phone rang. “Let it ring,” he whispered, pulling her closer.
She sighed and pulled away. “I’d better not.”
Jack took a seat as he waited for Liz to finish her conversation in the kitchen, trying not to think too much about the moment interrupted. Take it easy, he told himself. Don’t do anything stupid. What will be, will be.
Liz hung up the phone and walked back into the living room. “Sorry,” she said, “I…ow!” She yelped in pain, grabbing her leg.
Jack leaped to her side. “What is it, a cramp?”
She nodded, whimpering.
“Here.” He put his arms around her. “Try to walk it off.”
“I can’t. It hurts!”
“I know, honey. Come on; let’s get you to the couch.”
Jack settled her on the couch and handed her a throw pillow. “Hold on to this.” He took her foot in his hands, flexing it to stretch her calf muscle. She clenched the pillow in front of her face, muffling her cries.
Jack felt the muscle begin to relax. He gently massaged her leg until the tension was gone. “Better?”
She nodded. “Thank you.”
He sat down next to her. “I remember the first time you got one of these in the middle of the night, when you were pregnant with Sara. You scared me to death.”
“Well, scared or not, you knew just what to do. And I see you haven’t lost your touch.” She smiled.
He smiled back. “Some things you never forget.”
“Is that so?” She tossed the pillow aside and leaned in to him, turning her face up to his. “What else do you remember?”
He touched her cheek, tracing her lips with his thumb, and suddenly his heart was so full he wasn’t sure he could speak. He looked down. “I remember how much we loved each other, and how much I hurt you.” His eyes sought hers. “I never meant to.”
“I know.” She took his face in her hands and gently kissed his cheek. He closed his eyes; he could feel her warm breath on his eyelids as her lips brushed each one, then the other cheek. She nuzzled his neck, causing him to moan for the want of her.
It took every ounce of self control, but instead of kissing her, he put his hands on her shoulders and pushed himself away. She looked surprised. “What is it? I thought you wanted….”
“You don’t know how many times I’ve imagined this very moment. I want you more than anything, and that’s just it. I want more than just tonight.”
Liz stared at him, her brow furrowed. “Is that an ultimatum, Jack?”
He shook his head, “No, of course not. I’m just telling you how I feel. This is not casual for me.”
“And you think it is for me?”
Jack sensed an edge to her quiet tone. “I didn’t mean to imply that. I just don’t want any misunderstandings between us. If we walk through that door, things get more complicated. We could hurt each other again. I think we both need to be aware of that.”
“You’re right. Neither one of us can guarantee that won’t happen.” She stood up and walked over to the window, staring out at nothing. “It’s funny; for five years I’ve held a piece of paper that says I’m no longer Mrs. Jack Richards, but it could never change the way I feel about you.” She turned toward him, dewy-eyed. “You’re the only man I’ve ever loved, Jack, not that I haven’t had other offers, mind you. But sometimes love isn’t enough, is it?”
She still loved him. That was enough as far as he was concerned. He cupped her face in his hands. “It is, if it’s real.”
She nestled her head against his chest, crying mutely. He stroked her hair. “Tell me what you want.”
She straightened up, turning back to the window while she regained her composure. Then she took a deep breath and faced him. “Jack, what we have now is precious and rare and in some ways better than what we had before, and it’s because of everything we’ve been through together, both good and bad. It’s so important to me, and I don’t want to lose it. I think maybe we should keep things the way they are – uncomplicated.”
Jack groaned inwardly. Me and my big mouth. “Are you sure?”
Her dark lashes fluttered. “Yes.”
“I have a feeling I’m going to hate myself in the morning.” He sighed and kissed her hand. “Good night, my lady.”
It was too hot to sleep that night. Jack lay on top of the covers, mulling over the events of the evening. Sometimes people were too gallant for their own good.
He turned over on his side, nuzzling the sweet-smelling shoulder next to him. As he closed his eyes he made a mental note to ask her about those “other offers.”
Uncomplicated was sometimes over-rated.
