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Topeka – Kansas
July 19th 2007
"Dad, can you help me with my homework?" I looked up from where I had been sitting looking through an old photo album to see Cecile standing in the doorway watching me curiously. "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing," I replied, closing it and sliding it back under the bed where I had found it. "What's the homework?"
"Math," she replied, making a face.
"Ok," I laughed, standing up and propelling her out of the room and back along the landing to her own bedroom. It had changed so much over the last twelve years, but I could still remember it painted a neutral yellow colour with her crib sat in the far corner. It was amazing how quickly time flew past. She sat down at the desk my dad had built for her and pointed at the textbook in front of her. "I can't do it."
"Of course you can," I told her, "you just need to work at it." I looked down at the exercise and realised within about ten seconds that I couldn't do it either. We spent the next half hour trying out different things to no avail. "Well," I said finally, "you can tell your teacher tomorrow that both you and me tried and we couldn't do it. Anyway, it's almost vacation time. What's she doing giving you homework anyways?"
Cecile laughed, "Miss Brandt likes you."
"Well I'm a nice guy."
"No, I mean she likes you," she emphasised. "Julie Dexter told me that the way Miss Brandt was looking at you at parents evening last month means that she likes you."
"And how would Julie Dexter know?"
"I don't know," Cecile shrugged, "she said she could tell." She swivelled in her chair to look at me, her green eyes serious. "Do you like her?"
"Miss Brandt? She seemed a nice enough lady," I replied, perching on the edge of her bed.
"No Dad," she rolled her eyes, "I mean, do you like her?
There was something seemingly wrong with discussing this sort of thing with your twelve year old daughter, "No," I told her, "I don't like her, as you put it." How could I ever like anyone ever again?
Cecile's expression was doubtful, "Julie says that you'll get married again real soon. She says that men can't function without women and that you'll have to get married again."
I was starting to really hate Julie Dexter. "Well, Julie doesn't know everything," I said, "Julie doesn't know me."
"Do you think you will get married again?"
"No," I told her quickly and firmly, "No I won't." There was an awkward silence and I watched Cecile's gaze drift to the picture of Laurie that was on her desk. In profile, she was her mother's double. It should have been a comfort, but sometimes it felt more like a punishment.
"I miss her," she said, so softly that I could barely hear her.
This was the moment. I knew it was the moment. It was the time where I should sit Cecile down beside me and tell her that Laurie loved her and still loves her and will always be with her, watching over her. But it's difficult to tell that to a child when you don't really believe it yourself. All I can feel is anger and pain and overwhelmingly crushing grief. "Yeah," I said, getting to my feet. "Me too." She looked up at me and I knew she expected more. "Half an hour and then it's bedtime ok?" I didn't wait for an answer, but I left the room, closing the door behind me, and went back into the bedroom that, until eight months ago, I had shared with my wife.
Little in it had changed in the last fifteen years. The same oak bed sat against the wall with the matching wardrobe and rocking chair that Laurie had used to soothe Cecile as a baby. The curtains were the same, the carpet, the pictures on the wall…everything was exactly as we had planned it. If I closed my eyes, I could see, in my mind's eye, Laurie under the covers, beckoning me to go and join her, laughing at my feeble protestations. I could still hear her laugh echoing all around me, only occasionally replaced by the relentless beeping of the machines that had kept her alive for three days after her accident.
There were so many things that I didn't want to forget and equally so many things that I did.
Los Angeles – California
July 19th 2007
"Jeans, tops and sweaters."
"Check, check and check." I surveyed the mound of clothes sitting on my bed and cradled the phone against my shoulder. "How many do you think I need to take?"
Vicky paused on the other end of the line. "I'd say six or seven."
"For two weeks?"
"You don't know what the facilities are going to be like there."
"It's Kansas, Vicky, not Somalia." I smiled to myself.
"You're throwing me off of my stride," she replied. "Right, boots."
"Check, not that I think I'm going to need them."
"You never know."
"That's what you said about Nova Scotia," I reminded her, "and they didn't see the light of day once. Neither did I for that matter."
"They might have a pool."
"Ok, ok," I relented. "I think that's pretty much everything I'm going to need. I've got my tickets and my hire car is going to be at the airport, right?"
"Right, and you lifted the directions from my desk, didn't you?"
"Yes," I replied, "I think I'm all set."
"You're so lucky," Vicky whined, the way she always did before I set off on another trip. "I wish I was coming with you. All I do is sit behind a desk and plan exciting trips for other people!"
"At least you have a man," I reminded her. "The last time I had a proper relationship Bush was in the White House the first time."
Vicky paused, "How is that even possible? You would have been what, ten?"
We bantered back and forth for another few minutes before I hung up and tried to squash all my belongings into my suitcase. It paid to turn up looking professional and organised, not weighed down with luggage. For my travelling outfit I had picked a pair of smart black trousers, a grey top and black blazer along with some comfortable black loafers. Business-like, but casual. It was important to make the right first impression. These people would be looking to me to help save their business, not to resemble some dumb city girl on vacation.
