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PROMISES OF CHANGE

Chapter One: The Homecoming

Amelia De Close settled into her rocking chair on the front porch of the farmhouse she shared with Hannah Parish and Grace Singleton. Gathering her shawl about her, she knotted the ends across her chest. It was early morning. A glorious sunrise wove its magic across the mountains slashing the sky a flaming orange. It was spring. The celery green of new leaves on shrubs and trees and the chirp of a baby bird perched on the edge of a nest, artfully camouflaged in the tangled branches of a shrub near the porch, filled her heart with pure joy. There are days, she thought, when one feels glad to be alive, and today was one of those days.

Amelia’s mind drifted back to an earlier time, when she, Hannah, and Grace had met in a dreary boarding house in Pennsylvania where the owner, the dour Olive Pruitt, restricted the use of the kitchen and refused to allow a wonderful cook like Grace to bake a cake or make a pot of soup.

They had taken a risk, trusted one another, pooled their emotional and financial resources and moved to a rundown farmhouse that she, Amelia, had unexpectedly inherited in rural North Carolina, and in so doing had revitalized their lives. There, she had discovered a talent for photography. Hannah’s skills and love for gardening had resurfaced, and Grace’s kindness and wisdom found their outlet in volunteer work with children and in creating a community of friends and family.

Amelia’s finger traced the rim of the delicate China teacup. The human spirit, she mused, takes comfort and solace from quite ordinary things: cows mulling about in a pasture, a comfortable chair, like the one she sat in, the tinkle of wind chimes. A cup of tea, shared with her friends on this porch, Sunday dinners with their ever increasing surrogate family, were now among the happy routines in her life. Even winter, her least favorite season of the year, had become more bearable with its hot cocoa topped with tiny marshmallows, long hot baths, and snuggling beneath her down comforter. And best of all, Miriam and Sadie were a part of her life, her unexpected family.

Her attention was drawn to a taxi that entered Cove Road, slowed, turned right into Max’s driveway directly across from where she sat and pulled up to the front steps of his farmhouse. The short fat lady and bearded man, who disembarked and plodded up onto the front porch, reminded Amelia of Russian immigrants in a movie she had seen recently on late night television. Astonished, Amelia watched as several large suitcases were deposited on Max’s front porch. Then, the taxi rolled away.

Amelia watched, perplexed and concerned when the man helped the woman to a porch chair, then walked briskly to the front door. Amelia’s hand flew to her chest; He’s picking the lock. He’s opening Max’s door. I must wake up Hannah. She half rose then sat back in the rocker, for something about the man seemed vaguely familiar. She watched, mesmerized, now, as the man carried the luggage into Max’s and Hannah’s house, then returned to the porch and assisted the woman from the chair, and Amelia realized that the woman was not fat, she was very pregnant. Moments later, the front door closed behind them with a thud, and light flooded the downstairs windows.

Could it be? No. Amelia thought, they live in India. Hannah would have said something, would have been there to greet them. She is, after all, Max’s wife, even if most of the time she lives at home with Grace and me.

Shadows moved across the downstairs windows of Max’s house. Who were they? It was Saturday, Hannah and Max’s private day. Max would never invite anyone to visit on Saturday.

Usually, on Friday nights, Hannah stayed at Max’s, but she had been at home last night. Grace’s companion, Bob, and Max had come for dinner, and they had all played Trivial Pursuit and talked about getting a dog. Grace remarked that she had wandered into a shop in Asheville and seen a puppy she’d fallen in love with and been sorely tempted to bring home.

Everyone voiced an opinion.

"Why would you want the mess of raising a puppy? Get an older, house-trained dog from a shelter," Hannah had said. "Oh, don’t do that. Get a dog from the Animal Compassion Network. Their members raise the dogs from puppies," Bob said. "I think you’d find they’re well socialized, too. Get a dog from a shelter, you have no idea what you’re bringing home."

Years before, Max had owned and hunted with a golden retriever named Steward, and while in the Army, Bob had trained German Shepherds. There had been much talk about getting a dog, and nothing had been decided.

Now, Amelia wondered who would come to Max’s place on a Saturday. Max and Hannah’s Saturdays were sacrosanct and reminded Amelia of Steven Sondheim’s play Sunday in the Park with George. It was all in the details. Either they drove into Asheville for brunch and to the Farmers’ Market for fresh fruit and vegetables for both their households, or they sequestered themselves at Max’s house.

"What do you do all day?" Grace had once asked Hannah. "One thing we do not do is discuss our work at Bella’s Park. We turn off the phones and just hang out." Hannah had given Grace a shy smile. "We eat leftovers and ice cream, read, watch old movies, things like that. Once, we sat all day and sorted through old photos, which we’d both been meaning to put into an album."

Across the road, the lights in Max’s downstairs rooms switched off. Strange, Amelia thought. Time to wake Hannah. Amelia went inside, placed her teacup in the kitchen sink, then climbed the stairs to their bedrooms and knocked on Hannah’s bedroom door.

"You awake, Hannah?"

"Come in, Amelia."

Hannah sat on the edge of her bed, one foot shoved into her bedroom slipper, the other foot twisted, wiggling under the bed in search of the other slipper. Amelia bent and retrieved it for her.

