This is the journey where the brothers drive to the cabin. It is not shown in the novel, which is told from Melina's point of view. This is a story for young adults and includes references to married life. 33 minutes to read.
Bear collected Jonathan from his crashed Dodge Ram, shoved him into the decrepit Jimmy, threw in the bag of baby toys which was Jonathan’s only baggage, and headed for the cabin in increasingly worsening weather.
Jonathan didn’t even look back as they left his treasured Dodge Ram crumpled against the highway barrier. “How’s Baby?”
“She got a name?”
“Yeah. Baby. Tell me how she is.”
“She’s fine. They’re all fine.”
“Baby must be growing so big now. She might not even know me.” Jonathan pressed the bruise on his temple. “I never hurt Rose, never threatened to lay a finger on her. She has no right to keep my kid away from me.”
“You had an anal-cranial loopback? She’s not keeping Juanita away from you.”
“And she’s not the only one. You found her Monday? And this is Friday?”
Bear grunted combatively.
“You couldn’t get to a phone?”
Bear grunted quietly.
“You can drive all the way to Saint Paul, but you can’t make a call?”
“Bro, the drive is only two hours.”
“Only! Bear, I hope you never, never know what it’s like to lose your family.” Jonathan shook his head. “What should I expect. You didn’t even turn up for my wedding.”
Bear grunted disconsolately.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on, then? And what happened to you?”
“You sure you want to hear this?”
“Look, so long as Rose’s alive. I’ll take care of her. If she’s caught a disease, whatever. Just take me to her.”
“She thinks you’re angry. Ma told her you wanted a break.”
“Mom’s got a lot to answer for.”
“Ma’s just being Ma.”
Jonathan brooded for a minute. “You mean I should have known Mom was behind all this.”
“That’s what I’m saying. You sure you want to go through with this? Because if you leave Rosa again, it’ll kill her.”
“You’re mad. You’re crazy to say that to me. Rose is my wife. You know what that means? She’s my life.”
“You left her once.”
“I stormed out. I didn’t leave her. She left me, Bear.” Jonathan brushed snow off his coat and winced with the movement.
Bear grunted curtly.
After a mile or so Jonathan bent and adjusted the air con so it blew gusts of slightly warmer air. “This old truck. Never expected to see it on the freeway. How come you went up to the cabin without telling me, then?”
Bear grunted cagily. “I didn’t know for sure they were there.”
“Ma had a meltdown when I said I was going up there. Two cops pulled me over on Route 27, said the vehicle was reported stolen.”
“Whoa! You were a victim of mistaken identity?”
Bear watched the road. “I told them I was a soldier on leave, gave them Ma’s number. She said I stole her SUV, said I assaulted her.”
“No. No way.”
Bear grunted implacably.
“Why didn’t you get them to call me, then? Or Dad?”
“They had a wall up. Said they didn’t believe I was army, I was scum and no one should have to pay taxes to feed me in jail. They drove me into the woods. By then I’d figured out they were going to try a little wall-to-wall counseling. And by then I was up for it. They pulled their weapons and went, ‘Take off your boots.’ And I went, ‘Come and get ’em.’”
“I didn’t make it easy but they’re officers of the law, you know? I pulled my punches. Next thing I know, they’re yanking off my boots and driving away. And I’m, no boots, no shirt, five miles from the cabin.”
“We’re going to sue those cops so hard—”
“But I know where I am. I head for the cabin, no joke, barefoot. Then I hear a snowmobile. I find out later it’s Thalidomide Eddie, remember him? I wave, I jump, I yell. That’s my last chance of safety and the little blighter’s squirting away.”
“He left you to die in the snow?”
“I figure, he’s running scared. If the cops are targeting weirdos, who’s at the top of the list?”
“Shouldn’t that make him likely to help?”
“I figure he hopes the cops will be satisfied with their community cleansing this winter.”
“You really think they’d take him out and abandon him in the snow?”
“They had a wall up, Bro. I was not a human being. I was so mad. Then I start to get hunter’s reaction—”
“—so I head for the road. My only hope is there’ll be someone in the field. Then I hear a truck and it sounds like the Jimmy and I think I must be dying, you know, dreaming. Then I figure it’s real but it’s too far away. But it’s Melina driving, she’s moving like pond water, I’ve got a chance to get to her if I put my back into it. There’s this huge pile of ice between me and the road, but I get over it and there’s Melina, looking horrified and stopping for me.” Bear shook his head. “Stopping for a complete stranger.”
Jonathan was silent.
Bear glanced sideways. “What?”
“You’re talking. You never talk.”
Bear grunted cantankerously and faced front.
“So that’s what happened to you.” Jonathan crossed his arms. “Everyone around me gets hurt.”
“Everyone around Ma, you mean.”
Jonathan shook his head. “She said Rose asked her not to tell me anything, but she told me everything. My investigators checked out everyone who took a flight in that 24-hour period. Not them.”
“Did you figure Ma was lying, then?”
“I figured the girls tricked her. They took the baby seat, they must have been planning to travel by car all along. Mom said a big black SUV pulled up behind them but she was so busy watching traffic to get out, she didn’t take any notice of it.”
Bear grunted concedingly. “How did you think they were managing without money?”
