He would be here soon. The waiting was over. She'd had five long years of it, had felt every minute of it ticking by. At first his coming back had seemed impossibly far off, something that would never really happen. But here it was, the day she'd been waiting for, and now it was almost too much to believe.
Andrea glanced at her watch, then gazed back out over the lake. Another long winter had passed, and spring had thawed the water's thick covering of ice. Now, on the sixth of June, the surface of the lake was busy with motorboats, rowboats, and jet skis. A light breeze carried the sound of laughter over the water. Andrea breathed deeply and found herself smiling. The timing was right. Even nature, in turning again to life, seemed attuned to her hope.
This had been a good place to wait, this little cottage on the edge of Conesus Lake. While it was almost too small for the four of them, it was still as good a place as any, she supposed. Certainly better than that awful house they'd owned in Virginia Beach, with its beat-up aluminum siding and decades-old wall-to-wall carpeting. She'd always felt dirty there, as if she were living in a deserted strip mall. But worse than that was the fact that Virginia wasn't home. New York was. At least she'd had the comfort of being home these past five years.
She checked her watch again, as she had done a dozen times already in the last half hour. How was it that the minute hand had scarcely moved since she'd last glanced at the time? She clenched her hands together tightly at her waist, squeezing until her fingers ached. Maybe there was such a thing as second chances. She didn't generally ask for much from life anymore, but a second chance would be nice. Heaven knew, she had waited long enough for this one.
Phoebe's voice reached her from somewhere inside. Andrea sighed, smoothed her skirt, then turned away from what she thought of as her widow's walk. Not that the water out there was an ocean, and not that he would be coming back from a distant place on a sailing ship. No, it was a Greyhound bus that had made the trek up from Virginia. By now, Owen should have met him at the station, and they should be nearly home. Unless he got off at an earlier stop and disappeared. Would he do that? Maybe he didn't want to come back. Maybe ---
Andrea opened the screen door and stepped into the front room of the cottage. Phoebe sat cross-legged in the bay window, her coloring book and crayons and her game of Chinese checkers spread out in front of her. In one hand she loosely held a kaleidoscope. The child spent hours on that window seat, quietly entertaining herself. Of Andrea's three children, Phoebe was the shyest, the most withdrawn. Andrea would be glad when she started first grade and began socializing with other children.
"What's the matter, Phoebe?" Andrea asked.
"What time is Billy getting home?"
"You're in luck. He'll be home early today."
"It's a surprise. You'll see."
Phoebe smiled, though tentatively, as if she didn't quite understand her mother's words. "You look pretty, Mama," she said.
Andrea was surprised. "Do I?" She touched her hair, her fingers floating over the dark curls. She'd had Selene style and perm it and, for the first time, wash out the gray. She had wanted it to be just right.
The child nodded. "Are we having a party?"
"Then why are you wearing lipstick?"
"Well, I ..." How to explain? "I don't know, Phoebe. I just thought I would for a change. Is it too much?"
A small line formed between Phoebe's brows. "Too much what?"
"Too much lipstick."
"I don't know." The child shrugged. "I guess not."
Andrea looked at her daughter. Of course she wouldn't know if it was too much lipstick. She was six years old.
"Do you want a snack to tide you over until dinner, honey?"
"No, I'm not hungry." She lifted the kaleidoscope to her eye and pointed it toward the window. "When Billy gets home can he play Chinese checkers with me?"
"Sure, I guess so. Maybe after supper."
Phoebe didn't respond. She was busy slowly turning the end of the kaleidoscope, making pictures of beads and glass and sunlight.
As she gazed at her child, Andrea felt something twine itself around her heart and squeeze. Everything was about to change. Their whole day-to-day life was about to shift in a way inconceivable to a six-year-old, and Andrea wondered what it would do to her youngest child. What it would do to all of them. Andrea wanted them all to be happy, and she hoped that somehow there would be something like happiness in their future. But she sensed --- though she couldn't see it yet --- she sensed the wave of disappointment beginning far off, past the horizon of the present moment, a wave that would swell and grow and crash over them sooner or later. That was how it always was, it seemed. Happiness thwarted in a thousand ways.
