Jaime stopped her car at the entrance gates of the Ojai cemetery. She heaved a shuddering breath thick with sorrow and grief as she leaned her head against the headrest and let her mind wander. She glanced up at the vanity mirror to fix her headscarf that covered what was left of her once shining golden hair that the chemotherapy had robbed from her. Rudy had exhausted every conceivable medical intervention known to man to prevent her condition from worsening but without success. She made the painful decision to stop the treatments seeing how they were ineffective in impeding the course of the cancer. It was only a matter of a few months, perhaps weeks before death would come to claim her at fifty years young.
In spite of Rudy’s order to get plenty of rest Jaime insisted on taking daily trips to the cemetery to lay flowers on her loved ones’ graves. She drew great comfort in the thought that she would soon be joining them beyond the white pearly gates. A flicker of a smile danced on her lips as fleeting memories of her childhood began playing in her mind.
She took a few cleansing breaths to suppress her emotion before stepping out of the car with her three bouquets of multicoloured carnations. Walking through the iron gates she felt her heart pound at her neck with each step taken towards the Elgin burial spot delimited by a small white picket fence. She pushed her way in through the gate and delicately placed a bouquet on each of the three graves. After dabbing at the tears pearling down her cheeks, she knelt down and bowed her head in silence. Glancing at the third tombstone she was instantly hurled back six years prior in time when a young girl who had come to lay flowers on her grandparents’ graves.
“Aunt Jaime? Is that you?” the fifteen year-old asked timidly.
Jaime turned toward the young blonde with shoulder-length wavy hair and frowned in puzzlement as to her identity. “I’m Jaime Sommers.”
The girl’s beam reached her ears as she walked up to Jaime with her arms outstretched “It’s me, Jenny!” Jaime clasped the offered hand with the quizzical look still etched on her face. “Jennifer Austin? Steve’s daughter.”
Jaime’s eyes registered a mix of shock and surprise at this beautiful blond blue-eyed teenager standing before her. The buttoned nose and lopsided grin were unmistakable. “No! It can’t be! Little Jennifer who was about yea high?” she showed the height with her hand.
“That’s me. I’ve grown up since you saw me last.”
“I’ll say you did.” She clasped both of Jennie’s hands and stood back to study the girl’s every feature. “Your father must be so proud of you. You’ve blossomed into a beautiful young woman.”
“If only dad could hear you say that.”
“Young woman. He has an annoying tendency to treat me like a little girl.”
“Parents never really see their children grow up. I expect you’ll be daddy’s little girl even when you’re fifty.”
Jaime’s heart caught in her throat at Jennifer’s infectious laugh that was reminiscent of Steve’s. How she missed that man despite their fall out a few years back shortly after their parents died in a horrendous car crash.
“What are you doing back in Ojai?”
“I thought it was about time I renewed with my hometown and visit my parents’ graves.”
“Will you be in town long?”
“I’m thinking of settling back here. So yes, I expect I’ll be here for quite a while.”
“Wonderful!” Jenny exulted. “Mom and dad are going to be so happy to see you. Can you come by tonight?”
It was obvious that Jennifer was in the dark about the quarrel she had with Steve and dithered over whether she should tell the innocent child. “I’m afraid that’s impossible.”
“Jennifer there’s a reason why I haven’t mentioned to anyone I was back in Ojai.”
“What is it?”
“Your parents never told you about why I left in the first place?”
Jennifer shrugged. “No. They said you were going to Europe to get over your parents’ death. That’s all.”
“Let’s leave it at that.”
“Jaime, if there was something more I’m sure mom and dad have forgotten it by now. Dad always tells us kids not to hold grudges.”
“Yeah. I have a brother and a sister. And mom’s expecting her fourth child. Oh you’ve got to come,” she pleaded with Jaime on a whining tone. “You have to meet them. I’ve told them so much about you.”
“I tell you what. You ask your parents first. If it’s okay with them then I’ll come.”
“Yeah. I promise. But no tricks. They both have to agree.”
“No tricks,” Jenny smiled excitedly before throwing herself into Jaime’s arms. Thereafter she picked up her bunch of wild flowers from the ground and laid it on Helen’s grave. “Love you grandma and you too grandpa. I’ll be back this week.”
“Can I drive you somewhere?” Jaime offered.
“No need. I’ve got my bike with me. I’ll go tell mom and dad right away.”
“Do you have a pen and pencil to jog down my number?”
“Oh gosh you’re right,” she giggled embarrassingly. “It would have been difficult to call you without it.” She took out a small piece of paper and a pen from her school backpack and wrote down Jaime’s phone number. She left Jaime with one last hug before hopping on her bike and waving goodbye as she peddled away towards home.
“Oh dear what have I done?” Jaime bewailed her fate, fearing this meeting would open up old wounds.
Jenny raced down the driveway leading up to the small ranch. When she arrived at the main house she leapt off her bike and let it drop to the ground to dash inside. “Mom?” she called out.
“In the kitchen,” her mother Peggy Callahan shouted back.
