Author: Jim Power
Title: The Reunion of Souls
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Heat Level: Spicy
Approximate Word Count: 55,770
THE REUNION OF SOULS
Ethan Harrington rose at first light, gathered his things, then checked out of the downtown hotel and rented a car. He drove out of the city and turned down the Prospect Road, immediately noticing how different everything looked. Where there had been unbroken wilderness five years ago, there was now an industrial park, a rink, and a business complex. He passed a new gas station, felt a sense of relief to see the majority of houses unchanged, then noticed his heart quickening as he approached the little village of Shad Bay. By the time he entered it, he could feel his pulse pounding in his wrists and temples. A film of perspiration formed on his forehead.
He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly as he drove down the hill. It was still only seven o’clock, and no one was out and about. There was not a breath of wind, and the bay was absolutely still, the houses on the hills surrounding it reflected with perfect clarity on its mirrorlike surface. Ethan pulled over and looked at a small yellow house on the hill behind the beach, smoke curling from the chimney. He wondered if she was there. Had she sold her house, and had someone new moved in? Had she married and begun a family? Or was she there right now? What would she say, and what would she think when she saw him after all these years?
He didn’t know, and a large part of him was afraid to find out.
Ethan pulled in front of a stately home and slid a green envelope inside the mailbox. The mailbox was illustrated with an Atlantic salmon leaping out of a dark blue river, the name “Harrington” hanging below it on a wooden panel. He continued up the road to the bridge, but even from there, a mile distant, he could still see her house. It seemed to stand out like a torch in the darkness.
A prickly heat broke out all over his skin. He turned around and slowly drove past his family estate again, then parked across from the little island, his eyes fixed on the small yellow house. After taking a deep breath, he drove to the beach. He got out of the car and climbed the hill in the morning silence. The steam from his breath rose in the damp, cold air and faded to nothing, just like promises unkept. At the top of the hill, he could see the two Cannon Rocks, the big island, the village of Bayside, even his family home. But two hundred yards away was the small yellow house that drew his attention as surely as if there was a magnet inside it.
Sitting on a granite boulder, Ethan stared at the ocean and the gulls flying past in the clear blue sky. An almost dreamlike mist rose from the water, and small clumps of ice could still be seen bobbing in the frigid Atlantic. Thin ice also covered the shoreline, gleaming and reminding everyone that this year’s hard winter had not yet decided to relinquish its grip. Ethan could feel the cold air on his skin, and he knew it would soon start raining, but no matter where his thoughts strayed, he kept looking to the small yellow house with the gray smoke curling from its chimney.
The soft morning light and cool air bathed his face. Ethan’s senses were heightened by a mixture of excitement, intensity, and dark foreboding. Though some may have thought he cut an imposing figure in his brown suede coat, he felt small, his conscience racked by a deep and unshakable shame.
Suddenly the door of the little yellow house opened, and a woman walked outside. Though only a silhouette, he knew instantly that it was Ebony. He knew it! A tremendous surge of adrenaline flooded his system, and he could barely breathe, barely think. Yes, this would be the day, the day he’d dreamed of, the day he’d dreaded. He sighed deeply at the thought of what was about to happen, gathered the collar of his coat against the damp southeasterly wind, then looked up at the approaching ominous clouds.
Yes, this would be the day.
Ebony Evans picked up a piece of firewood and then noticed a man rise from the big granite boulder behind the beach and start to walk down the hill. Before she could get a good look, he vanished over the crest.
“That’s odd,” she said to herself. “You don’t see people out this early very often.” She shrugged and forgot about it.
She gathered four pieces of wood, carried them inside, and stoked the fire. As the pieces ignited, she leaned against the window frame, her breath clouding the glass with a soft, fading impression. She gazed at the little fishing village below, the soulful ballad “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” by Madonna softly playing on her stereo.
Ebony looked at the present Jenny had given her. Though the movie was still partially wrapped in colorful paper, she could see the A&E logo and the pictures of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. She picked up the birthday card and read it again before standing it on her china cabinet, then unwrapped the movie and was just about to put it on her top shelf when she stared at the words Pride and Prejudice.
