Comfort & Joy
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“Oh,” I whisper, shivering although I’m not cold. “How . . .”
Bobby shrugs. We both know there is no answer to my unvoiced question. It’s like the arrowhead: magic. As impossible as it is, some part of me was here, and I left these words behind.
“I told my daddy you’d come back,” he says quietly. When he looks up at me, I am filled with a kind of love I’ve never known before.
I bend down and take him in my arms, holding him tightly.
He is the first to pull away. It couldn’t have been me.
“Come on,” he says, taking my hand again, pulling me toward the house. As we cross the yard, a wind kicks up. Suddenly the world is full of falling petals. It’s snowing pink.
At the door, Bobby stops and grins up at me. “Let’s surprise him.”
“Oh, it’ll be a surprise,” I say, feeling my stomach knot up. It is one thing to get a boy to believe in magic; it’s another thing entirely to pin such impossible hopes on a full-grown man.
Bobby knocks on the door. Footsteps rattle inside the house.
I tighten my hold on his hand.
The door opens and Daniel is there, looking almost exactly as I pictured him. He is not quite as lean as I imagined, and his hair is shorter.
But it’s Daniel, all right.
Bobby is moving from foot to foot so excitedly, he seems to be dancing the Macarena. I, on the other hand, am as still as stone. “Look, Daddy. She’s back.”
I try to smile, but can’t. All he has to do is shut the door or turn away and I’ll be lost. “Open the damn door,” I say, my voice catching on the swear word, just as Bobby had known it would. “It’s cold out here.”
“Joy?” I hear the confusion in Daniel’s voice, the disbelief.
Bobby laughs. “I knew he’d know you.”
I don’t understand. “How do you recognize me?”
“Bobby drew about a million pictures of you,” he says in that lovely brogue of my dreams. “And he talked about you ’til I couldn’t stand it anymore. But . . .”
Heat climbs up my cheeks. I feel like a teenager, being noticed by the football captain for the very first time. It is a feeling I thought I’d never experience again. “This is insane,” I whisper.
“Joy.” The way he says my name is like a prayer. It wrenches my heart and gives me hope.
Without thinking, I move toward him, put my hand on his arm. My cane falls to the floor in a clatter, forgotten.
He touches my face, and only then, when I feel the heat of his palm against my cold cheek do I realize how keenly I wanted him to reach for me. His touch is the gentlest I’ve ever known. I sigh, seeing a pale cloud of my breath.
“I feel as if I already know you.”
I nod. It’s crazy, but I feel it, too.
“So, who are you, really?”
“Joy Faith Candellaro. I’m a high school librarian from Bakersfield.”
“Joy Faith, huh? That’s a grand name.” He steps back, makes a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Well, come on in.”
I step past him and limp into the house. I can feel him staring at me, and I know he has a dozen unanswerable questions—I know because I’ve asked them of myself—but just now I’m caught between worlds, the here and there of my dream and this reality.
There is no registration desk. That’s the first thing I notice. No wall of old-fashioned keys, no counter full of brochures and tourist maps. Like Rain Valley, some of what I saw was real and some was pure imagination. I don’t know how to make sense of it.
I turn to my left and see the lobby. The living room.
Just as in my dream, there is a huge stone fireplace.
The decorations Bobby and I put on the mantel are still there—the polyester pile of glittery snow, the cast resin homes and stores, the mirror skating pond and horse-drawn carriages. In the corner of the room, exactly where I put it, is a Christmas tree, draped in lights and ornaments. Beneath it, a lone package sits.
The single present is long and thin. It’s crudely wrapped and held together by big strips of masking tape. JOY is written on it in red crayon. It is a present for me.
And that’s when it hits me: I never had Christmas this year. My holiday was spent in a white room that smelled of disinfectant and flowers. There had been no magical holiday morning, no presents to open, and no unending games of Monopoly.
No one saved Christmas for me.
Until now. Tears sting my eyes but don’t fall. Of all the people in my life, these two—strangers in the real world—have saved the holiday for me. How is that possible? Or isn’t it?
“It’s March,” I say, looking up at Daniel. Suddenly I’m afraid again that it’s all a lie. “I’m in a coma somewhere, aren’t I?” I step back from him.
“He never stopped believing,” Daniel says to me. “He wouldn’t have Christmas without you.”
“But the tree . . .”
“It’s our sixth one.”
I limp past him to the tree. I need to feel its pointy needles, smell its sharp fragrance.
These are the decorations he put up, one by one, the mementos of his young life. That one was Mommy’s favorite . . . I made it in day care.
There’s a new ornament on the branch nearest me. It’s a small picture frame, formed of fired, painted clay. The kind of thing a child would make at one of those pottery places. Inside the red-and-green frame is a stick figure painting of three people—a dark haired man with a big smile, a curly-haired boy, and a red-haired woman. Below the people are our names, written in an adult’s careful hand: Daniel, Bobby, and Joy.