Peggy’s friendship with Steve had blossomed into a romance to finally end in a marriage with three beautiful children and a fourth one on the way. Peggy worked as Oscar’s secretary up to the moment she gave birth to Jennifer. Thereafter she quit her job to dedicate herself to being a full-time mother, much to Steve’s relief. A year after Steven was born, Jim and Helen were killed in a car crash. On her deathbed, Helen pleaded with her children to stay together. Steve agreed, retiring from the OSI to become a full-time flight instructor at Edwards Air Force Base and moving on the Elgin farm with his family. He was now a family man who couldn’t afford to tempt fate on perilous missions. He intended to be involved in his children’s education as well as take part in various fun-filled activities. As for Jaime she chose to leave for Europe as she deemed it necessary for her sanity to flee the unbearable memories. Her decision angered Steve to a degree where he refused to have any contact with her whatsoever. The pair hadn’t spoke since.
“Mom, you’ll never guess who I saw today?”
“Wash your hands first,” she abruptly interrupted her daughter’s ebullience before she touched any of the vegetables she was chopping for tonight’s dinner.
Jenny obeyed her mother’s wish and gave a juicy kiss on her eight-year-old sister Helen’s cheek, which made her wince in disgust. “Moooooooooooom. She kissed me again,” Helen whined as she wiped the kiss off her cheek with the back of her hand.
“That’s ‘cause she loves her baby sister,” Peggy mollified, running a hand through her daughter’s golden hair.
“I’m not a baby!” the little girl groused with her little fists firmly planted on her hips.
“Mom, guess who I saw today?” Jenny asked as she sank her teeth into a carrot.
“I’m not very good with charades, Jennifer. I give up.”
“Oh.” Peggy struggled to not to let the anxiety show on her face. She feared her husband’s would have a fit if he knew Jaime was back in town. “Where did you see her?”
“At the cemetery. She was there visiting grandma’s and grandpa’ graves. I invited her to dinner tomorrow night but she said I had to ask you first if it were okay. It is, isn’t it?”
“I’ll have to ask your father.”
“Is there anything I should know about dad and Aunt Jaime?”
“What are talking about?”
“Well when I mentioned you I got the feeling Jaime didn’t think you’d want to see her.”
“It was a long time ago. Your father never really reconciled with Jaime’s decision to pack up and leave right after your grandparents’ death. He needed her to muddle through this trying time and her leaving the country was like saying to him: I can’t be here to help you deal with your pain.”
“That must have hurt dad.”
“It did. So much that he refused to have any contact with her, nor did she with him.”
“Maybe it isn’t such a good idea for her to come tomorrow night then?”
“We’ll ask your father. Ten years is indeed too long a time to hold a grudge,” Callahan said with confidence, though her heart believed otherwise. She flinched slightly at the sound of the front door opening and closing.
“Daddy’s here!” Helen exulted, jumping down from her stool to run into the living room where she fell into her father’s outstretched arms.
“I’ll go ask dad,” Jenny said. She started for the living room when she felt a hand on her arm.
“It’s better if I ask him. I suggest you take your sister and brother up to your rooms. I have no idea what his reaction will be and I’d rather you kids not be there to witness it.”
“Okay.” Jennifer acknowledged with a concerned frown. She suggested forgetting about this dinner invitation for fear of having it disrupt the quiet, peaceful family existence they were enjoying but Peggy assured her daughter that she they had to burst the bubble some time and today was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Steve already had his arms full with Helen and Steven when his two other ladies walked up to him to smother him with hugs and kisses. Peggy glanced at Jenny, her eyes beckoning her to take her siblings upstairs while she assisted her husband to his favourite armchair in which he sank in total exhaustion.
“You look beat. Hard day?” Peggy made small talk while fixing Steve a drink.
With his eyes closed, head leaning heavily against the back of the chair and his arms dangling on either side of the chair, Steve heaved a long drawn-out sigh and simply nodded.
“Here you go, Honey.” She handed him over his drink and stood behind the chair to massage his neck.
“Thanks. That feels gooooooooooooooooooood,” he purred.
“Anything interesting happened today?”
Steve took a sip of his drink to moisten his throat before replying, “Not really. Just a lot of paper work. I have to review dozens of new applications.”
“Can’t you get someone else to do this?”
“I could but I like to scan the candidates myself. After all I’m going to be their instructor.”
“Steven got an A on his math test today.”
“Yeah, he told me. The little guy’s so proud. Guess this means I’m going to have to buy him that new saddle I promised.” He paused to feel Peggy’s hands work their magic. “Ummmmmmmmmm your hands are a pure slice of heaven.”
“They have to be with four kids in the house.”
“Jennifer, Steven. Helen and you, my biggest kid of all,” she teased with a light kiss on the top of the head. Steve grabbed her arm and pulled her to his lap in order to deepen the kiss. “Steve!” she chided, reluctantly breaking the kiss, “the kids are home. Behave yourself.”
“They are upstairs.” Steve claimed her lips once more, pulling her closer to him in a tight hold. The temptation to surrender was too powerful but Peggy needed to put a rein on their passion before any awkward interruption. “Steve, remember what happened the last time?”
Steve flashed an embarrassing grin at his wife. “Yeah. Kids do have a knack for making untimely entrances. You’re right. Hold that thought for tonight.”
“I will,” she smiled mischievously. “By the way Steve, we’re going to have a dinner guest tomorrow. Someone Jennifer met today who will be in town for a while.”
“Anyone we know?”
Peggy took a silent deep breath to summon her courage to look her husband in the eyes. “It’s Jaime,” she said shyly, bracing herself for the thunder and lightening that was sure to follow.