“I figured it was a guy.”
“So you emptied the accounts?”
“I put more in. In case she needed to get away from him, needed a place to go. I slept with my phone.” Jonathan was holding it and smoothing it without looking at it, dull marks showing where he’d smoothed it often.
“She hasn’t got her phone.”
“Ma took their phones, said you didn’t want to pay for their plans anymore.”
“Why didn’t they buy new ones?”
“She bought them a throwaway. They wrote you with the number.”
“They did not. I check my mail, my phone, my Facebook, all the time. I’ve got investigators on retainer.”
“Mom thought it was better not to advertise. She said it might stop Rose coming home. I thought she was sorry for the girls, how embarrassed they’d be when they came home and I’d made them public property.”
“Would it make it difficult for you guys to get back together?”
“Nothing can stop us getting back together. Can’t you make this thing go faster, then? Give me their number, I’ll call now.”
“You can’t. I’ve got it here.”
“What? You took their phone. I can’t believe you, Bear.”
Bear grunted quarrelsomely.
“Where is it, then?”
Bear jerked his chin at the glovebox.
Jonathan retrieved the phone, turned it over, stroked it. He put it to his nose and glanced at Bear but Bear was facing forward. He cleared his throat. “She never clears her log lists.” He tapped the screen.
“Probably doesn’t know how.”
Jonathan stared at the screen, sweat forming on his forehead. “Ninety-one calls to my number! And thirteen to Mom, answered. That’s impossible.”
“Ma had your phone blocked.”
“She can’t block my phone.”
“Call it, Bro.”
Jonathan tapped the phone and waited.
<Ding dong. The number you have called has call blocking. Please check the number and try again.>
Jonathan tried again and listened, dazed, through the repeat.
<Ding dong. The number you have called has call blocking. Please check the number and try again.>
He held the phone like it was someone’s hand. “She listened to that ninety-one times?”
“Now try Ma’s.”
Jonathan pressed buttons, heard his mother’s shaky voice, “Hello?” and disconnected the call. “I’ll kill her.”
“Punish her by being happy with another woman.”
Jonathan’s phone rang and he disconnected the call and blocked the caller. “We interviewed every employee at the airport. I have checks at every airport, every bus station, every train station. There’s an alert for her credit cards, her health insurance, her phone.”
Bear listened while he drove and grunted occasionally.
“Women’s shelters, police stations, hospitals, jails, morgues. I have PIs on every continent. And all the time she was trying to call me?” Jonathan looked around the truck. “Why didn’t she drive down to me?”
“In this vehicle? I didn’t even turn it off at the gas station, there are only so many teeth a starter can lose. Listen, she called, she texted, she wrote. Ma told her you weren’t interested.”
“She can’t have believed that. She should have tried harder. Hey, I was working my heart out to find her and she was sitting comfortably in a holiday cabin.”
“She might be a bit thinner than you remember.”
Jonathan snapped around. “She been sick?”
“There’s not a lot of food.”
“There’s twenty thousand in every account!”
“Ma made her surrender her cards.”
“Bull. Anyway, you don’t need a card. You just walk into a bank with ID.”
Bear grunted crabbily.
Jonathan put his head in his hands. “I feel sick.”
“Hey, they’re smart girls. They managed.” Bear looked sideways. “You’ve lost a lot of condition.”
“I’ve been busy managing PIs on top of work. Someone has to make decisions. You know what Dad’s like.”
“And at home?”
“I’ve been carving a cot for Baby. Never done flowers before. I didn’t know whether to do hearts.” Jonathan sat up. “Are we only at Maple Grove? Get some shut-eye, Bear. You’re injured. I’ll drive us, then.”
“That’s a November-Golf. You’ve attacked enough concrete barriers for one day. Maybe we need to talk before you see Rosa.”
“Talk? Who are you and what have you done with my brother Theodore?”
“Has Rosa always been standoffish? Twitchy?”
“That’s the thing. The day we met, she was on fire. Eyes into mine, swishing her skirt. I ate burritos three nights until she agreed to go out with me. But it was less the next night, less the night after. I couldn’t even get a kiss when I finally got a date. I was frantic to feel that fire. She goes through the motions but it’s further away than ever.”
“Did she ever seem afraid of you?”
“Don’t you lay that on me. I’ve never laid a finger on her that she didn’t agree to first. I’ve been as patient as a eunuch.”
“Was she a virgin when you married her?”
“She acted like she was. I was so relieved she wasn’t. It’s such a responsibility.”
Bear grunted constrainedly, wide jaw set, staring into the snowy road.
“But, love? At first I thought Rose felt the same way I did, but Rose doesn’t have the drives other women have. I can put up with that, the no sex, the sister in the kitchen all the time, but what if she’s incapable of deep feeling?”
“Bro. You don’t know your own wife.”
“I most certainly do. She’s all woman. You scare her, those long nails start looking like claws.” Jonathan peered at a freeway sign and frowned. “She’s very maternal. You don’t know how sick Baby is. It can’t be just a baby thing, I’m not kidding, she tenses up and screams till she’s blue in the face. All we can do is walk the floor with her. Rose’s exhausted, she can’t let Baby lie down for a minute, she won’t accept hired help, it has to be me or Mina. We’re heading for a meltdown but Rose refuses to be sensible. Mom says she needs help, she’s talking about forcible medication.”