Once I had everything ready, I washed, brushed my teeth and climbed into bed wearing my faithful, slightly dog-eared pyjamas. I lifted the file on the Preston family that Mark had given me and took a closer look at it. The financial pages were important, but what was even more so was the brief summary of events written by the family themselves. It could reveal a lot about their overall attitude towards their business and gave me some good pointers as to how to go about helping them. This one had been written by Martha Preston and talked about how she and her husband Ben had started the business thirty-three years ago. It had started small but expanded over the years and their son Jack and his wife Laurie had taken an active interest in the running of the business and planned to take it over it completely.
I felt tears spring into my eyes as I read the rest of her words.
Unfortunately, our wonderful daughter-in-law, Laurie, passed away last November after an accident. Things have been difficult since then, not least of all for our son Jack and our granddaughter Cecile.
I put the file down and wiped my eyes. I didn't usually get emotional over these things, but I figured it was down to the fact that I had lost my own mother and that I knew perhaps some of what Cecile would be feeling. I had to remember though that I couldn't afford to get upset in front of these people when I met them. You had to maintain a certain detached air. You could sympathise with their ongoing difficulties but you had to be professional. As I put the light out, though, and tried to sleep I couldn't help thinking about the Preston family and what I might find when I got to Kansas.
The following morning I woke bright and early at six o'clock, quickly showered and dressed, grabbed my luggage and was getting into a taxi thirty-five minutes later. The ride to the airport was relatively swift given the early hour and by the time I had checked in, I had a good hour to spare. Sitting drinking a coffee in the departure lounge, I took the time to look over the information Vicky had given me. The flight to Kansas City was about five hours then I was looking at roughly an hour's drive to the Preston ranch on the outskirts of Topeka, if I didn't get lost. With a smile, I remembered the time I had to drive to Seattle and spent hours circling trying to find the right exit.
Putting the information back into my bag, I drank my coffee and watched the other people in the airport. There were business people, couples, families…each one with a story to tell no doubt. I wondered what people would think if they looked at me. Then I thought, perhaps I was better off not knowing.
Topeka – Kansas
July 20th 2007
"She should be here by supper time."
"Good for her."
"Jack, for heavens sake!" I looked up at my mother who was watching me disapprovingly. "I hope you're not going to be like that when she gets here."
"Like what?" I asked, gulping down my coffee.
"Like this! As though her coming is like…"
"A waste of time?" I finished for her. "Cause that's what this is." I stood up. "Cecile! Move your butt or you're going to be late!"
"Mom, give it a rest, ok? I'm a nice guy. I can be nice when it's needed," I moved over and kissed her cheek. "I just don't think we need someone from LA of all places, coming here and telling us what we're doing wrong. Cecile!" I shouted again. "Come on!"
She came pounding down the stairs, her hair flying behind her. "Sorry," she said, grabbing her bag from the floor by the door. "Are we leaving?"
"Yes we are," I said, shooting my mom a final look before following her out of the door into the yard. She bounded ahead of me to the truck and wrenched open the door. I followed and climbed into the driver's seat. I had to turn the engine over three times as usual before it grumbled into life. Jamming it into gear, I moved out of the yard and headed towards the road. Cecile wound down the window and stuck her head out. "You looking to get decapitated?" I asked her.
"No," she pulled her head back in and shot me a withering look. "Who's this woman that's coming to stay?"
"How do you know about that?"
"I have ears you know."
"Watch your tone," I said automatically. "She's coming from some company in LA to…try and help us with the place," I waved my hand as if to say 'yeah, whatever.'
"LA?" Cecile echoed. "She's from LA?"
I looked at her, "You think that's cool?"
"Sure. You think she knows any movie stars?"
"I would doubt it, but no doubt you can ask her when she gets here."
"Is she pretty?"
"Cecile, I've never met her. How would I know if she was pretty and…besides…what does it matter?"
"She must be really thin. Everyone from LA is really thin." She didn't say anything else as we made the ten minute drive to the school. I pulled in the street and made to turn the corner when she stopped me. "Here's fine."
"It's just round the corner," I protested.
"Honestly, it's fine." She had the door half open before I had even stopped. "Bye Dad!"
"But…hang on…" she was suddenly gone and I found myself alone. I watched as she darted across the road in front of me to where a group of girls were waiting for her. She glanced once over her shoulder and I waved, but she didn't wave back. I stayed where I was as they made their way into the school and thought, for the first time, how grown up my little girl was and how much Laurie was missing. As I drove back towards home, my head was full of Laurie. I could see her in my mind's eye, laughing and joking that last morning over some crazy idea that we should go on vacation to Hawaii.
"You'll love it," she had said, her eyes shining, "all that sun and sea…"
"We can't afford it," I had reminded her, pulling her to me and kissing her.
"I know," she had replied, "but it's fun to dream, right?"
I had let her out of my arms then, not knowing that only an hour later, I would be holding her in them again, watching as she died.
