Authors: Dorothy Garlock
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The peach of her father’s eye
EES BUZZED AMONG
the early spring flowers. A gentle breeze rustled the boughs of tall evergreens and maples. Ted Glidden’s dog, forever chained to his rickety house, barked angrily. But Clara Sinclair noticed none of these things.
She couldn’t take her eyes off the black car.
The Oldsmobile had rounded the corner up the street at Wilson Avenue, coming straight toward her, and then slowed before parking against the curb in front of her house. Bright afternoon sunlight reflected off the car’s window and hood, making it impossible for Clara to see who was inside. Standing on the porch, she leaned against her broom, absently brushing a strand of black hair from her cheek and tucking it behind her ear. She couldn’t say why, but she felt uneasy.
From the open door behind her came the sounds of music and laughter. Her mother, Christine, was playing a spirited, happy melody on the piano as Clara’s seven-year-old son, Tommy, sang; the boy’s rendition of “Old MacDonald” was making his grandmother laugh. Clara had been humming along as she swept but had stopped when she noticed the car.
Clara fought the sudden urge to join them, to turn her back on the automobile, hurry up the steps, and lock the door behind her.
The car’s doors opened and two men got out. The first was dressed in a crisply pressed military uniform. Medals decorated his chest. He glanced down at a piece of paper in his hand, then peered up at the house, his eyes taking in the large windows, the intricate latticework along the porch, the steep-pitched roof, and the fluttering American flag before finally coming to rest on Clara; he held her gaze for only a moment before looking away.
But it was the other man who shook her. He was older, his hair a snowy white that thinned toward baldness on top. He wore the dress of the clergy, the familiar starched white collar atop a black shirt, and had a well-read Bible in his hands. Unlike his military companion, his eyes found Clara’s and didn’t look away; the gentle smile he offered accentuated his many wrinkles.
Clara knew why they had come. Men like them had gone to Abigail Townsend’s house two years ago, had traveled through a blizzard to Samantha Clinton’s on Christmas Eve, had left Ann Tate crying inconsolably, and had changed the lives of countless other women in every state across the nation. These men acted not out of malice but out of duty.
And now they had come for her; the realization caused her heart to beat faster and an icy chill of dread to wash across her skin.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the military man said as he took off his hat and slipped it beneath his arm. “I’m Captain Coulson of the United States Army.” Nodding toward his companion, he added, “This is Father Booker with the Chaplain Corps.” Up close, the clergyman looked as worn as his Bible; his eyes were red and rheumy, like those of a hound dog.
Clara nodded at each of them in turn.
The captain cleared his throat. “Are you Mrs. Joseph Sinclair?”
“I…I am…” she answered.
The look in the man’s eyes softened. He took a deep breath. “Mrs. Sinclair,” he began, “I must regretfully inform you that your husband, Private Joseph Lawrence Sinclair, was killed in action on Thursday, the fifteenth of March.”
Clara’s heart felt as if it had stopped beating. Her hands trembled. Tears filled her eyes. Even as she struggled to keep her knees from buckling, she latched on to the date the officer had given, not even a week past. That very day, she had received a letter from Joe. Sitting down at the kitchen table, she’d read through it again and again until she knew every word by heart. Her husband had written that he was being careful. He’d told her that she shouldn’t worry, that nothing bad could happen to him so long as he had her and Tommy to come home to. Joe had promised that he would be back before she knew it, and that they would be a family again.
Over and over, he had written that he loved her.
“Private Sinclair died in service to his country,” the military man continued. “It was a sacrifice that will never be forgotten.”
But Clara was no longer listening. Her thoughts reeled, assaulted by memories: the moment she had first noticed Joe standing outside Bob Herring’s grocery store; how nervous she’d been when he asked her to go with him to the movies; the way his lips felt against hers when he kissed her later that night. From those early, magical days, their life had spooled out just like the spools of film they’d watched, giving her a marriage, a home, and a child, all of it bound by love.