Bear grunted crossly.
“I come home and Mina’s in the way, fussing. I can’t get to my wife. Mina’s always staring at me. Sometimes I wonder if she’s put a curse on Baby.”
Bear grunted crudely.
Jonathon held his water bottle to his temple. “Mom tells me to snap out of it, see what’s happening. She says we need to take Baby to a specialist but Rose is so superstitious she won’t go. I never knew how much she distrusted Mom. Mom put up with it all, she only told me afterwards how Rose hurt her feelings, she didn’t mean to, but you know how women are, they can’t get along.”
“The sisters get along.”
“That’s so sick. Rose would rather sleep with Mina than me. I can’t kiss my wife with Big Eyes in the room. Anyway, this time Mom’s not being petty, she’s frightened. I’ve thought for weeks, if only I’d listened to her. She says I’m losing myself. I’m not the man I was, I’m not the man she wants me to be. I’m a Dare, I have to snap out of it, take control. I say I won’t force Rose to see a strange doctor. She says, okay, but at least look forward to the future. She’s got me an interview with a state senator. I have to shape up, be the head of the family. So I go home, and surprise, Baby’s crying. I can’t even kiss my wife. Rose and Mina are all stressed, two women can’t manage one little baby. The house is messed, there’s no dinner, I haven’t got a shirt for tomorrow. I tell Rose I’m taking my good suit and I’m sleeping over at Mom’s. Mom can press my shirt, I’ll get a good night’s sleep and I’ll have less driving in the morning. You should have seen their faces. But I wasn’t telling them to go, by no stretch of the imagination was I telling them to go.” Jonathan hid his face in his hands.
Bear grunted compassionately.
Jonathan sat up to peer at a highway sign and slumped as it passed. “Mom’s in seventh heaven. She orders me fillet steak, my room’s all set up, she even turns my computer on. Like I’m a teenager and I want to play Grand Theft Auto. I didn’t call Rose. I’ve thought about that evening a thousand times. I just wish I’d gone home and put my head against her and said ‘Sorry, I had a lousy day.’ She always says, no, no, it’s her fault. But I was still angry. I wanted her to think about what it’s like for me, how it’s so bad I can’t even come home. Anyway then it got late and I thought it would only stress her out if I went back. She’d have to do my shirt and I’d have to wake the household to get out of there early. I honestly thought it would be good for us to have a break.”
“You knew she was upset.”
“Okay. Yeah. Maybe I was pleased she cared. Maybe I wanted her to care a little more. So I get up in the morning, Mom’s up, she’s cooked breakfast.”
Bear grunted covetously.
“They taste like plastic but I’m touched. So I go to work, stuffed with sugar in a freshly pressed shirt, and the meeting gets put off till afternoon. Because if you’re a Senator you can fit in a game of golf with an old buddy while everybody's waiting to break for the New Year. Finally I go to the meeting and there’re other people there too. Everybody looks at me, you know how people do? Assessing the opposition. Careful smiles, careful handshakes. I’m shaking hands and smiling back, thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to be in Dad’s office arguing real stuff, telling him we can’t finesse on quality control and we can’t fire people when they get sick, not standing here trading on my family name.’ Then the Senator says he expects his staff to provide ‘full availability’ and I get my back up, hey, I don’t want the job anyway, I say, ‘What does that mean for new parents?’ The Senator’s very careful. He talks for three minutes about how his party is family friendly, no discrimination, family values, but anyone wanting a high level position should have the life skills to handle family matters. I say, ‘You mean, hire nannies?’ He says, ‘I understand you are a new father, Mr. Dare. I expect your wife is a full time homemaker?’ I stand up and say, ‘I am a full time father,’ and I get out of there and I go straight home. I pick up flowers on the way.” Jonathan curled his hands as if he were crushing a bouquet.
Bear grunted incoherently.
“The house is locked up. I immediately think the worst. Baby’s sick, they’ve rushed her to hospital, they’ve had no chance to call me. I try Rose’s phone. She’s turned it off. I think, ‘My God, they’re in the ICU.’ I try Mina, I finally get Mom. Mom says Rose’s decided to go on a vacation for a while. I start yelling and she gets annoyed and says she’s got her bridge club, she’ll call me back. So I check out the house. They’ve rushed out. Spilled stuff. Left their clothes. That calms me down. What woman leaves and leaves her dresses? They’ve staged an exit, they’ll be back. Rose is annoyed with me, she’s trying to teach me a lesson. So I get annoyed back. I take off my tie, get out a beer, order a pizza, and generally make a pig of myself. That’s when I missed you most, Bear.”
