EXCERPTS FROM THE FIRST BOY I LOVED
From THE FIRST BOY I LOVED by Cheryl Reavis
Copyright: 2009 by Cheryl Reavis
...There were no street lights, but she could see boats moored at a number of small docks at the edge of the waterway. The Trans didn’t seem to need lights, but like Big John, Donegan carried his illumination with him. She followed along behind him and his pocket flashlight until they reached a particular barge-like boat that seemed to be painted any number of colors, none of which she could really identify in the dark.
“Here it is,” Donegan said to her over his shoulder.
“Here what is?” she asked.
“The transportation.” He shined the flashlight on the bow of the boat. It had eyes painted on it -- two of them.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s perfectly safe. Mr. Tran sees to that.”
Gillian took a quiet breath. Unfortunately, she felt like asking to see some kind of documented proof. The gangplank wobbled precariously under their weight as they boarded.
“Could I see?” she asked, reaching for his flashlight and shining it around. She had been right about the different colors -- faded red and blue, a brighter turquoise, and some yellow. There were a few sections of planking without any paint at all. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the color scheme -- other than whim or the availability of certain bits of paint.
“Before you pass judgment, only one of the paint crew was over the age of ten,” he said. “Two, if you count me."
“I hope your rates were reasonable.”
“Sugar cane juice and cigarettes all around -- and don’t give me the ‘nurse look.’”
“It’s the only look I’ve got,” she said. “Honestly. I can’t believe you encouraged children to smoke.”
“I was the only one who doesn’t smoke, Mrs. Warner. Now go sit down right over there -- and don’t step on the painters.”
Gillian looked around, surprised that there actually were sleeping children -- three of them on the deck. She stepped over them carefully and sat down where he’d indicated.
After a period of adjusting the motor and some discussion with Donegan, Mr. Tran nodded toward his wife, who was hanging over the bow. She promptly untied the bow rope, and the boat chugged African Queen-like into the canal.
Gillian tried to see her watch in the dark and couldn’t. She had no idea how long it would be before the sun came up. She realized after a moment that the banks were crowded with shanty dwellings, most of them on stilts as far as she could tell. Some of the roofs were thatched, some were corrugated tin. Here and there, small boats had been dragged up onto the muddy bank. None of them looked as lively as the one she was on.
“Yet another century,” she said to Donegan who had come to sit nearby.
“Yes,” he answered. “This is more like what he would have seen.”
She took a quiet breath, still surprised that Donegan seemed to understand what she’d been doing all night.
“Look at that,” he said, shining his flashlight on the trunk of a large tree near the bank. There was a huge hole in it. “Mortar round did that.”
She stared at the tree as they chugged past, trying not to think about the circumstances that must surround the damage.
They passed under a foot bridge. A baby cried in one of the houses nearby.
“Life goes on,” he said, and she didn’t know if he meant the baby or the tree.
“Where exactly are we going?” she asked.
“Old rubber plantation. It was used as an orphanage during the war. June told me she thought the guy mentioned one in some of his letters. It’s going to take a while to get there on the water, but I thought you might want to see it even if you don’t know for sure it’s the same place.”
“His name was Ben Tucker,” she said. “Everyone called him by his last name -- even when he was a boy. I don’t know why.” She didn’t know why she wanted Donegan to know that, either. She just wanted Tucker to have some identity besides “the guy.”
“You knew him -- Tucker -- a long time.”
“Yes. Elementary school. High school. He was older -- even though we were in the same grade. We rode the same school bus.”
She heard him laugh softly.
“What?” she asked, turning to look at him again.
“Nothing. Just trying to imagine you riding a school bus. Pigtails. Missing teeth. Scabby knees. All that.”
“I didn’t have pigtails.”
“The sun may up by the time we get there. If not, it’ll be a flashlight tour. You should be able to see the plantation house -- what’s left of it -- or was June wrong about all that?”
“No,” Gillian said. “The one Tucker mentioned was run by Buddhists -- refugees -- an elderly monk and a few nuns. He used to take them things.”