Summer was like a sweet dream. The house in Sherman Oaks became home once more. Sara was away most of the time, studying art history in New York, Rome, and Paris, so Jack and Liz had the place mostly to themselves. Liz’s burgeoning photography business kept her busy during the day while Jack filled the hours reading scripts and puttering around the house. Most of the time he cooked dinner for the two of them; it was something he had always enjoyed and missed when he lived alone, among other things. In the evenings they sent the world away and fell in love all over again. Jack couldn’t remember a time when he had ever been happier. Life was so good it almost scared him.
Liz kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the couch. Jack greeted her with a glass of wine and a kiss. “You’re late.”
She sat up and made room for him. “I know. I’m sorry.” She took a sip. “Are you mad at me?”
“Furious.” He kissed her again. “Hard day?”
“Crazy, no time for anything, not even lunch.” She propped her feet on the coffee table.
“Dinner’s in the oven; whenever you’re ready.”
She closed her eyes and snuggled next to him. “I think I’d just like to sit here for a few minutes.”
“How about some music?”
Jack got up and turned on the stereo, smiling at the strains of an old familiar tune. “Remember this one?”
She smiled. “How could I ever forget? Where did you find it?”
“There was a box of old albums in the closet of the spare bedroom.”
“You’ve been a busy beaver around here, haven’t you?”
“Indeed.” He put his arms around her and nibbled her ear. “It’s cherry pink and apple blossom white when your true lover comes your way…” he crooned. “You were wearing a pink dress that night.”
“Pink has always been my favorite color.”
“And you wear it so well. You had pink and white roses in your wedding bouquet.”
Liz looked at him thoughtfully. “Most men don’t remember things like that.”
“Well, I am not most men.”
“You certainly are not,” she murmured as she kissed him.
Dinner was a little later than either one of them had anticipated. Afterwards, as she lay in his arms, Jack contemplated the two weeks ahead without enthusiasm. He was flying to Honolulu the next morning to shoot a double episode of Hawaii Five-O. “I sure wish you were coming with me tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, Jack. I wish I could, but there’s just no way I can take off right now. I’m snowed.”
“I know. I don’t mean to be selfish. I really am proud of you, E. Kelley Richards.” He smiled. “But I’m going to miss you terribly.” He leaned over and kissed her.
“I’ll miss you, too.” She smiled up at him. “But it’s only for a little while. I’ll be right here when you get home. Can we eat now? I’m starved!”
Jack stared out the window at the City of Angels glowing beneath him. He looked at his watch and smiled, thinking of Liz. She wasn’t expecting him home until after midnight, but good fortune had snagged him a seat on an earlier flight which would get him home before nine – the shank of the evening; plenty of time to celebrate.
The shoot had gone well. Five-O was better than average television, in Jack’s opinion. And of course the island was beautiful. The only thing lacking to make it a true paradise was Liz.
It was so hard to leave her. She had offered to drive him to the airport but he knew that would take more time out of her day than she could really spare, and besides, the traffic was brutal. But when the cab arrived that morning, the selfish part of him regretted his altruism.
He took her in his arms and studied her face, the gentle arch of her brows; the sweep of her lashes; the soft laugh lines around her eyes; the slight upturn of her nose; the delicious curve of her rosebud mouth. “You are so beautiful.”
She reached up and kissed him deeply, fingering the curls on the back of his neck.
“Mmm, that feels too good,” he chided her in mock reproach. “You shouldn’t kiss me like that when I’m on my way to the airport. I’m liable to miss my plane.”
She laughed. “Well, you know what they say. All’s fair in love and war.”
He smirked, “And which is it?”
Her dark eyes grew serious. “I love you, Jack. I hope you know that.”
He brushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. “I do. And I love you, too,” he murmured, pulling her close, “so much it hurts sometimes. Like right now.” He rested his chin on top of her head. “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
“Me neither, but at least we have something to look forward to. Think how much fun your homecoming will be.”
“Can we pick up right where we left off?”
“Absolutely. Now get out of here.”
“You’re a hard woman, Liz Richards.” He left her with a quick kiss and a wink.
Jack smiled at the memory. Liz could be hard when she needed to be, but she was soft in all the right places. He retrieved his bag from the carousel, humming. Thoughts of home put a spring in his step as he headed for the cab stand.