As predicted, Steve’s eyes narrowed in contempt. With his nostrils flaring and the veins throbbing at his temple, he let out a sharp, “No.” He then pushed Peggy off his lap and strode his way to the liquor cabinet to replenish his drink that he quaffed in one single gulp. “The nerve of that woman showing up here after all these years.” Steve tightened his hold on the glass as he struggled to rein in his temper “I don’t want to see her.”
“Peg I said no!” he lashed out with a smouldering stare, one she reciprocated with the same ardour.
“Steve it’s been ten years. Time to bury the hatchet.”
“No after what she did to mom and dad. Never.”
“It was her choice to make. You can’t fault her for that. She needed to get away.”
“Peggy I said I don’t want to see her,” he barked, squeezing the glass in his bionic grip until it shattered. “Dammit look what you’ve made me do!” After brushing off the droplets on his shirt he bent down on the floor to pick up the shards. He angrily pushed his wife out of the way as she joined in the cleaning. “No don’t! You’ll cut yourself.”
“Steve.” She laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You have to talk to her.”
“You talk to her.” He stood up and slipped the shards in an ashtray. “I won’t be at the house tomorrow night. I’ll eat out.” On that crushing tone Steve stormed out of the house.
“Argggggggggggggg that man is stubborn,” Peggy raged, her nails digging into the palms of her fists of fury.
Jennifer who witnessed the entire scene made her way down the stairs with faltering steps, dithering whether or not she should approach her incensed mother. “Mom?” she spoke timidly.
“Oh Jenny. You heard?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry. I never would have invited Jaime if I had known dad hated her this much.”
Peggy wrapped a reassuring arm around her daughter’s shoulders. “He doesn’t hate her, Sweetheart.” She began rubbing Jenny’s arm to appease her shivers. “He’s just upset at what she did, leaving for Europe when he needed her to get over his parents’ death. It was her choice to leave and we can’t blame her for it, but your dad seems to think she betrayed your grandparents’ trust and he has a hard time reconciling with that.
“I hate to see him like that. He scares me,” she sobbed, tightening the hold around her mother waist.
“He just needs to take a walk to blow up some steam. It was a shock for him to hear Jaime was back in Ojai but he’ll get over it, you’ll see.” She cupped Jenny’s chin to lift her head up and gazed into those bewitching teary blue eyes. “Your father may be stubborn but he’s not unreasonable. Don’t you worry, I’m sure he’ll repent and say it’s okay for tomorrow night.”
“Maybe she shouldn’t come.”
“Nonsense! I want to see her and I’m sure your brother and sister do too.” She gave Jenny one last motherly squeeze and kissed the top of her head. “Go on upstairs now and do your homework before dinner and don’t you worry about a thing.”
As she watched her pride and joy striding up the stairs Peggy worried that this family may never be the same now that Jaime was back in their lives.
In his quest to make peace with his inner demons Steve ended up at the cemetery to seek advice from the dearly departed. With a heavy-laden heart he plodded is way to the two erected tombstones and squatted on his mother’s grave. He bowed his head in a silent prayer before he began to unburden himself.
“I just can’t bring myself to forgive her, mom. I know I must but I can’t,” he whimpered, tears clouding up his eyes. “I understand why she had to leave but it hurt nevertheless. And now she’s back. I can’t help get the feeling that her presence here is going to disrupt all of our lives. The children have a right to know their aunt but…” his voice trailed off as tears threatened to spur out. “I always tell my kids never to hold a grudge and look at me doing exactly the opposite. What should I do? I don’t want my family to suffer on account of my own resentment. Maybe Jaime should come to the house and meet the kids but do I have to be there?” He buried his head in his hands in complete despair. “God it hurts.”
Unable to suppress his emotion any longer, Steve allowed himself to grieve for a brief moment. He then dried his tears and recollected his thoughts. “I know I’m being foolish. I must put my family’s feelings about my own.” He flashed a lopsided smile at the inner voice guiding him on the righteous path. “Thanks for the sound advice, mom. I could always count on you to drill some sense into me,” he smiled gratefully, wiping the last errant tear trickling down his cheek as he stood to his feet. “Watch over me. I’m going to need your strength tomorrow night.”
Steve returned home to find his wife and children caught up in an exciting game of monopoly. “Sounds like you’re having a ball?”
“Daddy! You wanna play?” Steven offered.
“So you can laugh at me when I lose all my money? No thanks.”
“Awwwwwww come on! We won’t laugh at you,” Jenny encouraged.
One quick glance at the board told him that the game was well under way so Steve decided to sit this one out, choosing instead to head for the kitchen to fix himself a cup of coffee.
“Let’s take a break, kids. Anyone for hot chocolate?”
“Me!” they all chorused before each one made a dash for the bathrooms.
Peggy made her way to the kitchen to join her husband. “I kept your dinner in the oven. I can reheat it if you’re hungry?”
“Thanks. Maybe later.”
Concerned by his obvious melancholy, she walked up to him and placed a hand on his arm. “Are you okay?”
He pursed his lips and nodded. “I talked to mom.”
“Did it help?”
He wrapped his arm around her waist to draw her closer. “Yeah it did. I’m ready to face her tomorrow night.”