Kansas City – Kansas
July 20th 2007
"Thank you Vicky," I said to myself as I climbed into the fabulous saloon car that she had rented for me and turned on the stereo. It had just turned three-thirty and it felt as though I had been travelling forever. I had forgotten about the two hour time difference, so when the pilot had announced the local time on landing, it had taken me about twenty seconds to realise that I hadn't lost two hours of my life by being abducted by aliens.
Pulling out of the rental lot, I glanced at the directions Vicky had printed for me and turned in the direction of Topeka. Maintaining the speed limit, I could be there in an hour, but it was such a warm, sunny day and the scenery so tempting that I slowed it down a little and took in all my surroundings. It had been ages since I had been in Kansas. Wichita had been the scene of my very first assignment when I had gone to help an elderly couple, the Hemmelsteins', with their grocery store. I had been so nervous, but they had been so nice and we had kept in touch ever since. In fact, I was hoping to have a chance to pop in and see them before I flew back to LA next week.
Just at that moment, my cell phone rang and, trying to keep my eyes on the road, I rifled around in my bag to find it. Pulling it out, I pressed the answer button and put it to my ear. "Hello?"
"Wow, you actually answered. Imagine my surprise."
I groaned inwardly, "What do you want Louise?"
"Is that any way to greet your sister?" I didn't say anything. "I was actually calling to see if you were going to be back in the civilised world by the beginning of next month."
"Why?" I asked suspiciously.
"Kevin and I are bringing the kids out for vacation. They want to go to Disneyland and we thought it would be nice for them to drop in on their favourite aunt."
I suspected there was something more to it than that, but I chose to refrain from asking. "Yeah, that should be fine. I'm due back in LA on the 27th and then I probably won't need to come back to Kansas for another couple of weeks after that."
"I hope you've got your ruby slippers with you," Louise replied.
"Your ruby slippers," she repeated. "You know…Dorothy…the Wizard of Oz?"
"Oh yeah, right."
"Jesus, Megan, it's like talking to a brick wall with you sometimes."
"Right back at you," I snapped.
There was a moment of silence. "You know, I lost Mom too," she said in a hurtful tone.
"This isn't about Mom," I replied quickly. "And you know that."
"Then what is it about?" she persisted.
"Louise, I really don't have time to discuss this with you right now, ok? I have to get to Topeka and start working. Let me call you back tomorrow."
"Don't strain yourself," she replied. "I'm only your sister after all." Before I could reply, the line went dead.
With a frustrated sigh, I tossed the phone back into my bag and thumped the steering wheel. I often wondered how other people managed to have harmonious relationships with their siblings when I couldn't.
I drove on for another hour until I saw the sign to turn off for Topeka. I bypassed the outskirts of town before heading out into the countryside towards the ranch. The sun was still beating down and I had the air conditioning cranked right up. The scenery out here was even more beautiful with lush green fields and blue skies as far as the eye could see. So different from the concrete jungle of LA. Eventually, following Vicky's directions, I took a left down what looked to be a private road and saw the buildings of the ranch appear in the distance. I drove under a rusted archway and continued on for another half mile before the road opened out into the front yard of the property and I came to a stop next to a large, wooden house. Immediately facing it was a corral with a number of horses in it and other outbuildings surrounding it. I turned off the engine and opened the door, shielding my eyes against the sun as I took everything in. It was beautiful.
Just as I was admiring everything, I heard the sound of an engine roaring and, seconds later, a truck raced into the yard, spraying dirt and gravel all over my car and creating a cloud of dust. It was an old pickup and it screeched to a halt over by the corral. The passenger door opened and a young girl leapt out, dragging a schoolbag after her.
"Cecile Preston, you stay right where you are!" The girl stopped dead in her tracks but didn't turn around. "Don't you ever talk to me like that again!"
I looked for the owner of the voice and saw a man appear around the front of the truck, striding purposefully towards the girl. He looked to be about forty, tanned and fairly muscular, with light brown hair which seemed to curl slightly at the ends. He was dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans and, I had to admit, was not exactly a turn-off.
He grabbed the girl by the shoulders and turned her to face him, "Now I don't ever want to hear that sort of talk, do you understand me?!"
The girl struggled out of his grip, "I hate you!" she shouted. "I want Mom!" She whirled around to storm away and then stopped as she caught sight of me hovering next to the car. "Who are you?"
The man followed her gaze and I saw his brow crease in annoyance. "Hi," I said, stepping forward a pace. "I'm Megan Lewis from Richmond Limited." I paused, wondering whether to extend my hand or not. "I believe the Preston family are expecting me."
The girl looked me up and down. "I'm Cecile," she said.
"Hi Cecile. It's nice to meet you." I smiled and stepped forward another couple of paces.
She looked at me witheringly, "You're not thin." Before I could respond, she stormed towards the house, threw open the door and hurried inside, letting it bang behind her.
"Ok," I said with a short laugh, "Well, that was probably the most interesting greeting I've ever had." I looked to the man who was still looking at me as though he would like to kill me. "You are…?" I held out my hand.
"Jack Preston," he replied, ignoring my gesture. "And this is my folks' idea, not mine." He followed Cecile into the house, banging the door for a second time, leaving me alone and feeling completely unwanted.