Biting her lip to stop the tears, MaryLou squirmed further under the corrugated sheeting and wished heaven wasn’t such a long way from home. If she could get to heaven before Daddy missed her, she could bring Mummy back home with her. She knew he’d be pleased with her for doing that, because she used to hear him crying every night when he thought she’d fallen asleep. He’d told her Mummy had to go to heaven, but she didn’t understand why. And she wanted to know if she’d done something wrong.
Beth cursed the driving wind that slapped curtains of rain against her windscreen. If she slowed the car much more she’d either come to a halt or stall the engine. But where-oh-where was MaryLou, and what had precipitated her sudden disappearance? She cast back in her mind for something, anything, to give her a clue.
And came up blank.
When James asked her, two days ago, if she’d look after MaryLou while he attended a medical conference he couldn’t get out of, she’d been more than happy to. He and MaryLou had moved in next door eighteen months ago, and her heart had stuttered and begun to pirouette round her chest. At first she’d assumed the delightful toddler had spun a web of love around her, but as the months passed she realised her heart, in contrast to her head, had a mind of its own. It beat a little faster whenever James approached. And soon her traitorous mind conspired against her better judgement too. Constant daytime thoughts of her yummy neighbour segued into her nightly dreams.
She’d give herself another five minutes before calling in the professionals.
She peered through the window, wishing the wipers could keep it clear for longer. A car came up behind her, horn blasting, and rushed passed her sending up another sheet of water to further blind her vision.
James clicked the zapper to open his garage door. Much to the disapproval of the convention’s organiser he’d cut his attendance short leaving soon after he’d finished his presentation.
“Family matters,” he’d said, as he hoisted his case into the car trunk.
Disappointment flared when he saw Beth’s house in darkness. She’d said she might take MaryLou to her parents’ house for a sleepover. He wished she hadn’t decided to do it tonight. He collected his case and let himself into the house, ignoring the flashing light on his answering machine. He needed a drink. He’d missed Beth! While at the conference he found himself missing her serenity under duress. He missed the way she’d instantly connected with MaryLou. He’d loved the way his daughter gravitated towards Beth.
The darkness didn’t frighten her, she told herself over and over again. Rain rattled on her meagre shelter and puddled on the ground around her. She tried pulling her feet closer, but every time she pulled her knees beneath her chin the sheeting fell away and the rain soon soaked her hair and shirt.
Her soaking clothes clung to her like glue. She wished she finished pasting the picture Beth had cut out for her scrapbook instead of sneaking out when Beth went to the kitchen. The lights from the on-coming car made it easier for her to see her way from her hiding place to the road-side. Remembering her father’s words, MaryLou turned her back on the car and began walking.
“What the…?” Beth leaned forward and peered into the darkness. Where had the pedestrian come from? She’d not seen anyone a second ago, and her snail’s pace guaranteed she’d missed nothing on either side of the road as she searched.
Not a man, Beth noted with a sigh of relief. Not that that meant automatic safety for a driver who might offer them a lift.
Not an adult! She almost choked on her relief and prayed there weren’t two lost children out in this storm. Did she stop now and call out to the child, or should she pass her and wait for the child to catch up with her? What if the she --‘please let it be MaryLou’- skipped back into the trees guarding each side of the route?
Opting to stop now and use the advantage of her headlights, she pulled on the break and slid from the car.
The child froze at the sound of her voice. Beth raced towards her.
“MaryLou, I’m so glad I’ve found you.” At the sound of her voice, MaryLou swung round and ran into her outstretched arms. Never had anything felt so good, as the child in her embrace right now.
“Why did you run away"?”
“I-I d-didn’t r-run a-away.” The child sobbed. “I w-wanted to find my M-mummy.”
Beth’s heart slammed against her chest. Relief at finding James’s precious daughter, she told herself. It had nothing to do with the death of her growing dreams.
Dreams of a family. A loving husband and a beautiful child, with more children in the future, perhaps.
