Dylan got off the interstate while they were still in Massachusetts, choosing to meander northward on the small, picturesque roads that wound through Vermont’s rustic beauty. He tried to interest Max in the scenery—the majestic mountains and tall pine trees, the green pastures dotted with cows, the farms with endless rows of corn—but Max was too engrossed in Fablehaven to do more than glance out the window.
“Haven’t you read that before?”
“I’ve read all five of them, but I’m reading them again. You get more out of them the second time,” Max said.
“But you already know what happens.”
Max looked out the window for a few seconds, noticing a couple of calves that were moving toward the fence lining the road.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve read them before,” he said. “They’re still good.”
Dylan sighed. It was time to stop running. They’d been on the move for four days, taking breaks to visit a zoo (Max pronounced the orangutan “gross”), a science museum (interesting), a miniature golf course (hard), two swimming pools (fun), and two bookstores (adequate). The kid was never without a book, read above his age level, and liked to have his reading lined up in advance. Dylan had tried to introduce him to the books he’d treasured as a boy, especially The Black Stallion series, but Max had seen the movie and was more into fantasy. As though The Black Stallion was realistic.
It had been a good trip in Dylan’s view, and they’d made a start at getting reacquainted, but he worried about Max. He was quiet, and Dylan had no idea a healthy eight-year-old kid could be so bookish. Plus, Max’s suspicions seemed to be growing. When he did talk, he kept asking questions about what they were doing and why, and he seemed less and less willing to accept Dylan’s evasive answers. That only added to Dylan’s own doubts and his gnawing sense that he was being irresponsible. He’d have to make a decision. This would be their last day of wandering.
He pulled over at a gas station and tried to use the GPS to look for a restaurant and a motel, but he finally gave up and turned on his phone.
“Why’d you buy a new phone when you still use the old one?” Max asked.
“I only use the old one when I have to. To get the internet,” Dylan said, as though that were an answer. “What do you want for dinner? What are you in the mood for?” There was no response from the backseat, so he provided one himself. “How about chicken cordon bleu with a nice Merlot? Maybe some crème brûlée for dessert.”
“I want a hot dog,” Max said without looking up from his book.
“You had a hot dog for lunch.”
“No fast food tonight. We have to eat healthy for a change.”
“But with ice cream,” Max said.
“Only if you eat some vegetables.”
Thirty minutes later, Dylan pulled into the parking lot of the Shona Grill in Bellows Falls, only to find it was a carryout. He glanced at the Miss Bellows Falls Diner next door, but it was already closed for the day, and Donovan’s, across the street, was an Irish pub that was hardly appropriate for Max.
They got back in the car and drove across the short bridge into New Hampshire, though Max pointed out they could have easily walked. After driving around a bit, Dylan found a family style restaurant and squeezed into a parking space between two pickup trucks. Max put his book down and unbuckled his seatbelt but waited for his father to open the door.
Dylan pointed to the two trucks. “Which one do you like better?” he asked.
Max didn’t answer right away. His interest in trucks had waned, but Dylan didn’t know that.
“The red one,” Max said finally. “It sits higher on the road, and it looks like it’s been in some crashes. Is that a gun rack?”
Dylan was surprised by the question. Gun racks were hardly unusual in Richmond, where Max had grown up, but still he hesitated before confirming it. He was glad the rack was empty.
“Let’s get something to eat,” he said to change the subject. “I’m starved.”
The restaurant was crowded, a good sign.
“Just a moment, boys,” a waitress said by way of a greeting. “Let me clear that booth by the window and it’s all yours.”
She reached to touch Max’s shoulder, but he backed away. He was cautious with strangers, shy beyond what Dylan thought was normal, though he didn’t really have much experience with kids. He was always being reminded that, as a father, he had a lot of catching up to do.
Dylan was pleasantly surprised to find they actually had chicken cordon bleu on the menu, and he ordered it for himself, just to show Max what it was. For Max, he suggested a grilled chicken breast, a baked potato, and broccoli, which was quickly negotiated down to French fries and an ear of corn.