“Are you sure?” she asked as she lovingly caressed his cheek.
He clasped her soft hand and kissed the palm before gazing into her bewitching eyes. “Yeah I’m sure.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Mom,” Steve sighed thoughtfully.
“It helps, doesn’t it?” Peggy mused as she enlaced her husband in her arms, her heart beating rhythmically with his.
“She’s my best adviser after you.” He placed a tender kiss on her lips. “She reminded me that I could never win an argument with you,” he jested with a teasing grin.
“And she’s right.” Peggy teased back, returning the kiss. “I’ll tell Jennifer to phone Jaime right now.”
“In the meantime I’ll start the hot chocolate.”
Barely had Peggy walked of the room that Steve’s smile swiftly refashioned itself into a frown as he began to question his decision to have Jaime over. He wanted to listen without any restriction to the dictates of his conscience telling him he had made a sensible choice but his heart begged to differ. His family’s happiness came first and it was apparent that everyone was looking forward to Jaime’s visit. He drew in a cleansing breath to recollect his thoughts, strained a smile and buckled down to the task at hand.
The next evening, mother and daughter worked conjointly in setting up the table while waiting for Steve to return from work. Everything was proceeding accordingly except for Steve who was running a little late, which prompted Peggy to suspect her husband was having second thought. ‘He’d better not do this to me,” she mumbled angrily underneath her breath.
“What did you say?” Jennifer asked with a quizzical frown.
“Oh nothing, dear. I was just thinking of your father. He’s a little late,” she observed while glancing down her wristwatch. “I just hope he’s okay.” A rumbling noise drew her to the window where she heaved a loud sigh of relief at the car coming up the driveway. “He’s here.”
She welcomed him at the door with a warm hug. “Where have you been? I thought something had happened to you.”
“I’m not that late, am I?”
“I’m sorry about that. I dropped by the toy store on my way here to buy a stuffed bear for Jaime’s daughter.” He produced the animal for his wife to see.
“What a lovely thought.” She took the furry bear from his hand and placed it on the couch. “I can’t wait to see her again. I hope she’ll still consider me her best friend.”
“Why shouldn’t she? It’s me she was at loggerheads with; not you. I’ll go wash up.” He brushed a light kiss on the tip of her nose and made his way up the stairs to go spruce himself up for dinner.
Jaime’s heart pounded hard against her chest as she neared the old family farm. It was as she remembered it, save for a second barn that Steve had erected to lodge more horses and small farm animals. A wistful smile crossed her lips at the thought of Steve’s children growing up amidst nature and regretted having denied her daughter that kind of life. Maybe it wasn’t too late and she herself could start anew in Ojai on a small spread so her only child could taste the great outdoors. Tonight would provide her with the answer.
“They have horsies, mommy,” the little girl exulted upon seeing the mares grazing in the paddock.
“They are beautiful aren’t they?” Jaime squatted beside her daughter, holding her by the waist as she shared her wonder of the fine breed.
“Can we go pat them?”
“Maybe later, Sweetie. Right now we have to go meet the family.”
“Okay.” Nancy clasped her mother’s hand as they made their way up to the front door where Jennifer was standing ready to welcome the guests.
“Aunt Jaime, hi!”
“Hello Jennifer. I’d like you to meet my daughter, Nancy.”
“Hi Nancy!” her ebullience somewhat frightened the little blond girl who cowered behind her mother’s legs. “Don’t be afraid.” Jenny extended a welcoming hand to the shy girl. “Come with me. I want you to meet my little brother and little sister. You’ll like them.”
Nancy glanced up at Jaime to seek her approval. “Go ahead. I’ll be right behind you,” she encouraged with a light tap on her back.
With her head still hanging low, Nancy tentatively reached for Jenny’s hand and followed her inside the house where she was introduced to Steven and Helen, both of which instantly embraced the little girl in their close-knit circle. It wasn’t long before Nancy dropped her guard and agreed to join them upstairs to play games.
“Wait a minute, Jenny,” Peggy interrupted. “I think we’d like to meet Nancy before you steal her away.”
“Sorry mom.” Jenny brought Nancy closer to her mother who hunched down to level her eyes with the mesmerizing baby blues.
“Hello Nancy. Welcome to our home.” She looked up at Steve standing in the background, obviously struggling to keep his emotion in check. “And this is your Uncle Steve.”
Nancy shyly turned to the slightly daunting tall man who reached his hand out to shake hers. “Nice to meet you, Nancy.”
Nancy tentatively clasped Steve’s hand and flashed a meek smile without making eye contact. “Hi,” she whispered timidly, hurrying to her mother’s side to bury her face in her pants.
“As you can see she is very shy.”
“She’s adorable, Jaime,” Peggy mused. “Helen is quite the same. “Helen, Steven, come here and meet your Aunt Jaime.”
Steven presented his arm without any qualms, but little Helen’s eyes lowered as she approached the stranger eager to shake her hand. After the handshake, the little girl giggled and hid behind her father.
“Now you can go show Nancy your rooms,” Peggy said to Jennifer who took Nancy’s hand to steer her upstairs with Steven and Helen in tow.
During dinner, the kids beset Jaime with questions regarding life in Paris. Her descriptions elicited ohs and ahs from her young captive audience. They sat entranced, hanging on her every word.