“Your Mummy is in heaven.” She’d heard James explain this to MaryLou before and had no problem repeating it.
“I know that.”
When she lifted the child to carry her back to the car, MaryLou curled her arms around her neck and rested her head on Beth’s shoulder.
“But I thought I could go there and bring Mummy back before Daddy comes home.”
How did she explain that MaryLou’s mother would never come back?
“Let’s go home and get you out of those wet clothes,” she said instead.
She hadn’t taken his daughter to her parents’ home. One phone call shot that assumption up in flames. James glanced at the clock on the mantle over the open fireplace. Too late to be at the movies, so where had she taken MaryLou? Anxiety curled up his spine. Rain ricocheted off the window pane, and a gust of wind slamming against the glass almost drowned out the sound of his doorbell.
Looking like two drowned rats Beth stood on his doorstep with his daughter in her arms. His instinctive anger died when he looked into his neighbour’s face. Her grief almost buckled his knees.
“What happened?” He grabbed Beth’s arm and hauled her inside.
At the sound of his voice MaryLou looked round. “I tried to reach heaven, but it is too far away,”
“Heaven?” He looked over MaryLou’s head.
“She went looking for her mother.” Beth stepped passed him and headed for the child’s room. “I’ll get her out of these wet clothes. Perhaps you can rustle up some soup. She slipped away before tea, and she must be hungry as well as cold.”
He didn’t want to leave either of them. Something deeper than his daughter’s search for her mother affected Beth, he saw, and he wanted to discover and solve the problem. The thought of Beth hurting almost killed him. He fought down the urge to demand an explanation and headed for the kitchen. If MaryLou escaped Beth’s vigilance before eating, then Beth, too, must be hungry. He heard Beth moving around upstairs, he could hear the unconditional love in her voice as she tended to MaryLou.
It didn’t take him long to heat a pan of soup and prepare a couple of sandwiches. The coffee percolated behind him while he poured a glass of juice for MaryLuo and placed it on the table.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed your bathrobe.”
He almost swallowed his tongue when he saw Beth standing in his kitchen doorway, a weary MaryLou beside her.
“N-no! I should have thought of it.” My God! He sounded like a licentious teenager! “I can offer you a pair of sweats if you want. You can hardly go home wearing my robe!”
“If I put my stuff in your dryer I won’t need either. But thank you.”
He inclined his head at Beth’s rueful smile, and almost missed the darkness behind it. What had occurred, while he’d been away, to create her sadness? Thrusting the question aside, James picked up his daughter and settled her in her chair. For the next half hour he listened while Beth and MaryLou described what happened. Guilt for upsetting his daughter lacerated him, and, struggling for words, he explained why his late wife, her mother, would never leave heaven.
MaryLou wriggled off her chair and climbed into James’s lap. “All the other children at school have a Mummy. I wish I had one too.” Her arms snaked round his neck and her head cradled against his shoulder.
He looked up to see tears sparkling on Beth’s lashes, and understood. Keeping his gaze locked on Beth’s, with one finger he tipped up MaryLou’s chin until he had her full attention.
“Perhaps I can provide you with a new Mummy,” he offered. “Would you like that?”
“Only if it’s Beth.”
The simplicity of his daughter’s response staggered him. He kissed the top of her head and refocused on the woman seated on the other side of the table.
“What do you say?” His soul shifted and settled. Why had it taken him so long to recognise the obvious? He’d lucked out twice. “Will you marry me?”
“To give your daughter a mother?” Wariness laced her voice.
“No.” He reached across the table and took her hand in his. “Because I love you.”
The sadness vanished from her eyes. She glanced at MaryLou who’d shifted in her father’s arms and watched her as keenly as her father.
“Yes,” she said, her eyes glowing with happiness. “Not just because MaryLou wants a mother,” she stated. “But because I love you both to distraction.” She flew into his arms
No one noticed that outside the storm lumbered off into the distance hauling its conductor behind it.