“Can we stay in a place with a pool again?” Max asked, wiping the remnants of the butter- soaked corn off his face.
“I’m not sure we’ll have time for swimming. Tonight we have to pick a place to settle down in, at least for a few weeks.”
Max took a second, apparently considering the implications of that.
“Just the two of us?” he asked.
Max pulled his shirt collar up over his chin, a sign, Dylan had learned, that he was hesitant about saying what was on his mind.
“Will Grandma and Dave come?” he said finally.
“This is just temporary. We’ll be on our own. We’ll find an apartment and get you into school.”
“What about my old school?”
“You’ll make new friends,” Dylan answered. He felt like a politician who never answered the questions he was asked.
“Where will the apartment be?”
Dylan considered it. He didn’t have a specific place in mind, only a rough idea. He wanted a small town, and Vermont was full of them, which was one of the reasons they’d come this way.
“We’ll blindfold you and let you point to a place on the map, like pin the tail on the donkey.”
Max smiled in amusement.
* * *
Jonas sat down slowly on the wrought-iron bench in the gazebo and looked over the garden that Emma had lovingly nurtured in the backyard of the Sunrise. It was filled with perennials, beautifully arranged in an S-shaped pattern so you could walk around and enjoy them. They bloomed one after the other so there was color—yellows and blues and reds and purples and oranges—from early spring, which wasn’t that early in Vermont, until late fall. On this August afternoon, the black-eyed Susans, red hibiscus, and purple anemones were all in bloom, as were several other plants that Jonas couldn’t immediately identify. He wished Emma were here to remind him. No, he just wished Emma were here, puttering in the garden as she had so many afternoons while he sat and read and watched.
How he missed her.
Three months. That’s how long he’d been a widower.
In the weeks leading up to Emma’s death, he had tried to prepare himself. He’d drawn on all his inner strength to tend to her, watching her suffer from the cancer with his practiced veneer of stoicism, trying to shield their grown children, Sally and Nathan, from having to worry about him as well as their dying mother. By the end, they all pretended they were ready to accept the inevitable, that her release from misery would be a blessing of sorts.
But it was a lie. He hadn’t been ready. How could he be?
His reaction was predictable to anyone who knew him. Never one to surround himself with people, even in the best of times, he shut himself up, choosing to lock himself in his room for hours or take long walks by himself or sit brooding in the backyard or on the front porch.
Nathan understood. His father had lived his whole life in Beacon Junction, knew almost everyone, and was generous with his time and advice when asked, but his closest friends were dead or had moved away, and he lacked the social skills needed to make new ones.
It was harder for Sally, who lived in the Sunrise with her father and saw him every day. She’d left him to his solitude as long as she could, but recently she’d begun pushing much harder, telling him that being alone so much was bad for him and unfair to her. She needed him, she said, because she was grieving too. The comment struck a chord, and now he was trying to respond. He didn’t want to make the same mistakes he’d made when Lucas had died a quarter century earlier.
Jonas sat back, slowly stretched out his arthritic knee, and reached for his pipe. He filled it carefully, tamped down the tobacco, and lit up the bowl. He looked out at the garden and suddenly remembered Emma once telling him that the smoke was bad for the plants. Was that true, or was it just part of her trying to get him to smoke less? He’d have to look it up.
He put the pipe down and let out a sigh before closing his eyes. As he sat there, he took his mind slowly through his and Emma’s history, trying to recapture single moments in each of their forty-nine years together: their move back to Vermont, the rapid growth of his career as a defense attorney, the birth of each of their three children, their first home, the kids growing into adults. He didn’t skip over the hard years in the middle—the car accident that killed Lucas, their older son, the discovery of Emma’s affair, and his own descent into depression and alcohol—but he didn’t dwell on them either. They’d gotten through it all. In some ways, the last few years had been the happiest.
Forty-nine years. His whole life. What would he do with the rest of his time? Sally had been telling him he had to think about that, that his constant mourning was a path to self-destruction. He’d given in a little, going back to some of his volunteer work, and now he had agreed to take on what could be a significant responsibility. He’d tell her about that at dinner.