After dessert while the kids took Nancy on a tour of the stables, the grown ups adjourned to the living room for an after-dinner drink and to continue the conversation on a more personal note.
“I met Paul a few days after I arrived in France,” Jaime explained. “He was my real-estate agent’s associate and we hit it off at our first meeting. After a couple of dates, we…well you know?” Jaime blushed, her crooked smile suggesting the obvious. “When I became pregnant with Nancy, Paul proposed. An abortion was out of the question so I accepted. We lived in wedding bliss for five years until his untimely death.”
“You didn’t have any more children?” Peggy asked curiously.
“We wanted to but it never happened,” Jaime sighed with regret. She stole a sidelong glance at Steve who was leaning against the fireplace with one hand on the mantle and absentmindedly twirling his drink with the other. The frown on his face worried Jaime that he was beginning to put two and two together.
She excused herself to go freshen up while Peggy went to the kitchen to prepare some coffee. The gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach prompted Steve to follow Jaime discreetly down the corridor to her room.
“Something you want, Steve?” She asked innocently, though her eyes belied her emotions.
“Yes. The truth.” She flashed him a quizzical look as he stepped up to her with a piercing stare. “Who is Nancy’s father?”
“Why are you asking me that question? Paul is Nancy’s father.”
“She has my coloring and some of my features.”
“Paul does too. She looks like her father.”
“Do you have a picture of him?” He asked somewhat coldly, much to Jaime’s indignation. “I’d like to see what he looked like.”
Jaime grabbed her purse and rummaged through its content to retrieve a wallet-sized photo of her late husband. “There!” She snapped, handing him the picture that he began scrutinizing down to the last detail. “Satisfied?”
“No. She doesn’t look anything like him. Jaime please,” he pleaded with a quavering voice, “I need to know. When I saw her just then something inside just snapped. It’s been bothering me all evening. Could she be the result of…”
“Stop it Steve!” Jaime abruptly interrupted with both hands up. “Leave it at that.” As she briskly crossed to the door he grabbed her arm and looked her square in the eyes.
“Tell me! I promise I won’t make any trouble for you. I just need to know. Is Nancy my daughter?”
The question shook Jaime to the core. Tears threatened to her eyes as she pondered her decision to reveal the truth about Nancy’s birth. Finally she relented. “Yes. She’s your daughter.”
Peggy nudged the door open and stood shellshock. “Oh my God,” she cried. “I can’t believe this. Steve?” She searched her husband’s eyes for a denial to what she had just learned. Steve could only bow his head in shame. “Why? Why did you feel the need to come to her and not me?”
“It didn’t mean anything, Peggy,” Steve explained frantically. “It just happened.”
She stepped back in disgust as he inched towards her with an apologetic smile. “DON’T come near me. Don’t ever come near me again!” She shouted in rage before she stormed out of the house.
Steve ran out the door and caught up with her as she marched to her car. “Peggy, listen to me.”
“Just leave me alone!” she screeched, flinging her arm in the air to wrench herself free of Steve’s grip. “I knew you were upset by your parents’ death and I could understand your seeking Jaime’s comforting arms since she was like a sister to you, but dear God Steve! You slept with her. And you have a child?! Is that why you didn’t want to see her?”
“No! I had no idea. You’ve got to believe me.”
“Maybe. But it doesn’t change the fact that Nancy is your daughter. You cheated on me, Steve. Do you know how that makes me feel?”
“Please Peggy. Come back to the house and we’ll talk.”
“You go back to the house. I need to be alone for a while.” She stepped into the car and put on the ignition. “Leave me be Steve.” She put the car in reverse and sped away, leaving a repentant Steve in her wake.
He hurried to his car and drove off after his wife. Jaime stood rooted to the spot, praying for a happy ending to the messy situation she had unwittingly created. She drew some comfort from the fact that the children hadn’t bore witness to the altercation.
A few miles down the road Peggy glanced up at the rear-view mirror and spotted her husband’s car following at a close distance. As she picked up speed, the front left tire burst, sending her car spinning out of control. Panic invaded her at the sight of a couple of children by the side of the road. When she swirled to avoid them she smashed head on into an oncoming car; the force of the impact rendering her unconscious. For his part Steve slammed on the brakes but couldn’t prevent a collision with his wife’s car.
Slowly and painfully Steve peeled his bloody forehead from the steering wheel and shook the dizziness away before staggering out of his damaged vehicle to dash to his wife’s aid. With one bionic pull he ripped the car door of its hinges and groped her neck for a pulse. ‘Please Peggy. Don’t leave me like this. Come on Sweetheart, give me a sign,” he beseeched, his eyes clouding up with tears at the ghastly sight of his wife’s mangled body. He heaved a sigh of relief at the faint pulse before passing out.
He awoke to a bright, blinding light shining in his right eye. He groaned his annoyance and slapped the doctor’s hand away. “Mister Austin, can you hear me?” asked the muffled voice. He strived to focus on the fuzzy figure hovering over him, poking and prodding him. “Open your eyes.”
“Don’t touch me,” he slurred, his arms flailing about wildly. “Peggy. My wife. Where…where is she?”
“She’s being taken care of in the next room.”
“Where? Where?” He gulped in a faint voice, eyes at half-mast, his head tossing back and forth.
“You’re in a hospital. Settled down Mister Austin. You’re going to be fine.”