"Ever notice how shoes, especially slippers, are never where you put them when you go to bed? I think they walk about while we sleep," Hannah said. "It’s creepy."

"Slippers can’t walk." Amelia realized, then, that Hannah was being facetious. "What’s creepy is that there’s a strange man and a very pregnant woman at Max’s. They came by taxi. I was on the porch when the cab deposited them at his front steps. The man opened the front door and walked right in."

Hannah hastened to the window, which overlooked Cove Road. "I don’t see anything or anyone, and there’s no light in Max’s bedroom. This isn’t some joke is it?"

"Please, Hannah, how can you say such a thing? There are two strangers at Max’s. They’ve shut off the downstairs lights, so they must have gone upstairs."

Hannah fumbled with the buttons on her pajama top. "I’ll go right over."

"I’ll go with you," Amelia said, and when Hannah did not object, she said. "I’ll meet you downstairs."

At the front door, Amelia handed Hannah a mug of black coffee without sugar, and they started across Cove Road. Hannah’s key opened the front door, and she flipped on the foyer light. There, sat three large suitcases. Max’s heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs. Seeing Hannah, he smiled. "I was just about to phone you. Guess who’s here?"

Hannah shook her head. "Who?"

"My son, Zachary, and his wife, Sarina, have come home from India, and she’s about to have a baby." Hannah stepped back, uncertain that she had heard him correctly, but there he stood, beaming and happy. "Zachary, here? But, I thought?"

"Yes, I know. He said he hated Covington and would never come back, but you know how life is, unpredictable." Max shrugged. His terrycloth bathrobe hung lopsided as if thrown on hastily. Taking Hannah’s arm, he urged her toward the kitchen. Amelia followed, and when they reached the kitchen, Max sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his uncombed hair. "Sometimes things don’t work out as planned. They’ve been through hell, from what they’ve been telling me."

"Been through hell? What kind of hell? What’s happened to them?" Hannah slid into the chair across from Max. Amelia leaned against the wall and waited for his reply.

"You know, her people are Hindus. Well, it seems there was an issue about a Mosque being built on what was considered a Hindu holy site, and this triggered hostilities on both sides. The mayor, a Hindu, was ambushed and killed by God knows who, which led to the looting and burning of a prominent Muslim businessman’s home. After that, it degenerated into a free for all.

"Sarina’s brother-law, the accountant, was shot and wounded in the leg on the way to his office. They think it was a random shooting, but it’s crazy over there, Zachary says, and everyone suddenly has a gun. Sarina’s entire family and all their servants have fled to their home in the south. Just as well, it seems, for after they left, one of their stores was torched. Sarina’s baby is due next month, and they felt they’d be safer here, at least until the turmoil gets straightened out, if it ever does."

"It sounds like Kashmir, reenacted on a smaller scale in India," Hannah said, and Max nodded.

"How frightening to live in a world like that," Amelia said. "People shooting other people, burning property."

"I wonder, after nine-eleven and the twin towers going down, if we’re much safer, or if safety, for any of us anywhere, is a illusion." Hannah looked up at Amelia. The annoyance she sometimes felt toward her flooded back, though less so since Miriam and Sadie had come into Amelia’s life. But, why had Amelia followed her over here, now? This wasn’t any of her business.

"I think of India as a peaceful country, and Hindus as tolerant of all religions," Amelia said.

"This Muslim/Hindu hatred has taken root in many parts of India," Max said. "No one knows where it will lead. Zachary did the right thing. Sarina will have the baby here." Satisfaction showed in his eyes.

Zachary, Hannah knew, had been hardheaded and adamant in expressing his dislike of Covington. He had been cruel and had rejected his father and his father’s business, and had hurt Max deeply. Max had buried the hurt but despaired of ever seeing any future grandchildren. Had Max told Zachary that she and Max were married, and if he had, what had been his son’s reaction? Hannah did not trust, did not like Zachary, and she was certain that if his reaction had been positive, it was not sincere. An uneasy feeling settled over her. Their pleasant lives were about to be cast into confusion. Hannah looked at Max.

"Have you told Zachary that we’re married?"

Max shook his head. "There’s been no time. Sarina was exhausted, as you might well imagine what with traveling this late in her pregnancy. She collapsed, when we got her upstairs. The fright and the stress of it all, leaving her family and home, the trip; it was too much for her. We got her into bed, and Zachary took her up some chicken soup that Anna left in the fridge. If she relaxes and falls asleep, he’ll be down, I imagine."

Max reached across the table and lay his large hands over Hannah’s. "You’re trembling. Now, don’t you worry, Sweetheart. We’ll tell him about us as soon as he comes down. How can their being here affect us? We’ll go on with our lives as we have been."

"Do you really think so?" Hannah asked.

"Yes. I do. In fact, I’m sure of it. Zachary’s never liked cows, the dairy business, or Covington. They’ll hang around until the baby comes, then in a few months they’ll move on to a city."

"Don’t be too sure of that. Things change." The knot in Hannah’s stomach and her head were beginning to hurt.

Joan Medlicott
P.O. Box 355
Barnardsville, NC 28709

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Two Days After the Wedding


A COVINGTON CHRISTMAS


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