“Some people don’t change,” she mumbled.
The house was abnormally cool. She checked the cast iron radiators and felt that they were cold to the touch. She turned the thermometer, but the furnace did not start. She knitted her brows, added another piece of wood to the stove, then crawled back into bed. Though she had slept poorly the night before, feeling restless and irritated, she could not go back to sleep. The room seemed uncomfortably quiet, the deep, unremitting silence broken only by the crackle of burning wood. She sighed, got out of bed, added more wood to the fire, and boiled water for tea. As she waited, the yellow envelope on top of the fridge drew her eyes like a magnet. Finally, taking a deep breath, she opened it. She had already filled out all the information. The question now was whether to sign and send it. If she did, she knew her life would take a drastic turn. It would be the end, the final white flag, the surrendering of hope. But it was also a new beginning. A challenge. Something noble, wonderful, splendid.
She took out the card with her personal information, and suddenly it occurred to her that the age was wrong. She had written “twenty-seven” in the box, but as of today, that was no longer true. With her pen she turned the seven into an eight. Twenty-eight years old. Soon she would be thirty, forty, fifty.
She gazed at herself in the mirror and wondered what she had truly accomplished in her life. What would be her legacy if she died tomorrow? For a long time, she stared at the woman looking back at her. She did not see beauty. She saw only the lines in her face, the weary expression, the flickering of inner light. And though she couldn’t understand it, she saw something else. She saw hatred, and she saw a conscience racked by a deep and unshakable shame.
Ebony signed the card, sealed it in the envelope, and applied the proper postage. It was such a simple act, yet it would change everything, absolutely everything. People come to crossroads in their lives, and this was hers. She knew it. Her world was about to change forever. And how her heart ached as she stepped outside in the cool morning air and picked wood from her dwindling pile. After collecting two loads, she took the opportunity to catch up on some neglected housework and got so busy that she forgot about the furnace and went from one thing to another. At ten thirty, she put on her raincoat and grabbed the umbrella and her envelope. She strolled to the community mailboxes, where she hesitated for several minutes before finally dropping in the envelope. It started to rain. Ebony opened her umbrella and walked up the hill. The poor night’s sleep, the fateful decision, her birthday, the anniversary—everything combined to make her feel on edge. It seemed her mind might literally overload and explode.
She walked down the Shad Bay hill totally distracted, hardly noticing passing cars, houses, or the rain. Without even thinking about it, she stared at the big island and the partially visible cottage nestled among its trees. Memories, one after another, played in her mind, then faded, leaving her weary and uninspired.
The house was still warm, but the fire had dwindled to hot coals. She put on more wood and brought her scrapbook to the table. She had started the scrapbook when she was ten, and it chronicled much of her life, from her awards in school for excellence in reading and writing, the science project she won in high school, and a large amount of newspaper clippings about her sports past. Flipping the pages unthinkingly, each bringing with it new reflections, Ebony turned the last page and saw the photograph of a handsome young white man dressed in white slacks and a white shirt. He was wearing sunglasses and sandals, smiling like a movie star, and standing on the big island.
“I hate you, Ethan Harrington!” she said in a vicious tone as the clock struck noon. “I hate your guts!”
Ethan looked up at the old town clock as it struck noon, then walked through the downtown, pausing in front of a favorite old tavern, the smell of steak and chips tempting him, but he feared he might be recognized, so he kept walking, head down. As he strode toward the theater, Ethan remembered the autumn night he and Ebony attended Romeo and Juliet, and he recalled, as if it were yesterday, how hard she cried at the end. He had never seen her more beautiful than that night, her eyes gleaming like frosted glass, tears dripping onto her scarlet collar. Every man and woman in the lobby looked at her, but she was not conscious of their admiring eyes or stolen glances. She was just beautiful.
“The time approaches, Ebony,” Ethan mumbled to himself. “How will you react? What will you look like?”
