It had been a long, rough day at the hospital, and Kayla heaved a weary sigh as she inserted the key in the lock of the upscale, three-bedroom condo she shared with her daughter, Stephanie. As she pushed the door open, she heard the small clock on the decorative mantle strike the half hour, a single musical chime that struggled to be heard above the modern music that blared from the stereo in the living room. A quick glance at her watch confirmed the time: seven thirty.
Both physically and mentally exhausted from the long, demanding day in the Emergency Room, she dreaded the idea of cooking supper when she had no appetite, but she knew that her daughter Stephanie would need to be fed. After spending the afternoon at the beach, she would be hungry. Perhaps a bowl of canned soup and a sandwich would suffice. But as she stepped through the door, the mouthwatering aroma of tomato sauce and garlic drifted into the small foyer from the kitchen and with it the sound of a girlish voice singing along with her favorite vocalist. Kayla could not suppress a smile, remembering her own youth of loud music and sing-alongs, and her mother, Caroline, insisting that she was going to ruin her hearing.
"Stephanie, I'm home," she called, elevating her voice above the music.
It was June, so school was out for the summer, but at 16, Stephanie insisted that was old enough to stay at home alone while her mother was at the hospital each day, with certain restrictions, of course.
"In the kitchen," Stephanie called back.
Kayla closed the door and locked the deadbolt against the rest of the world, then turned down the volume on the stereo as she passed on her way to the kitchen, where Stephanie was stirring the sauce in a saucepan. On an adjacent burner, a pot of water was just starting to boil in preparation for the package of spaghetti that waited on the countertop. The broiler was preheating for the generous portions of garlic bread that would accompany the meal.
"Hi, baby," she said. "What did I tell you about the volume on the stereo? Mrs. Blakely stopped me by the elevator again."
"And I'm sorry I'm so late. I was about to leave over two hours ago when a couple of rival gangs got into a brawl, and we had more than two dozen teenagers in there at once, all of them with a variety of knife wounds, gunshot wounds, and blunt force trauma from clubs and chains. All of them were still trying to kill each other right there in the hospital!"
"Sounds awful! Was anyone in the staff hurt?"
"No, but it took ten police officers and most of our security guards to get everyone subdued. Even strapped on their gurneys, they were still yelling and making violent threats against each other and the doctors and nurses who were trying to help them. Anyway, I couldn't leave until things were under control." She drew a deep cleansing breath to help shake the remembrance of the disturbing event, then leaned over the saucepan to inhale the delicious aroma of spaghetti sauce. "Mmm, that smells good."
"Grandma's homemade spaghetti recipe," the girl proclaimed proudly, indicating the recipe card she had been following. "Since you were late, I thought you might be too tired to cook, and since I didn't really have anything to do, I thought I might as well take care of it."
"I really appreciate that," Kayla said, her appetite returning at the aroma of Caroline Brady's special recipe. "Grandma's spaghetti sounds a lot better than the canned soup I had planned to fix."
"That's for sure," Stephanie said with such vehemence that Kayla laughed.
"I guess we have been having soup a lot lately, haven't we? We'll have to see what we can do about that." She leaned against the counter with an exhausted sigh. "I need to see about getting some more of Mom's recipes. She's the best cook I've ever known, and she has hundreds of terrific recipes. She just has that special touch. And," she added with a smile, "if the smell of the spaghetti sauce is any indication, you've inherited her talent."
Stephanie gave a pleased smile.
"My feet are killing me. I'm going to get a quick shower and a change clothes and get these shoes off, then I'll be back to help you finish up."
"I can manage; so why don't you meet me out on the terrace when you're done. You can just kick back and let me take care of everything."
Kayla smiled inwardly, knowing that "taking care of everything" generally meant Mom got to take care of all the dishes and the pots and pans afterward. "Sounds good. I'll take you up on that."
"Don't take too long, though. This'll be ready in about fifteen minutes. Twenty at the outside."
Kayla left the kitchen and walked down the hallway to her bedroom, feeling drained and a bit discouraged by the consuming hatred and viciousness of the gang members. Some doctors thrived on the dizzyingly busy, unpredictable high-energy atmosphere of the emergency room, but although she understood the skill required by the doctors who spent their days evaluating trauma cases, she preferred the quieter, one-on-one encounters with patients who were more cooperative.