Dinner. He looked at his watch. He’d promised to cook, a not-so-subtle attempt to show he was still capable of taking care of himself. But he hadn’t even thought about what he would make. He dumped his pipe into an ashtray, climbed to his feet, and headed into the house.
* * *
After dinner, Max and Dylan drove back into Vermont and took a room at the only motel in town. After they were settled, Max grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his eyes, eager to follow through on his father’s promise and pick a place where they could settle down. Dylan was true to his word and let Max point blindly to a spot, though he used a map of Vermont to limit the options.
Max circled his finger in the air and tried to imitate a drum roll, then landed on the map.
“You picked nowhere,” Dylan said, studying the point where Max’s finger had landed. “The closest place is called Beacon Junction. We can try that. It’s only a half-hour from here.”
Max took a look and shrugged before curling up in a chair and returning to his book. Dylan fired up his laptop and checked out Beacon Junction. He found six places for rent, including a couple that were furnished. And he found what looked like a pleasant bed and breakfast where they could stay while they made their decision.
Dylan called to make a reservation for the next night and then turned on the TV, flicked through the channels, and eventually found the Red Sox game. He tried to interest Max in it, but he insisted on sticking with his book. He had finished Fablehaven and had immediately moved on to Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star.
Dylan planned to take his time getting to know Max and tried not to draw any conclusions, but he was concerned about what he saw. Being bookish was fine, but Max used it as an escape, a way to avoid conversation and any real engagement with the world around him. He didn’t seem to have many friends, certainly none he talked about. He had plenty of energy, and at times he would wrestle with Dylan or play tag, but Max was slow and awkward and a little pudgy for a kid his age. Plus, his ears stuck out a bit too much.
“When you finish that chapter, you should get ready for bed,” Dylan said, trying not to sound too bossy. “It’s almost ten, and tomorrow’s a big day.”
Max mumbled agreement, but it took two more reminders before he closed the book and reached for his pajamas. He seemed listless. He’d been even more quiet than usual since the map game, and Dylan guessed he was unhappy, though he wasn’t sure why.
“Something bothering you?” he asked.
Max pulled his shirt collar up over his mouth and didn’t answer. Instead, he stared at his father and then got up and went into the bathroom. A few seconds later, Dylan heard a shattering crash. When he went in, he saw a glass had fallen and broken.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll clean it up.”
He went to pick Max up and carry him out of the room so he wouldn’t step on the glass, but Max pushed him away.
Then he exploded.
“Just tell me what’s going on! What are we doing here?”
Dylan motioned to the door and led Max around the glass to the bedroom, trying to collect his thoughts.
“We’re trying to start a new life,” he said evenly.
“Why can’t I stay with Grandma and Dave?”
“Grandma is getting old. She doesn’t have the strength to raise you.”
“But she wants to.”
“Besides, it’s my responsibility. And it’s easier for everyone if we get a fresh start in a new place.”
“I don’t want to.” He drew out the words in anger.
Dylan sighed. “I’m sorry, but you don’t have a choice. Check that, we don’t have a choice. There’s no other way.”
“I don’t want to,” Max repeated, beginning to cry.
Dylan tried to hold him, but he pushed him away, so Dylan left him and went to clean up the bathroom. When he returned, Max was in bed with his book.
“I know it’s hard for you to understand,” Dylan said. “You just have to trust me.”
Max shut his book and pulled the covers over his head.
* * *
Since her mother’s death, Sally had made it her business to keep a close eye on her father, which wasn’t hard given that they lived together at the Sunrise, a bed and breakfast that Jonas and Emma had purchased for Sally to manage. Jonas and Emma had occupied a suite on the top floor, while Sally and her husband, Jake, lived in rooms on the ground floor.
Though they saw each other every day, the two couples had rarely eaten dinner together, mindful of each other’s need for privacy—though Jonas had often joked to Emma that it didn’t seem to do much good, seeing there were still no grandchildren.
That night he had agreed to have dinner with them, but only on the condition that he be allowed to cook. He’d prepared “simple salmon”—the salmon smothered in dried herbs and thrown in the oven for twenty minutes, with a boxed rice mix, steamed broccoli, and a salad—a truly simple and virtually foolproof meal he pretended was his own invention.