“No, no. Can’t see…see what…”
“I’m a friend of Dr. Rudy Wells. I’m aware of your special constitution. You needn’t worry.”
“Must…must see my…my wife. Where is she?” he mumbled in his confused state. His anxiety prompted the doctor to instruct the nurse to go prepare an injection of sedative, which Steve vehemently opposed. “No, no drug. Must see my wife.” He was seized by an excruciatingly painful twinge the moment he pushed himself into a sitting position. He sat on the edge of the bed with his head hung low to breathe away the dizzy spell.
“Mister Austin, please. Lie back. You will see your wife as soon as the trauma team is done with her.” He eased Steve’s head back onto his pillow and took the syringe from the nurse. “You have a serious concussion and you need to be still so not to aggravate the injury.” He explained to the groggy patient as he injected the sedative in his IV.
Steve tugged at the doctor’s smock. “Children,” he whispered
“Your family has been notified. We spoke with a Jaime Sommers. She’s on her way”
“No, no, no,” he hyperventilated, his head jerking from left to right. “Can’t. Not her. Can’t seeeeeeeeeee,” Steve’s voice trailed off as the drug took effect.
“Doctor Myers,” a trauma nurse hailed from the connecting door. “It’s his wife.” She shook her head dolefully. “Too much damage. She won’t make it.”
The doctor strained a smile and thanked the nurse for her report. He walked back to his dozing patient to check his vitals once last time before slouching out of the room a physically- drained man. On his way to his office he was nearly run over by a hysterical Jaime bursting inside the premises.
“I’m sorry,” she swiftly apologized, then resumed her run for the nurses’ station.
“I’m Jaime Sommers. Someone called saying that Steve Austin and his wife were involved in a car crash.”
“That’s right Miss. Sommers,” the doctor spoke. “I’m Doctor Myers. I tended to Mister Austin’s injuries on his arrival.”
“How is he?”
“Aside from a nasty concussion, he’s fine. We want to keep him overnight for observation.”
Jaime closed her eyes in relief and exhaled the breath she’d been holding. “What about is wife?”
“I’m sorry. We did everything we could or her. I’m afraid the damage is too extensive.”
Jaime slapped both hands over her mouth to stifle a gasp of horror. Tears gushed to her eyes at the news of Peggy’s impeding death. Guilt crept over her, seeping through every fibre of her being. Her body was suddenly racked with uncontrollable sobs as it suddenly dawned on her that she was responsible for this fatal turn of event.
“Can I see them?” she quavered with a sniff.
“I can allow you to see Mister Austin for five minutes. I gave him a sedative to help him sleep through the rest of the night. I would ask that you do not disturb him. Don’t talk to him or anything. He needs his rest.”
“I won’t doctor. I just want to see him. Know that he’s okay.”
The doctor nodded his approval and led her down to trauma room one. There, he beckoned the attending nurse out of the room to allow the visitor a few minutes alone with the patient.
Jaime heeded the doctor’s orders and refrained from speaking. She sat by the bed to gaze at him sleeping. She placed a hand delicately on top of Steve’s and let her heart apologize to his. Tears spilled onto her cheeks as she shut her eyes tight to repress her feelings raring to spurt out in a gush of ‘I love you’s’.
She sat in silence, her gaze never averting from her former love until the doctor came in to politely ask her to leave. With a heavy-laden sigh she nodded and followed him out of the room.
“Doctor, is there a remote chance that Mrs. Austin will make it?”
With eyes downcast he gave a rueful shake of the head. “I’m afraid not. It’s only a matters of hours, maybe even minutes.”
“She can’t die without her husband saying goodbye to her.”
“There’s nothing I can do. But something tells me she’s hanging on until she sees her husband,” the doctor offered to appease Jaime’s qualms. “Do their children know?”
“They know about the accident. I’m not looking forward to telling them about their mother dying. They’ll hate me.”
The doctor registered a quizzical look at that statement. “Why? You didn’t cause the accident, did you?”
“In a way I did.” With her finger she brushed a tear dry underneath her eyes and walked away, leaving a puzzled doctor in her wake.
She drove aimlessly around the block to collect her thoughts in order to find the right words to say to Steve’s children she knew were anxiously waiting for news on their parents’ condition. Feeling the bile rising to her throat she parked the car alongside the curb and stopped the ignition. Both hands wrung the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. Tears gushed to her eyes at the harrowing scene she was seeing unfold before her eyes. ‘How can I tell them?” she cried to herself. She leaned her forehead against her hands and wept like a willow.
It was way past midnight when Jaime finally returned to the ranch. All the lights were on and thought perhaps the kids had fallen asleep. She slowly opened and closed the front door, then padded up to the living room where she saw Jennifer fast asleep on the couch. She took the afghan draped on the back of an armchair and gingerly mantled the girl’s sleeping form with it.
“Jaime?” Jennifer asked groggily. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and sat up. “Mom and dad? Are they going to be okay?”
Jaime took a seat and wrapped an arm around Jenny’s shoulders. “Your father has a concussion and a few cuts and bruises. The doctor says he’ll be just fine. But they are keeping him overnight for observation just to be on the safe side.”