Ethan walked to the library, but again his thoughts turned to Ebony. Years ago, they sat at this very spot, ate chips from a mobile food truck specializing in fries, then walked arm in arm through the city gardens, thousands of flowers filling the summer night with their intoxicating aromas. They watched a wedding, the bride splendid in her white gown, the little girls all attired in white and flushed with a timid rapture, silver pins in their hair and colorful bouquets held to their frail chests. After the couple was married and the train moved off across a small arched bridge, Ebony held Ethan’s hand and led him along, as if they were among the invited guests. It was obvious they were not, but Ebony was so stunningly beautiful, so exuberant with life and joy, that everyone hoped she and Ethan would continue in the procession.
Ethan smiled at the memories, then turned down another street, where he tossed twenty dollars into the fiddle case of a young musician. After lunch, he sat at the waterfront, watching ships come and go. The smell of salt water exhilarated him. He had forgotten how pleasant that pungent aroma was, how it surged into the senses, making a man understand the passing of time and the value of life. The ocean always looked the same. When he was a boy, his parents had brought him to this very spot, but now, years later, the water still looked the same, and probably would for untold millennia. But how time had changed him. How different a man he was now. Yet how would she see him? Oh, it would never be the same. He could not expect that. But there was hope. At least a hint of hope.
Ethan shrugged and remembered the old Russian saying “Hope dies last.”
He closed his eyes and lowered his head. Soon, very soon, he would find out where his history had taken him and how it would affect his future.
At five he began walking back to the car and preparing his mind for that fateful drive to Shad Bay. It was time to confront what he had done, and it was time to face the consequences. It was time to look Ebony Evans right in the eyes.
Just past five, Ebony approached the fine home Ethan Harrington had gazed upon that morning. Jenny Harrington, just getting out of her car, called out and waved. Ebony waved back and smiled warmly.
“You don’t look right,” Jenny said when Ebony reached her. “Are you coming down with something?”
“I didn’t sleep well.”
“I see,” she said meaningfully.
“I watched Pride and Prejudice last night,” Ebony said in an awkward tone. “Thank you for letting me open the gift early.”
“Isn’t Colin Firth handsome?”
“Gorgeous,” Ebony said. “And Jennifer Ehle is a perfect Elizabeth Bennet. They have so much chemistry.” She laughed like a schoolgirl. “And you know how I love romances.”
“I think those shelves of movies and novels gave you away. What’s your favorite part of Pride and Prejudice?”
“Hard to say. I love every scene between them and, of course, when they get married at the end. But my favorite part is when they meet unexpectedly at his home, after he jumps into the lake. It’s so romantic.” She glanced fleetingly at her best friend. “You didn’t have to get me anything, you know.”
“This birthday was special.”
Ebony turned away with a pained look.
“I have a surprise for you tonight,” Jenny said, grinning. “You’ll never guess.”
“I don’t like guessing,” Ebony returned, “but I do like surprises.”
“All right, we’ll leave it as a surprise then.”
The rain fell harder as Jenny and Ebony hurried up the driveway. They passed the flowering crab trees, the yellow moving van parked in front of the garage, cobblestone walls bordering spacious lawns, and a quaint English garden, now wild and overgrown. Jenny was twenty-five, tall, dark haired, and pretty. Ebony was of medium height and had a skin tone of light chocolate. Her medium-length hair was held back by a blue ribbon, and she wore a blue dress that revealed the top of her chest and part of her shoulders. Though she looked friendly, there was a strange aura about her, as if she was always pulling back, like someone afraid to reveal too much.
When the women rounded the corner and headed for the back of the house, Doc opened the door to them. “Come in out of the rain,” he insisted.
“Not right now,” Jenny said. “We just came for the key.”
“Abide a while,” he offered, looking up at the sky. “It’s raining.”
“We’ll be back at six,” Jenny said, laughing at the elderly gentleman’s charming manner. “Just give us an hour or so to clean the house. Then you can start moving in.”
“But you’ll get wet.”
“Dad!” exclaimed a woman in her early thirties, stepping forward. “I’m sure Jenny is eager to reclaim her home.”
Jenny put up her hand. “I hope you don’t think that, Rebecca. I don’t mind having you at all. It’s just that I know you’re anxious to get settled. But I’m more than a little embarrassed that I gave you the wrong date.”
