LNS-coverChapter 1

Lawrence, Kansas, 1997

The rambling Victorian house stood empty and still, a dark mass hunched forward against the illumination of the city. It was strange, Joan realized as she stared into the darkness, to see it and know that Katherine—her mother—wasn’t inside—strange and almost surreal. But, if she were honest, she could admit that she was slightly relieved. Still, how awful did it sound that she was relieved that her mother was dead?

Joan placed both hands on the steering wheel and stared thoughtfully out the windshield. She could drive away. She could just as easily go to the Eldridge Hotel and get a room. She could go down into the old smoking lounge and have a drink. She could sit and chat with the other strangers before wandering back through the antique lobby and up to her room. She could deal with all of this later.

Or, her mother’s brittle voice intoned in her head, she could shut off the car engine, get her bags out of the trunk, and go inside. There were certain things that had to be done, like them or not, her mother would have lectured. Strange how the teachings of youth haunt us as adults, Joan thought as she forced herself to turn off the engine and pull the key from the ignition. No sense in spending money for a hotel when she had free lodging here. There was a lot of work to do over the next few weeks and it would be better all the way around if she just jumped in tomorrow without having to worry about paying a bill, getting checked out, and driving back across town. Granted, Lawrence wasn’t that big, but still, with all the students and people going to work, it just made more sense to stay here. Before she could reconsider, she dropped the keys into her purse, pushed the button to pop the trunk, and opened the car door.

The air was crisp with the sweet woodiness of fall—her favorite season when she had lived here—and she smiled at the sound of dried leaves crunching underfoot as she walked to the back of her car for the suitcase. She grunted as she hauled it out. She had packed far more than she needed for the two weeks, she knew, but experience had shown her that having choices was important when it came to dressing for Kansas fall weather. Warm mornings could turn into cool, or even cold, afternoons without warning.

As she lugged the suitcase up the walkway that led to the porch, she was unprepared for the motion sensor light that snapped on and bathed her in fluorescent, unforgiving light. She dropped the bag with a loud, “oh.”

“Joanie?”

The voice was soft and came from the darkness to her right. It was a scratchy, old woman’s voice, and for a moment, Joan crazily thought it was her mother’s.

“I was beginning to worry.”

Joan blinked against the light as realization set in. It wasn’t her mother; it was Mrs. Yoccum, her mother’s neighbor and, as far as she knew, her only friend.

She squinted in the direction of Mrs. Yoccum’s porch. “Hi, Mrs. Yoccum. I didn’t see you there.”

“I was waiting for you to make up your mind,” Mrs. Yoccum said. “You sat in that car for such a long time.”

“I wasn’t sure I was ready to go inside,” Joan admitted and held up her hand to shade her eyes. She could just make out the shadowy form of the elderly woman sitting on one of her wicker chairs. “How have you been?”

Mrs. Yoccum laughed softly. “Oh, I’m as good as can be expected.” She paused. “It’s lonely without Kate next door.”

Joan nodded. “Well, you know . . .”

“Will you be here long?” Mrs. Yoccum asked.

“Oh, no,” Joan said. “Just a couple of weeks. Just long enough to clean out the house and get it ready to go on the market.”

“So you’ll be selling it, then?” It was a statement rather than a question. Mrs. Yoccum sighed, no doubt concerned that strangers would be moving into the neighborhood—moving in next door to her.

“I will,” Joan said. “There’s no way Luke and I can take care of it from Chicago. And renting it out would be too much work.”

Mrs. Yoccum made a noise in her throat just as the motion sensor light snapped off, thrusting them back into darkness.

Joan felt slightly disoriented. Spots of white and yellow and pale green floated across the back of her eyes, obscuring her vision. She swayed slightly.

“ . . . let me know if you need anything,” Mrs. Yoccum was saying.

Joan nodded. She was tired of the conversation already. Her head ached and suddenly, she longed for the safety and solitude of the house. Her mother’s house. Her house now.

“Well, I guess I had better get inside,” she said after a moment.

