by Carrie S. Masek (Dame Topaz)
Mojave Desert, California
Wednesday, January 16, 1991
One last chance to keep her promise. Rose mentally crossed her fingers and dialed the final number on her list.
Hi, Sue. This is Rose. I know its your day off, but I was wondering
Lightning flashed, and thunder shook the shelves of the Stop&Shop. Static crackled over the line. Rose? You still there?
Yeah, that was just the storm. Rose switched the receiver to her other ear. I was wondering if you can work tonights shift. A flash flood washed out the road to Wills house. He cant make it in to relieve me, and I promised the kids Id go home early.
Sues sigh carried over the bad connection. Sorry. Id love the extra hours, but I told Rick Id go to the game with him tonight. You know how he is about basketball.
Yeah, I know. Thanks anyway. See you tomorrow. Resisting the urge to slam the receiver, Rose broke the connection. All her employees had plans for the evening. Shed have to break her promise to the kids. Again.
Another flash and simultaneous boom. The windows rattled, and the fluorescent lights flickered and died.
Dark silence settled over the store. Rose peered through the gloom. Peter? Amy? Are you all right?
From the end of the soda-pop aisle, she heard Peters voice. Vroooom! Rose could just make out her five-year-old zooming toward her, arms extended, a blond airplane.
He banked in front of the counter. Mom, did you see that lightning? Like a bomb, huh? Boom! His grin flashed in his shadowed face before he tore back down the aisle.
The lights sprang to life, and the ever present hum of the coolers resumed. Over the radios static, Willie Nelson warned mothers about cowboys. Rose saw Peter race past his sister, Amy. Chubby thumb planted firmly in her mouth, Amy ignored both her brother and the storm. She sat staring at the new fruit drink display, her eyes as round and blue as the dancing blueberries on the bottle of Berry Bonanza. While Rose watched, Amy took her thumb out of her mouth and reached for the bottom row of bottles.
Amy, no! Rose darted around the counter and ran toward her.
The bottles above the toddler shivered, and Rose threw herself over her daughter. The display teetered and collapsed, pummeling her back with quart-sized hail.
Peter dropped his arms. Mom, are you all right?
Rose swallowed a groan, sat back, and winced. Im fine, honey.
His sun-bleached eyebrows pulled together over his snub nose, and he glared at his sister. You dont grab the bottom one, dummy.
No name calling! Rose snapped.
The toddlers face puckered, and her chin began to tremble. She wound her hot, chubby arms around her mothers neck and started to wail.
Oh, honey, its all right. Rose gave her daughter a hug and nuzzled soft, brown curls that still smelled of last nights shampoo. She let her daughter cry a minute, then gently pulled back. After shaking bubbles into a bottle of Rhymon Lymon to distract away the tears, she turned back to the mess.
Like bits of a shattered rainbow, quarts of punch littered the markets floor. None were broken. Rose pushed the brown wisps that had escaped her ponytail off her face and sighed. Thank goodness for plastic.
Thunder rumbled, and the automatic door dinged. A tall man strode into the store. Rain darkened the shoulders of his tan uniform. His lips were pressed into a disapproving line. He glanced at the bottles on the floor, at the kids and at Rose. His lips relaxed. His eyebrows tilted. Earthquake?
Rose felt her face settle into its work mask, polite, but not encouraging. No. Two year-old.
He grinned. Startlingly white teeth, straight with a slight gap between the front two, seemed to light his whole face. He winked at Amy. I knew it was some kind of natural disaster.
Rose liked his voice. It was smooth and deep, with the slow, gentle rhythm of the South. She wondered if hed recently transferred to Twentynine Palms. There was a lot of activity on the Marine Corps base since Iraq had invaded Kuwait, a lot of new faces in the Stop&Shop. Most of the marines were young, but the man in the doorway looked five or six years older than she was. He might even be thirty.
He side-stepped a bottle of Citrus Sizzler and wove a path through the fruit-flavored obstacle course. Wishing shed worn pants to work instead of her shortest skirt, Rose tugged at the hem and pushed herself off the floor. She hadnt realized how close hed come until her shoulder brushed against his chest on the way up. Stumbling back, she craned her neck and studied his features. His eyes were gray, not brown as shed first thought, nearly silver and ringed in charcoal. His nose was straight and slightly flared, his smiling lips, generous and well-shaped. Water trickled down his cheeks. Underneath the scent of wet cotton and ozone, she smelled hot engines and spicy after-shave.