“The Smiths seem like very nice people,” Rebecca said. “They say the house has a wonderful view of the Nine Mile River and Shad Bay.”
“You’ll love it. Lydia always kept the place spotless, but we’ll just give it the once-over before you move in.”
“Housecleaning,” Rebecca said with a frown. “Some birthday present, eh, Ebony?”
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I like to help out when I can.” She looked at her watch and then to Jenny. “We’d better get going.”
“Are you sure I can’t help?” Rebecca asked.
“We’ll be okay,” Ebony assured her.
Rebecca came out on the veranda. “Thanks for renting to us on such short notice, Jenny. The nearest suitable property Ron could find was way over in Glen Margaret. That’s a long commute to the Shad Bay school every day.” She turned to Ebony. “The cake will be here when you get back. Dad’s even going to pick up some candles.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“We have a surprise for you, too,” Doc added with childlike enthusiasm.
“Oh my,” said Ebony, “this is turning out to be a day of surprises.”
“We should be back around six or so,” Jenny said.
The friends left, and as they approached Jenny’s car, the sun suddenly burst through an opening in the dark clouds and illuminated the landscape. The two friends decided, on the spur of the moment, to walk the half mile instead of driving. Just as they reached the shoulder of the road, a half-ton Ford truck drove past with two men. The driver honked his horn and waved. Jenny and Ebony waved back.
“Isn’t Bill a sweetie?” Jenny asked, smiling brightly.
“He’s a very nice guy,” Ebony agreed. “You’re lucky to have him.”
They walked in silence for several minutes, passing the Smelt Brook—swollen by the spring thaw—the government wharf, and the Osprey Archery Club.
Jenny suddenly asked out of the blue, “What do you think is the best quality in a man?”
“Trustworthiness,” Ebony shot back immediately. “Above all else, a man must be trustworthy. He has to be someone you can count on day in and day out.”
“Think Bill fits that description?”
“Yes, Bill is a fine person. He’s a gentleman.”
Jenny had been waiting for that. “He asked me out to a movie tomorrow night, and he mentioned that one of his friends is free.”
“To take me?”
“Yes,” Jenny said, “he wants to take you.”
“He’s never even met me.”
“We’re all strangers until we meet for the first time.”
“Sorry, Jenny, it’s not my nature. You know me. Home, hot chocolate, movies. Can you honestly see me going on a blind date?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable. And it would ruin your fun if you had to worry about me all evening.”
“You’d enjoy it.”
Ebony shook her head.
“Please, Ebony, do it for me.”
“Why for you?”
Jenny sighed. “I don’t want you to leave, okay? Your life is here in Shad Bay. I know you’re a wonderful woman. Everybody knows that. You don’t have to travel to Africa to prove it.”
“And you think I’ll change my mind if you find me a man?”
“Can’t hurt,” Jenny said halfheartedly.
“No, I’m resolved to do this. I’m leaving whenever the mission can find me an opening, at the latest in early July. I might even be going much sooner.”
“Soon, that’s all.”
“Oh, that’s just wonderful!” Jenny exclaimed sarcastically. “You’re hurrying off to somewhere you don’t really want to go when you’re already somewhere you want to be. And what am I supposed to do with no best friend anymore?”
Ebony shook her head. “I don’t know what your problem is. You knew I was going in July anyway. What difference does it make if I leave a little earlier?”
“I couldn’t care less what you do!”
The two women grew moody and walked in silence along the shoulder of the road. Even though they were miffed at each other, Jenny and Ebony smiled cheerfully at a man and his wife getting out of their car, a baby in her arms. A few houses farther along, near the bridge, Mrs. Hurst, a woman in her seventies, waved to them, and Jenny called out, wondering if spring would ever arrive. Mrs. Hurst laughed and assured them that things would soon change.
“I’ll write every week,” Ebony said as they walked across the bridge into Bayside.
“Don’t bother. I’m not going to read your letters.”
“You’re just angry because you still feel guilty.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know very well what it means.”
A brief silence followed.