Awkwardly, she leaned down to pick up her suitcase. The motion sensor light snapped on again, but this time she was prepared.

“Good night, Mrs. Yoccum,” Joan said and walked the remaining stretch of sidewalk to the porch, where she was once again returned to shadow.

She turned slightly, using the glow of the yard light to sort through her keys for the tarnished brass key worn smooth from use. It slid easily into the lock. She took a deep breath as she turned the key and pushed opened the door. Her mother’s smell struck her full force—Chanel No. 5 mixed with lemon Pledge and the somewhat acrid smell of recently-activated furnace. She felt like she was seven . . . fourteen . . . nineteen years old.

Joan closed her eyes and allowed herself to be momentarily swallowed by the darkness. She waited several seconds before she extended her hand toward the wall and fumbled for the light. Her fingers found the faceplate and then the switch. She hesitated, flicked her finger upward, and flooded the entryway with light.

It was exactly as it had always been. The narrow wooden stairs on her left with its darkly-polished newel, the umbrella stand with its four umbrellas, the antique mirror to her right, under which stood the narrow table with its arrangement of artificial flowers. She felt as if she should announce herself.

“Silly,” she murmured. Still, she hesitated, then finally walked fully into the center of the entryway. To the right was the living room, where, when her father had been alive, she could remember the two of them watching television and lounging on the couch. To the left was her mother’s sitting room where, when she wasn’t next door visiting Mrs. Yoccum, she sat doing crossword puzzles or writing letters.

Her parents each had their spaces. But when her father had died, Katherine laid claim to the living room. It hadn’t even been a day after the funeral when Katherine asked her to remove the television—a feat that was easier said than done given that the console television was as much a piece of furniture as a means of entertainment. After attempting to push and shove it on her own, she finally commissioned two neighborhood boys to help her move it to the curb.

Now the picture window was the focal point of the room, where her mother had sat in her rocking chair and kept tabs on the activities of the neighborhood. Joan walked to the window and looked out. The light from the room made it impossible to see anything other than her blurred reflection. She stared instead at herself. Her eyes were dark and enormous. And empty. Or was it just a trick of the reflection? She blinked and then turned to look at the rocking chair. She trailed her fingertips lightly over the top rail of the chair’s back. The wood was smooth. Cool. Comforting. She nudged it forward with her index finger and watched it rock gently back.

Joan reconsidered her decision to stay at the house. She really wanted a drink. She stood motionless for several seconds, contemplating whether to get back in her car and drive downtown or simply to go upstairs and sleep. It would invariably be better in the morning. Wouldn’t it? Finally, with a resigned sigh, she walked back into the entryway, picked up her bag, and climbed the stairs.

# # #

The next morning, Joan stood barefoot in the doorway to the living room and stared again at her mother’s rocking chair. Sleep had been elusive, and when she had dozed, her dreams had been surreal and only partially-formed. She was surprised to find that she actually missed having Luke next to her—even though his snoring generally annoyed her.

Luke.

Despite the reason for her trip, there was a part of her that had almost been looking forward to this time apart. She needed time to think—time to figure out what she was going to do about her marriage or more to the point, her lack of marriage.

Joan shook her head at the thought. There was nothing wrong with Luke—nothing substantial, anyway. She just didn’t love him. She had probably never loved him, she had come to realize. Theirs had been a romance of convenience. They had simply fallen into the relationship and had been too lazy to do anything but marry. And honestly, it had seemed like the thing to do at the time. She had secured a good job. She had a nice apartment. It had been time to add a husband to her list of accomplishments. And then children—though in retrospect, she found herself wondering why exactly she had thought that she needed a husband and kids.

The answer was obvious, though she didn’t like admitting it. She had done it, in large part, to show her mother that she was her own woman.

“Guess the joke was on me,” Joan muttered as she leaned against the doorframe, the irony of her situation not lost on her. She hadn’t wanted to be like her mother but there was a part of her that knew she was. It was clear in her actions—no matter how she tried to deny it.