Jenny broke into tears of laughter at the news and fell into Jaime’s arms. “That’s great,” she sobbed happily. Then she pulled back to ask about her mother. Jaime’s forlorn expression swiftly cast a gloom over the ecstasy of joy. “Jaime, what about my mom? Is she going to be all right?”
Jaime’s hand instinctively began to rub Jenny’s arm as if to ease the shock of what was to come. “She’s in a bad way.” Her other hand quickly went to Jenny’s cheek upon seeing her face creasing up in pain. “It’s not hopeless. She’s fighting,” Jaime lied, her heart bleeding at the thought of adding to the girl’s agony. “We have to be strong. Your mother needs all the energy we can send her way.”
With her body racked with sobs Jenny gave a feeble nod of the head before slumping into Jaime’s heart where she dissolved into tears. “Why? Why did she drive off like this? What was she upset about?”
Jaime’s heart sank at the question she had hoped to avoid answering. “I don’t know yet,” she fibbed convincingly.
“But you were there with mom and dad when it happened.”
“I was but I don’t know what they were arguing about.” She held the girl tighter in her arms and kissed the top of her head. “Let’s not talk about this now. What’s important is your parents’ recovery. We need to pray hard.”
In the early morning hours Steve’s eyes flickered open. He first squinted at the dawning light filtering through the window blinds, and then scanned the room to establish his surroundings. Suddenly it dawned on him; the reality of it all hitting him like a bullet to the stomach. He pressed the call button to summon the nurse to his room.
“Where’s my wife?” he asked in a complete dither. “Where is she?”
“Take it easy Mister Austin.” She pushed the agitated man back onto his pillow. “Please don’t leave this bed.” Steve grabbed her arms and ripped them off his shoulders as he struggled to sit. Without realizing it he propelled her clear across the room with a bionic force that knocked her unconscious. He slouched his way out of the room and down the corridor to search for Peggy’s room.
“Mister Austin!” A nurse yelped at the sight of the man crumbling to the floor. She bolted to him and beckoned two male interns to assist her in getting Steve onto a gurney.
“No! No!” Steve heaved, pushing the annoying hands out of the way. “I need…I need to get to my wife. Where is she?”
Hearing the commotion Doctor Myers breezed out of his office and hurried down the corridor to take over before the patient inflicted serious injuries to the personnel. “Mister Austin please, sit down.”
“Doctor I need to see my wife,” Steve pleaded, his hands clawing at the doctor’s smock.
“And you will just as soon as you calm down.” He waited for Steve to loosen his grip on his lapel before continuing on a mollifying tone, “We will go back to your room and set you up with a new IV line before I take you down to see her.”
Steve nodded. “Okay.” He sluggishly flung his arm around the doctor’s shoulders for support as he drudged to put one foot in front of the other.
Once Steve was set up with a new IV, Doctor Myers assisted him down to I.C.U where Peggy clung to life by a thread. Steve sensed the end was near and requested to be allowed to sit by his wife’s side until she rendered her soul.
His heart caught in his throat at the sight of all those cuts and bruises on her face. He gazed lovingly at her, smiling at the serene expression she was exhibiting. It brought him small comfort knowing she was resting peacefully. Lifting her hand gently to cradling it into his he could feel the life already ebbing away. He sniffed back a tear and leaned forward to stroke her cheek.
“Peggy Austin you’re the best thing that’s happened to me. When I first saw you that day behind the reception desk with your fetching smile, your bedazzling eyes and your sweet disposition I was smitten.” Dusting his mental shelf he pulled out the memory of that day. A wistful smile danced on his lips. “I got a big kick out of you thinking that a famous celebrity like me could never be interested in a little secretary. That’s right, I know about that. Jaime told me you confided in her.” His smile changed into a frown and his heart turned to stone at the mere mention of Jaime’s name. “Jaime,” he sighed with disdain. “Why did she have to come back to Ojai? What are the odds that she should be at the cemetery on the same afternoon as Jennifer was? If she hadn’t come to the house with her daughter, this never would have happened.”
He squeezed his eyes shut to suppress his overwhelming emotion shaking the very core of his being. He sandwiched her hand between his and brought it to his bedewed cheek. “I’m sorry for hurting you. I didn’t think…I just…,” he choked on his sentence too painful to finish. He kissed the palm of her hand and drew in a deep breath. “Please believe me when I say there was never, ever anything between Jaime and me after we were married. After mom and dad’s death I just lost it. I needed comforting arms and she was right there. I had pangs of conscience, wondering if I should tell you or not. It was a moment of weakness triggered by grief that never happened again. I hated Jaime so much for leaving. I then thought it was best to just dismiss that mistake and not risk jeopardizing what we had together with the children.”
He leaned forward to place a tender kiss on her lips and then pressed his cheek against her to whisper in her ear “Please, Peg. Come back to me,” he sobbed.
As he breathed her intoxicating scent he felt a small tug on his hand. He pulled back and scanned her features for a sign of responsiveness. His face lit up at the eyes roaming underneath the eyelids, struggling to open. “That’s it, Peg. You can do it Sweetheart,” he egged on, repeatedly kissing her hand.
“Steeeeeeeve?” she whispered feebly.
“I’m here, Peggy. I’m not leaving you.” Keeping a tight grip on her hand he stroked her cheek with the other.
“God’s sake, I’m the one who is sorry. Please believe Peggy. You’re my only love. What happened with Jaime was…”
“Don’t,” she interrupted, then took in a breath to continue, “I know. It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay. I can never apologize enough.”