He would miss Sara, though. He had phoned her during the week after she returned from Europe and she reminded him that she was leaving today for a camping trip in Yosemite. In a few weeks she would be off to Columbia. She had surprised both of her parents with her college choice, but her love of New York had been the clincher. Jack was proud of her for making the cut; Columbia was tough. But it was so far away. Jack supposed he would just have to get used to the fact that his little girl was grown now. It seemed like only yesterday she was perched on his lap reading Green Eggs and Ham or snuggled next to him on the couch with her favorite blanket watching The Wizard of Oz. She always cried at the end when Dorothy said goodbye to her friends. Sara’s heart had remained tender through the years, and though she had proven herself strong in many ways, a dog food commercial could still move her to tears. Her empathy was one of the things Jack admired most about his daughter, but at the same time it was one of the things that worried him a little. While it yielded her many friendships, it also made her vulnerable to a fair share of the world’s pain. Liz agreed with him, adding, “She’s a lot like her father.”
As the cab pulled up to the curb, Jack noted several cars parked out front, including Sara’s. Odd, but maybe her trip was cancelled. He paid the driver and started up the walk with his suitcase. He hadn’t anticipated company, but Liz wasn’t expecting him this early. He glanced back at the street. He didn’t recognize the Mercedes, but the dark sedan looked like Dr. Lew’s. An inexplicable dread struck him, and his heart raced as he reached for the doorknob.
Sara met him in the foyer and threw herself into his arms.
Sickening fear churned in the pit of his stomach as he held her. The two men in the living room, his agent Phil Ebersol and Dr. Lew, both looked as though they’d rather be anywhere else. Liz was nowhere in sight. This was no homecoming party.
“Where’s your mother?” It was a rhetorical question, for somehow he knew the answer.
Sara raised her head. Tears streaked her face. “Daddy, I’m so sorry.”
Jack felt his knees buckle as the room faded to gray. The next thing he knew he was in a chair, with Lew bending over him.
“You all right, Jack? Put your head down if you still feel faint.”
Phil handed him a glass of water. “Here, drink this.”
Jack’s mouth felt like cotton. He took a swallow and then downed the whole glass.
Lew reached for his wrist to take his pulse.
“I said I’m all right.”
“Humor me, okay? Just sit still for a while.”
Jack didn’t argue. “What happened?”
Sara knelt in front of him and recounted the events of the day. “Mom seemed fine this morning. She said she was a little tired, but we were both up late last night. Anyway, she was already showered and dressed when I got up even though she wasn’t going to the studio. We had breakfast together, and then I left a little before ten to run a couple of errands. She was sitting at the table, paying some bills to put in the mail. I got home around noon, and she was lying down. I thought she was asleep, so I went ahead and made lunch.”
She paused and looked at her hands, struggling for composure. “When I went back to her room, I couldn’t wake her. She wasn’t breathing. I called the ambulance but it was too late.”
Lew spoke up. “Sara called me and I met her at the hospital. I talked to the doctor, Jack,” he said gently. “It was a massive coronary. He figures she went pretty quickly. There was nothing anybody could’ve done.”
Jack closed his eyes. “Where is she now?”
“She’s still at the hospital morgue. Sara could have signed the release papers but she didn’t want to do anything until you got back. Phil called United to confirm your flight and found out you took an earlier one.”
“I offered to meet you at the airport, but Sara wanted to be the one to tell you,” said Phil. “She wanted to do it at home.”
Jack touched her cheek. Sara looked up at him with her mother’s ebony eyes, her face anguished. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here, sweetheart.”
She rested her forehead against his knee, sobbing.
Lew and Phil both rose to leave.
“Jack, we know you and Sara have decisions to make, but Lew and I can take care of the details if you’ll just tell us what you want.”
“I’ll call you in the morning,” said Lew, “but if you need anything before then you’ve got my number.”
Jack thanked them and walked them to the door. He felt numb, empty, strangely devoid of tears.
He joined Sara on the couch. Neither one of them spoke as he pulled her head onto his lap and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. He covered her with the afghan Liz’s mother had knitted for them as a wedding gift.