Like Katherine, Joan had married a man she didn’t love. And, like Katherine, she had had children that made her feel tethered to a life that felt like someone else’s. She thought about the woman she had planned to be as opposed to the woman she had settled for becoming. She was supposed to be a lawyer rather than a paralegal. She was supposed to be living in New York surrounded by eclectic and clever people instead of a living in Chicago and shuttling the kids to their never-ending social events. She was supposed to have torrid love affairs instead of going to bed each night next to a snoring husband.

Was this how Katherine had felt? Was that why she had always been so distant and angry? Had she, like Joan, wished she had made different choices? Had she, too, settled? Katherine had never specifically said she didn’t love Clyde but she didn’t have to. It was obvious. When she was young, Joan had often wondered what had brought them together—why they had married. She’d heard the stories, of course—about her father’s strange infatuation with the Henderson sisters. And she knew Katherine wasn’t her father’s first wife—or even his second. Katherine had been the third choice of three sisters.

They had been married in the fall of 1939, in a ceremony held at the Big Springs Congregational Church. Most of the town was in attendance. According to her Uncle Bud, Katherine and Clyde’s marriage was never based on love or passion. It was contractual. She managed the household and he farmed. They agreed early into the marriage that there would be no children.

Joan knew slightly more about their married life. She knew, for instance that they lived on the farm until World War II when Clyde, who was color-blind and unable to serve in combat, went to work building ships for the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company in Wilmington. While there, he had roomed with four other men and was able to send a little money home. To help make ends meet, Katherine had taken in a boarder.

Joan had never seen letters or anything to indicate their relationship at that time. Neither Clyde nor Katherine ever talked about it. She could only assume that after the war, her father had returned home and their lives had picked up where it left off. Joan tried to imagine the homecoming. Did they embrace and kiss? Had her mother prepared a special dinner? Did they make love? She had a hard time envisioning any of that, but still, they must have had sex once in a while. They had her, didn’t they? And given that she had been born in 1956, they apparently had sexual relations long after the exchange of wedding vows.

Joan was struck by the desire to see her parents’ wedding photos. They were packed away upstairs, she knew, though where, she wasn’t sure. The most probable places would be in the spare room, in her mother’s closet or, more than likely, in the attic. She would look she promised herself. But only after she had some coffee.

In the kitchen, Joan fumbled with the old-fashioned plug-in percolator her mother insisted on using. As she waited through the burbles and gasps for the final wheeze that signified the percolator was finished brewing, she went to the entryway and removed from her purse the folded to-do list she’d put together after talking to the auctioneer. After she inventoried the furniture, she would go through the smaller things like books and clothing. But for now, she just needed to get an idea of the scope of the sale. The task seemed suddenly daunting—especially on an empty stomach.

Joan wandered back into the kitchen and rummaged through the pantry. She had cleaned out the refrigerator when she had been back for the funeral, and all that remained were canned vegetables and tuna fish. She would have to settle for coffee. She searched the cabinet for the biggest mug she could find—a battered mug with Ziggy hanging from a rope encouraging her to “Hang in There, Baby.” She rolled her eyes, filled the cup, and wandered back into the front sitting room where, despite her reservations, she allowed herself to settle into Katherine’s chair. It was comfortable, and she rocked slowly, enjoying the quiet creak of one of the joints. It felt strange to sit there, but still, she didn’t move.

As she sipped, Joan stared out at the leaf-filled yard. It needed to be raked. She knew that her mother typically hired one of the neighbor boys to do it, but the thought of getting outside and working in the crisp autumn air sounded appealing.

“It’s probably because I’m dreading the work I need to do in here,” she murmured as she finished the last of her coffee and rose to get more. It was time to start working, she knew. She poured another cup and went to her room to change into jeans and a t-shirt.

Her approach was methodical, beginning with the upstairs and working her way down. She inventoried everything but the contents of her mother’s room and finished late in the afternoon. The fact that she hadn’t found her mother’s pictures suggested they were in her closet—which meant that she had to enter the room she had been avoiding. She sighed, walked back to the foot of the stairs, and looked up at the hallway and the closed door of her mother’s bedroom.