It had been perfect, a dream come true, but then the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and everything had changed.
Like the other young men in Sunset, Joe had enlisted and gone off to war; after training, he’d sailed across the Pacific to fight against Hirohito and his army. At first, Clara had been bursting with pride; her husband was fighting for freedom, to say nothing of how handsome he looked in his uniform. But as time passed, the constant fear and worry threatened to overwhelm her. Many nights, she cried herself to sleep. Still, she managed to keep up a strong front, mostly for Tommy’s sake. She clung tightly to the hope she found in her husband’s letters and tried to share in his unshakeable belief that he would soon be home.
But now Joe was dead and Clara felt it in her heart, a sudden emptiness, as if it was her own life that had ended.
Clara blinked; both men were looking at her. “I’m…I’m sorry…” she managed, her head spinning.
“That’s quite all right. I was just offering my condolences,” Captain Coulson explained; he appeared uncomfortable, his eyes flickering away, as if he was still ill at ease with the responsibility that he had been given. “In times like this, it’s been my experience that some measure of comfort can be found from a higher source.” He looked toward his companion.
“My child,” the chaplain began, “I know this is hard, but you must remember that the Lord works in mysterious ways. No matter what pain he would leave behind, the time had come for Joseph to return to His Kingdom, to make the journey home.” His voice was soft and comforting; maybe under different circumstances, it might have been able to provide Clara with the solace she so desperately needed. “Let us read His words.” Opening his Bible, the chaplain began to flip through the pages, looking for a particular line of scripture.
But Clara had already begun to walk away. Her rejection of the chaplain wasn’t because she had no place in her heart for God, but rather because her pain was too great to fix. She was like a wounded animal, slowly but surely dying; all she wanted was to get away, to be alone.
When she reached the porch, Clara realized that she no longer held her broom; it must have fallen from her hands, though she had no memory of letting it go. Beyond the open door, her mother continued to play the piano as Tommy sang by her side; neither of them was aware that their lives had changed.
“Mrs. Sinclair?” one of the men asked. “Are you all right?”
Stepping inside, all Clara could see was Joe. He had built their house, working day and night one year from spring, through the summer, and on into winter, whenever he had time; Joe was in every nail that had been pounded and every doorway under which she walked. Her husband looked back at her from photographs sitting on the fireplace’s mantel and hanging from the walls. He was even there in the toys scattered across the floor; they belonged to Tommy, their beloved son, the only real part of Joe she had left. All Clara saw was a reminder of what she had lost.
“Mrs. Sinclair? Are you sure that you don’t need—”
Clara softly shut the door.
A heartbeat later, she dropped to her knees. The tears she’d managed to hold back now came like a flood, streaming down her face. Sobs heaved out of her chest, shaking her like a leaf in a storm. Despair, fear, and pain all dug their claws in deep. The future she had worked for, had prayed to come true, had staked everything on had been cruelly taken from her. Joe, her husband, the man she loved with all her heart, was dead.
When she screamed, the music stopped.
O WHAT HAPPENS NOW
“Tommy will go before the judge, and if Clarence isn’t having a good day, there’s a chance your son will be locked away for what he did.”
Clara Sinclair’s mouth went as dry as cotton. Her heart raced like a runaway train. Her hands clenched so tight they were white as bone.
“Jail? You…you can’t be serious…”
“Like I said, there’s a chance.”
Frank Oglesby had been Sunset’s sheriff for as far back as Clara could remember. He was getting on in years, now somewhere just past sixty, and beginning to show signs of his age: his formerly black hair was touched with white and thinning on top, his eyes were framed with crow’s-feet and a dusting of age spots, and his uniform had grown tight around his stomach. But while Sheriff Oglesby might have begun to diminish physically, he still commanded the respect of his town. He was tough but fair, the sort of man who listened to both sides of an argument, no matter whether the person making it was poor or rich, white or black, educated or otherwise.
So when he said that her son was in trouble, Clara worried.