“What are you going to do with your house,” Jenny asked, “or have you still not figured that out?” She paused. “Maybe you could let the teenagers use it as a drinking hangout on Friday nights.”
“I’ve already covered that with Martha. She said she might want to rent my place and could even buy it.”
Jenny bit her lip, and Ebony stared ahead with firm resolve. Both of them seemed to want to say something, but neither wanted to provoke a further confrontation. Knowing each other inside out, as best friends are wont to do, they simply continued walking in silence toward the house Jenny would be renting to Rebecca.
“I feel a heavy rain coming,” Ebony said.
The two women ran to the house, opened the door, and hurried inside just as the skies opened.
“What a dull afternoon,” Jenny said as they entered the kitchen. Her tone, as is often the case among close friends, did not betray that they had argued earlier. “The weather can be so dreary in the spring. Quite depressing.”
“True,” Ebony said shortly.
“Why are you crying?” Jenny asked softly, looking at her.
Ebony patted away her tears with a tissue. “I don’t know.” She sniffled and put on a brave face. “I haven’t been happy on my birthday for a long time.”
Jenny lightly touched her best friend’s arm and then tied back the curtains. The misty light accentuated not only the soft cast of Ebony’s eyes, but also an intense coldness that flowed from within, as if part of her had died.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“It’s sad,” Ebony answered, “but sometimes people hurt each other, even those they love.”
Jenny scrunched up her nose. “Let’s not be so glum. This is your birthday. And look, it’s clearing again.”
Ebony nodded and forced a smile.
Though the house was thoroughly clean, the two of them swept and dusted out of a sense of obligation. When they were about to leave, Ebony, by accident, brushed against Jenny’s purse and knocked it off the counter. The wallet fell out and flipped open, revealing a picture of Ethan with his arm around his sister. His hair was dark like hers and his features similar, though in the old photograph, Jenny looked to be about fifteen, and he was five years older. Jenny glanced awkwardly at Ebony, then hurriedly knelt down to scoop up the contents and close her purse as quickly as she could.
“Sorry,” Jenny mumbled.
“Time to go,” Ebony said, pretending nothing had happened. “I don’t want to be late for my surprise.”
Even though it was six thirty and the rush hour was over, the traffic was much heavier than Ethan anticipated. The city itself had changed dramatically since the last time he saw it. Some of the architecture he particularly liked, especially the rejuvenated waterfront and its historic properties, but the volume of traffic shocked him. He shook his head going through the roundabout, then took a deep breath as he turned onto the Prospect Road. Soon, very soon, he would come face-to-face with Ebony. He had prepared perfectly for this moment, but as the hour drew near, he found himself perfectly unprepared for it.
As he passed through the villages, his nerves stretched to the breaking point. Every part of the road, from the ball field in Goodwood where his team had won the championship, to the beach next to the lake where he had partied and brawled, every inch held a piece of his history. But it was the people he knew, the human lives that had intertwined with his own, that preoccupied him. He pondered the disappointments and his own great failings, but now his past and future were two freight trains speeding toward one other on the same track, soon to hit head-on in a collision with fate. And this collision would occur the moment he looked into Ebony’s eyes.
Ebony and Jenny hurried down the road. They retraced their steps, first crossing the bridge, then again waving to Mrs. Hurst. They passed the archery club, the government wharf, the Smelt Brook. The skies were clearing to the west, and the late-afternoon sun looked like a rainbow mixed in a blender and splashed against the sky.
“…don’t you think?” Jenny asked in a raised voice as they walked past the cemetery.
“I’m sorry,” Ebony said, turning to her with a distracted look. “I was drifting.”
“It’s turning out to be beautiful day, don’t you think?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Could anything be more beautiful than a sunset in Shad Bay?”
“No,” Ebony admitted, looking at the beautiful pastel colors above the big island.
“Why leave it then?”
“Beauty is everywhere. I’m sure there are spectacular sunsets in Africa, too.”
“Tell me the truth, Ebony. Do you really want to leave?”
“My furnace broke down last night,” Ebony said, keen on changing the subject. “But I got distracted and forgot to call the serviceman. I think I’ll wait until Monday.”