“Don’t mention it. So Mom eventually calls back. She makes me apologize for my ‘tone’ before she’ll tell me anything. She says the girls have gone on vacation. I’m furious with them for taking Baby when she’s sick, but I’m a bit relieved, I mean, hey now, suddenly I’m given a holiday, you know? It’s only next day when I still can’t get hold of them I ask Mom what Rose’s done to her phone. She tells me, Rose’s decided she wants an unlisted number. Boom. Just like that. So I’m trying to understand, I'm trying to take it in. I mean, has Rose left me or is this her idea of a vacation? I say, ‘Mom, you’ve got to tell me where she is. She’s got a sick six-week old baby, she could have post-natal depression.’ Mom says Mina’s with her and everything’s okay. I let her talk me into it. Then two days later I can’t believe Rose still hasn’t called. I go to Mom and she doesn’t know where Rose is! She only knows she dropped them at the airport! I put on the private investigators, the trail’s cold, they think I’m an idiot. Mom’s saying, ‘Give her space, give her time.’ I’m going home to an empty house that smells like baby powder. I mean, how much time is time? I finally clean the house, I figure, they’ll be coming back any day, they’ll see I’m not a slob. They’ll be tired, I’ll take care of Baby for the night, they’ll be glad to be home. I buy fresh fruit, I keep the air con on in the day in case they come home unexpectedly, you can’t have the place cold with a little baby. I get desperate. I really clean. I try to figure out what they took. I check for rings. At least Rose’s still wearing her wedding ring. I check the hall table again and again. No note. I keep thinking it must have fallen down. I’m sure Rose would have left a note.”
Bear grunted concernedly.
“I go through this phase of asking Mom all the time. Mom wants to save my feelings, she hates talking about the day they left. I ask her to tell me again and again, what time they called her, what they said, how they looked, what they took, whether there were any other cars around, where she took them, what they did when they got out. Mom left them at airport departures, they didn’t want her to go in with them. She thinks a big black SUV parked close behind, I told you that already, but she didn’t take a lot of notice. She went off to her bridge game and that was that. I’m so persistent, Mom says she’s scared of me. I say ‘Sorry’, I give her a hug, she hugs me back, says she forgives me. I’m so glad to have a Mom who loves me, you need everyone at times like this.”
Bear grunted confoundedly.
“I throw out the fruit and buy new. I eat cereal for supper because it’s easier to clean up after and keep the place nice. I sort Baby’s toys. They didn’t take much. I check all the bank accounts. Nothing’s come out. I start to figure it out. She’s found a guy. Who else’d be paying? I start counting what I did wrong. I think about how they looked that last evening when I lost it and told Rose I was sleeping over at Mom’s. I see it how they saw it and I want, like nothing I ever wanted before, to take it back. So I can come home, Baby’s crying, I get to kiss Rose on the cheek, Mina stares, we talk about stuff, we have dinner together. That’s all I want.”
Bear grunted consolingly.
“A couple days later, someone at works asks about Rose and I joke she’s left me and I recognize it’s true. I’m a schmuck. My wife has left me. Mom starts talking about me moving back home, getting a smarter place later. I go into the greenhouse and all Rose’s plants have died. I didn’t water them. I lose it over a little garden trowel. She didn’t put it away. Rose always puts stuff away. I go through the house and figure it out. They both left in a hurry. They didn’t plan it. I’d think they were kidnapped except they called Mom to take them away. There’s got to be a third party, someone who arrived unexpectedly and convinced them to go with him. It’s a guy, of course. He’s taken them and he’s keeping them. And he’s got my daughter. I’ve got my PIs working on old job colleagues, neighbors, all the workmen who’ve come to the house. I’m eating at Mexican restaurants, keeping my ears out. But every day is another day they’re growing away from me.”
“I wish I’d known.”
“Mom keeps saying how much nicer everything is, how much healthier I’m looking, how much more work I must be getting through now I don’t have a baby disturbing me at night.”
“Bro, you don’t look like you’ve been sleeping.”
“She invites women around, you know? Daughters of friends, colleagues of friends, the way she used to. I keep saying I’m married. They keep hugging me, I hate it, they don’t respect I’m a married man.”
Bear grunted condemningly.
“But her bringing other women to the house gives me an idea. I take on female PIs, I think they might have insight. Dad’s cranky as hell. He tells me I’m spending too much time and money, I’m neglecting the firm, all for a woman. I tell him I’m sorry, but he’d do the same if he lost his wife and daughter. He says, ‘Are you kidding? I’d be thrilled. I've got a daughter I've been trying to ignore for years.' " Jonathan shook his head. "Did you know we had a sister? I didn't know we had a sister."
Bear grunted confusedly.
“Mom never talks about Baby. Or Rose or Mina. She acts like they never existed. I’ve got a hole in my heart for my baby girl. She’s growing up without me, making smiles at a new Pop. And Rose…”
“Rosa’s waiting for you, Bro.”
“But I don’t blame Mom, I figure she misses them too. We sit at the table together, not eating, just wanting them back. Mom says Rose doesn’t have the strength for the long haul and I say, ‘I don’t care, I’ll be her strength.’ Mom says it makes her sick, I’ve got no pride if I take Rose back. I say pride is the last thing I want, I want my wife and child. And then she says it. She says, ‘Why can’t you forget her? This is what comes of trying to bring second-class people into the Dare family.’”
“Yeah, not kidding. She says, ‘You didn’t have to marry her. Your father has his share of bastards, but he has a high class wife.’ I say, ‘If this is how a high class wife behaves, give me a low class one any day.’ And I don’t go back.”
Bear grunted commendingly.