“The problem,” the lawman continued, leaning forward to put his elbows on his desk, “is that this isn’t the first time Tommy’s slipped up.”
“No, it isn’t,” she reluctantly agreed.
Ever since her husband had been killed in the war, Clara had noticed a change in their son. Whereas Tommy had once been a precocious, kind, and inquisitive boy, with the death of his father, he had slowly become withdrawn and argumentative. His grades at school had begun to suffer and, as the years passed, Clara noticed that fewer parents wanted their children to spend time with him.
When Tommy had become a teenager, his problems worsened. More than once, Clara had smelled alcohol on his breath. She suspected that some of the things she found in his room were stolen; when she confronted him about where he’d gotten the money to buy them, he laughed in her face. Finally, he had been caught kicking over fence posts on Homer Chestnut’s property; fortunately, the old farmer had declined to press charges. But even then, Tommy had shown no remorse. Alarmed, Clara had desperately tried to reach her son, but no matter what she said, regardless of how hard she pleaded or even threatened, nothing made any difference. As a mother, she felt both helpless and hopeless. Now here she was, miserable in the early dawn hours, sitting in the sheriff’s office.
“Are you sure that he did it?” she asked.
The lawman nodded. “As much as I can be without catching him in the act.”
“Then you don’t know for sure! Maybe he stumbled across it. Given time he might’ve come to you and told you what he’d found.”
The sheriff’s expression hardened; Clara imagined all the times he’d done this before, sitting at his desk, explaining to families that the one they loved wasn’t as innocent as they believed.
According to Sheriff Oglesby, he’d driven his police car into the Sunset Cemetery around ten o’clock the previous night. A full moon shone brightly, so he’d shut off his headlights. One by one, tombstones had passed in the gloom until, unexpectedly, one hadn’t. Curious, the lawman switched his lights back on and discovered Tommy Sinclair standing frozen in the beams. Lying beside him were the remains of a grave marker, broken into dozens of pieces; the sheriff had arrested Tommy for pushing it over. It was a deliberate act of vandalism, one that would surely ignite a scandal in town once word got out.
“What other explanation could there be?”
“He wouldn’t have gone to the cemetery alone,” Clara offered, grasping at straws. “You know who he’s running around with these days. It could’ve been any of them. Maybe they started for the woods when they heard your car.”
The sheriff shook his head. “Tommy was the only person I saw,” he explained. “Besides, I asked your son if there was anyone else with him and he said that there wasn’t.”
Clara wanted to insist that Tommy was lying, that he was trying to protect someone, but she bit her tongue.
And I’ve got a pretty good idea who it is…
For the last couple of weeks, Tommy had been spending time with Naomi Marsh, the daughter of Wilbur Marsh, the owner of Sunset’s roughest bar. Older than her son at nineteen, the girl was a troublemaker; Naomi smoked, drank, and had a mouth filthier than any trash can. But she was also beautiful; she had cavorted around with so many men that most folks in town had lost count. For reasons that escaped Clara, Naomi had developed an interest in Tommy; the boy had proven to be defenseless against her charms. No matter how much Clara protested, regardless of what she said or did to nip Tommy and Naomi’s relationship in the bud, nothing had worked. Clara’s growing fear was that Naomi would ruin her son. Now, even though Sheriff Oglesby hadn’t seen her, Clara was convinced that the girl had been involved in what had happened at the cemetery.
“Would Judge Parker really send Tommy to jail?” she asked fearfully.
The lawman shrugged. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
“But he’s just a boy!” Clara argued.
“Sixteen is almost a man. It certainly is in Clarence’s eyes. Odds are, he won’t show much leniency.”
“But…but to lock him away…”
“Younger than Tommy have been sentenced for less. The judge believes that some time behind bars can do a wayward boy some good. He thinks it scares the crooked nail straight.” Sheriff Oglesby paused. “In this case, he might be right.”