Jack picked up his suitcase and took it to the bedroom. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep but he figured he might as well unpack. As he opened the top drawer of his dresser he drew an involuntary breath when he saw an envelope addressed to him. There was no mistaking the elegant script. It was taped to a photograph in a silver frame. He sat down on the bed and studied it for a few moments before placing it on the nightstand. His hands trembled as he opened the envelope and read the note:
I had quite forgotten about this picture until I printed the last roll from Sara’s graduation. I remember being annoyed with her for taking it when we weren’t looking, but I should have known better than to question her artistic judgment. Our clever daughter has quite an eye; I have to admit, this one takes my breath away. Seeing it now, two thoughts come to mind, how lucky I am to be the woman in the picture, and how I never feel so loved as when you look at me that way.
Pride is so foolish, Jack, and mine almost cost me dearly. Thank you for not letting go when I pushed you away and for reminding me what we have together. I love you with all my heart.
Jack placed the note next to the picture and stood up to resume his unpacking. All at once the shock that had dulled his senses gave way to pain and rage. He yanked the suitcase off the bed and slammed it to the floor, scattering the contents. He covered his mouth to keep from screaming out loud and then fell on the bed with a wounded guttural cry. God, don’t let this be real! Let me wake up from this nightmare!
He clutched the pillow where her scent still lingered, heaving silent sobs.
Liz, you can’t be gone.
Jack floated in the waning darkness. There was light ahead, warming his cheek like a kiss. He pried his eyes open, squinting at the sunlight spilling through the window onto the bed.
Senses registered morning, home. He was still in his clothes, though someone had removed his shoes and covered him with a blanket. Not Liz. His sleepy gaze settled on the picture on the nightstand. Last night was a memory, not a dream.
His suitcase stood in the corner. Someone had picked up his belongings from the floor and put them away. He smelled coffee and wondered how long Sara had been up.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, making notes on a legal pad. She hadn’t heard him, and Jack watched her for a moment before he spoke. He had never noticed before, but she held her pen the same way Liz did whenever she paused in her writing, with her little finger crooked as though she were taking high tea with the Queen. He’d teased her about it once, calling her “Your Majesty”. Liz was put off by it and vowed never to do it again. But it was so ingrained in her unconscious behavior that she couldn’t help herself, and though Jack didn’t mention it again, he smiled secretly whenever he caught her.
He cleared his throat and Sara looked up, solemn-eyed, “Morning, Dad.”
“Morning.” He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down across from her. “Did you sleep?”
“Yes, but I woke up around four, wide awake, so I got up.”
“Is that when you came into my room?”
She nodded. “I only wanted to check on you. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“You didn’t. I don’t know how I slept, but I did.” He rested his elbow on the table, his chin in hand. “I’m afraid I left a mess in the floor last night. Sorry.”
“It’s all right.” She got up. “Why don’t I fix you some breakfast?”
He shook his head. “Coffee’s fine. I’m really not hungry.”
She ignored him and opened the cupboard. “We have cereal or oatmeal; I could scramble some eggs but I’m not sure we have bacon. You like French toast. That’s easy.”
“Sara, no. Please.” He caught her arm, imploring her with his eyes. “I can’t eat. Just sit back down, okay?”
“All right,” she murmured. She sat down and resumed her writing.
“What are you doing?”
“Making a list of things we need to do.”
Of course there were things to be done, none of them pleasant. “Well, I guess one of the first things we should do is call your Aunt Cheryl.”
“I talked to her this morning and told her I’d call her back after we made the arrangements.”
“Maybe she’d like to be involved.”
Sara didn’t look up. “I’m sure she would but I’m not asking her. She wanted to come and I told her no. I don’t want her staying here.”
Jack stared at her in surprise. “What’s going on? I’ve never heard you talk like this. Granted, we’re not the best of friends but she is your mother’s only sister.”
Sara crinkled her brow. “Yes, and all she ever did was criticize Mom and try to tell her what to do, and I’m not going to let her do that to me. If she had her way….” She paused and looked away.
“Nothing.” She met Jack’s questioning gaze emphatically. “She doesn’t matter. Mom belonged to us. You and me; it’s what we want that counts.”
She got up to answer the phone and Jack looked over her list. Twenty-four hours ago he never dreamed he’d be making these decisions today. He wiped his eyes when he heard her hang up.
