She could feel the damp evening winds coming in through the cracks around the windowpanes. Only a few years earlier, an incoming draft in this room—her childhood bedroom—would have been unthinkable. Her mother had a discerning eye for detail that would have twitched at the slightest imperfection in a home, especially if it affected the comfort of someone sleeping under her roof. And her father had been the best realtor on the Cape, the kind who had become an expert handyman over the years as an added service to his clients. But it wasn’t only the seams around the windowsills that had cracked lately in the Eldredge family.
Eager to find sleep, Melissa stepped from the bed into her slippers and scuttled over to the window, not wanting to wake the rest of the house. After pulling the drapes closed, she took an extra blanket from the top of the closet, spread it over the bed, and then entered a reminder in her cell phone to have a handyman give the entire house a once-over before she returned to New York, just in case she could ever convince her mother to sell it.
She was returning her phone to the nightstand when she got a new text message. Are you still awake?
She smiled to herself, appreciating the fact that Charlie had stayed in constant contact with her in the four days she had been here. Barely, she replied.
As much as they both traveled for work, he always checked in with her when he awoke in the morning and before going to bed at night. Any other ruffled feathers today?
He was referring to the previous day’s “silly sibling dustup,” as her mother had called it dismissively. Given the seasonal nature of her brother Mike’s work, this was the first time he had been able to come back to the States since the funeral, and Melissa had driven up to the Cape to make it a family homecoming. All smiles and good behavior today. We visited the grave together.
The historic cemetery down the road from Our Lady of the Cape Church was the setting of the country graveyard scene in the painting that hung over the piano in the living room, one of the numerous works of art that covered the home’s mellow, creamy walls. When her mother had painted that haunting row of headstones more than forty years earlier, the idea of someday burying her husband there must have seemed unimaginable.
She paused, recalling Mike holding first their mother’s hand and then hers, as they stood at the foot of their father’s grave that afternoon. They were still family, no matter what. Family is family, Melissa added. She never used to utter a negative word about them until she started grief counseling. Every time the subject matter of the Eldredges arose—and what had happened in their past—she found herself growing quiet, but she was told that talking about your childhood was an essential part of therapy. Nevertheless, she felt guilty sometimes, wondering if she spoke too frequently during counseling about the small hiccups in the family to the exclusion of everything else that had been good. Today, at the grave, she had forgotten all about the occasional tensions and had been grateful once again for the wonderful life her parents had made possible for her.
She saw dots on the screen, indicating that Charlie was typing a new text. Speaking of family, have I told you lately I can’t wait for you to be my wife? Only two more months.
He had proposed to Melissa only two weeks ago, and she had immediately said yes. It had been her mother’s idea for them to get married on the one-year anniversary of her father’s passing, even though it meant a very short engagement. The ceremony would be smaller than small—just the bride and groom, immediate family, and a few friends.
She found herself smiling as she typed a reply, as she always did when she thought about her future with him. I was going to wait until tomorrow to tell you, but I passed the cutest little winery today. I know we said the courthouse, but maybe…? She hit Send and then attached the photographs she had taken when they stopped on the way home from the cemetery to share a toast to her father.
Only seconds later, her phone rang in her hand. An incoming FaceTime call from Charlie. “Well, hello there!” she chirped as his face appeared on the screen. He had close-cropped dark hair and clear blue eyes. And today, he sported a few days of facial hair across his square jaw.
“Too much texting,” he said. “If we’re talking wedding details, I at least want to see my fiancée.”
“You got the pictures I sent of the winery?”
“I did, and it’s absolutely perfect. That view is unbelievable!”
“But we already said we’d keep things simple and go to the courthouse.”
“You were the one who was adamant about that.”
Not long ago, Melissa had believed that she would have a big, formal wedding with a reception at an iconic New York City venue—perhaps the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park or the Rainbow Room overlooking Rockefeller Center. But when she had those dreams, she had imagined her father walking her down the aisle—and a man other than Charlie waiting for her at the altar. It didn’t seem right to transfer her previous bridal fantasies onto a different relationship. Still, though, there might be something in between a fairy-tale wedding and the city courthouse. A small outdoor event at the winery on the Cape felt like a good match for Charlie and her.
“But we already gave everyone the date. And told them it would be in the city.”
He flashed that perfect smile of his. “Everyone? Everyone in this case is like… six people—all of whom adore you and would go to the moon if necessary to be there on your special day. Our special day.”