Listening to the lawman, Clara feared that she had failed her son despite all her best efforts. She thought of Joe; what would her husband think if he could see the mess she’d made of her and Tommy’s lives? Struggling to hold back tears, she bit down on her lower lip and turned to look out the office’s lone window; outside, dawn had just begun to color the sky.
The sheriff noticed. Frowning, he pushed himself out of his chair and went to sit on the corner of his desk, right in Clara’s line of sight.
“Maybe there’s another way…” he said.
Clara looked up at him through wet eyes. She felt a flicker of hope flare in her chest. “What…what do you mean?”
“You were right about one thing. I
see Tommy push over that tombstone, so I can’t say for certain that he’s responsible. Maybe he would’ve come to tell me about it, maybe he wouldn’t have. But because I happened upon him when I did, we’ll never know, will we?”
Clara’s heart raced. “But…but you said…”
The lawman sighed. “I know things have been hard for you, Clara,” he replied. “Raising a child nowadays isn’t easy. The Good Lord knows how much trouble I had with my own two boys. But to have to do it all by yourself, well, it doesn’t seem fair to hold it all against you for how Tommy’s turned out.”
“I’m not looking for pity,” she replied defiantly.
“That might be,” the sheriff said, “but you should take it all the same. It’s the only thing that’ll keep your son out of jail.”
He got up and fished a mess of keys from his pocket. When he looked back, the compassion in the lawman’s eyes had vanished, replaced by a hardness that unnerved Clara.
“Once I’ve said my piece, we’ll go to the cells, I’ll let Tommy out, and you can take your son home. But let me be clear about something,” Sheriff Oglesby said, his voice low. “This here is your son’s last chance. The next time he screws up, whatever the reason, he’ll stand before the judge and get what’s coming to him. Your father was a good friend of mine and the whole town feels bad about what happened to Joe, but none of that will matter if Tommy can’t keep his nose clean. I won’t help him, or you, any more.”
Clara was grateful for the tremendous favor she was being given, but the meaning of the sheriff’s warning wasn’t lost on her.
“Do we understand each other?” he asked.
She nodded, promising herself that this time would be different. No matter what she had to do, she would keep Tommy from trouble.
Now if only he would do his part…
Clara drove her pickup truck through the slowly awakening streets. The sun had just risen; its light streamed through the newly budded leaves of elms and oaks, painted weather vanes, and splashed across the steeple of the Methodist church. A young boy raced down the sidewalk on his bicycle, flinging newspapers onto porches and front walks. All in all, it had the makings of just another day in Sunset.
But inside the truck, all was not so serene.
Tommy leaned against the passenger door. He had rolled down the window as soon as he’d gotten in, planted his arm on the frame, and hadn’t budged since they left the jail. He also hadn’t said a word.
“What happened in the cemetery?” Clara finally asked; up until then she’d been too upset to speak. “What were you even doing there?”
Her son didn’t answer.
Glancing at him, Clara was struck by how much Tommy looked like his father. Every year, his resemblance to Joe became sharper, stronger. He had the same thick, dark hair, though Tommy wore his a bit longer. He pursed his lips the same way when he brooded. There was the same curve to his jaw, the same high cheekbones. Tommy even had the same build, tall and lanky, a frame that he would someday fill out. Only his eyes, green flecked with gold, came from his mother. She noticed that his clothes, a worn pair of jeans and a denim button-down shirt, were wrinkled, probably from having slept on the jail cell’s cot. Tommy absently pulled on a frayed string at the shirt’s cuff.
Though the sheriff had been right, that at sixteen Tommy was almost a man, it was hard for Clara to see him as anything other than her little boy. She remembered how he had been as a child, in those years before his father died. He had loved to stand beside the piano and sing song after song for as long as his grandmother would play; now the piano was silent. Long ago, when Clara would stand at the sink doing dishes, Tommy would race into the room, shouting at the top of his lungs, rushing to grab her legs as he looked up at her with a smile that melted her heart; now it sometimes felt as if all Tommy wanted was to be alone.