“Is that wise?”
“I have the woodstove. I’ll be fine. Besides, Jackie Dow is on call, and they have a new baby. I don’t want to bother him on a weekend.”
“Do you really want to go to Africa?” Jenny persisted.
Ebony looked straight ahead, and Jenny knew from experience that it was useless to press her further, so the two continued in silence. They reached the Harrington house and walked up the driveway. At the door, Doc greeted them wearing a pyramid-shaped multicolored birthday hat sitting crookedly on his head.
“Little late,” he noted, holding up his watch to show them it was ten minutes to seven. “But that’s okay. Birthday girls are allowed to be late. In fact, we all know it is not only the right of women to be late, it’s their obligation!”
Ebony and Jenny laughed.
Doc was in his early seventies and very distinguished looking in his sharp clothes and flowing mane of gray hair. He wore a smooth green satin vest with dark green and black alligators printed on it, the chain of a gold watch dangling from his breast pocket. His loose brown trousers seemed modest compared to the flashy black leather shoes, but suited him nicely. For all his dignity, though, there was a mischievous, almost childlike twinkle in his eyes that never left his animated features. He gestured for them to come inside.
“So, do we still get a piece of cake?” Jenny asked as she and Ebony entered.
“Of course you do,” Rebecca said, laying out plates. “In fact, since Dad’s belly is getting a little too big lately, I think you can have his piece, too.”
“Let’s not get carried away!” Doc declared with an offended expression, then winked at Ebony and Jenny.
Rebecca pinched his cheek. “Just kidding, Dad.”
Jenny looked around the room. “Where’s Ron?”
“He took your advice and went bowling with the other teachers. He figured that would give him a chance to get to meet them in a relaxed atmosphere.”
“He’ll fit right in,” Jenny assured her.
“Hope so,” Rebecca said with a nervous laugh. “Ron is slow at making friends.”
“He’ll be fine.” Jenny suddenly grew very animated. “Well, do you think I should give Ebony her other present now? I can’t wait much longer.”
“Jenny, you’ve already given me a wonderful present.”
“Oh well,” she said with a laugh.
“I don’t know when Ron will get back,” Rebecca noted, glancing at the clock, “so we might as well have our little party now.”
She brought out the cake, complete with the words “Happy Birthday, Ebony.” Doc had meticulously placed twenty-eight pink spiral candles on top. He lit them, and after a little coaxing, Ebony blew them all out in one try. Everyone laughed and congratulated her, and then Doc clapped and sang “Happy Birthday” in his deep, clear voice.
“Pavarotti has nothing on you, Dad,” Rebecca teased.
“He was a good student.”
Jenny looked hard at him. “A good student?”
“I taught him to sing,” Doc said, keeping a straight face. “He never had my natural ability, but he was doggedly determined.”
Everyone laughed, and Jenny went to her room and brought back a wrapped gift.
“Hope you like it,” she said, presenting it to her friend.
“Two gifts,” Ebony said to Rebecca and Doc. “First my favorite movie, now a second present. This woman is incorrigible.”
Jenny beamed at the description of herself.
Ebony unwrapped the small package, and her eyes opened wide. “It’s beautiful!” she exclaimed.
The present was a small piece of stained glass. The size of Ebony’s palm, the glass was stained with vibrant colors and a golden border. It depicted a young woman standing beside a lighthouse and waving to a young man steering his fishing boat into a sheltered cove. Every detail was vivid and sharp, rich in texture, and meticulously crafted.
“Thank you,” Ebony said, hugging Jenny. “It’s so beautiful! It’s from the gift shop, isn’t it?”
She nodded with childlike joy. “The day we went to Peggy’s Cove, you couldn’t take your eyes off it, so I knew it would be the perfect birthday present.”
“It’s a lifelong keepsake. I’ll cherish it always. You really are too kind to me, Jenny.”
“What can I say? You’re the best friend I ever had.”
Doc took a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to Ebony. “Here’s a little something I wrote for you.”
Ebony smiled as she read it to herself and then passed it to the other women.
“This is lovely,” said Jenny, smiling, “but quite the coincidence. Your poem is exactly the same as one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.”
“Doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he said with a wave of the hand. “Every two-bit hack plagiarizes my work.”
The women laughed.
“Oh, there’s one other thing,” Rebecca said, picking a green envelope off the china cabinet. “This came for you today. It was in the mailbox.”
“The surprise I referred to,” Doc said. “I saw a car drop it off this morning.”
“What car?” Ebony asked.
“I don’t know, just a car. It stopped, then left.”
“What is it?” Ebony asked, placing her stained glass picture on the table and reaching for the envelope with a look of confusion. She read her typed name on a white label. “Who could have possibly given this to me?”
“Secret admirer?” Jenny teased with an animated laugh. “Trying to get in your good graces?” She wiggled her eyebrows.
“I hear a car,” Doc said, starting to get up. “Must be Ron.”
Ebony was going to wait until Ron came in, but everyone urged her to open the envelope. She smiled awkwardly, then, slowly and deliberately, opened it and found a small white cardboard box. Hesitantly she started to lift off the top. Her friends, eager to see what it was, crowded round and encouraged her with nods and gestures. Ebony removed the cover and found a beautiful locket. Attached to a fine golden chain, the heart-shaped locket gleamed brilliantly, its outside edge spotted with five tiny jewels, all of different colors.
Ebony smirked with bewilderment. “It’s a beautiful piece of jewelry, but I can’t imagine who would give it to me.”
Everyone shrugged, and they could hear Ron walking up the back steps. He entered the porch. Ebony pressed a catch and opened the locket. Engraved inside were two words: Forgive me.
“Does anyone know where this locket came from?” Ebony appealed, glancing around the room with anxiety, her voice strained.
“I do,” answered Ethan Harrington as he stepped into the kitchen.
Rebecca and Doc, seeing a complete stranger before them, looked in surprise. Jenny’s mouth fell wide open. She stared at her brother in silence for a moment, glanced awkwardly at Ebony, and unconsciously covered her mouth with her hand. Ethan glanced affectionately at her, then leveled a solemn gaze at Ebony.
“Happy birthday,” he said softly.
Ebony gasped as if she had seen a ghost. She staggered backward and bumped into the table, knocking the stained glass picture to the floor. It broke into several pieces. Ebony looked down in a kind of drunken haze, and then her eyes darted around the room, focusing briefly on the faces of Jenny and her new friends, then the clock on the wall. For some unknown reason, she noted that it was seven sharp. Then, irresistibly, she turned once again to the handsome, dark-haired man who studied her every move.
“Ethan,” Jenny murmured, staring at her brother. “Ethan!”
Ethan smiled at his sister with a pained look, then returned his gaze to Ebony. Without uttering a single word, whole worlds of meaning passed between the three of them. Ebony noticed Rebecca watching the scene in disbelief. She and Doc seemed befuddled beyond measure, looking at each other openmouthed.
Ron, who arrived moments after Ethan, suddenly opened the door. “Sorry I’m late, everybo…” His voice died, just as if someone was turning down the volume on a radio.
Ethan, noticing Ron only slightly, stumbled forward as if in a daze and stopped directly in front of Ebony. He tried to speak, but could not. She recoiled slightly, then suddenly swung her hand with tremendous force and slapped him across the face with a resounding whack! It was so loud and so shocking that everyone stepped back with a gasp. Ethan winced and turned away, his cheek turning blood red. Jenny shrieked and ran to him, throwing her arms around her brother. He hugged her back. Rebecca and Doc glanced at Ron and grimaced.
Ebony, shocked by her own action, moaned like a wounded animal and quickly ran out the door, tears streaming down her face. Her features were contorted, frantic. She seemed to see nothing, hear nothing, understand nothing. The world was a senseless mass of light and figures, so unreal at this moment that everything was like a dream, a mad dream from which she could run, but not escape. It was the moment she had dreamed of, longed for, dreaded—dreaded with every fiber of her being, so much so that she would have given almost anything to be in Africa right now, far from the shock fate had delivered her. But in her right hand she firmly clung to the locket. His locket. The locket he had just given her.