“I’m missing Rose on my own. I can’t sleep in our bed without her, I can’t sleep in a different bed. I keep my phone fully charged, she can call me any time, night or day. I need to see her, make provision for her, even if some bastard is raising my child. What if she doesn’t want him anymore and she’s too embarrassed to come home? He might not be treating her right. I’d put out ads but I know she doesn’t read the papers or watch TV.”
Bear grunted caringly.
“And the joke is, the Senator’s office has been chasing me ever since. They want a guy with high moral fiber, they’ll make allowances, they respect people who can achieve a work-life balance.”
“Don’t do it.”
“Man, it was so good to hear your voice on the phone. I just spewed it all out and you said, ‘Hold on, I’m coming.’”
“I should have got a move on. I thought you’d want me for the long haul.”
“Then you finally say you’re on the way home, and you go and disappear! I’m going crazy. People just disappear out of my life. Are Mom and Dad hiding ransom demands from me, then?”
“I’m not kidding, Bear. Half the time I’m thinking, ‘Theodore knows where they are, he’s gone to get them.’ The other half the time I’m thinking, ‘My wife and child have disappeared, now my brother’s disappeared. Is there a serial killer watching me, taking my nearest and dearest?’”
“I should have called.”
“You’re not driving fast enough. We’ll never beat the blizzard at this rate. Lift up and we’ll change over.”
“I’ll drive. You’ve got some homework to do.”
“Read the letters.”
Jonathan took the folder and stared at it. “Ma held on to these for a reason. I’ll wait to see Rose in person.”
“Read the letters.”
Jonathan glared at Bear. “Listen, Theodore—”
“Can you just keep it at Bear?”
“But it’s my name for you.”
Bear grunted discontentedly.
Jonathan fished out a hand-addressed envelope and looked at it glumly. “She was safe. All this time I was going crazy and she was sitting around writing letters.”
Bear grunted cryptically.
Jonathan put his finger in the flap and tore along the top.
A photo fell out and he caught it. “Uff-da!”
Bear looked sideways.
“It’s Rose. She’s showing Baby off to the camera.”
Bear grunted cautiously.
Jonathan held the photo up to the window light. “I’d forgotten how beautiful she is.” Tears started rolling down his face and he angled his head so they didn’t fall on the photograph.
Bear looked back to the road, swallowing.
Jonathan opened the handwritten pages. “She’s apologizing. She wants me to take her back,” he croaked. He pressed it to his stomach then peered at it again. “When was this? I can’t read the date in this light.”
“Here.” Bear switched on the overhead light. He ran the Jimmy into the shoulder and steered back to what was more likely to be the middle of the freeway.
Jonathan wiped his eyes to see better. “I knew, deep inside, I knew she loved me. This has all been a horrible mistake.”
“A horrible Ma mistake.”
“Yeah. Well, Mom made it worse.”
“Bro! You’re not seriously taking responsibility for any of this? Ma’s been working against your marriage from before you knew Rosa.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“What about Valerie? Suzanne? That other one. You were pretty fond of them.”
“Valerie went to med school, she didn’t want me distracting her from her studies. Suzanne started seeing other guys. And Clarissa and I ended up not liking each other very much, thank you very much.”
“They were head over heels for you. It was Ma sent them away. Not good enough to be Dares.”
“Thank God she did. If I'd married one of them I might never have found Rose.”
“So you’re just forgeting what Ma did?”
“I’m just not laying it all at her door. You should have seen Rose’s face when I shouted at her.” Jonathan held the photo with both hands and wiped his eyes on his sleeve so he could take in every detail. “My wife. My daughter. My family.”
“Use tissues, Bro.”
“She wants to come back to me.”
Bear cleared his throat. “You need to read them all, Bro.”
“That bad, huh?” Jonathan carefully reinserted the letter and photograph. He picked up the pile. “This one’s postmarked January – she’s been sending me letters the whole time.” He riffled through them and stopped on one. “I don’t know when this was. The date’s run.”
“She sent one every week. Just put the others in order and see which week is missing.”
“Fifteen. There are fifteen letters here. Oh. One’s from Mina.” Jonathan put that to one side.
“She must have sent more in the beginning.”
With shaking hands Jonathan sorted the letters into a pile by his right hip. “I’m going to read these in order.” He picked the top one off the pile and wiggled his finger into its top corner. He stopped. “You got a letter opener?”
“Yeah, in my back pocket, along with a silver tea service. Use a knife.”
“I think Dad keeps a knife in the glove compartment. Yep.” Jonathan tapped the envelope contents down and sliced neatly from the top corner.
While Bear squinted to see past the reflection of the interior light, Jonathan stared at a photo and brought up another photo to compare. He set that envelope by his left hip and held the next envelope and breathed in deeply. “Can’t this bucket go any faster?”
Bear shifted down. “Not on ice.”
Snow flakes were falling too fast, fat, slow and deadly. No other vehicles passed and towns became infrequent. The pile by Jonathan’s left hip grew.
Jonathan cut open the next envelope and breathed in before he unfolded the letter. “They’re getting shorter. She says Baby’s not crying so much anymore.”
Bear grunted confidingly. “Don’t count on it.”
Jonathan barked a laugh. “She’s reminding me to take my vitamins.” His smile faded. “She’s asking me the best time to call. I’ll sue Mom to kingdom come. It’s got to be a federal offence, tampering with communications.”