“Doc’s on his way,” she said over his shoulder. “You’ve got time for a shower.”
That’s exactly what Liz would have said. “All right,” he replied, though he didn’t move from the chair.
Sara wrapped her arms around him and rested her cheek on the top of his head. “It’s gonna be okay, Dad.”
He clasped her hands to his chest, squeezing his eyes shut in a vain attempt to stop the tears. “Yeah,” he nodded. He wanted to believe it, but he wasn’t sure he could.
“Time to go, Jack.”
He was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at his feet. He couldn’t seem to make them move; they were like lead. His palms were sweaty and his stomach whirled. Maybe this was what stage fright was like. He couldn’t say for sure because he’d never had it. He’d never been nervous about acting, not since the first day he set foot on a stage. But he wasn’t playing a part today.
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Well, I know it’s the last thing in the world you want to do, but a man does what he has to, in spite of how he feels.”
Jack didn’t look up. “I’m not ready to say goodbye, Lew.”
“No one ever is.”
Lew sat down next to him. “The day before our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, my wife was diagnosed with leukemia. The doctor said six months; she beat that by a year and a half. We had a good life, no regrets, and time to say the things we wanted and needed to say to each other. If anybody should have been ready, it should have been me.”
He sighed and said nothing for a few moments, and then he put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Your daughter’s waitin’ for you, my friend. She needs you, and you need her. Don’t let your pain get in the way of that.”
Pink and white roses adorned the casket at the front of the chapel, flanked by a sea of flowers that flowed into the aisle. The crowd was a mix of family, friends, neighbors, a few of Liz’s clients, and some of Sara’s classmates.
Lew’s eulogy was eloquent in its simplicity. “A stellar human being,” he called her. Liz would have appreciated that.
The hardest part was seeing her. Part of him deplored the idea simply because he didn’t want anything to mar his last perfect memory of her. But he also knew he could never let her go otherwise.
The salmon-colored suit he and Sara had chosen for her was one of Liz’s favorites, his too. Her hair and makeup were perfect, not too much or too little. People commented on how beautiful she looked, but to Jack beauty in death was merely an illusion. The woman in the casket looked like Liz, but that was another illusion, one he did not desire. He did not linger.
Sara stayed close to him. Jack got the feeling she was trying to protect him, and he treasured her all the more for it. She did everything she could to ease the burden of the day from his shoulders, taking calls, greeting people and generally running interference for him, reassuring him with a touch, bolstering him with her quiet strength.
When the last of the mourners left the cemetery, Lew drove them home. Sara persuaded him to stay for supper; the Hollingsworths had sent over more food than the two of them could eat in a week. Sara assumed the role of hostess as though she had been born to it. Jack watched her with a mixture of pride and gratitude and a sense of awe. She was the best part of him and all he had left of Liz, a shining testimonial of their love, the legacy of their life together.
Sleep eluded Jack as he lay in bed that night. Lew had left him something “just in case” but he wanted to avoid that route if he could. Maybe a glass of milk would help. He put on his robe and headed for the kitchen.
The murmur of the television drew him to the den. Sara was nestled at one end of the couch, eating from a pint carton of ice cream.
Jack sat down beside her. “It looks like we’re in the same boat tonight. Do you mind some company?”
“Of course not,” she smiled. Even in the dim light, he could see she’d been crying.
He propped his feet on the coffee table in front of him and looked at the screen. “This looks familiar. What are you watching?”
“Ah yes, the little boy and the gunfighter.” A good story without a tidy ending.
She offered him the carton. “Want some? I’ll get another spoon if you do.”
Mint chocolate chip wasn’t his favorite. “No thanks. If it was rocky road I’d probably take you up on the offer.”
“Sorry, we finished it up the other night.” She didn’t elaborate, but ‘we’ meant herself and Liz, of course.
They sat enveloped in their own thoughts, bathed in the television’s glow while the mysterious Shane attempted to rid the valley of guns.
Sara turned to Jack, her eyes pooling. “Dad, she was happy, as happy as I can ever remember. You have to know that.”
He brushed a tear from her cheek and kissed her. Then he put his arm around her and snuggled her next to him, the way he did when she was a little girl.
