"We're almost there, Nancy."
"Almost where, to the Reader's Digest? You haven't even written the book yet."
"Almost to Simmons' Mills. Just over the top of this hill. Look."
She slowed the car at the top of the hill, and they looked down. There was the town again, unchanged: the small main street beside the river, the gray buildings huddled in the cleared rectangle carved from the vast forest, the blur of paper mill smoke thick from its tall chimney, discoloring the sky.
"That's where I was born," said Natalie.
"Wow," said Nancy softly. "I mean, wow."
NATALIE WENT to the hospital alone, leaving Nancy at Mrs. Talbot's, perched on a kitchen stool with her feet twisted around its rungs, watching Anna Talbot make brownies for the church fair.
"I'll wait here," Nancy had said. "I hate hospitals. And he won't want to see me anyway. Just you."
"Tell him Anna sends best regards," Mrs. Talbot had said, and confided, "I sent him a card last week. Of course, the nurses may not have told him who it came from. They do that sometimes; nurses can be so secretive. You ask him, dear, if he got my card, won't you?"
"Certainly," Natalie had lied, and walked along the quiet, tidy main street of Simmons' Mills to the hospital where Clarence Therrian was dying. She saw the town now through Julie's eyes. She saw the teen-agers, standing on the corner by the drugstore, laughing in a small group, who came to an abrupt silence and averted their eyes as she walked past; they had done that, once, to the pretty young girl from another city who came to Simmons' Mills and couldn't find a way to make friends. Who wore her socks up; or was it down? Today none of them had socks on at all. They wore sneakers, sandals, or were in bare feet. It didn't matter. If Julie had arrived at Simmons' Mills today, she would still have been out of place; they would have lapsed into silence as she walked past, would have looked the other way. And Julie, young, vulnerable, hurt, would not have known to smile, to joke with them, to search for some place of common laughter and circumstances where they could have been friends.
"Hey," said Natalie suddenly to the tall, thin, arrogant-lipped boy balancing himself, rocking back and forth, on a garish motor bike in front of the drugstore. "That's a cool bike."
He looked over at her and grinned shyly. The hostile arrogance fell away from his face. "Yeah," he acknowledged proudly. "I got it for graduation. Man, can it go."
The boys grouped nearby laughed. "Varrroooom," they said in unison, mimicking the sound of the bike. "You should see him. He's a speed freak, man."
"Wanna ride?" the boy asked her. "I won't go too fast."
Natalie laughed. "No thanks," she said. "I have to go someplace. It's a terrific bike, though."
She walked on, and they waved casually to her.
Damn, thought Natalie. Why didn't you try, Julie? They didn't really care how you wore your socks, or your hair. If you had just smiled. Joked with them. Tried to find out what kind of people they were.
And if you had? Natalie smiled. Where would I be? Nowhere. She walked on.
Doctor Therrian looked, thought Natalie suddenly as she stood beside his bed, like a rag doll left behind in the yard of a summer cottage after the August occupants had gone: discolored by rain, faded by sun, drained by the passage of time and by being forgotten. She felt like the child who had made a long trip back to find something she loved. The ravages didn't matter, because it was still there; that was the important thing.
"Doc," she said softly, calling him by the name Julie had; but he didn't move. The eyes were closed in his gray, wasted face. But he breathed. Quietly; evenly. She sat down beside his bed and took his hand.
"Doc. It's Natalie. Do you remember? I'm Julie's daughter. I'm the one who was born here, to Julie Jeffries, and to Terry."
Quietly his breaths came, and the hand in hers was very still. She rubbed it gently, feeling the bones and veins through the loose gray shroud of skin.
"I came before, Doc, and you thought I was Julie. I look like her. I have blue eyes the way Julie does.
"You helped me find her. She lives in New York, now, and is happy. She has two beautiful little boys.
"And she told me about you. How you helped her, when she was so young and so scared. She could never have gotten through that summer without you, Doc. You must have known that. You used to come to see her. You pretended they were medical visits; but it was just to talk, wasn't it, Doc? You knew how frightened she was."
He didn't move. The lines in his face were like the furrows she had seen in the fields at the beginning of summer; like the deep primordial cracks in the glacial rocks of the mountains she had seen from the road to Simmons' Mills.
"And it was because I was your grandchild, wasn't it, Doc? Julie told me that you cried, too, when the lawyer took me away.
"But I came back to tell you that you did the right thing. Maybe you've wondered about that all these years. But I've had a happy life, Doc. I have a family, the best kind of family, and next month I'm going to college. I'm going to be a doctor, like you, and like my father.
"The only thing I never had was a grandfather. At least I thought I didn't. When Julie told me that you were my grandfather—well, it's why I came back."
She stroked his hand. His quiet breathing didn't change.
"I want to tell you something else, Doc," she said finally. "That I'm sorry about your son. You must have loved him very much, even though he made some mistakes. It must have been so hard, losing him.
"But you have me, still," she said, holding his fragile hand against her cheek. "I'm so glad I found you, Doc, so that I could say goodbye."
She kissed his hand, put it down, and left him there, with whatever he had heard, whatever he remembered, and whatever he was dreaming.