He skimmed the next letter. “She’s making promises. She’ll take public speaking courses. She says Baby sleeps on her own now.”
Bear grunted crankily. “When she sleeps.”
“Oh, wow, look at these babies!”
A stack of cheap photos cascaded into his lap. “They’re all of Baby. Oh, here’s one of Rose.”
He dipped his nose closer to read in the worsening light. “Rose says there’re ten of Baby. But there’s eleven, and one is her.”
“Melina puts the photos in.”
“She slipped in one of Rose. She’s interfering with our private correspondence.”
“She’s trying to help.”
“She gets in the way. She’s always underfoot. They could have come home anytime. I bet it was Mina who stopped Rose coming back to me.”
Bear grunted contrarily.
“Hey, is that a tooth?” Jonathan scrambled the cheap notepaper open. “Baby’s got a tooth! You’re not supposed to get them until twelve months.”
“Maybe Baby didn’t know that. She is pretty young.”
“Rose says she’s sleeping well on her own. She says that every letter.”
“I think there are two teeth coming in.”
“Shut up. Just shut up. You’ve seen milestones I’ll never see and you don’t even care. So shut up or I’ll punch your face in.”
“You’ve got a knife, you could use that.”
“Shut up. This one’s all baby news. Baby’s trying to roll over. She makes a noise back at you when you talk to her. She pulled a blanket over her face. Cute! She’s sleeping well on her own.”
Bear grunted covertly.
“Something’s wrong.” Jonathan frowned and picked up the next letter quickly. “They’re only about Baby now. Baby can roll over, Baby can touch her nose. It’s like a school report. Rose says there’s a photo of Mina holding Baby up to touch an icicle. But the photo’s not in there.” He flicked. “There aren’t any of Mina or Rose.”
“Maybe Melina’s learned her lesson. She doesn’t want to come between husband and wife.”
“I should darn well think so. You think a baby cramps a man’s style? Try having a big-eyed teenager watching your every move.”
“Didn’t think it’d bother you.”
“Not me, Theodore. Rose can’t loosen up with family in the room. Sss.”
“Baby’s sick. She’s running a fever. The hospital turned them away. Turned them away! They’ve got platinum hospital cover. Is she okay? Is Baby okay?”
“She’s got a healthy pair of lungs.”
“That medical center. I’ll sue. They had to go back the next day and see the registrar. They must have been frantic.”
“If their health insurance is cancelled, your PIs can’t check for claims, can they?”
Jonathan stared at the letter with blind eyes. “I’ll have to kill Mom before she causes a death in the family. What she’s done—I’ll never forget.”
Bear grunted cajolingly. “Rosa would like you to.”
“Even Rose can’t forgive this.”
Jonathan got to the end of the letters by his right hip. He patted the envelopes neatly together, flushed, shifted them back to his right and started re-reading them with a foolish smile. He began to frown and he was breathing fast when he finished the last letter. “I have so much to explain.” He gritted his teeth and stared out at the blowing snow.
Bear grunted comfortingly. “Hey, it’s all good now.”
“Marriage isn’t like that, Bear. You stuff up, you pay. I’ve got six weeks I’ll pay in hell for.”
“Don’t you want to put all this behind you?”
“It’s not a question of what the guy wants, Bro. It never is.”
“With Rosa it is.”
Jonathan looked out his side window.
Bear grunted critically. “She just spent a winter holing up in a cabin taking care of your baby for you. What more does it take?”
Jonathan fanned the envelopes on his lap. “She cares more about Baby and Mina than she does for me.”
“They’re sisters! Melina’s got no one.”
“Don’t get me wrong. She can sleep with Mina if that’s what she wants. I’ll stay back till she feels safe with me. I’ll explain I didn’t know where she was. I’ll make her understand it was all Mom’s fault. Because that woman kept us apart.” Jonathan punched his door.
“Bro. The truck.”
“Don’t forget the card.”
“Oh! The Valentine card. I kept that specially for last.”
He read it and his shoulders started shaking.
Bear drove into thickening snowflakes, lines cutting deep in his forehead.
Ten minutes later Bear braked.
“Why are you stopping?”
“There might be someone stuck in there.”
“So? We’ve got our own troubles. We can’t stop at every abandoned car.”
“What if Rosa was in it? We're stopping for any potential storm victims.” Bear stomped to the abandoned car, cleared snow off the windows and shone a torch inside.
He climbed back in, bringing in snow. “All good.”
Jonathan was taking pictures of his letters.
“It’s too dark, Bro.”
“Just in case they get damaged.” He set a letter as flat as he could on his leg, photographed it, folded it, and placed it on the pile. He opened Melina’s letter and read it cursorily and put that on the pile too. “Why’d you take the phone? I could be calling her now.”
“This vehicle, Bro. It’s not safe to drive any distance.”
“That’s not why.”
Bear grunted carefully.
“Why didn’t you call me earlier?”
Bear grunted coaxingly. “Bro, I was a sickbay commando. I’m still seeing two of everything.” He hunched his shoulders. “Don’t tell Melina.”
“You took it to stop Rosa calling me so Mom could speak to me first. I could kill you with my bare hands.”
“One more day. I was trying to fix a family for a lifetime.”