Inside her spacious bedroom, she pushed the door closed for privacy, then kicked off the confining shoes and peeled off her hospital uniform. Soiled with blood and grime from the combative gang members who were more interested in resuming their fight than they had been in getting treated for their injures, they were tossed into the hamper in favor of a pair of well-worn jeans and a sleeveless blouse that she put on after her brief but refreshing shower.
Clean and refreshed, she sat down at her dressing table and flipped on the illuminated mirror and raked a brush through her wet hair.
After returning the brush to its usual place, her eyes strayed to the tape player she kept there. She rarely listened to it any more, preferring the more modern CD media in the living room, but after a moment of quiet contemplation, she opened the drawer on the table and withdrew an old and well-worn tape, one she had not played in a long time. It was slipped into the unit, and she pressed the "play" button.
The soft strains of an old song emerged from the speakers: There's a way to last another day, sang the vocalist. If your heart . . . comes out . . . tonight.
In those few lonely words and beloved melody, she was carried back to a different time, a different place, when she had thought her future would take a different path than the one fate had given. It was the song she and Steve had dubbed their own, and she had played it often in the months and years after his death, less frequently in recent years, but it was still a much loved, special reminder of what should have been.
Rising from the dressing table, she went to the jewelry case that she kept on her dresser. Beside it was a framed photograph taken of her and Steve at their wedding, the happiest day of her life, and she paused to caress the ruggedly handsome face with her finger tips before lifting the lid on the jewelry case. Nestled in a lower compartment were a pair of wedding rings, a man's and a woman's, bound together with a strip of white lace. The decision to remove her wedding ring had been a difficult one, but one that she had felt was necessary in order to move on with her life. Steve's ring had been removed by the hospital after the explosion, and she had chosen to keep it as a cherished memento of their short lives together. The lace binding was symbolic of the fact that, no matter what, she and Steve would always be bound together by their love and their child.
Her eyes shifted to a small box beside the rings, and she picked it up and withdrew the object it protected. The harmonica was as much a part of Steve Johnson as his eye patch, for she had rarely known him to be without it. Always, it was kept tucked into his pocket within easy reach.
"Oh, Steve," she said, softly, her fingers caressing the musical instrument that he had loved. "I miss you so much."
No amount of wishing would bring him back to her, so she returned the harmonica to its nest inside the box, then turned off the tape player and padded down the hallway in her bare feet toward the living room, pausing briefly at the kitchen door.
Stephanie was draining the water from the spaghetti and seemed to have dinner well under control, so she moved to the sliding glass door and unlocked the latch on the sliding glass door that opened onto the terrace.
The evening temperature was mild and relatively calm and clear as she stepped outside, leaving the door open behind her. The terrace was large, more like a patio than a balcony, and had been one of the features that had most appealed to her when she had purchased the condo. Open and spacious, there was more than enough room for the tall plant stands on each side of the door, both of which held a variety of flowers and plants. A chaise lounge and a bistro set provided places to relax and enjoy the view.
She moved directly to the small bistro set, on which she and Stephanie occasionally dined, and sat down facing the small park across the street, where Stephanie had played as a child under her mother's watchful eye, a park that boasted only one tired old cottonwood tree, and was surrounded by asphalt, concrete and steel. It was very different from the one she had played in as a child, a park that was full of lush vegetation, sandboxes, and vendors selling ice cream and sno-cones in the summer, and warm chestnuts and hot chocolate in the winter.
Beyond the park, reaching toward the clouds, were the distant skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, the constant haze of smog slightly blurring the sharpness of the view. It was the polar opposite of Salem, perhaps why she had selected this place to settle, yet she missed the rolling green hills of the Midwest with its ancient trees and clean, fresh air.
On the main traffic arteries, she could see the long line of vehicles from business and tourist traffic on the interstate leading into and out of L.A., and heard the sounds of car horns at nearby intersections as commuters continued to make their way home, hoping to wind down from the day's activities.
Through the open doorway, she heard her daughter's footsteps approaching, and she turned toward it, watching as the teenager stepped through it, balancing a large tray rather precariously with both hands. She started to rise, intending to assist, but Stephanie shook her head.
"Keep your seat. I've got it," she assured her.
Skeptically, Kayla settled back in her chair and watched as Stephanie successfully reached the bistro table and lowered the tray onto it.
"Whew! That was heavy!"
"You should have let me help you."