No matter how hard Clara tried to fill the void created by Joe’s death, to give her son the happiness he deserved, she never quite seemed to manage. In her worst nightmares, she never would’ve imagined that things would be like this.
And that made her angry.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” she pressed, slamming the heel of her hand into the steering wheel in frustration. “Answer me!”
But Tommy only yawned and kept staring out the window.
Glancing in the rearview mirror, trying to calm down, Clara took quick measure of herself. She looked exhausted; dark circles underlined her eyes, the result of having been up all night. Her skin was flushed red and marred by a few wrinkles. She’d haphazardly tied her long black hair behind her neck; a few loose strands spilled across her shoulders. Joe had once told her that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on; now, nearly thirty-six years old, she had a hard time believing that that had ever been true.
Clara slowed as they neared the intersection of Harding and Grant; there was such a dip in the road that driving through without braking meant she would bottom out the truck’s undercarriage. Struggling with the gears, she managed to downshift in time to ease through. Twenty years old, the truck had a list of things wrong with it nearly as long as Clara’s arm, but with money tight, patching its faults whenever one became too bad to ignore was the only option she had.
Turning onto Main Street, they passed the bakery, the post office, and Steve Clark, out washing the windows of his barbershop. Two blocks later, they saw the tavern that Naomi’s father owned, shuttered and dark after the previous night’s drinking; unlike the other businesses in town, the Marshland didn’t show signs of life until after the sun had gone down. Clara watched her son as they drove past, expecting some sort of reaction, but he gave none.
They were almost home and she still hadn’t gotten any answers.
“I can’t believe you’re going to just sit there and say nothing,” she snapped.
“Why should I?” Tommy finally replied, yawning again as he ran a hand through his unruly hair; his voice wavered a bit, changing as he was from boy to man. “Besides, you’re doing plenty of talking for both of us.”
“I want to know what happened.”
“No, you don’t,” he said, looking over his shoulder at her; his narrow eyes were dismissive, as if she was the child.
“Yes, I do,” Clara insisted.
“What you want is for me to say something to make you feel better, even if it’s a lie.”
“I want the truth.”
Tommy gave a condescending snort. “Naomi says you never let anything go, like a dog with a bone.”
“Was she there with you?”
Tommy didn’t reply, which was answer enough.
Clara’s heart raced; her fears of the girl’s involvement had been well-founded. “Tommy, she’s nothing but trouble!”
“Naomi told me you’d say
, too. She thinks that the reason you hate her so much is because you’re angry she’s so much younger and prettier than you. Naomi says that you don’t want me spending time with her because you’re jealous she has a future to look forward to, while you’re stuck in this town. You’ve got nothing and no one to share it with.”
Clara was so upset, her hands were shaking even as she squeezed the steering wheel tight. She pulled the truck over, tromping down so hard on the brakes that the tires squealed before bumping against the curb. Tommy didn’t seem the least bit put out, sitting there calmly as if they were out for a Sunday drive. Glancing through the dusty, cracked windshield, Clara realized they were only a block from home.
“You almost went to jail because of Naomi!” she argued. “I don’t want you seeing her again!”
“You can’t stop me.”
“As long as you’re living under my roof, you’ll do what I say!” she threatened, hoping it sounded more convincing to his ears than her own.
It didn’t. “Then I’ll move out,” Tommy replied with a shrug.
Clara felt trapped. This was the way things were between her and Tommy; she pleaded with her son to change, while he mostly ignored her, argued when he didn’t, and in either case kept right on doing as he pleased. The only choice left was to follow through with her threats. But should she actually kick him out of the house? What would happen if she did? She had long since convinced herself that if Tommy wasn’t under her supervision, he’d be worse off. But what if she was wrong? What if Sheriff Oglesby was right? What if some time behind bars was the only thing that could fix what was wrong with her son? Clara shuddered. What would Joe think of what had become of his family?