“Might as well get it over with,” she said and forced herself to again climb the stairs. She reached out for the door knob and was surprised to see her hand tremble. She curled her fingers into a fist and willed them to stop shaking. Her mother’s room had always been off-limits and apparently, that restriction still stood despite her death—at least in her mind. She shook her head and resolutely forced her fingers to close around the door knob.

The room was characteristically tidy. Katherine was one to have things always in their place. The bed, in which she had died, was the only thing that seemed out of place. It had been stripped of the sheets and bedspread, leaving only the bare mattress. Joan tried not to stare at the bed and instead, focused on the task at hand. If the photographs were going to be anywhere, she realized, they would be in the closet. Quickly, she strode across the room and opened the closet door. She was unprepared for the smells. Chanel No. 5. And laundry soap. And the faint hint of herbs from a faded sachet in the back of the closet. It was the smell of her mother and, for a moment, she felt an overwhelming sense of . . . what? Love? Nostalgia? Loss?

She shook her head.

“Stop it,” she told herself firmly.

The closet was like the room—organized. Her mother’s clothes hung neatly from plastic hangers. Shoe boxes were stacked along one end of the shelf. Old hat boxes were stacked in the middle and at the other end, pushed against the wall, were the boxes Joan had been looking for—the ones that she knew contained her mother’s pictures. She pushed the clothes to the side and was about to reach up for the boxes when she saw the suitcase. It was small, battered, and shoved against the back of the closet.

She had seen the suitcase only one time before. She had just turned five and it had been well past midnight. She had been on her way to the bathroom when she noticed a thin sliver of light coming from the barely open door of her mother’s bedroom. She had crept forward and peeked in. It was the first time she had ever seen Katherine being someone other than her mother and Joan was fascinated.

Despite the hour, Katherine sat on her bed, still fully dressed. Beside her lay the suitcase, its lid thrown back. Though she couldn’t see inside, Joan could tell that her mother appeared to be running her fingers over a folded piece of white cloth. She wished she could see what it was, but Katherine didn’t pull it out or hold it in her hands. She simply touched it. She sat that way, unmoving, for several minutes—so long that Joan became bored and considered going back to bed. But then, her mother slid her hand under the fabric and pulled out what looked like a book. Joan leaned closer to the crack and watched as her mother turned away from the suitcase and placed the object in her lap.

It was a box, Joan realized. A dark, polished wooden box.

She watched in fascination as Katherine ran her fingers lightly over its shiny lid. She longed for her mother to open it so she could see what was inside. She tore her eyes from the box to Katherine’s face when she heard a soft hitch in her breathing. Katherine was crying, but unlike Joan’s sloppy, wet sobs that contorted her face when she cried, Katherine’s face was unchanged except for tears that ran from the inside corners of her eyes down along the sides of her nose.

Joan had never seen this version of Katherine, and she felt scared. After what seemed like forever, Katherine unfastened the top two buttons on her blouse and pulled out the delicate silver locket she always wore on a thin chain under her clothes. She rubbed it gently with her thumb, opened it, and removed a tiny silver key. Joan had always wondered what was in the locket and had even secretly hoped it had contained a tiny picture of her. Despite her disappointment that the thing her mother guarded so closely was a key, perhaps, she thought suddenly, the real treasure was what was inside the box. Perhaps that was where her mother kept all the notes and pictures and drawings from Joan.

Katherine slid the key into the lock on the front of the box, turned it, and took a deep breath before opening the lid and staring dully inside. Joan looked from Katherine’s face, to the box, and back again. Katherine was crying harder now, and Joan shifted in hopes of seeing what was causing the upset. The floorboard beneath her creaked.

Katherine’s head snapped up, her eyes puffy and red. Joan froze, pinned by Katherine’s angry gaze. Katherine placed the box onto the bed next to her, stood, and strode to the door. Joan felt her stomach tighten and she drew back in fear—torn by wanting to comfort her mother and running from her. She gulped as Katherine reached out her hand and pushed the door closed.