Jonas’s decision to cook gave the evening a bit of a festive—or at least, an unusual—air. So, too, did Jake’s presence. Since he’d become an insurance agent a few months back, a big step up from his previous job doing estimates for a roofing and construction company, he was rarely home for dinner, a fact that Sally often complained about to little avail.
“So, I got a new job,” Jonas announced after he’d received the obligatory compliments on the dinner.
“What job?” Sally and Jake asked in unison, Jake with amusement and Sally with concern.
“Nancy wants me to administer the partnership.”
“I thought Michael was doing that,” Sally said.
“He was, but Nancy says it’s too much for him, being in Chicago and having a busy day job.”
“That’s good,” Jake said. “It makes sense for you to do it.”
Jonas shrugged. “I think she mostly wants to help me keep busy, but I don’t mind. It’s a good cause. I’m glad to help, and it’s only part-time.”
Nancy had established the Hargrave Partnership—which aimed to help older foster kids make the transition to living on their own—as a way to honor her late husband, Frank Hargrave, Jonas’s long-time partner and close friend. Michael, Nancy and Frank’s son, had originally agreed to oversee the project.
“I’m sure Nancy appreciates your help,” Jake said.
“But won’t it mean a lot of work?” Sally asked.
“I don’t think so. Won’t know until I start.”
Sally took a bite of salmon. “I guess it makes sense. You’re always happier when you’re involved with something important. Just don’t overdo.”
Jonas looked at her with a curious smile. The way she’d reacted—first hesitant and now enthusiastic—made him wonder whether she’d put Nancy up to it.
“Certainly makes more sense than that mayor idea,” Sally added.
Jonas had been asked to run for the town’s top job when Ed Riley, the previous mayor, suddenly pulled up stakes and moved to Upstate New York. Jonas had quickly decided against it. It would have meant no end of problems for Nathan, who was the editor of the only newspaper in town. He’d be constantly facing conflict of interest issues if his father were the mayor. The partnership job could pose a few of those too, but probably not many.
When they finished eating, Jake excused himself. “Need to make some client calls,” he said.
Jonas let Sally do the dishes and went out on the porch equipped with his pipe, a worn paperback copy of Madame Bovary, and a can of mosquito repellent. He was in no hurry to go up to his empty bedroom.
* * *
Dylan sat quietly on an old lawn chair outside the front door of their room, waiting long enough to convince himself that Max was asleep before digging out a cigarette and lighting up. One of his new rules was never to smoke in front of his son. That kept the count down, and soon he would quit altogether. But not yet. There was too much thinking to do.
He and Max had hit the road abruptly, and Dylan was still trying to formulate a plan that made sense. Unfortunately, nothing did. He had a little more than three thousand dollars in cash, which wouldn’t last long. He could borrow some from his aunt, but the logistics of getting it without giving away his location would be a challenge. But, then, everything was going to be a challenge.
He’d made a vow to himself that he would change, for Max’s sake, if not for his own. He had spent a good part of the last three years sulking about his bad luck, but Julie’s illness made him realize, with help from a shrink, that he had to step up and take some responsibility for his actions. No willpower, that was his problem. He made good decisions; he just didn’t stick to them. He had suffered because of it. So had Julie and Max.
He’d have to get a job as quickly as he could, but that wouldn’t be easy. He’d lined up a few old colleagues who’d give him discreet references, but he had to find a place that wouldn’t look too hard at his background. More important, he had to settle into a job and a home without leaving a public footprint that would allow anyone to find him. He was hoping a small employer in a small town wouldn’t go to a lot of trouble checking him out.
It would be difficult, no doubt about that. Difficult for Max too, but getting out of Virginia was the only option that made sense.
He crushed his cigarette stub and flicked it into the parking lot, then felt guilty and retrieved it and walked to the dumpster behind the motel. He wanted another, but he wouldn’t let himself. Apart from wanting to quit for Max’s sake, smoking was a habit he could no longer afford.