“Steve, please…not important.” She licked her lips and let out a cough. “Children, take care of them.”
Peggy’s heart-wrenching goodbye triggered a gush of tears that stung Steve’s eyes, blurring his vision. He blinked them away to focus on his dying wife’s face to sear her every feature into his mind before they withered away for eternity. “You know I will.”
“I love you so…so very much Steve. Thank you for...for marrying me, giving me three beautiful children. I’m sorry for our baby.” Overwhelmed with emotion, Steve buried his face in her neck.
“I love you Peggy. You and our baby will be in my heart forever.” As she heaved her last breath Steve dissolved into tears.
Overcome with a debilitating grief Steve made his way to the small chapel to pray for his wife’s soul. He asked for the strength to return home and face his children. It was late in the morning when he finally took his courage by the horns and asked to leave the hospital. After giving his patient a last examination the doctor consented to his release.
That morning Jaime had called the hospital to enquire about Steve and Peggy’s condition. She stifled a gasp of horror at the news of her friend’s death late last night. She surveyed the room hoping none of the children had heard it. She sank into the sofa and buried her head in her hand in complete prostration. A heavy sense of guilt rapidly spread through every fibre of her being. She feared Steve’s wrath upon his return home. She would prefer not standing across his path but knew that she couldn’t leave the children unattended. It was going to hell but she would face the music however earth shattering it might be.
She was glad Jenny was entertaining her brother and sister upstairs for she didn’t have the heart to inform them of their mother’s death. She figured it wasn’t her place to say anything. How she wished she could crawl under a rock and make herself small so she wouldn’t have to face Steve.
She inhaled a deep breath and stood to walk over to the window. She drew the curtain to peek outside. She dreaded the moment Steve’s car would be coming up the driveway. Her heart pounded out of her chest when it finally did. She watched him as he lazily stepped out of his car to shuffle over to the horse paddock where he crossed his arms against the fence and pillowed his head on it. She dithered whether she should go to him; a neutral ground with no young witnesses around in the event of an ugly scene. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to summon her courage and headed outside.
“Steve,” she spoke softly, her hand brushing lightly against his shuddering shoulder.
“DON’T TOUCH ME!” he spat with teary smouldering eyes; a predatory expression that chilled her to the marrow. “This is all your fault. Why did you have to come back? WHY?”
“I wanted to visit Helen’s and Jim’s graves.”
“After what you did to them?” he lashed out with contempt. “Do you really think they would want you to pay your respect?”
“Steve I know you’re upset but that was uncalled for,” Jaime rebuked vehemently with a squeaking voice cracking with emotion.
“Get off my property. You’re not welcomed here anymore.” As he turned to go to the house, he felt a strong grip on his left arm.
“Don’t you dare raise your voice to me, Steve Austin.”
Steve wrenched his arm free and turned the tables on her by clawing at her left arm. “I’ll talk to you anyway I want. Do you realize what you’ve done? You killed my wife! You left my children motherless. I will never, ever, forgive you for that.”
“I didn’t kill her Steve, you did,” Jaime pricked, steeling herself for the vials of wrath to pour over her.
Steve slowly turned to face her once more with a steely stare. “You’ve got some nerve!”
“You’re the one who asked me about Nancy’s father. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t come here to tell you she was your daughter either. This was to be a small social visit and that’s it. I was to be on my way but noooooooooooo you had to push the envelope.”
“I had a right to know that Nancy was my daughter.”
“I agree but you could have been more discreet with your enquiry.”
“What?” Jenny exclaimed in shock at the revelation. Heads swirled towards the front door where the shaken little girl was standing rooted to the spot.
“Oh crap! Jenny. How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough,” she spat quaveringly; her eyes filling with tears as they shifted back and forth to Jaime and her father. “That can’t be. Dad how could you do this to mom? HOW COULD YOU?” She swung around and ran towards the field but Steve was faster. He grabbed her arm and pulled her to him. She fought, pummelling his chest with her fist of fury. “Let me go! I hate you! I hate you!” She vociferated while trying to wrench herself free from her father’s strong grip.
Steve knelt down on one knee and tried vainly to shake his daughter out of her hysteria. “Jennifer, listen to me. LISTEN TO ME!”
“NO!” she screamed. “Let go of me!” The shattered girl struggled with every ounce of waning energy; fighting off the man she held liable for her mother’s death.
“No I won’t,” Steve shouted resolutely. “I let your mom go and look what happened.” The mere mention of her mother brought Jenny to the edge of an emotional cliff where she willingly threw herself in her father’s arms. He held her tight while she dissolved into tears.
A leer was all it took to warn Jaime that she had overstayed her welcome. She bowed her head in acknowledgement and walked up to the front door where Nancy was standing with a quizzical expression. “Mom? What’s wrong? Why is Jenny crying?”
“Come on, Nancy. Let’s go back to our hotel. They need to be alone.”
“Mom, tell me. What’s wrong?” Nancy insisted, her face registering a mixture of confusion and fear at the sight of her mother’s tears trickling down her cheeks. “Mom?”
“I’ll tell you on the way. Come on Sweetie.” She gave her daughter a light shove onwards toward the car while Steve convinced Jenny to take a walk with him.