The sound of the door latch clicking shut echoed in Joan’s memory as she stared at the suitcase. She stooped to pick it up, surprised at how light it was, given that its contents had contained the power to make Katherine cry. She set it on the floor next to her, retrieved the boxes of photos, and carried all three down to the dining room table.

She stood, arms crossed, and considered what to do. Katherine wasn’t there to stop her from going through it now. She could do whatever she wanted. Katherine was gone. She licked her lips and stared at the suitcase for several more moments. She was going to open it, she knew. Her stomach growled. She realized that she still hadn’t eaten.

“Food,” she said, relieved to have postponed the decision for a little while longer. “And then I’ll deal with this.”

# # #

Joan locked the front door.

“Beautiful day.”

She turned, startled, and blinked in the direction of Mrs. Yoccum’s voice. The elderly woman sat on her front porch bundled in a thick sweater. A woolen blanket was spread across her lap.

“Hi, Mrs. Yoccum,” she said. “It is a beautiful day.”

“Reminds me of when I was young.” Mrs. Yoccum sighed.

Joan smiled and pointed toward her car. “I’m on my way to the grocery store. Is there anything you need while I’m there?”

“No, no. Well, actually . . .” She smiled sweetly. “My son brings me food and everything I need for the week. But your mother used to . . . well.” She raised a gnarled hand and gestured for Joan to come closer.

Joan walked across the grass and stood at the foot of the stairs. Mrs. Yoccum leaned forward. This close, Joan could see the cataracts that made Mrs. Yoccum’s brown eyes slightly milky.

“Evan Williams,” Mrs. Yoccum said in a stage whisper.

Joan frowned, confused. “Who?”

“Evan Williams,” Mrs. Yoccum whispered again. “Black Label.”

Realization dawned on Joan. She smiled and exhaled. “Oh. Sure.”

“The big one,” Mrs. Yoccum said. “I could go get it myself, but I’d rather not have to call a taxi just for that. You understand, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Joan said.

“Your mother was sweet to go get it for me when she was out,” Mrs. Yoccum said.

Joan snorted softly. “I don’t know as I’d ever call Katherine sweet.”

“I know you feel that way, Joanie,” Mrs. Yoccum said. “But she had a difficult life. She did the best she could, given the circumstances.”

Joan drew her lips into a tight line and nodded. “Well, I should get going. I want to get back before it gets dark.”

Mrs. Yoccum nodded and leaned back in her chair. “If I’m not on the porch, I’ll leave the door open. Just come on in.”

# # #

Two hours later, Joan sat in her mother’s dining room, a half-eaten baguette and an empty can of Campbell’s Chunky Chicken Soup pushed to the edge of the table. Around her lay stacks of black-and-white photographs. Some she remembered having seen before, but many were unfamiliar.

She tried to organize them by putting them into piles based on the subjects of the pictures. There were photos of her as a child, pictures of her grandparents and relatives on both sides of the family, and a number of images of people and places she had never seen. She placed the pictures of her mother and father in a separate stack—including the pictures of her father’s weddings to her aunts.

She studied these familiar pictures for the first time. Clyde’s first wife had been Wilma. Joan studied the faded, sepia image. Her aunt had been a plain, though not unattractive woman—sturdy with thick, useful-looking arms. She and Katherine had the same eyes. The shot was staged with a young, handsome Clyde standing stiffly behind Wilma, who was seated, her hands in her lap, her crossed ankles tucked almost beneath the chair. She wore a simple dress that opened down the front over a white smock of some sort. The ties hung loosely. Her wavy blonde hair was cut in a pageboy that fell just below her somewhat boxy jaw.

Joan smiled and set the picture to the side.