“Saint Tucker,” he said, and the remark was calculated to get some kind of response from her. She had no doubt about that.
“He wasn’t a saint,” she said.
“Sounds like a saint to me. You broke his heart, I guess.”
“He broke mine,” Gillian said.
He didn’t say anything to that, but she sensed that he wanted to. She stared into the darkness along the banks for a long time, but there was nothing to see now. They seemed to be moving away from an inhabited area and into jungle-like palm growth. She could hear the sounds of night creatures -- and Mr. and Mrs. Tran discussing something behind her. Daughter Number Three stretched out with her siblings -- or maybe her children -- on the deck, somehow unmindful of the mosquitoes that buzzed everywhere, something Gillian was having a difficult time doing despite the lemon eucalyptus oil she’d rubbed into her skin. Their bites hurt.
“So are you going to tell me your husband’s name, too?” Donegan asked in the dark.
“Charles,” Gillian said, once again working at not being annoyed. “Charlie to his friends.”
“Just to recap things, this is a major guilt trip, Mrs. Warner. You and I both know that. Tucker can’t feel guilty, so it must be you.”
“I don’t --“ she started to say, but then she let it go. He didn’t understand and she wasn’t inclined to explain.
“So what did you do to Tucker?” he asked. “Cheat on him with his best friend while he was gone?”
She looked at him. “No.”
“Dear John letter after you met Charles?”
“None of your business!”
“Right. So what made you decide to come? You have some kind of epiphany?”
“Charlie died,” she said.
“So with him out of the way it was okay to make the trip.”
Once again, she knew perfectly well that he was trying to bait her. What she didn’t know was why.
But she had no intention of playing his game -- whatever it was.
“Yes,” she said in answer to his question -- because it was essentially the truth. She would never have come if Charlie were still alive.
If her truthfulness caught him by surprise, she couldn’t tell, at least not in the dark.
“I didn’t know I wanted to come here before then,” she said. “I thought I’d closed the door on all of it.”
“All what? Breaking Tucker’s heart?”
They were back to that again.
“Yes,” she said after a moment.
“So how did you break it?”
“I wanted him to go to Canada. He wouldn’t.”
“Shame on you, Mrs. Warner. Saints don’t go dodging the draft and living in exile.”
“I thought he was throwing his life away. I thought if he loved me, he’d do it.”
“Do you still think that?”
“Because it changes the whole dynamic of the guilt trip.”
“What?” he asked when she didn’t go on.
“He said if he didn’t go into the army, somebody else would have to take his place.”
“Saints are like that, Mrs. Warner” he said. “They can be really annoying bastards sometimes -- all that honor and duty and personal integrity stuff.” He got up and stepped over the children to make his way to Mr. Tran. She could hear their conversation, but she couldn’t understand it. She already knew from her stint as an assistant plumber how well he spoke Vietnamese.
The moon came out from behind the clouds, and the boat chugged along. Time stood still here. Holes in trees remained.
Mrs. Tran came forward to give the men room, squatting down near Gillian.
“You real,” she said after a moment.
“Yes,” Gillian said. Real. And how long had it been since she could describe herself in that way? At this moment she wasn’t Charlie’s widow, Mae’s grandmother, or Justin’s mom. She wasn’t anyone but herself. She was “Gilly” again.
From THE MARINE by Cheryl Reavis
Copyright: 2009 by Cheryl Reavis.
The woman wasn’t going to let him touch the manila folder. It lay on the table between them, but she kept both hands on it, as if she thought he might try to grab it and run for the door. He kept waiting for her to say something, but this particular representative of the Department of Social Services was no more inclined to talk to him than she was to give him the file.
The room was small and stuffy. Apparently, the low-bid central air conditioning didn’t quite reach the back side of the building. He couldn’t see outside. The one window had been partially covered over with faded black poster paper to keep the afternoon sun out and the minimal coolness in.