"I was afraid I'd drop it if it shifted even a little bit." She removed the two bowls of spaghetti with garlic bread and placed them on the table, then removed two large glasses of iced raspberry tea.
"It's from a bottle, I'm afraid," she apologized. "I didn't think about the tea until the spaghetti was almost done."
"That's okay. It'll be fine. My, this looks wonderful," Kayla exclaimed.
After placing the tray against the wall, she sat down and they began to eat their meal. Stephanie watched carefully for her mother's reaction. "Well?" she asked, hopefully.
"It's delicious," Kayla praised. "Tastes just like your grandma's."
"Really?" Stephanie beamed. "You're not just saying that?"
"I'm not just saying it. You did an excellent job. Mom would be proud of you." It occurred to her as she spoke the words that her mother, Caroline Brady, barely knew her granddaughter, an unfortunate reality of the miles that separated them. "Your papa might say you're a chip off the old block. He was a pretty good cook, himself."
Stephanie heard the artificial cheerfulness in her mother's voice and recognized the thoughtful expression she wore. "Are you okay, Mom? You seem kind of down."
Kayla hesitated, reluctant to burden her child with adult worries and concerns and the depression that seemed to press down on her like a physical weight. "I'm fine. I think I'm just more tired than anything else. I had forgotten how stressful it is to work in the E.R. There are so many emergencies coming in, mostly minor, but some are life-threatening. It is very fast-paced, and often as not there's barely enough time to sit down and rest!"
"Maybe you need to take some time off," Stephanie suggested. "A week away from there would probably do you a lot of good."
"I would like nothing better," Kayla admitted. "I'm not sure I could get it, though. The hospital is short-staffed. I do have tomorrow off, though, so that should help. So, what about you?" she changed the subject abruptly, curious to hear how her daughter had spent her day and eager to take her mind off the boating victim and his resemblance to Steve. "Tell me about your day. Did you have a nice afternoon at the beach with your friends?"
"We had a great time," she replied with youthful enthusiasm. "Roxie's mom drove us over in her van. We swam in the surf, laid on the beach, and watched boys –"
"Boys?" Kayla interrupted, teasingly, lifting her eyebrows with curiosity. "Any cute ones?"
Stephanie blushed. "Maybe a few. Some of them were surfing, and that was fun to watch. They were trying to show off, and ended up wiping out."
Kayla gave an indulgent smile, marveling at how fast her little girl had grown up. Stephanie continued her recap of her afternoon at the beach until they completed their meal, and then the teen ordered her mother to relax while she cleaned up the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher.
Left alone again, Kayla leaned back in the bistro chair and lifted her eyes from the city to the sky. The sun, glowing with a reddish tinge in the L.A. smog, was nestling against the western horizon. Soon, it would be twilight, but she knew the city lights would make it impossible to see the stars once darkness settled over the area.
Despondency settled over her again, and her mind drifted back to Salem, missing the clean air and the clear starry sky. There was no denying the fact that she was homesick, but she was conflicted about going back there. Would the weight of the memories crush her, or lift her up?
Stephanie's suggestion of a week away from work had been unexpected, but it had reminded her of the fact that she had not taken a full week of vacation in several years, when she had taken her daughter on a nice trip to Hawaii. Now, she considered the fact that a week's vacation would be plenty of time to visit family and friends.
She had been thinking of home quite a lot since her mother had called last week, inviting her and Stephanie to come home for a family gathering. Kimberly, her older sister, would be there, presumably with her two children, Andrew and Jeannie, as would brothers Roman and Bo and their families.
The invitation had caught her by surprise, but, maintaining the distance she had created between herself and Salem over the past fifteen years, she had initially declined, stating occupational reasons. The hospital was short-staffed and getting away would be difficult, but that had been little more than a convenient excuse that had sounded phony, even as she had said the words. Going back to Salem, seeing all those places, reliving all those memories, had been unthinkable at the time. Now, however, after her talk with Ruthie in the break room and feasting on her mother's recipe for spaghetti sauce, and listening to the song that had been so much a part of her romance with Steve, she was giving serious consideration to the idea of yielding to the pull of her heart, of going home to visit her family . . . and visit the grave of her late husband.
But even as she considered the idea of a visit, her heart clenched with dread. The tug on her heart was the both joyous and painful, for Salem held so many memories of him, both good and bad. Maybe now was the time to face them. Maybe it was the last thread of healing that she needed.