Next she picked up the pictures from Jeannie’s wedding. Unlike the studio portrait from Clyde’s first wedding, these had been taken outside. The first picture was just the two of them standing side by side, though Jeannie was slightly turned to show off her dress to the most advantage. Clyde was wearing the same suit as in the previous photo, although it fit differently—tighter. And although his face was again scrubbed, somehow it didn’t look as clean as before. He looked tired. Jeannie, however, looked radiant. She wore a white dress and cloche-style veil that flowed into a train just visible down her back. The front had a V-neckline that disappeared into what appeared to be a loose, lacy bodice that segued into a skirt that was hemmed mid-calf. She wore white stockings and white shoes. Her blonde hair was styled in soft waves that fell around her face. She was beautiful.

Joan flipped to the next picture which featured the entire wedding party. The photographer had used a different angle for this shot, and the sunlight had caused everyone to squint—everyone that was, except Jeannie, who grinned in delight for the camera. Next to her was Katherine, her maid of honor—though, to Joan’s eye, her mother looked anything but honored. Her expression was one of irritation. Joan did the math. Katherine would have been sixteen or seventeen years old.

Joan returned to the stack of pictures of her parents and realized that there were none from their wedding. She gazed down at the suitcase. Was that what was inside?

Joan grabbed the handle and lifted the suitcase onto the table, again surprised by how light it was. Though it must have been expensive at one time, the case was now just scuffed, worn, and somewhat depressing looking. The leather handle was worn smooth and shiny from use. In addition to the button-operated latches, stiff, cracked leather straps buckled in the front. Joan struggled for several minutes to unbuckle one of them. She went into the kitchen, pulled out several drawers in search of scissors, and found a steak knife that would do the job.

She returned to the dining room and flipped the case onto its side. She pulled the knife across the strap and sawed, ignoring the feeling that her mother would be furious at the desecration. She slid the blade under the strap, cut it the rest of the way, and sawed through the second strap. The scratched and tarnished latches were all that kept the suitcase closed. She brushed her fingertips across the buttons and then used her thumbs to push them to the sides. The latches sprang open. She paused, inhaled, and lifted the lid.

The smell of mothballs wafted upward from the case. Joan sneezed twice and wrinkled her nose The contents of the suitcase appeared to be neatly-folded women’s clothing. A dark skirt and a white blouse, yellowed with age, lay side-by-side on top of the other clothing. Joan thought back to the night her mother sat touching the white cloth. It must have been this. She reached out her own hand and caressed the blouse. It was cotton. Simply cut. She lifted it out of the case and unfolded it. It was short-sleeved. Tapered. Carefully, she set it aside and picked up the skirt. Her fingers felt something hard beneath it. The box.

She pushed aside the material and saw the shiny dark wood. It was just as she remembered—perhaps even shinier. Carefully, she lifted the box from the suitcase. Inside, something metallic clinked against something else. Curious, she tried to raise the lid, but it was locked. She remembered her mother’s locket and the tiny key it contained. She had been buried with it on. The only way to open the box would be to jimmy it. Her mother, she knew, had bobby pins upstairs. She jogged up the stairs, grabbed several pins, and returned to the kitchen.

“Do I leave the plastic tips on?” she wondered aloud and shrugged. “Why not?”

Joan picked up the box and sat in her chair. As she tilted the box upward to catch the best light, she again heard the contents within shift and clink. She frowned, pushed her bangs from her eyes, and inserted the end of the bobby pin into the tiny keyhole. Using the tips of her thumb and forefinger, she delicately jiggled the pin. Nothing happened. Maybe I should turn it like a key. She gripped the pin with more force. She twisted. Nothing. She sat back and considered. Maybe she should try a combination of the two maneuvers. Within seconds, the pin turned easily.

“Wow,” Joan exhaled, surprised that it had worked.

She leaned forward and placed the box on the table, the bobby pin still protruding from the keyhole. Whatever was in this box had made Katherine cry. Her hands trembled as she took a deep breath and lifted the lid.