He had been hopeful initially, because the woman had gone to the trouble of bringing him into a cramped conference room instead of dismissing him at the front desk. But his expectations were rapidly fading, and it occurred to him that this might be the room they used when they were unsure of how a person on a quest might react to disappointment.
He reached into his shirt pocket and took out his pen and a small spiral notebook, as if he expected to need it. He didn’t actually. It was clear to him that this woman didn’t approve of sharing adoption files no matter what the circumstances were or who had approved it and that she wasn’t about to give him any information he didn’t already have.
He could hear the not-so-muted voices of people milling around outside in the hallway, all of them in some degree of crisis because a want or a need had been thwarted by someone or something. Children who wouldn’t behave. A broken copier. A missed cross-town bus. From time to time, he could hear a roll of thunder added to the commotion in the building.
A storm coming, he thought. In more ways than one.
A weak but noticeably cooler flow of air suddenly erupted from the air conditioning duct in the wall above the woman’s head, and he realized she was wearing baby powder instead of perfume.
Insult to injury.
"I have a notarized copy of the birth certificate," he said, leaning forward slightly and holding it where she could see it in an attempt to force her to give him her attention. "It has my mother’s name and address -- but not much else. I checked it out, but nobody there knew anything about her. Do you have any other information in the file you can give me?"
She gave the birth certificate a cursory glance.
"There isn’t much here. Apparently we started a record based on only one visit. We didn’t actually complete the adoption."
"Does it say why not?"
"Since she obviously didn’t change her mind, I assume the adoption was handled privately."
"Ma’am, could you at least look?" he asked. "Compare the addresses?"
She made no attempt to do so.
"If you could just tell me the name of the caseworker who opened the file. If I can locate her, she might remember --"
"I’m sorry. I can’t do that."
He took a quiet breath. "Is there anything personal in the file? They told me sometimes the birth mother will leave a note or a letter."
She stared at him across the table, then flipped open the folder. She had been telling the truth. There wasn’t much in it. She began to thumb through the few pages.
"I’m sorry --"
"Is that a photograph?" he asked abruptly, catching a glimpse of something paper-clipped to the last page.
She hesitated, then looked up at him. "Yes."
"Can I see it?"
It took her a moment to decide. He held out his hand, realizing as he did so that his fingers trembled slightly.
The woman handed over the photograph. It was a fuzzy black and white snapshot. It had once been a picture of at least two people, but it had been closely cropped so that only a dark-haired girl with someone’s arm around her shoulders remained. She smiled directly into the camera. Somehow he hadn’t thought of her looking like this. Mischievous. Happy. She didn’t look like someone desperate enough to give away her baby.
"This is her?" he asked.
"I assume so," the woman said.
She looks so young, he thought. According to his birth certificate, she had been sixteen when he was born, but she looked younger than that. He wondered when the picture had been made and why it was in the file.
He realized suddenly that the woman was holding out her hand for the photograph.
"I’m going to keep this," he said quietly. It was not his intention to challenge her authority. It was merely a statement of fact.
"I’m sorry, but --"
"I’m going to keep this," he said again. "It’s not important now to anybody but me."
He stood and put the photograph into his shirt pocket. Thank you for your help, ma’am."
He stepped out in the hallway, half expecting her to come flying after him, to yell for security, to pummel him over the head with the manila folder until he gave back the picture he had essentially stolen.
But she didn’t. He walked briskly out of the building and into a hard summer rain, running the distance to his truck with his hand over his pocket to protect the photograph.
When he was inside the truck, he took it out again and stared at the girl’s face. A flash of lightning illuminated everything around him. The rain beat down on the roof. He didn’t know if it was the sudden exertion or the crime that left him so shaky.
The arm around her shoulders had some kind of tattoo, something military, he thought. An...eagle, maybe.
He turned the photograph over, working hard to suppress the unacceptable urge to cry. There was something written on the back, but the ink had smeared. He leaned toward the truck window, trying to see it more clearly.
After a moment, he could just make out the words.
Lizzie gone bad.