Rose jerked her gaze down to the stripes on his arm. Can I help you with something, Sergeant?
Call me Jack. His smile dimmed, and his voice lost some of its underlying warmth. The manager around?
Youre looking at her.
Were you here Friday night?
His expression didnt change, but something made her hesitate before answering. Yes.
The gray eyes narrowed. Maam, I believe you sold liquor to three of my underage men. Im afraid if it happens again Ill have to report you to the local police.
Heat rushed to Roses cheeks. Now wait a minute.
He stepped forward and seemed to grow until he filled the aisle. I train new recruits, mostly minors. Maybe youre used to turning a blind eye to underage drinking, but Im not. Next time I catch you selling liquor to them, Ill have your license revoked.
Trying to hold her temper in check, Rose took a deep breath. Id never
He drew a Stop&Shop bag out of his back pocket. I found this around the bottle.
She planted her hands on her hips. It had Coke in it when they left here. I remember your men. One looks about fifteen, short and blond, right?
He nodded warily.
The others are taller, a skinny black kid and a redhead with acne scars? She waited for a second nod. They came in around eight. The blonde tried to use fake ID.
They told me
I dont care what they said. She forgot her children were listening and let her voice rise with her indignation. I never, ever, sell liquor to kids.
Peter ran up to the marine, spun, and kicked at his kneecap. Leave my Mom alone.
The man danced aside. Whoa.
Amy started to cry.
Ignoring the way her skirt crept up her thighs, Rose squatted to comfort her daughter. Its okay, honey. Mommys not mad at you.
Maam, I need some help here. The deep voice sounded strained.
Rose scooped Amy onto her hip and turned. Peter had backed the marine against the front windows. He held her son at arms length while the boy kicked and karate-chopped. All they needed was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle theme song playing in the background. Rose fought the urge to grin. Peter, stop that and apologize this instant!
Her son lowered his leg and turned to face her. He made you mad.
Yes he did, but thats no reason to hurt him. Now apologize and come here.
Peter cast a withering look over his shoulder and stalked to her side. Sorry.
The marine sergeant straightened and followed him. Id best start over. Hello, maam. Im Sergeant James Rollins, U. S. Marine Corps. My friends call me Jack.
Though it was hard not to return his smile, Rose kept her impassive mask in place. Hello, Sergeant Rollins, Im Rose Hendricks. And these are my children, Peter and Amy. Say hello, children.
Hello, said Amy.
Jack rubbed his thigh and grinned ruefully. Your boy throws quite a punch.
Pride brightened Peters cheeks. He shrugged and pretended to study his worn sneakers.
Thank you. I think. Rose set Amy next to Peter. Grams will be here in a few minutes. Why dont you two go in the back and split a package of cupcakes while you wait.
Cowabunga! Peter turned to his sister and raised his hand, mimicking his favorite cartoon characters.
Dude! Amy jumped up to meet his high five.
They clasped hands and ran behind the counter and through the small white door to the back room.
Rose turned to the marine. Sergeant Rollins
Call me Jack. I take it my men were not completely honest with me.
Im afraid not.
Jack shrugged. Its not the first time. Sorry I came on so strong. Ill restrict them to the base until I find out where they got the booze.
Try Liquor Warehouse on Rt. 62.
He tipped his hat. Much obliged.
Lightning flared, and a picture leapt into Roses mindJack in tooled leather boots and a broad-rimmed hat. With his long legs and wide shoulders, he made a great-looking cowboy.
Thunder shook the windows and shattered the image. Its the least I could do after my son attacked you. Peter usually behaves better than that, but since his father died, hes become very protective.
For an instant, Jacks whole body grew still. Then he shook his head. No need to apologize, Maam. I like a boy with spunk.
Rose wondered if she was just imagining the increased intensity of his gaze. Call me Rose. Maam makes me feel as old as my grandmother.
Jacks grin deepened. Youre too pretty to be a grandma. See you around, Rose.
Annoyed with herself for feeling flattered, she tried to think of a discouraging reply. Jack strode down the aisle and through the automatic doors before she came up with one.