“I made it for you,” Bobby says, grinning. “But Daddy helped.”
I turn to Daniel. My heart feels swollen suddenly, tender. I don’t know what to say to this man who is both a friend and a stranger.
I feel myself starting to cry. It makes me look like a fool, to be moved by something so small, and by people whom I barely know, but I can’t stop the swell of emotions. I’ve felt alone for so, so long now, and now—however impossibly— I feel as if I’ve finally come home. “You must think I’m crazy . . .”
Daniel wipes the tears from my cheek. “You know what’s really crazy?” he says in a voice so low that only I can hear.
“A man my age believing in magic.” He puts his hand around the back of my neck and pulls me in close. “I don’t know how this whole thing happened, or where we go from here, but I know one thing: We’ve been given a gift.” Leaning down to kiss me, he says, “Merry Christmas, Joy Faith Candellaro. We’ve been waiting for you.”
It is a quick kiss, a touching of lips and nothing more, but it reaches deep inside me, warms a place that has been cold for a long time. I lean into him, put my arms around his neck. As if from a distance, I hear a little boy giggle.
“Come on, Joy,” Bobby says. “You have a present to open.”
And I smile. Here and now. It is the best present of my life.
I look up at Daniel and whisper, “Magic,” and I know that for the rest of our lives we will believe.
Read on for an exciting preview of
Available in hardcover Spring 2006 from
THE RANDOM HOUSE PUBLISHING GROUP
It will all be over soon.
Julia Cates had lost count of the times she’d told herself that very thing, but today—finally—it would be true. In a few hours the world would know the truth about her.
If she made it downtown, that was. Unfortunately, the Pacific Coast Highway looked more like a parking lot than a freeway. The hills behind Malibu were on fire again, and smoke hung above the rooftops and turned the normally bright coastal air into a thick brown sludge. All over town terrified babies woke in the middle of the night, crying
gray-black tears and gasping for breath. Even the surf seemed to have slowed down, as if exhausted by the unseasonable
She maneuvered through the cranky, stop-and-go traffic, ignoring the drivers who flipped her off and cut in front of her. It was expected; in this most dangerous of seasons in Southern California, tempers caught fire as easily as backyards. The heat made everyone edgy.
Finally, she exited the freeway and drove to the courthouse.
Television vans were everywhere. Dozens of reporters huddled on the courthouse steps, microphones and cameras at the ready, waiting for the story to arrive. In Los Angeles it was becoming a daily event, it seemed; legal proceedings as entertainment. Michael Jackson. Courtney Love. Robert Blake.
Julia turned a corner and drove to a side entrance, where her lawyers were waiting for her.
She parked on the street and got out of the car, expecting to move forward confidently, but for a terrible second she couldn’t move. You’re innocent, she reminded herself. They’ll see that. The system will work. She forced herself to take a step, then another. It felt as if she were moving through invisible wires, fighting her way uphill. When she made it to the group, it took everything she had to smile, but one thing she knew: it looked real. Every psychiatrist knew how to make a smile look genuine.
“Hello, Dr. Cates,” said Frank Williams, the lead counsel on her defense team. “How are you?”
“Let’s go,” she said, wondering if she was the only one who heard the wobble in her voice. She hated that evidence of her fear. Today, of all days, she needed to be strong, to show the world that she was the doctor they’d thought she was, that she’d done nothing wrong.
The team coiled protectively around her. She appreciated their support. Although she was doing her best to appear professional and confident, it was a fragile veneer. One wrong word could strip it all away.
They pushed through the doors and walked into the courthouse.
Flashbulbs erupted in spasms of blue-white light. Cameras clicked; tape rolled. Reporters surged forward, all yelling at once.
“Dr. Cates! How do you feel about what happened?”
“Why didn’t you save those children?”
“Did you know about the gun?”
Frank put an arm around Julia and pulled her against his side. She pressed her face against his lapel and let herself be pulled along.
In the courtroom, she took her place at the defendant’s table. One by one the team rallied around her. Behind her, in the first row of gallery seating, several junior associates and paralegals took their places.
She tried to ignore the racket behind her; the doors creaking open and slamming shut, footsteps hurrying across the marble tiled floor, whispered voices. Empty seats were filling up quickly; she knew it without turning around. This courtroom was the Place To Be in Los Angeles today, and since the judge had disallowed cameras in the courtroom, journalists and artists were no doubt packed side by side in the gallery, their pens ready.
In the past year, they’d written an endless string of stories about her. Photographers had snapped thousands of pictures of her—taking out the trash, standing on her deck, coming and going from her office. The least flattering shots always made the front page.