Jonathan hunched sideways to see the sky. “There’s a good chance we’re going to get stuck in this.”
“The weather didn’t look so bad this morning.”
“This is Minnesota! If you don’t like the weather, wait awhile. You’ve risked leaving the girls alone in a big storm.”
“They’re big girls. I wanted you to read the letters before you saw Rosa again.”
“Wrong. You were giving Mom a chance to make nice.”
“Not only that. Those letters were written in blood. Ma knows how to influence you, Bro. She knows how to drive a wedge. You needed to see the letters.”
“You fool. No one can break up Rose and me. Not Mom, not anyone. We’re moving to New Mexico, I’ve talked to Dad about opening a branch down south. As far away from Mom as possible.” He sat forward. “I don’t need letters from Rose.”
Bear was driving with his nose at the windscreen, gaining ground yard by yard. “It’s Rosa.”
“It’s Rosa, not Rose.”
“Rose is my pet name for her.”
“Ma calls her Rose.”
“She must have picked it up from me.”
“You could explain to her Rosa’s name is Rosa.”
“It’s not going to be a problem. She won’t be talking to Rose.”
“And don’t smile at waitresses.”
“What was Rosa doing when you met her?”
“That’s different. I can treat women as human beings, can’t I?”
“Not if it gets you phone numbers.”
“All waitresses give out their numbers. Rose’s, I had to work for. Man, did I get sick of beans.”
Bear grunted comfortably. “I was sure you had a good marriage. When you told me your wife had gone AWOL, it was like I’d caught a live grenade.”
“What took you so long to come home?”
“I figured you were going to need long term support. I ended my association with Uncle Sam.”
“You left the Army? For me? After you made sergeant?”
Bear steered the vehicle off the shoulder. “I was a double digit midget anyway, I was finishing my second tour of duty.”
“Hey, has it been that long?”
“I’ve done my time.”
“You’re not coming back to the family firm?”
Bear changed down to churn the Jimmy through deepening snow. “With Pop? I don’t know how you can work with him. No, I’ll take my time, look around, check out my options. When I was doing boot camp, it was endless. Waiting around, then a million pushups from drill sergeants who thought I didn’t have the right attitude, then waiting around again. Then suddenly I’m in battle uniform and I’m shipping out. Then I’m waiting around again, then I’m in a firefight. The Army’s like that. Then I’m hearing you’re getting married! You could have given me time to get leave, Bro.”
“No way. One hesitation and I would have lost her. You had three weeks, don’t kid me you couldn’t make it.”
“Just, I knew Ma didn’t want me, and she said you weren’t expecting me. I guess I was just going with the flow.”
Jonathan set down his letters to face Bear. “Are you for real? I had a knock-down drag-out with Mom telling her you were my best man. Then Ma said you didn’t want to come.”
Bear wiped his hand over his face. “I should have known. I really let you down, Bro.”
“It was probably for the best. Meeting Mom and Dad was bad enough. If she’d met you as well she might have headed for the hills.”
“You’re joking. Right?”
“Right. Except you’re kind of like my dark side. She already thinks I’m an animal. I figure, she sees you, she’ll know it.”
“Wonderful.” Bear cleared his throat clumsily. “I teared up when I saw the wedding photo. The girls looked so beautiful, so in love with you. You looked so happy. Bro, you rock a tuxedo. And your bride – I knew you’d pick a looker, but whooee! I can see why you grabbed and held on. She’s not my type, but. The sister’s cute.”
“Now, you can have her. If only the good Lord would find a place for her on the other side of the country.”
Bear grunted contemplatively. “She seems to think you’re fond of her.”
“She’s fine, but not in my house, okay?”
“What, you’re attracted to her?”
Jonathan hooted. “Mina? Have you seen Rose?”
“So why do you want to get rid of her so bad?”
“Bear, when you’re a married man, you will not be asking that question.”
“I don’t need to ask a thing, you told me every detail a man needs to know about pregnancy and childbirth.”
“I might have got a bit carried away.”
“Bro, seriously? Cutting the cord? Formula or nursing? I’m with you every step of the way. This stuff is way too hard.”
Jonathan lifted a letter to his face to see it better.
Bear grunted conscientiously. “Rumint is, you’re not the favorite son anymore.”
“Good. You’re welcome to have Mom.”
“Not sure I want her now.”
“Don’t see why you ever did. You always did everything you could for her, and she always criticized you.”
“She kept saying how much she loved you. I thought if I nugged away at it, I could have some of that.”
“A mother’s love,” Jonathan said in falsetto.
Bear grunted companionably and turned the truck into a gas station.
“Why are we stopping? We can’t stop. We’ve got enough to get there.”
“We’re black on fuel. If we get there, we’ll be snowed in. If we don’t get there, we’ll need a full tank to stay alive. In the army you can get court-martialed for driving around on less than half a tank.”
“We delay, we won’t make it till the plow comes through. It could be days. We’re not stopping.”
Bear pulled up to the bowser and set the handbrake. “They’re out of food, they’re nearly out of paraffin and they’re rationing the bottled water. You go grab everything that might be useful. I’ll get P O L and knock off the ice underneath. You’ve got ten minutes, tops.”