It was only six-thirty, but the storm made it look like midnight outside. Lightning flared, and Rose saw a flash picture of Jack climbing into a light-colored sedan. The rest of the parking lot was deserted. The parking lot vanished, and thunder boomed.
Amys high pitched laughter pulled her attention back to work. Rose knelt on the bottle-strewn floor and had just assembled the bottom layer of the display when the door rang. Over a late-breaking news bulletin about Saddam Husseins latest outrage, she heard a familiar voice. What happened here?
Rose twisted around. Her mother shook out her umbrella at the front of the store. Amy knocked over some bottles. I sent the kids in the back so I could clean up.
Her mother leaned the umbrella against the window and untied the plastic rain bonnet protecting her lightly frosted hair. A smile deepened her dimples and brightened the blue eyes she shared with her daughter and grandchildren. She walked up to Rose, her heels clattering on the linoleum. Why dont you let Will finish that?
Rose rocked back on her heels. I cant. Will called to say hes not coming in. The road to his house washed out this afternoon.
The dimples faded, and a line appeared between her mothers eyes. You promised the kids youd have dinner at home tonight.
Rose closed her eyes. Sometimes her life seemed as dry and empty as a salt flat. I know, but I called the whole employee list, no one can come in tonight. I have to stay and run the store.
Why? Her mother pointed at the storm outside. On a night like tonight, you wont have any business.
Rose stood, put her hand on the small of her back, and stretched. Im the manager, Mom. Its my job to make sure the stores open, regardless of the weather.
She pointed to the white door. My purse is in the back. Why dont you grab a twenty and pick up burgers on the way home? Rent the kids a video, and theyll forget all about my coming home early tonight.
Her mother opened her mouth as if to argue, then closed it and nodded. All right, sweetie, if thats what you want. Ill feed the kids dinner and rent them a movie.
Rose threw her arms around her mothers wet slicker. Youre the best, Mom. Tell them Ill take a night off next week, I promise.
The slicker heaved with her mothers sigh. I certainly hope so. Youre working much too hard.
Rose let go of her mother and squatted to pick up the next bottle. Dont wait up for me. Ill call if its still raining. Otherwise, Ill walk.
Ill leave the porch light on. Her mother threaded her way down the aisle and disappeared through the white door. A moment later Rose heard her sons angry, But Mom promised! followed by Amys wail.
The storm blew over around nine, and business was brisk the rest of the night. At half past two, Rose tip-toed into the room she shared with her children. Scooping up Peters covers from the floor, she tucked them around his restless shoulders and kissed his warm, sweaty forehead. Hed made such a fuss this evening. Poor boy, every time she made a promise something came up and she had to break it. She kissed Amy, undressed, and climbed into bed.
The tension slowly drained from her arms and legs. Her mother was right. She was working too hard. Her promotion to manager meant more money, but she hadnt realized how much of her time the added responsibility would demand. All she did was work and sleep these days. She hardly ever saw the kids.
Maybe she should insist on more time off. Take Peter and Amy to the movies, have lunch with a friend. While she didnt agree with her mothers assessment that she needed a man in her life, a little fun would be nice.
See you around, Rose. The words popped out of nowhere accompanied by a whiff of after-shave.
Rose pushed them from her mind. Shed lived in Twentynine Palms long enough to know better than to get involved with a marine. Marines were only interested in one thing. A few dates and off theyd go, leaving the girl to live with the consequences. She shivered and pulled the covers up against the night chill.
A face drifted behind her closed eyelids, one with black hair and striking gray eyes. She watched them crinkle into a smile and wink at Amy. Her heart fluttered against her breastbone.
Rose fluffed her pillow and planted it firmly over her head.
Broad shoulders strained against a tan shirt and flexed as Jack dodged Peters kicks.
Rose sat up. Taking a deep breath, she cleared her mind the way shed learned at the Al-Anon meetings. She imagined a long stretch of white beach, the salty tang of sea air, the soft touch of the breeze. After another deep breath, she lay down and imagined the sun caressing her face, her arms, her legs.
Its okay to be alone, she murmured. Im doing fine without Doug. I have my mother and my children. I dont need anyone else. End excerpt