But maybe not this time, she thought. Maybe this time it'll be different.
One was allowed to dream, after all. And hope.
"Well, let me know if you change your mind," she said to Phoebe. "You can have some peanut butter and crackers if you want."
From the bay window came the small disinterested reply. "Okay."
Andrea went to the kitchen where she had a pork roast in the oven. It would soon be time to peel the potatoes. She reached for the apron that hung on a hook by the fridge and tied it around her waist. Even as her fingers worked, twenty years fell away, and she was a teenager again, nervous and breathless as she waited to be picked up by her date. Not that she had dated much --- a couple of movies, a few school dances, and then, suddenly, marriage. The circumstances weren't the best, but that was all right; she'd married the man she wanted to marry. She had been in love, after all.
She opened a drawer and fished for the potato peeler, but before she could find it, a car pulled off the road and came to rest in the gravel drive. There they were, Owen behind the wheel, John in the passenger seat. Andrea quickly untied the apron and hung it back up on the hook.
So this was it. He was home now.
She watched from the window as the car doors opened in tandem and the men stepped out. One door slammed, then the other. Owen stretched, rising up on his toes and reaching for the sky. John stood still, a black garbage bag clutched in his right hand. He seemed to be waiting for a cue from Owen, something to tell him it was time to walk on stage and get this show going.
Andrea raised a fist to her mouth and pressed it hard against her lips, if only to stop the tears that were threatening to rise. She wouldn't cry, wouldn't embarrass herself by crying. He wouldn't like it.
For one agonizing moment she felt the old rage rise up in her. She wanted to pound her fists against his chest and curse him for what he'd done. She hated him --- hated him for his weaknesses and his lies, for the shame and hardship he'd brought on his family.
And yet, in spite of all reason, she couldn't deny the affection, the feelings of longing that washed over her even now. How would she ever untangle the knotted skein of emotions that wrapped itself around every corner of her heart?
The two men climbed up the slanted wooden walkway to the kitchen door. Owen knocked briefly. And then they were in the kitchen, all three of them occupying that cramped space, staring wordlessly, wondering what on earth this moment called for.
She would have to speak first, she knew. "Hello, John," she said.
His eyes, anxious and unsettled, came to rest on her face. "Hello, Andrea," he said quietly.
She thought she should kiss him, hug him at least, but the moment passed. "I'm glad you made it all right."
"Sorry we're late," Owen offered. "The traffic coming down from Rochester was heavier than I expected."
"That's all right," Andrea said, relieved to turn her attention to her brother. "Thank you for picking up John."
Owen nodded slightly. "Well, I've got to get back to the restaurant." He glanced at his watch. "Almost time for the dinner rush."
"Of course. You go ahead."
"Owen." John held out his hand. "Thanks for the lift."
Owen looked at John's hand, his face, his hand. He shook the proffered fingers briefly. "No problem."
Then he was gone, and Andrea and John were alone. Andrea pressed her sweaty palms against her thighs. The moment was too big and too small at the same time. Here was the hour she had walked toward these past five years. Now that she had reached it, she could see that it was smaller than it appeared from a distance. John was still John, after all, the man whose love seemed always beyond her reach.
She pointed at the bag. "Are those your things?"
"Yes." He nodded. "I guess they were out of Samsonites."
She tried to smile. "Well, why don't you just drop it on a chair for now. Later you can unpack upstairs. But first ..." Her voice trailed off. She moved from the kitchen to the front room, hoping he'd follow. He did.
Phoebe still sat at the window, her face turned toward the glass, her knees drawn up to her chin. Andrea knew the child didn't like to meet strangers, was trying to make herself small enough to be overlooked.
"Phoebe, can you turn your attention this way for a minute?"
The child turned her head slowly. She chewed shyly on her lower lip.
Andrea lifted a hand toward John. "This is someone I've wanted you to know for a long time," she said. "Phoebe, this is your father."
Excerpted from THE RETURNING © Copyright 2011 by Ann Tatlock. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.