By the time Jonathan and the enthusiastic gas station attendant had loaded the steaming truck, Bear had knocked off all the snow and ice. “I need the light off, I need the windows down. Can you help me see the road? Pull your head in!”
Jonathan drew back into the truck and twigs scraped viciously where his head had been.
Bear swerved. “Where’s the hardball?” His headlights reflected thousands of gracefully falling snow flakes.
Jonathan opened his window and angled the visor so freezing air blew onto the windscreen. “That better?”
Bear leaned closer to the windscreen. “Good, I can get closer without steaming it up.”
“To the right. Right! Not so right.” Jonathan gripped Rosa’s letters. “Faster, Bear.”
Bear grunted confidently.
Jonathan clutched the dash, leaning forward. “Left. Left! You’re steering like a drunk.”
“The front left tire's down and I already used the spare.”
“How far to go? Five miles, you reckon?”
“Five miles, yeah.”
“Get us as far as you can.”
Bear loomed over the steering wheel, nose nearly touching the windscreen. “The wheel rim’s compromised. It’s digging into the road and the truck’s understeering like hell. Too much of this and the axle’ll break.”
“We’ll hike the rest of the way, then.”
The Jimmy brushed against the ice pile at the edge of the road. Bear swerved away, bumping over lines of ice and trying to keep off the other side of the road.
“Four miles. I could get out now and run.”
“Talk to me, Bro. Living with angels these past five days. It’s been a strain.”
“It’s behaving that’s hard. I can’t even say, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. So far I’ve got to Tango but I’ve been able to stop in time.”
“Swear in front of my wife, Bear, I’ll deck you.”
“I had to think of words that don’t have Foxtrot in them. Hard work, Bro.”
“Keep at it, Bear. You can talk to girls.”
“I didn’t understand how army I’d gone, but it’s coming back. I thought I was going to have to use sign language the rest of my life.”
“You pretty well always did, Bear.”
Bear grunted convulsively. “I come across as an animal?”
“What, because you growl at everyone and stand over them till they do what you want?”
“Not someone a sensitive girl could, you know, like?”
“You’re rich, Bear. Since when have you had any trouble getting a lady friend?”
“Rosa didn’t choose you because you’re rich.”
“Leave my wife out of this!”
“That’s what I mean.”
“You mean you’re asking about the real deal? If you find her, grab her and hold on tight. And be grateful if she smiles at you once in a while.”
“That’s what marriage is like?”
“If she doesn’t make you feel like a worthless sinner then it’s not the real thing.”
“Your life partner is supposed to empower you. You support each other through difficult times.”
“Yeah, all that. Just don’t forget shivering in a cold bed at two a.m. because you scared her away with unthinking affection.”
Bear grunted curiously. “They all like that?”
“The real ones. Dad got Mom, I got Rose. I wouldn’t change. I couldn’t. But you’ve got to expect the bad with the good.”
“It can’t be worth it.”
“It’s worth it.”
The truck slewed sideways. Both men leaned forward as though urging it forward. Jonathan snatched a glance at his watch. “We’ve been talking for four hours.”
Bear grunted congenially.
“I never knew you cared.”
“I’m your brother!”
“Thank you for helping me get to Rose. I could cut my tongue out for what I said to her.”
“It’s all good. Seriously. She loves you, Bro.”
Jonathan took in air, took in more. “I know what you’ve been saying, Bear. I’ll go slowly. I’ll get her to trust me again. It took long enough the first time. Which doesn’t make sense, because— Never mind.”
Bear grunted considerately.
The snowflakes were falling farther apart and pieces of road appeared. Which was lucky because now true night had fallen. Bear was using all his strength to steer the leaning truck.
“Are we on the right road? It’s usually fifteen minutes from the gas station. It’s been an hour.”
Bear squinted. “Is that the cabin?”
“You can’t see the light from this far—yes!”
They both rubbed the windshield.
“I’m coming, Rose!”
“You’re misting it up.”
Jonathan reared back. “Don’t hit that rock. Remember the bend.” He crushed the letters in his unthinking grip. “Are we on the right or the left? Watch it, Bear.”
Bear grunted capably.
“There’s something at the turn. They’ve put up a snowman or a sign.” Jonathan brushed at the windscreen. He saw a tall slender woman in a crimson cloak, her long black hair blowing in the white snow, her arms reaching to him.
“Stop the truck!” He yanked at his seatbelt.
Bear stomped on the brakes. “Wait, I got no brakes.”
Jonathan flung open the door and sprinted in front of the truck. Bear cursed and swerved, and a wave of ice crystals crested high in the night.
“Rose!” Jonathan ran with his arms out. Rosa’s black tragic eyes shone liquid in the glow from the headlights. She was collapsing.
Through the ice cascade, Bear saw a slim girl running from the cabin. It was Melina, running to catch her sister who was too far away. Bear threw the tipping, sliding truck into a catastrophic turn to avoid her. Engine whining, the Jimmy thudded into the snowbank Melina had spent all winter building.
By the corner, two figures embraced. On the path from the cabin, Melina stood, her hands slowly falling to her sides. From the cabin where orange firelight glowed, a baby called.
Bear grunted contentedly.
(c) Joy Everafter 29 March 2017, revised 13 December 2018