She blinked at the contents for a few moments, trying to make sense of a puzzling mishmash of items. Keys—to an older car from the looks of it. Theater ticket stubs—also old. A spent bullet case, a battered silver flask, and a thin stack of letters bound up in a green-and-white mesh scarf. She frowned. This was what made her mother cry? It seemed odd.

She picked up the keys. The key fob was a stretched, elongated penny—the kind that could be made as a souvenir at just about any carnival or museum. Pressed into the copper was “WORLD’S LARGEST FOUNTAIN: WORLD’S FAIR CHICAGO 1934.” She could tell it wasn’t meant to be a key fob, but rather someone had used a nail and a hammer to punch a hole in it so it could be attached to the ring. The three keys, themselves, were less interesting. They were all worn and had the smell of old metal. The smallest was tarnished brass and appeared to be a house key. The other two were to a car—a Chevrolet. She cupped them in her palm. The larger key was likely to the ignition and the slightly smaller one opened the trunk and glove box. She looked back down into the box and trailed her fingertips over the tarnished body of the flask. At one time it probably had been very nice. She picked it up and felt the weight of it. She shook it. Liquid sloshed. She twisted open the top, sniffed, and drew back. Whiskey.

“Whoa,” she muttered with a small frown. Her mother, as far as she knew, didn’t drink. And then there was the bullet case. Why had her mother saved that? As far as she knew, her parents didn’t own a handgun. It was all so odd.

She picked up the packet of letters. The scarf tied around them was made of some kind of gauzy, scratchy material. It smelled dusty and old as she carefully untied the knot and freed the letters. The scarf, itself, was like the ones her mother wore in some of the pictures from the 1950s. It had, at one time, been white, although now it was somewhere between beige and ivory, with a thick green border inset with thinner green bands.

The packet of letters consisted of sealed envelopes. The envelopes were blank and appeared to have never been opened. Joan guessed they had been written by her mother, but never mailed. She held one up to the light and could see the faint impression of her mother’s bold, but meticulous handwriting. She fanned them out like a hand of cards—seven envelopes, each thick with several sheets of paper.

Joan picked up the oldest-looking one. She was curious to know what was inside, but also hesitant to invade her mother’s privacy. She laughed softly. Her mother was dead. What did it matter? Before she changed her mind, she grabbed the knife, slid the tip of the blade under the envelope’s flap, and slit it neatly open. The paper inside was folded into thirds and looked as though it had been wadded up and then flattened. The tight, clean script was her mother’s. The upper right hand corner was dated 1947.

 

Dearest A~

I’m sitting here at my desk, staring out the window and wondering what you’re doing right now. I imagine you lying on a blanket in the park, a book on your stomach, your flask tucked into your pocket for a quick nip. The sun is warm on your face and you’re dozing. I would like to pretend that you are dreaming of me, but know that likely enough, that time has passed and now your dreams are of Doris.

I know you said that you have moved on, but I want you to know that I am in love with you. I know it now. I know it without question and if you could just ignore the past—if you could just give me a sign that there is still a chance for us, I would leave my life here and come to you.

Do you ever think about those days when we were together? I do. You were everything to me and now that you’re gone—now that you’re with her—I don’t know as I can live. If I had just gone inside, packed my bag and put it in your car. If I had just left with you before Clyde came home from the war, none of this would have happened.

I dream of you at night—of your kisses and the warmth of your body. And then I wake next to him snoring beside me. And I hate him. Sometimes I hate you, too. I hate that you have a new life—a life that doesn’t include me. Do I sound bitter? Jealous? I am. I am so jealous that sometimes it feels like it’s consuming me.

I am in love with you—so deeply in love with you that nothing else matters. I refuse to give up on us because it’s clear to me now that you’re gone that without you, I’m nothing.

 

Joan sat back and stared at the letter clutched in her hand. Her mother undoubtedly had written it, though the sentiment and the emotion sounded nothing like the woman she knew. But who was A? And what had gone on that they would have . . . she paused, suddenly aware of the date. The date was seven years before she had been conceived, but well after Katherine and her father had married, which meant . . . She gasped—her mother had been having an affair.