At the mention of six guests, Melissa hoped that perhaps he was counting his sister, but Rachel Miller most definitely did not count as someone who “adored” Melissa. She had grudgingly agreed to meet Melissa, but only twice, and was reportedly furious when Charlie told her about his proposal, insisting that her brother was jumping into a new relationship too quickly. “Maybe Rachel will come around by then,” Melissa said.
“Maybe so, or maybe not. We are getting married either way, and we are going to do it at this beautiful place you found for us. Consider it done. Let’s book it.”
“Promise. Text me the name of the place, and I’ll call them first thing tomorrow for the details.” And she knew immediately that the decision was, in fact, made. One of the thousands of things she adored about Charlie was the way he kept the trains running, always willing to take jobs off her plate so she could move on to other tasks. “Oh, someone wants to say hi.”
The camera on Charlie’s phone shifted lower until she saw a chubby-cheeked face gazing up toward her. Riley’s fine blonde hair was tousled in every direction in a look that could only be described as bedhead. In the background, Melissa could see cardboard boxes stacked on the kitchen floor. They had just begun the process of slowly packing up his Upper West Side apartment since he and Riley would be moving in with Melissa.
“HI, MISSA!” It sounded almost like Missy, her nickname until she suddenly announced in the first grade that she wanted to be called Melissa. Riley was smiling so hard, her eyes were nearly closed. “We miss you!!!” Behind the phone camera and out of view, Charlie told Riley to blow a kiss. Her pudgy hand found her pink heart-shaped lips and pressed. Pretty close for a not-quite-three-year-old.
“I miss you, too, sweetie. I’ll be coming back to New York in two days.”
Her future stepdaughter held her fingers up in a vee. “Two! Like me!”
“Except only two days, not two years.”
“I know.” She turned away from the camera and began toddling away.
“Tough crowd,” Melissa said once Charlie returned to the screen.
“It’s almost as if she has the attention span of a two-year-old,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling. “Not to mention you’re competing with the new Peppa Pig playhouse.”
“How did she con you into letting her stay up this late?”
“She went to bed right after dinner but trotted out a while ago saying she heard noises. Figured I’d let her play while I finished up some work.”
“Talk to you tomorrow?”
“Always,” he said. “And all the other tomorrows after that.”
After they ended the FaceTime call, she forced herself to respond to three emails from a persistent attorney who didn’t seem to understand the meaning of an out-of-office message before she finally turned off the nightstand lamp. When she closed her eyes, she pictured herself standing next to Charlie. She’s wearing the white ankle-length silk halter dress she selected from Bloomingdale’s last week for the occasion. He’s wearing the tan linen suit she already told him would be perfect for a summer wedding, even at the courthouse. They’re sharing the I-now-pronounce-you-husband-and-wife kiss under a teak pergola wrapped in sparkling white lights. Riley runs toward them, roses braided in her hair, layers of pink tulle bouncing with every step.
She finds a swing set on the winery lawn and climbs into the seat, careful not to let her dress get caught in the chains. “Push me high!” She’s giggling and squealing, her nose wrinkling from her toothy grin. “Higher, Missa, higher!” She swings so high that she might fly right into the sky, where she’d blend in with the pink-white clouds. Her cries of joy subside as the swing’s pace begins to slow. “Please, Missa—don’t stop pushing.” But three more futile kicks and the swing is nearly still. As she turns her head to search for another boost, a sharp pinch seems to sting the back of little Riley’s hand. She looks down toward the pain and sees a red mitten holding the chain of the swing, the image of a smiling kitten face sewn on the back. Why is she wearing mittens in summer? Her weight slumps forward before she can answer her own question, her body—so small, but suddenly so heavy—caught by someone. Someone.
In her dream, she wakes to the sound of a zipper. It’s her own jacket being unzipped. Her nostrils are filled with the stench of baby powder and sweat. She feels the uncomfortable tug of her turtleneck being pulled clumsily over her neck, her undershirt moving with it. She stirs and starts to blink her eyes. “Mommy, Mommy…”
When Melissa finally roused, she was in her high school bed, uncertain whether the scream she felt lingering in her throat and echoing in her ears was real or just another part of the nightmare. The house was silent except for the sound of the crash of ocean waves in the distance. Her neck was damp from perspiration, and, for just one second, she thought she detected the faint smell of talcum.
The girl on the swing wasn’t Riley. It had been three-year-old Missy, and this was the most vivid dream yet. After forty years, after all of her efforts, all of her progress toward having a happy, future-focused life, Melissa was finally starting to remember. No, she prayed silently to herself. Make it stop. I don’t want to know. I don’t want that to be me.
She jolted upright in a cold sweat. The bedside clock told her it was 2:30 in the morning. It was happening again. The dreams. They were getting worse.