A child’s plaintive cry broke the silence. “Shane! Come back, Shane!”
Jack handed her a tissue and leaned his head against hers.
“I love you, Sara Kate.”
Epilogue — Revolving Doors
Priorities rearranged themselves after Liz’s death; things that once seemed so important became trivial. Sara was already beginning to waver on Columbia before Jack’s bout with a bleeding ulcer clenched her decision to stay closer to home and attend UCLA, her mother’s alma mater.
Jack wanted to believe she tried, but Sara’s heart just wasn’t in it. Halfway through the semester she stunned him by saying she wanted to drop out and join the Peace Corps. It was so completely out of the blue that he could hardly believe she was serious. After a lengthy discussion she reluctantly agreed to finish the semester, but mononucleosis knocked her flat a week later, eliminating both options. At least she was home where she could be cared for and not stuck in the wilderness somewhere, he reminded her. He knew better than to preach on the subject, but he hoped her illness would change her mind about going and that she would just forget all about it. It was a slim hope at best, and he wasn’t surprised when she brought it up again after the first of the year. All the arguments he could muster paled in the force of her determination. And Sara was over eighteen.
She hinted at Central or South America, but somehow Jack knew all along she would choose Africa. He had to look up Cameroon. It was only 8,245 miles away.
Waiting for Sara to pick up her boarding pass, Jack stood at the window watching a 747 nose its way skyward. On a runway just beyond, another touched down. An airport was a revolving door, a stream of changing faces, people coming and going, some just passing through. An apt metaphor for life, he mused.
The boarding call came just as she approached. He smiled at her. “All set?”
Jack supposed there wasn’t much left to say that hadn’t already been said many times over. He had already delivered his standard father lecture on personal safety and avoiding unnecessary risks, she had cautioned him about his ulcer diet, and both had pledged their faithfulness. Besides, he knew Sara, and as much she wanted to go, she was not good with goodbyes. He wouldn’t make it any harder than it already was.
She spoke first. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to catch Dr. John in reruns next year.” She smiled. “I’m really proud of you, Dad. You deserve it, and I know it’s gonna be great.”
“Thanks, kiddo.” It was still hard for him to believe it would be a whole year before they would see each other again. In spite of his resolve, he felt the sting of tears.
She cleared her throat. “Dad, I know how hard it was for you to let me go. Even though I could do this without your consent, you know I wouldn’t. Thank you for giving me this chance. I promise you won’t be sorry. I’ll make you proud.”
Her dewy-eyed delivery nearly melted him on the spot – that face, fresh with hope and dreams yet undreamed. “I could never be more proud of you than I am right now.”
The second boarding call interrupted them. Jack glanced toward the dwindling line of passengers at the gate. It was time. “Well, I guess this is goodbye, then.” He somehow managed a smile.
Sara shook her head. “Not goodbye. See you later, okay?”
She threw her arms around him and squeezed him the way she did when she was a little girl. “I love you, Daddy,” she whispered. “It’s gonna be okay, isn’t it?”
His arms closed around her. “I love you, too, kiddo,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “And you bet. Everything’s gonna be just fine.”
She shouldered her bag and kissed him before walking away to join the others. The line had swelled with the arrival of another group of new recruits. Jack watched Sara chatting with the young man behind her who seemed very interested in her ticket. He could see the wheels turning underneath that Peace Corps cap, and he couldn’t blame the boy. A flight to anywhere is half as long when you’re sitting next to a pretty girl, especially one who can charm the world with a smile.
Sara boarded a few minutes later along with the last of the passengers, but not before flashing a grin and a thumbs up that meant, “Don’t worry, Dad.” He responded reassuringly in kind, but they both knew he would anyway. It came with the territory.
Jack stayed to see her safely in the air, beset by the strange feeling of being the one left behind for a change. It would be twenty-six hours before Sara reached Yaoundé, the capital, half a world away. Meanwhile, the door would continue to revolve, moving him with it. Dr. John and a stream of new faces would go a long way toward filling up the empty time and space.
Other Stories by this Author
- Right is the Third Left (by JC)
- When Your True Lover Comes Your Way (by JC)
- There Is A Season (by JC)