When the rains came, as they always did, late in the day, torrents of water would surge down from the hilltops, from the stand of native pines at the crest, and surround the insignificant house on three sides. The rains would then disappear, as fast as they came, leaving muddy reminders in the yard, a clean smell in the air, and wisps of steam rising up from the blacktopped surface of Painter Road.
Waiting for the rains, Emma stood on the back stoop of her tiny, rented house. The stoop, which Beam repaired after one particularly vicious winter, sagged in the middle and leaned to one side. It left Emma feeling off-balance, that stoop, but then Emma felt out of kilter most everywhere these days. Still, she stood on that small back porch whenever she had the chance. Whenever Beam was out of the house and Lyle was down for his nap.
It was cold that morning, unseasonably cold, though it was springtime and well past noon. And while the fog had lifted midmorning, the sun had yet to scare away the clouds and warm the house. With her arms crossed, frantic to keep the heat from her body close, Emma stood quivering in bare feet, icy feet, wriggling her toes in the chill of the wormy wood. Her hair, which she tied back with one of Beam’s bandannas, now hung in loose strips of straw around her face. When she was a girl, blue-eyed and truly blond, not from a bottle, Emmaline Fraser was beautiful; these days, these last years, she had become hard and angry, lonely. As a young girl, she seemed kissed by the sun. Tan. Laughing. Alive. Nowadays the sun was afraid to shine down on her; warming Emma Seaton was too much work.
She could trace a path back through the years to the day, to the exact moment, when her life had veered out of control. It was her eighth birthday, the last time anyone threw a party for Emma Fraser. She had long since stopped acknowledging the passing of the years, though not for the sake of vanity. Birthday parties and cakes were reminders; even the cards her father sent she declined to open. There are memories too painful to numb, no matter how many years or miles pass by, so Emma put away party dresses and gifts and bows, and it had worked out fairly well. Beam never remembered her birthday; no cards or cakes or flowers; not even a hug. It’s probably why I chose him, Emma thought, and why I stay. He doesn’t remind me of that day.
Her father, on the other hand, is a constant reminder. Every phone call and letter, every time she thinks of him, she imagines how he looked that day. How she loved that man…once; and how things had changed. Father and daughter had been so happy before her eighth birthday. These days she could barely bring herself to say his name.
Walt Fraser would pick Emmaline up after school every Friday and, together, they would roam around Fort Bragg, looking in windows, browsing through the toy store on Pacheco, eating ice cream on a wooden bench in front of Swensens. Walt would even climb to the top of the jungle gym in the park and sit with his daughter. Side-by-side they would stare over the rooftops of town and gaze at the sea, a sequined pane of glass ready to swallow up the sun.
Emmaline used to dream of what was out there, on the far side of the ocean. Who was over there in China? Was anybody in Africa thinking about a little girl in California when she was wondering about him or her? Emmaline Fraser spent too much time thinking about other people and places. Up the hill and downtown. Paris, France. On the beaches halfway around the world. Rio de Janeiro. Up north, back east. Alaska. What was out there, and could she have some?
These days Emma Seaton still stares and wonders. Mostly she peers into the trees at the top of the hill behind her little house, and she wonders what waits on the other side of those trees. Whenever Beam is away and Lyle is napping, Emma is wondering and staring; tapping her foot in the spongy wood of her back porch and chain-smoking.
Plucking the cigarette from her lips, Emma flicked it at the ground, into the dirt that would change to mud when the rains came later in the day. Her eyes flew to the top of the hill, narrowing as she gazed at the woods. The muscles along her jaw tensed and twitched leaving her face almost bird-like, the sharp crease to her nose, the slight point to her chin, the rapid eye movement. Her eyes darted from tree to tree, looking for the right path that would take her away, then dropping to her feet and staring at the cigarette dying in the dirt.
Back on that day, when she was seven, about to be eight, Emma’s father had come for her after school. Walt Fraser’s orders were to keep her away from home until at least five o’clock, so he took his beautiful laughing blond baby into town so she could pick out the doll she wanted. Suzie Q; a doll, Emma told him, that she could actually feed; a doll who wet herself and had real hair, and eyes that closed when she slept. Emmaline Fraser wanted a baby she could call her own.
Little Emma’s hands stretched as far as they could go, her fingers splayed over the counter of the Toy Place, trying to grab hold of her baby girl, Suzie Q. Emma laughed that laugh as the shopkeeper drew the box down off the shelf and held it just beyond her grasp.
Emma was sick of waiting and watching. She stomped her bare foot down on the still lit cigarette lying in the dirt, stirring up clouds of dust that would mingle in the mud later in the day when the rains came. Emma, on the other hand, would be high and dry by then. Her mind made up that today was the day; she decided to ask Bessie Daggett to sit with Lyle until Beam got back from Missus Seaton’s. Most likely, he wouldn’t return until evening, having spent the day shoveling for her, groveling to her; five hours would give her a decent head start. By the time Beam realized she wasn’t home, and never would be again, she would be in a different place; another time, another time zone.
Rounding the corner of the house, headed downhill in the gullies caused by the rain that always came, Emma first saw him. Beam; running uphill; literally running. Where the hell is the car? If he trashed that thing, I’ll…Emma’s bird eyes honed in on her husband as though he were prey. Running! Beam hadn’t run since…he never ran; unless it was to the refrigerator for a beer, or away from a job. Yet, he was running today, tearing up the road as fast as he could.
His hair was soaking wet, glued to his scalp and curling around his neck, so damp it looked almost black. Inky ringlets plastered his forehead and Beam resembled some long-forgotten comic book character…the hamburger guy from Popeye, Emma thought. Wimpy! He looked Wimpy, running erratically up Painter Road. The plaid shirt he always wore was unbuttoned and trailing behind him; flames of blue and gray and green chasing him home. His undershirt, drenched with sweat, formed a second layer of skin as pasty white and flabby as the first.
Emma Fraser Seaton watched her husband claw up the hill to the house that was tacked onto a sharp curve in the road. She wanted to laugh when he tripped and fell to the gravel, but it wasn’t funny, nothing was funny anymore. When Beam stood up, quickly, and took off running the cackle stuck in her throat, becoming a cough. Wearing the face of a child in trouble, he wiped his hands on his jeans as he ran, and Emma wondered what he had done…this time. Sweat and tears flew from his face in enormous drops and a cry escaped his lips. Watching him scramble home in such terror, Emma knew she wouldn’t be able to leave; not today.
“Beam?” Emma stepped into the front yard the exact moment the rains came. As they always did.